What Got Accomplished at the UN Last Week

As usual, the sideshows like Ahmadenijad’s 9-11 Trutherism sucked up much of the mainstream media attention around UN week.  But beyond the sideshows, last week brought some very real, substantive accomplishments that could potentially transform the lives of millions of people around the world.

Here are three of them:

1) 40 billion in commitments to save 16 million lives.

The flagship event of the MDG summit was the “Every woman, Every Child” meeting hosted by the Secretary General last Wednesday. Donor governments, corporations and philanthropies came to the table with $40 billion worth of commitments for achieving the MDGs, (with a special focus on the goals relating to women’s and children’s health.)

To cite two examples: Norway announced at the meeting that it was increasing its contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria by by 20% for the next 3 years, making a total contribution of $225 million.  And the John D and Katherine T MacArthur Foundation will give over $28 million “to support reductions in maternal mortality in India, Mexico, and Nigeria, including to help reduce deaths from postpartum haemorrhage and eclampsia, as well as to support key maternal health research and advocacy.”

Recipient countries, in turn, brought policy commitments to the table.  Niger, for example, “commits to increase health spending from 8.1% to 15% by 2015, with free care for maternal and child heath, including obstetric complications management and family planning. Niger will train 1000 providers on handling adolescent reproductive health issues, and to address domestic violence and female genital mutilation (FGM).”  And Zambia: “increase national budgetary expenditure on health from 11% to 15% by 2015 with a focus on women and children’s health; and to strengthen access to family planning ‐ increasing contraceptive prevalence from 33% to 58% in order to reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortions, especially among adolescent girls.”

The point is, this meeting resulted in very specific, substantive commitments to help millions the most vulnerable people in the world.  It was a remarkable feat for humanity.

2) The new U.S. Global Development Strategy.

Deadlines have a way of focusing a bureaucracy.  At the UN last year, President Obama promised to bring to this year’s summit a plan to reach the Millennium Development Goals. And, over the past year, the White House has been overseeing a development strategy policy review.  President Obama’s speech to the MDG summit on Wednesday was the roll out of that new strategy.

The Global Development Strategy partially re-organizes the American foreign policy machinery to give development imperatives greater prominence.  For example, it creates a new standing inter-agency development policy committee that reports to the National Security Council. It also mandates the formation of a new Global Development Strategy every four years and creates a new civilian advisory panel on development issues (much like the Defense Policy Committee that advises the Pentagon.)  This may sound like inane bureaucratic re-shuffling, but it has the potential to re-shape how the United States integrates development issues in foreign policy.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is Oxfam America’s Ray Offenheiser:

“Obama’s landmark directive—the first issued by a US National Security Council—fills a much-needed void by clearly defining that the US mission for fighting global poverty is to promote broad-based economic growth and democratic governance. Obama has underlined that fighting global poverty is a strategic imperative, as poverty poses a fundamental threat to our efforts to build a secure, prosperous, and just world. Oxfam is pleased to hear that this new policy will establish a US Global Development Strategy and Interagency Policy Committee to ensure coherence across the US government.

This is the most significant re-organization of U.S. development policy since the 1960s. It was the UN MDG summit that helped inject some urgency into finally rolling out a strategy that the White House had been working on for a year.

3). Progress on Sudan.

On January 9, South Sudan will vote in a referrendum on independence, and most analysts believe that the central government will not let the south go with out a fight.  On Friday, nearly one dozen world leaders met on the sidelines of the General Assembly to try and prevent that outcome. Among them was President Obama.

This was the first time that the president himself has engaged on Sudan in a high profile public setting.  That fact alone instilled some coherence to U.S. policy on Sudan, which had appeared bifurcated at times between Sudan Special Envoy Scott Gration (who preferred and incentives based diplomacy) and Susan Rice (who has long advocated a more hard line approach.)  As one government official who works on Sudan issues told me, “for the first time we are finally marching in sync.”

His remarks amounted to a policy statement on Sudan, which held out the promise of incentives for cooperation, but also stated his support for accountability for war crimes. The meeting itself resulted in an agreement signed by all the participants–including the vice president of Sudan and the leader of South Sudan — to hold the referrenda on time and take steps to reduce violence in Darfur.

Six leading Sudan advocacy organizations that have often been critical of President Obama’s Sudan policy offered fulsome praise for agreement.

On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of activists who have repeatedly called on President Obama and his administration to prevent a return to war in Sudan and bring peace to Darfur, we applaud President Obama and his Sudan policy team for making Sudan a top priority and providing leadership at Friday’s United Nations High Level Meeting on Sudan. It is an important step forward that Sudanese parties and a comprehensive group of world leaders have now reached an agreement to implement the final phase of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, and address the crisis in Darfur.

Only time will tell if this agreement is implemented. But the kind of high level focus on this issue ought to make instigators think twice about interfering with the referendum and resuming conflict.