Sometimes referred to by diplomatic staff as “hell-level week,” the opening of the General Assembly (UNGA) each year is marked by the presence of presidents, prime ministers and even royalty delivering statements that touch on a range of topics and conducting behind-the-scenes bilateral meetings with one another. This year’s UNGA was no different. Worse perhaps, with its star-studded Sustainable Development Summit from 25-27 September, and all of the related events hosted around it, such as the Global Citizens concert, Climate Week NYC and even a visit from Pope Francis.
As someone who has worked in campaigning for nearly a decade and experienced nearly as many UNGA openings this time of year is both stimulating and frustrating. It’s stimulating to see the extent of global attention focused on one place at one time. In a truly nerdy way, there’s a sense of uplift when there is that rare breakthrough in multilateral problem-solving. The Summit last weekend is a good example, as it was where governments endorsed the Sustainable Development Goals.
These goals replace and expand on the earlier Millennium Development Goals meant to eliminate world poverty by 2015. The process to articulate and agree on them has been lengthy, highly intricate, and at times controversial. It pulled in leading experts on health, gender, education, sanitation, employment and the environment. It was therefore difficult to not feel excited when around 150 heads of state and government endorsed them, along with celebrities and Nobel Peace Laureates. Beyoncé and Pearl Jam even played a free show in Central Park to raise awareness about global poverty.
Yet the UNGA opening is also often frustrating. In many ways, it serves as a talk shop full of glitterati and good intentions. But what does it really change? Ask the average grumpy New Yorker trying to get a cab in midtown east this week and he or she is likely to say “not much”. This attitude is illustrative of the disconnect between the diplomatic world and the day to day lives of the people those diplomats represent. The pledges and statements made at the UN do matter—they carry weight and send important political signals. But it’s not always clear how they translate into action or are explained back home.
A well-known and respected peace and women’s rights activist articulated it well during a panel discussion that I attended recently. She was speaking about female genital mutilation. Many governments from her region of the world come to New York, she noted, and give statements indicating their compliance with the ban on this practice. And yet, back home, female genital mutilation is still widely practiced in many communities who know nothing of the UN ban. Actions to affect change, she argued, must be taken from within.
The stakes at this year’s assembly could not be higher, and there is plenty of work to get done. World leaders departed New York with firm commitments in head and hand. Hopefully the sense of urgency demonstrated at the gathering will not easily dissipate once everyone returns home, nor the sense that sustainable change must first take root locally. If it does, another opportunity to build a safer, more equitable world will have been squandered, and the UNGA will come to feel as hollow as a Hollywood awards ceremony.
Allison Pytlak is a graduate of the Master’s Program in International Relations at The City College of New York, and is Policy & Advocacy Specialist at Control Arms.