On Friday, February 23, 2018, the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) hosted their annual Global Engagement Summit. The day consisted of eight breakout sessions covering two tracks: action and issue.
Chris Whatley, Executive Director for UNA-USA, and Co-Chair of the conference acknowledged the attendees from 123 different universities from around the United States and how this conference is “about more than just the people in this room.” He was followed by Don Lewis, President of Professional Hygiene at Essity, who talked about how large corporations such as his need to work together in order to facilitate change. Munira Khalif spoke of how through her position as US Youth Representative to the United Nations, she was “creating a bridge between the United Nations and youth” and how young people should “see the world in terms of uncharted territories and unkempt paths” rather than as full of obstacles. Her organization, Lighting the Way, provides education opportunities and scholarships to girls and women in disadvantaged regions. She described her organization as “achieving gender parity through increasing economic opportunities for women.” She ended her speech by asking the room “how will you move the needle of progress forward?” Her Excellency Amina J. Mohammed talked about how the General Assembly Hall is “our global town hall for our global village.” Her Excellency spoke about the necessity of cooperation and the Time’s Up movement and how recent events such as the Parkland shooting have spurred activism among young people. Ambassador Kelley Currie’s speech was focused around what the United States is doing in the UN. Ambassador Currie stated “everybody here at the UN knows that the United States is here and what we stand for… we are not shy about those things… our friends know that we have their back and our rivals know they better watch out.”
Issue Track: Our Planet, Our Responsibility
The first breakout session on the issue track was focused on how the UN, NGOs, and private partnerships are cooperating to combat climate change. Panelists Megan Boone, Lia Cairone, and Jamil Ahmad used their different perspectives on climate change to highlight what the world should be doing to address the pressing issue.
Megan Boone, an actress on the TV series “The Blacklist,” emphasized the importance of recognizing the value of natural capital and how the soil we farm on, the air we breathe, and the water we drink has unmeasurable value. Lia Cairone, Senior Policy Advisor at New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, said that the two biggest challenges to combatting climate change are the scale of the problem and the scale of the solution. By outlining everything that would need to change in order to create sustainable cities, she perfectly captured the issue at hand. In her opinion, there is little infrastructure in New York City which is capable of importing renewable energy from where it does exist. Ms. Cairone spoke of how every one of the more than one million buildings in Manhattan would have to reduce their energy consumption by 50% in order to create a sustainable city. Jamil Ahmad, Deputy Director and Head of Inter-Governmental Affairs, UN Environment, said that even if all the nationally determined contributions of Paris Agreement are fulfilled by each of the agreeing nations, the goals set out by the agreement will still not be fulfilled. He also said that “we are not doing enough to address the question of climate change” and that we need to be creating green economies. Some interesting figures he brought up were the fact that cities consume more than 75% of energy and produce roughly 80% of GDP, and how more than 50% of the world’s population is younger than 25 and how they can use their youth to affect change, because at the end of the day, they will feel the after-effects of any current event.
Issue Track: Priorities Before the UN General Assembly
President of the General Assembly, H. E. Mr. Miroslav Lajčák, was the keynote speaker for this session. He acknowledged that prior to the creation of the UN in 1945, there was the tragedy of 2 global wars, millions of lives lost and no system of international organization. He called the United Nations “our only level playing field” because when all 193 countries come together in the General Assembly Hall, they are all on the same level. Mr. Lajčák outlined the major issues for the General Assembly this year: migration, sustainable development, peace and prevention, human rights, reforms, and peace and security architecture. He said that “we are in a reactive mode, reaching to ad hoc steps or measures… and acting on a national basis” and the goals that are being worked towards regarding migration are limiting unsafe, irregular, and chaotic migration. His point about sustainable development is that there are 17 goals and 169 targets set out by the Sustainable Development Goals and that “every country should define what is relevant for them from these goals.” One SDG that is emphasized is SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation. Peace and prevention was highlighted as something to focus on rather than military action and Mr. Lajčák pointed out that in the current climate, discussion is more important than military action. His statement that “the violation of human rights is usually the first serious indicator that something will go wrong” has serious implications for the international system. Perhaps most importantly was his statement that there is a “general understanding and acceptance that current composition of the Security Council doesn’t represent the reality of the twenty-first century.” His Excellency is working towards a revitalization of the General Assembly and Security Council, pushing for a more visible and more prominent presence in the United Nations.
Issue Track: Private Sector’s Role in Achieving the Global Goals
In this talk, the panelists focused on the role of the private sector in bringing about change and advocating for sustainable development goals. The panelists, Tim McCollum, Jennifer Ann Ragland and Natalie Africa have worked in the private sector in various roles, and their differing background in size and scale of their respective work allowed for an all-encompassing view of the scope of the private sector. All three discussed the common misperception that the private sector can only be of monetary benefit to a community. Instead, there needs to be a greater focus on resource allocation, and how all enterprises, both large and small, have something to offer a developing community. An essential component in this allocation of resources is social responsibility, and the risks involved for a private company to get involved. This is a way in which problems can be solved using distinctly business solutions.
One of the panelists, Tim McCollum believes that the gap in helping these communities is the mindset and mentality of the world’s poor, and the lack of ambition due to a lack of resources for upward mobility. This is where private enterprise can bolster these communities, and provide resources to strive for a better life. The panel also discussed a number of future trends in the realm of private sector engagement, including job prospects, and instilling a sense of hope into these communities. An equally important component to access to a job, is the hope and belief for a better second job. Upward mobility is not just about getting that initial job, it is about instilling in these communities the sense that they can continue to grow and develop professionally, and hopefully move up the social ladder.
Issue Track: The Global Refugee Crisis
This session was focused on the many barriers and issues surrounding the refugee crisis. Amir Ashour, an Iraqi refugee and founder of IraQueer, spoke about how LGBT citizens are treated in Iraq and how for many of them, leaving Iraq is their only option. He said “the color of your passport shouldn’t give you more or less rights” and continued to describe the plight of LGBT refugees. Grainne O’Hara, Deputy Director for the UNHCR in Iraq, talked about how the refugee crisis is “not out there, somewhere distant, far from us” but rather how it can affect anyone in our community. Gillian Sorenson, former Assitant Secretary-General and Senior Advisor at the United Nations Foundation, discussed how the IRC, founded in the late 1930s, is older than the UN. The IRC helps with resettlement and education of refugees. One particularly impactful statement was when she told the General Assembly Hall, “we can do better, we can do more. Unless you are a Native American, everyone in this country is an immigrant.” Ms. Sorenson also talked about how the IRC and Sesame Street teamed up to create a television show for refugee children in their native languages. This project went on to receive a $100 million MacArthur grant which will be used to scale up the program and reach more children.
Action Track: Using Technology for Social Good
There’s no doubt that technology and social media play an increasingly important role in the spread of messages and ideas. Social media platforms such as Twitter even have the capacity to assist governments and private businesses estimate living costs, and even how many calories the average person consumes per day in some poorer regions. These platforms provide a huge cache of information, however, such large quantities of information come at a price. This talk focused on this balance, and how technology innovation can be used to advance the social good throughout the world. The panelists of this discussion, Robert Kirkpatrick, Jill Nguyen, Nicol Perez, and Lauren Theurkauf spoke about using today’s platforms and regulations to build better connections for the future. Looking toward the future while also keeping a firm grasp on the benefits of technology today is so important.
As part of the talk, Kirkpatrick noted that technology is never neutral, and used appropriately, can provide an intimate glimpse into operations on the ground, and these messages can reach many people very quickly. A second important aspect of this talk discussed the dual responsibility of governments and private enterprises to handle this information in the right way, and ensure that technology is used to advance the situations of as many people as possible. One of the panelists, Nicol Perez, works for Facebook, and she talked about what they are doing to provide better insights, and to combat regulation to expansion of these technological innovations.
The closing plenary was led by Lidia Bastianich and Jeffrey Sachs. Bastianich, a former refugee and professional chef, described her experiences leaving her home country of Yugoslavia and living in a refugee camp that was set up on the site of a former concentration camp in Italy. It was here that she described learning to cook with the nuns who helped run the camp which is where her passion for cooking began. Her speech was a testament to the fact that refugees are able to resettle and lead successful and meaningful lives even after the turmoil they have experienced.
Jeffrey Sachs, University Professor at Columbia University and Special Advisor to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the SDGs, was the last speaker of the event. His speech was mainly focused on the inequalities in the United States and what we can do to overcome them. Sachs said “we’re incredibly rich, but incredibly unequal” in reference to the United States’ status as a global superpower, but a superpower with extreme disparities in wealth. Sachs also said that “the greatest strength of this country is our uniqueness.” When an 8th grade student asked him why people say they’re going to take action but never do, Sachs responded to her by saying that she should start a class at her school about the SDGs, then talk to her mayor and see what’s being done on the city level to fulfill the goals. His response was well-received by the audience and it was a wonderful ending to the conference.
Caroline Hall is a sophomore undergraduate student at Seton Hall majoring in International Relations with minors in Economics and Russian Language. Caroline is a United Nations Digital Representative for the School of Diplomacy for the spring 2018 semester.
Joleen Traynor is a junior undergraduate student at Seton Hall majoring in Political Science and Philosophy with a minor in Diplomacy and International Relations. Joleen is a United Nations Digital Representative for the School of Diplomacy for the spring 2018 semester.