UN Week — Style Over Substance

‘Fashion week’ just ended for the global development community, when thousands of international leaders convened in New York for the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Presidents, ministers, donors, UN leaders, and CEOs celebrated the newest designs in global development: stylish poverty reduction plans, glamorous partnerships to end world hunger, and beautiful spokespeople for the latest hot issues like climate change and child trafficking.

And just like fashion, everything old was new again – we pulled out our bellbottoms and re-re-visited the importance of meaningful civil society participation at the UNGA. This time around, we focused on the post-2015 development agenda that will replace the once trendy Sachs-inspired Millennium Development Goals.

But from what I saw last week, it’s style over substance.

I was in New York with Memory, an 18 year old girl from Malawi who has overcome challenges that most of us cannot imagine. Growing up in a family of six siblings, Memory fought with her parents to finish school instead of getting married at age 11, the way her sister had to.

Memory wanted to help other girls get an education so she joined the Stop Child Marriage campaign, launched by the Girls Empowerment Network and Let Girls Lead. In a country where five out of ten girls marry before turning 18, Memory led a group of girls to advocate successfully with village chiefs to pass laws that protect thousands of girls from child marriage and harmful sexual initiation practices.

Memory spoke powerfully during the UN General Assembly about the importance of investing in girls. During multiple panels and gala receptions, Memory asked us to do one thing: invest in girls. Memory told us that only 2 cents of every dollar in international funding go to programs focused on girls. Memory explained that our dollars will help girls like her finish school, see a doctor when they need one, learn skills to escape poverty, and become leaders who can transform their own lives, families, communities, and the world.

During UNGA, Memory boldly asked her Minister of Gender to support a campaign to increase Malawi’s legal age of marriage from 16 to 18 years old. Cathy Russell, US Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women’s Issues and a dedicated champion for girls, told Memory that she could become the President of Malawi.

All of Memory’s audiences found her riveting; unable to look away or stop listening. Strangers approached me to share how much she inspired them.

One problem on Memory’s path to self-determination: it costs her $325 per semester to attend college, and she does not know how she will pay her tuition this year. ($325 is less than the price for one night at a New York hotel during UN Week.)

Another problem: for every grassroots leader like Memory, thousands more never set foot in the hallowed halls of the UN, where real decisions are made in small rooms during quiet conversations, privy only to the elite few bearing titles that serve as their cost of entry.

The UN is critical to promoting global development and security, but is failing to accommodate diverse perspectives and pocketbooks. For example, attending one of the prominent donor forums held during UNGA costs $20,000 USD – coincidentally the same amount that Let Girls Lead invested in the Girls Empowerment Network over two years to protect thousands of girls like Memory from becoming child brides.

Given such barriers to entry, most grassroots activists cannot afford to “pay to play” at UN Week. But the truth is, we cannot afford their absence. Without meaningful civic participation, the post-2015 development agenda is doomed. This is a problem that belongs to us all, and to our children.

The majority of people who attend UN Week are committed to creating a more sustainable and equitable world for all people. Many work in true solidarity with grassroots leaders in the communities we serve. Progressive funders create opportunities for activists to advocate with global decision-makers. For example, the White Ribbon Alliance launched the Usual Suspects, a bold campaign asking UN leaders to create space for civil society leaders to speak out for global priorities.

But despite these powerful exceptions, our system is broken. We are failing to build a post-2015 development agenda that integrates the voices, values, and priorities of the majority of the world’s population. And far too few of our resources are being invested in deserving grassroots leaders and civic organizations.

So here’s a radical idea – let us put our money where our mouth is. Let us establish a fund to support more grassroots leaders like Memory to advocate with funders and decision-makers at the UN. Let us build a post-2015 development agenda that achieves the vision of the many, rather than the priorities of a privileged few. For the UN must work for everyone, or else it works for no one.

Let us pledge to devote more time and energy to ensuring that our philanthropic and government dollars create sustainable impacts. Let us invest our collective resources in leaders like Memory, who is now back at home in Malawi, boldly improving her country – one girl at a time.



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