NOTE: This guest post was written by Angelo Piro, one of the School of Diplomacy’s UN Youth Representatives. Angelo is a student majoring in Diplomacy and International Relations and Economics at Seton Hall University. Angelo’s focus has been on the role of international organizations in development and good governance. He is fluent in English and Spanish, and has a working knowledge of Russian. Angelo has studied at Dubrovnik International University in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and has interned with the Permanent Mission of Honduras to the United Nations and the Office of US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). He writes for the Diplomatic Envoy, and is a member of the Seton Hall United Nations Association.
On February 19, students, faculty, and UN and NGO professionals from all over the country gathered at the United Nations headquarters to meet with like-minded individuals, celebrate recent successes such as the rapid growth of the GenUN youth advocacy initiative, and to discuss important issues for the UN over its next 70 years. The event included UN ambassadors from the United States, United Kingdom and Jordan, to a Syrian refugee living in New York who came to tell her story. But central to this year’s Members’ Day was how civil society organizations like UNA-USA can move the UN’s agenda forward for the next 70 years.
Story Telling and Ownership
One of the main messages coming out of the event was the story of success for the UN over the last year. Under-Secretary-General Cristina Gallach told the room of over 800 UN advocates of the success of passing the Sustainable Development Goals and the historic nature of the Paris climate deal. Fabien Dubuet, UN Representative for Doctors Without Borders, and Sana Mustafa, a Syrian refugee, told of their personal experience with the ongoing Syrian humanitarian crisis. The speakers emphasized how these stories need to go beyond that room and make it into the minds of people who may not be involved right now.
Promoting ownership of UN initiatives was also stressed. This was especially pertinent given the focus on the SDGs. Ambassador Sarah Mendelson, US Representative for Economic and Social Affairs at the US Mission to the UN, spoke at length about how the US needs to not only focus on applying the SDGs in other countries, but also take on the goals at home. Nilda Mesa, who serves as the Director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, showed how both the SDGs and the COP21 agreement can be implemented in the US. Both stressed the need for active civil society participation. Only with the concerted effort of both government and civil society on how these new concepts can apply to us can real changes be made, and individual people take ownership of new goals and targets.
A main focus of the UN following the passage of the SDGs has been building up capacity to tackle the laundry list of measures and indicators laid out in the document. And while the UN and government bodies have an important role, the NGO and civil society community will be just as important. Mr. Dubuet spoke on how Doctors Without Borders is one of the leading sources of information in the Syrian crisis, both in and outside of Syria. Ambassador Mendelson also highlighted the need for better information and civil society’s role in it in calling for a more demand driven approach to aid and development. According to her, the only way to fully utilize foreign aid is to have individual voices on the ground factored in, and that is where NGOs and civil society can provide assistance.
Filling the Gap
The most important role for civil society and the NGO community expressed in this forum is ‘filling the gap’. This is a phrase used by Bill McKibben, a climate advocate and founder of 350.org. When he spoke of filling the gap, he focused on the COP21 agreement, and the role NGOs and civil society has to play in ‘filling the gap’ between the agreed 1.5 C benchmark and the projected 3 C rise in temperature, informing and pushing governments and organizations to do more than what is contained in the agreement. But the idea of filling the gap was present throughout the day. Panelists spoke of filling the attention gap on the ongoing refugee situation. There is a political gap that needs to be filled on climate governance. Seton Hall UNA-USA president, Gabriela Taveras, even spoke on filling the knowledge gaps in the public about the SDGs. Wherever the UN goes in its next 70 years, it is clear that the NGO and civil society community will be there to fill in where they fall short, and ensure that the goals of the SDGs, COP21, and the UN Charter are met.