Last week marked the 74th meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Session in New York, where world leaders met to discuss the most pressing issues facing the international community; officially, this year’s theme was climate change.
More broadly, UNGA Week (Sept. 22-27) is a time when actors across all sectors descend upon New York taking part in hundreds of events and discuss the most effective and innovative methods for social change. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which serve as a blueprint to address global challenges and achieve a better and more sustainable future for all, are front and center throughout the week.
It is a week of great optimism: world leaders highlight successful initiatives and affirm their commitments to the SDGs. Private sector companies celebrate their progress in achieving clean supply chains and showcase innovative solutions for the most pressing challenging global issues. Nongovernmental organizations convene cross-sector thought leaders and participate in strategic dialogues to discuss how to make meaningful progress toward each of the goals.
But what happens after UNGA Week?
The transformational change promised on podiums and stages around New York seems to fade into business as usual. Making incremental progress toward targets by the ‘end of the quarter’ takes the place of the urgent pleas. What happens to “this can’t wait: change needs to happen now”?
This year in particular, there was a palpable disconnect between the lofty rhetoric on stages and panels across the city and the causes the SDGs were designed to benefit. Rather than merit celebration for progress made, the juxtaposition of where we are and where we need to be by 2030 was clearly exposed in the highlighting of innovative technologies being used to solve climate change while the Amazon burns or discussions of public-private financing while children remain in crisis in refugee camps around the world.
16 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg best captured this sentiment and put the world on notice when she said:
“All you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth – how dare you!”
It was the wakeup call that the UNGA needed, and it is through that framing that many of the sessions felt hollow, missing the voices of those entrapped in poverty, the voices of the more than 1.5 million refugees in camps around the world. We are well past the point where the rate of climate change has eclipsed our efforts to mitigate the damage, as evidenced by more frequent natural disasters and the increasing number of climate refugees around the world.
So, what can we do about it?
Nonprofit organizations are best positioned to take action and follow through on the promises made. During UNGA Week, when critical voices are excluded from the dialogue, nonprofit organizations ground the discussion in the human element of those we are serving. Nonprofits represent disadvantaged and underrepresented populations around the world; following through on the commitments made to achieve the SDGs is central to their missions.
Funding local organizations with on the ground knowledge and expertise is the best tool we have for inspiring the systems change that is so desperately needed. Throughout the week the importance of public-private partnerships, innovative financing and impact investing were frequently highlighted. Many impressive collaborations between public, private and nonprofit entities have delivered aid around the world to those who need it most. The ability to rapidly scale these partnerships will be critical in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
In the weeks and months following UNGA, we need action. We need funding to flow quickly to organizations with the expertise to put the words that were spoken into tangible action plans that address the core issues we are trying to solve. We need this because UNGA Week shouldn’t be about the thousands of people who travel to New York every September, it should be about the millions around the world who cannot.