UNGA is dead. It’s the sideshows that really matter.

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NEW YORK — If everyone who comes to the United Nations General Assembly really cared about giving the things they say, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

After decades of progress in reducing poverty and improving health outcomes, in recent years the world has fallen far behind in efforts to meet the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were adopted by all countries by 2015. governments have agreed. equality, the world is going backwards.

So what’s the point of 150 heads of state and government meeting in New York this week? And can a series of side summits — gathering everyone from Clinton administration alumni to tech activists to European royals — change anything?

New York City in the second half of September is now a two-week festival that attracts anyone dealing with global challenges.

Often it is about seeing and being seen.

Celebrities here can take an easy stance, without crossing domestic partisan political lines. Everyone from Korean megastars BTS to American actors like Matt Damon and Goldie Hawn uses UNGA as a platform for their goals.

What was once an opportunity for national leaders to deliver speeches on a global stage or grab the ear of the US president in a hallway is now a late summer version of Davos, only bigger.

“When I first came to UNGA in the 1990s, it was very sterile. One prepared speech after another. Today it’s the opposite of sterile, it’s where global ideas are tested,” said Werner Hoyer, president of the European Investment Bank.

Getting into UNGA doesn’t cost $50,000 per person – as the World Economic Forum does – and shopping in New York is better for the wives of dictators. It’s no wonder UNGA has become WEF on steroids.

Like the WEF’s main stage, the official UNGA program of leaders’ speeches is now often an afterthought.

In the shadow of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, and with the world’s most powerful authoritarian leaders as no-shows, it certainly will be in 2022.

This year’s speeches couldn’t be worse than the completely remote 2020 UNGA – which turned into a 30-hour video call – but will nevertheless be “pretty crappy,” said Richard Gowan, a UN trial expert who heads the process. from the United Nations Office of International Crisis Group.

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In part, that’s because the leaders don’t listen to each other’s speeches – and they direct their own comments to the domestic audience. “Once POTUS leaves, you have presidents and prime ministers speaking to the diplomatic equivalent of two men and a dog,” Gowan said.

Mark Suzman, CEO of the Gates Foundation, which invests more than any other NGO in UN-backed health and social campaigns, is a wake-up call for anyone descending on Manhattan this week.

Rich countries are distracted. There’s not much focus,” Suzman told POLITICO, lamenting the lack of progress on major global equity programs. “[We’re]seriously out of sync for the vast majority of SDGs.”

Too big, and failed

Many participants this week doubt whether the UNGA is equipped to get the world back to work.

“UNGA has become a gabfest,” said David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. “Let us not lose sight of the legitimacy, authority and responsibility that attaches to nations. If the multilateral system doesn’t work, everything else makes up for it,” he told POLITICO.

Louise Blais, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, agrees that the UNGA is falling short of its potential. “Giving a voice to civil society is crucial,” she said, but “trying to cram in as much as possible” means the UNGA “has a poor track record in helping achieve the SDGs.”

Blais said the UNGA is becoming unmanageable for many organizations, even major governments.

During her tenure as ambassador from 2017 to 2021, she said 40-50 Canadian diplomats were assigned to decide whether or not a Canadian official should be sent via a 50-page invitation spreadsheet to between 400 and 500 events at UNGA. .

Zia Khan, senior vice president for innovation at the Rockefeller Foundation, says the UNGA focuses on the right issues, but both UN insiders and outside activists often fail to combine their strengths. “There is a gap between the entrepreneurs that can innovate and the institutions that can scale,” he said.

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“Many social entrepreneurs struggle to scale up. They’re brave and inspiring, but it’s like trying to change the way people eat cheese by setting up a hipster cheese shop in Brooklyn. You have to go to the big supermarkets,’ Khan said.

The UNGA equivalent of those major chains are global non-profit organizations such as the Gates Foundation and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.

The UN is increasingly relying on these outside agencies to respond to global challenges, and the UNGA crowds have taken the hint.

It’s more important to show up for the Gates Foundation Goalkeepers report launch or at week-long events like Goals House – a meeting point hosted by the consulting firm Freuds that pops up at global events throughout the year – than to be associated with health. – and development officials of national governments.

And large companies are also participating. Previously seen primarily as donors – UNICEF raises approximately $2 billion each year from private sources – companies have expanded their role as sources of ideas and partners at major UN events.

Microsoft is “strategic title sponsor” of the COP27 climate summit scheduled for November in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The company also opened a new UN office in mid-September, which is larger than many other UN embassies – occupying the walnut-paneled 34th floor of a skyscraper overlooking the UN headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

Microsoft executives say their focus is on using their convening power to drive large-scale change and address global challenges what the company has done with software and other digital markets.

“Yesterday we had the President of the General Assembly here explaining his plans to take us to the SDG summit next year. We had the Deputy Secretary General in the evening before discussing the importance of data and sustainable development. In the first three days this place is open, it feels like we’re having some really important conversations,” said Chris Sharrock, Microsoft’s vice president for UN affairs and international organizations.

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‘A giant petri dish’

The fringe festival around UNGA is succumbing to its own success.

“We all know it’s an absolute shit show,” said a director of a global philanthropic organization, who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak to the media. “But that’s how it continues to grow: we try to get more and more done early to avoid the shit show, but eventually we extend it,” she said.

“It’s like a giant petri dish where everyone collides with each other, but to really get anything done you need a plan and a UKTN for after the UNGA bustle is gone,” Khan said.

Sharrock agrees. “Given the magnitude of the really tough global challenges, it’s not right to pretend you can deliver solutions within a week,” he said.

If there’s one concept that inspires UNGA-goers, it’s partnerships: “People want to sound smart at UNGA. I always hear ‘We need more partnerships’ and ‘We need to break silos,’ Khan said.

More partnerships have not automatically led to greater success in mitigating climate change or ensuring fair pandemic responses, “but a silo approach helps people focus time, attention and resources to get things done,” he said.

Rena Greifinger, chief of experiential philanthropy at PSI, a health care nonprofit, and director of the Maverick Collective, a community of women philanthropists, disagrees. “This is a week to coordinate. It’s often not the lack of resources, it’s the lack of coordination that overwhelms us,” she said.

“This week has become an acknowledgment that there is a larger ecosystem of people and that so many types of players are needed to achieve the UN’s global goals and drive system change,” Greifinger said.

As leaders arrive at $1,400 a night hotels to receive awards for improving food security, and as crystal statues and video tributes are thrown at heads of state and government who have been forced to resign or have been assassinated, it’s worth it to wonder if more of the systemic change should start at home.

But they will always have New York.

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