This week marked the UN’s annual showcase, the opening of the 71st General Assembly under the leadership of Fiji’s Ambassador Thompson. As always, the week for us is characterized by endless barricades, “secondary” passes to events, standing on street corners waiting for motorcades to pass, and numerous checkpoints – mostly monitored by NYC and UN police who generally deserve high marks for their competence and patience.
This is also the week when UN missions are frantically attempting to accommodate their foreign ministers and heads of state – accommodate but also impress. Important matters are at stake – from the rights of refugees and sustainable development goals to ensuring climate (and ocean) health, fighting terrorism and selecting the next Secretary-General. During this week, many pledges were made, including welcome funding for the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, wholly consistent with the widely stated need for greater UN involvement in conflict prevention and mediation. In addition, states welcome the abundant opportunities for private, bi-lateral meetings to head off conflict, resolve trade disputes, clarify diplomatic misunderstandings, and find common solutions to compelling, cross-border challenges.
Many careers are also on the line as diplomats attempt to demonstrate to national leaders that they have been making progress on issues that matter consistent with their national values and interests.
And NGOs are a part of that demonstration. At one “side event” after another, NGOs were present in the room, making statements and moderating panels in an attempt to both demonstrate their “expertise” to world leaders and showcase the “wisdom” of states in funding and highlighting their work. As one might expect, there was an overabundance of some all-too-familiar voices, mostly from large, well-branded, western NGOs whose organizational footprints, in many instances, supersede their social impacts. That so many familiar voices are recycled over and over during this UN week has a bit less to do with their social or intellectual value – which in some cases is certainly considerable — and a bit more to do with their political value to the governments that support and fund their brand.
There were exceptions of course. On September 19, Heads of State endorsed the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in which states commit to “ensure a people-centred, sensitive, humane, dignified, gender-responsive and prompt reception for all persons arriving in our countries.” The opening event featured a stirring address by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who boldly scolded leaders who have not done enough to prevent incitement, extremism, and xenophobia – including violations at their own hands.
But for me the highlight was a another address in the GA by Eni Lestari Andayani Adi from the International Migrants Alliance in Indonesia, who compellingly reminded world leaders of the long years of “invisibility” experienced by so many displaced persons, and cited the dignity-compromising “nightmare” of refugees facing multiple exploitations, including forced breakups of their families.
The following morning, while the well-branded NGOs lined up across the street for their moments in front of the curtain, a small gathering of modest NGOs was meeting at the UN Church Center. The purpose of this breakfast gathering – organized primarily by Liberato Bautista — was to assess the High Level event on Refugees the day earlier, but also to assess the degree to which NGOs like ours are currently fulfilling the role which we (those in the room at least) felt represents the best of our potential contribution.
Part of that role involves a recovery of the “prophetic” dimensions of NGO existence, calling all members of the UN community — all of us – to honor our promises to global constituents and create a kinder, fairer and more just UN structure that can accommodate the widest range of contributing voices. This is not entirely a matter of “speaking truth to power,” as one of our “breakfast club” members put it – especially given the limitations of our grasp of “the truth” and of the UN’s institutional power as well. But it certainly is about being attentive, exposing shallow analysis and unthoughtful policy pursuits, and ensuring that right mix of voices – not necessarily our own voices – is available to make policy better.
Eni was with us for this breakfast, a blessing that allowed us to process the Summit from the vantage point of one of its key participants. She described in depth the process of bringing her to New York and what it was like being backstage with so many high-profile global leaders. She seemed honored to have been given the podium at the GA, but also anxious to return to her work in Indonesia and uncertain if any of the benefits of this “honor” would accrue over time to her oft-discouraged constituents. She took her honor in stride, but also seemed grateful for the possibility that those at our breakfast might remain her allies long after the others had returned to capitals or moved on to other concerns.
Of the many diplomatic “mantras” uttered around UN headquarters, one of the most frequent has to do with a call for more “involvement” by civil society. Generally speaking it is unclear what this means beyond the desire to raise the profile of the groups with which states feel comfortable and to which they provide funds. Certainly it is rare that diplomats will invest energy in helping to sort out a viable strategy to improved UN-NGO relations; indeed it is relatively infrequent that diplomats bother to know the names, identities or skills of more than a handful of the NGOs around UN headquarters, let alone the many excellent initiatives – like Eni’s – that exist worldwide.
A long time ago, a graduate school professor of mine reminded me that we teach others, especially the young, not because we are so wise and talented and kind, but because that is the mandate entrusted to us. We do it because it is our responsibility, at least for this time. For those of us with modest NGO brands, even more modest resources, and a bevy of logistical headaches associated with life in New York at the center of global governance, it is perhaps helpful to remind ourselves from time to time that this is the mandate entrusted to us. When we do it well, when we pay kind attention and set up as many chairs at the policy table as we can put our hands on, we have a better chance to help create genuinely inclusive policy, the benefits of which can “follow home” all of the remarkable Eni’s of our world.