UN General Assembly

Here Chris Underwood, Senior Policy Advisor at International Alert, recounts his recent trip to the UN General Assembly in New York.

In September Manhattan was in lockdown. The 193 member states of the United Nations General Assembly were in town, each bringing delegations that in some cases took a whole fleet of cars to move around.

I was there, along with a host of other NGOs, to try to contribute to the process kick-started by the UN Secretary General with the formation of a High Level Panel of world leaders to look at what will come after the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015.

International Alert is currently coordinating global civil society input into the UN thematic consultation on conflict, fragility and disaster which will feed into the work of the world leaders, along with eight other consultations. This is as part of the Beyond 2015 coalition.

In recent months there has been some welcome momentum building behind the idea that, in order to “do development” effectively, you have to “do the politics” first. That’s if by “development” we are talking about long-term progress that removes the need for aid altogether. And that’s if by “the politics” we mean navigating the complex factors that shape every country.

You might think that’s common sense, but it’s not what the MDGs ended up doing. And the result for those countries experiencing armed conflict or the threat of it is that none of them have ended up achieving a single MDG goal. So addressing the politics – that is to say the relationship that people have with their governments at all levels – is key.

That’s a conclusion already reached by the World Bank and other elements of the UN, while key donors such as the UK have also pledged to address these factors directly from now on. Speaking to me earlier that week at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Brighton, a chief architect of the MDGs, former UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch-Brown, also publicly acknowledged that this had been a weakness. He said this: ‘…if as a global community we can tackle governance, it could be the single biggest breakthrough of MDGs Mark II.’ Exciting stuff.

So it was a bit worrying a day later in New York to hear the EU Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs say, in his opening remarks at a high-level side event, that what we needed was more of the same. In fact, Commissioner Piebalgs said that one of the biggest strengths of the MDGs had been their simplicity and narrow focus.

This contradicts a large body of evidence that suggests trying to over simplify your interventions in what are inherently complex situations doesn’t work. And it works the least for the poorest and most vulnerable people. The World Bank estimates that there are 1.5 billion people who live in countries affected by conflict, which is quite a lot of people to let down.

It was therefore reassuring that the Swedish Minister for International Development Gunilla Carlsson, speaking at the same meeting, was quick to respond. No, business as usual was not an option, she said, arguing passionately that the continued exclusion of women from positions of influence in their own countries, and the exponential rise in sexual violence they suffered in areas of conflict, had to be challenged effectively. And she said that to ignore the role of governance would lead to an unacceptably poor return and called for a fundamental re-think.

Speaking later, after the first meeting of the High Level Panel of which Mr Piebalgs and Ms Carlsson are both members, the three co-chairs of the panel gave a press conference. David Cameron, British Prime Minister, described what he calls the ‘golden thread’ of the absence of corruption and conflict being key to building strong governments, with people at the heart of them. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf returned to the theme of women and argued strongly that their role was key as was the role of the private sector in driving growth and in time replacing the need for aid. President Yudhoyono of Indonesia concentrated on the need to ensure the process itself was open, participatory and transparent.

An important strand in their work is the need to build on the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States which arose from a process involving donors, civil society and the g7+ group of nations, all of whom have experienced conflict. That process led to a number of conclusions which signpost how we might collectively address the issue of governance, and achieve genuinely long-term sustainable development. Five key goals were identified, and will be pursued in the coming years in a number of pilot projects. Those goals are: legitimate politics, justice, security, economic foundations, and revenues and services.

Alert is working both on the New Deal and on coordinating global civil society’s position on conflict, fragility and disaster. But we’re already looking ahead to when all of those consultations are over and politicians take charge of the framework. The biggest challenge will be to keep the politicians engaged with the difficult political questions that make the difference between peace and conflict in any future framework. Because the temptation to settle for less will be very great indeed.