On September 18th, IPI, in partnership with UN75, The Group of Women Leaders, and the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, convened a virtual event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the United Nations with a diverse group of women leaders in a dynamic conversation on priorities and solutions for “recovering better” from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following welcoming remarks by IPI Vice President Adam Lupel. Waheguru Pal Sidhu, Professor and Head of the UN Initiative at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU, opened the session positing three possible post-pandemic scenarios for the UN’s future, in order of preference.
The first was the UN’s “continued relevance as the center of the multilateral universe,” but this would come about “only if the UN is able to leverage the ongoing disruption, engage a host of sub-state and non-state actors, devise innovative negotiation approaches and address emerging challenges to recover better.”
The second would result if the UN simply opted for “business as usual,” in which case “it might be relegated to the sidelines and become just one of the multiplicity of forums to deal with 21st century challenges.”
The last, and, by Professor Sidhu’s admission, “most somber” was a UN “unable or unwilling to recover better” and consequently passing into “irrelevance or even demise.”
Professor Sidhu said that none of these outcomes was inevitable but that advancing the UN’s future would require “concerted collective action from the individual to the global level, especially if we want to preserve and strengthen the UN over the next 25 years.” He asked, “So how can we ensure the solidarity and sustained collective action for the outcome we want? Can the UN be the arena, agent, and actor that we need in order to build the future we want?”
In response, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, President of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly and member of The Group of Women Leaders, Voices for Change and Inclusion, singled out the need for “leadership and concerted action.”
She cast a wide net in describing the leadership she had in mind. “It has to come from the whole of society. It is not only government or messianic leaders, but social activists: women, journalists, opinion makers, scientists, academia, indigenous leaders. I think we all have a role to play in building this new social contract that we have the opportunity now to build, and this new social contract has to be between society, the economy, politics, and nature as well.”
She stressed the importance of a wide-ranging collective effort to shore up the distressed multilateral system. “It is not a self-operating machine, it does not have self-agency. The multilateral system at the UN is what we want it to be. It’s us who have the responsibility to craft the system to serve us and the interests of ‘we, the peoples.’”
Picking up on that point, Elizabeth Cousens, President and CEO of the United Nations Foundation, commented, “I sometimes say that multilateralism is the new realism. It’s not sentimental. It’s not because everybody gets along, it’s precisely because they don’t always get along that you need multilateral institutions and understandings.”
She lamented the “anger and distrust in politics that are deepening rather than overcoming our divisions” and focused her remarks on the uplift coming from “bright spots, particularly at the local level.”
Ambassador Cousens listed a random few of them, including the voluntary local reviews of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that have been created in more than 100 American cities, the state of Hawaii, and at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; a new SDG “tracker tool” in Los Angeles allowing community organizations to connect the SDGs to “real lives and impacts;” an effort underway to unite more than 40 American cities behind an equitable response to COVID-19 and recovery; and a campaign by Walmart, the biggest employer in the US, to transform its supply chains to tackle equity, climate change, and gender issues. “That’s just a few snippets from this country, but there is obviously incredible leadership and bright spots around the world in cities and communities.”
What’s essential now, Ambassador Cousens said, is better coordination and broader encouragement. “So I look to a lot of these sources of leadership and innovation where we have real reserves of political power in other places, and the key is to connect them, to empower them, and to find new ways of bringing that leadership into the debate and platforms and actions that we have at a global level.”
Natalie Samarasinghe, UN75 Deputy and Chief of Strategy, said she feared at first that the coming of the pandemic would diminish enthusiasm and distract from the mission of UN75. “But that’s actually when we saw the initiative take off, and I don’t think it was just because people were bored during lockdown. It was because people saw this was a global crisis with far-reaching consequences that couldn’t be solved by their governments acting in isolation and that probably would require intensive efforts over many years and that no country, no matter how big or powerful, was going to be spared.”
She said that she was impressed that even the UN’s biggest backers saw the moment not as just an opportunity to restore the UN but one to make it better and more inclusive and accountable in the future. “They’re thinking long-term, what’s the impact on inequality and unemployment, how can we get more support for the hardest hit? I think it’s a powerful message of solidarity to take back to world leaders.”
In rebuilding the UN post-pandemic, Ms. Samarasinghe cautioned against sticking to just structural renovation and urged attention in addition to improving political leadership and making the world body more inclusive. “We often focus on structures, the composition of certain parts of the UN. That’s right. That’s hard. But even the most perfect system, the most perfect design, won’t make up for politics. We should focus on our leadership, good leadership at all levels, senior but mid-level too. And not paying lip service to include other voices, but actually doing it—meaningful, ongoing inclusion, embedding people, other stakeholders into the system. That will help deliver more evolutionary change, ongoing change and renewal, more than another sort of static re-design of the system would.”
Nisreen Elsaim, Chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change and Chair of the Sudan Youth Organization on Climate Change, cited the common observation that the pandemic had laid bare the desperate inequality in the world but stressed that in her part of the world, such inequality was rampant before COVID-19 and would persist afterward if it continued to be neglected.
“We’re always saying that the SDGs are about leaving no one behind, but that is actually what COVID did. So before thinking about the inequalities that COVID caused, we should first think of the inequalities that we had before, and realize that even if we find a cure, there will still be a lot of inequality happening,” she said.
Regarding her youth organization work, Ms. Elsaim said that young people welcomed all the attention and talk about including them in policy-making but were disappointed at the lack of follow-through on repeated promises. “As young persons, we have gotten used to being the trend, to having people say, ‘Young people are the fuel for the future, they are the change agents.’ But then when it comes to decision-making, when it comes to really implementing things in reality, then the young people, the ones who are actually trending, disappear.”
Ms. Elsaim said that involving young people was not just a moral responsibility, it was a measure that would make the UN more effective, innovative, and more broadly relevant. “What makes us special as young people is that we actually take different suggestions, we take the information we get, we empty our cup, we try to use different materials in order to make our world better. And last but not least, we are fearless.”
Jimena Leiva Roesch, Senior Fellow and Head of IPI’s Peace and Sustainable Development Program, moderated the discussion.