Sunday, May 8, 2016

Vaporous Talk Fogs ECOSOC "Integration Segment"

The “Integration segment” of the Economic and Social Council (2-5 May) was supposed to discuss innovative and balanced policy to implement Agenda 2030 on sustainable development but with the exception of one panel on "Leaving no one behind," very little was said that can be easily geared to change. Expressions of support for such vaporous formulations as a “new mindset,” the necessity of “breaking out of silos” and the high priority of “empowering women” were not followed by specifics of innovative action. One "keynote speaker" on energy asked the audience to close their eyes and imagine a blissful scene in 2024 that she described; she said nothing about the policy paths that might take us from the current turmoil in world oil markets to that future.

The exceptional panel was made so largely because of the ministerial participant from Vietnam who spoke of privatizing State Owned Enterprises and using the proceeds for education and hospitals. The government also maintained a safety net for those who needed help and to deal with emergency situations. A new initiative was creating interactive web sites for communities that were used to present data on local conditions and engage private donors in beneficial projects. Each web page was itself sponsored by a major donor.

There were also several other interesting speakers on the same panel. One represented the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He spoke of a forthcoming meeting in Sweden to discuss the application of Agenda 2030 to developed countries and how they could mainstream sustainable development. A key activity was to make the avalanche of available data into knowledge and that into policy. How governments could deal with complex economic, social and environmental issues was important; key elements would be risk management and the role of private entrepreneurs and cities; the Habitat 3 conference later this year in Quito would have to plan for the next two decades. As Machiavelli had commented 500 years ago, there was nothing more difficult than to establish a new order of things. Policy makers would have to assess upside and downside aspects of integrated action and weigh synergies and trade-offs; all that would take time and resources.

Another notable participant was from Columbia University. He spoke of the need to have all voices heard. Existing Environment Impact Assessments did not do so. For instance, BP had a 600-page EIA document on its Gulf oil well that blew up; evidently no one had read it. He said it was necessary to have all EIAs posted on the web so that communities and activists could access them and robust laws to enforce action. The delegate of Guyana commented that implementing Agenda 2030 would have to be an organic process, combining institutional firmness and fluidity of practice. His government was preparing a green development plan that looked at decentralizing action to the country's 10 administrative provinces, with each having a "capital town." A speaker representing the International Telecommunications Union recalled the World Bank digital report released earlier this year. The analog support for the digital revolution would require hard wired connectivity in the health and education sectors; it would require private/public collaborations.

Most member States participated in the general debate through a handful of representatives and the developed countries not at all except for the Czech Republic. Some of the invited discussants from outside the UN seemed almost clueless. The unfortunate impression in much of the proceedings was of intellectual confusion and irrelevance even when individual presenters were pertinent and insightful. For instance, the two opening speakers of the session addressed the topics of e-governance and the informal sector of developing country economies, both critically important contexts for innovative public policy; but there was no discussion following their presentations

​Instead, the chamber was taken over for the taping of a dreary BBC radio show whose two hosts seemed oblivious not only of the UN’s conservative dress code but its decorum of practice. As one of them boasted of the “53 million” audience of the BBC its logo flashed on the video screen behind the podium; I’ve had the Secretary-General as my “warm-up act,” she said smugly.

That Ms. Piggy sensibility continued into the substance of their interviews on topics ranging from “barefoot lawyers” in Uganda to toilets in India. The best of the interviewees was an environmental activist from Costa Rica who made a series of interesting and important observations but seemed to get the cold shoulder. A comment about the urgent need to overcome the short-term perspectives of most parliamentarians was met with a non sequitur about road noise that had interfered with a BBC interview; another regarding the need to translate Agenda 2030 into the language and concerns of ordinary people was met with glazed silence.

Members of the second panel, on “A paradigm shift in development” seemed confused about what exactly they should be addressing; some spoke of obstacles to change (the tendency for issues to be addressed in “silos”), others of changes already happening (the shift to multi-dimensional measurement of poverty). Two participants with important things to say were a World Bank official speaking of the need for “analog support” for the digital revolution and a veteran leader of the women’s banking movement who noted that gender and finance were both cross-cutting issues in Agenda 2030. Increasingly aware that women with access to finance were powerful change agents, governments were acting to provide it. In Nigeria a woman could now open a bank account with a mobile phone, a photograph and an address; previously it required answering some 50 questions on a printed form. In the last year 700 million women had opened bank accounts globally, half of that in India. Most of them used mobile phones to access their accounts; it was sobering that 1.8 billion women had no mobile phones.

In the general debate developing countries stressed the need for the UN to look to the coherence of its own internal architecture and policies. Regional and country offices needed to be integrated, best practices had to be better shared, South-South and Triangular Cooperation utilized. The Arab League spokesman noted the need for innovative policy to fight violent extremism and terrorism. China called for the coordination of "macroeconomic arrangements" and said it would make implementation of Agenda 2030 top priority at the next G-20 summit.

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