On February 22, I had the pleasure of attending the United Nations Association 2019 Global Engagement Summit. The Summit is a yearly amalgamation of the organization’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the potential plans of action countries and citizens can take to achieve them by the year 2030.
Approximately 1,900 attendees represented 45 states and 19 college campuses from the U.S., according to Kathy Calvin, the President and CEO of the United Nations Foundation. The Summit was broken into sessions. The Opening Plenary housed all attendees, and then split into “breakout sessions” in which junior ambassadors could choose between two topics – Issue Tracks and Action Tracks – and participate in the sessions that interested them.
The start of the Opening Plenary saw His Excellency Mr. António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, enter the General Assembly Hall. Guterres laughed and took genuine interest in everyone that he passed, pausing to shake every outreached hand and pose for every selfie.
His speech was a call to action against the clock on the goals for 2030. “No single country can solve this alone,” Guterres said, but noted that “we are fragmented by politics and by our differences.” He mentioned that the world is at a “trust deficit” and that if nations could postpone what they wanted individually, they could achieve greater goals. Guterres addressed issues such as claims of the U.S. involvement in other nations’ business and how the UN needs to overcome the overwhelming backlash it receives from isolationists.
BREAKOUT SESSION I
ACTION TRACK: #LEAVENOGIRLBEHIND: CHANGING THE WORLD TO EMPOWER GIRLS
Four women sat in the Fourth Conference Room of the UN. Independent Consultant Corinne Whitaker of the Gender/Rights/Agency/Power Division of UNA-USA for Southern New York moderated the discussion. Panelists included Director Julie Willig of Programs & Impact and Girl Up, Sujata Bordoloi, the coordinator of the UN Girls Education Initiative, and Silvia Gaya, the senior advisor for water and environment for UNICEF.
According to the panel, 130 million girls under the age of 18 are not in school. Willig said, “Women and girls across the globe spend 200 million hours collecting clean water.” When women cannot find clean water or sufficient food, they starve and cannot provide for their children. When the children starve, the basis for their hierarchy of needs is not met, and they cannot focus on higher functions or greater goals, such as education.
A UN initiative, powered by Girl Up and UNICEF, provides free meals in schools for girls. Without these meals, parents would have no incentives to feed them or educate them. Oftentimes, these meals include take-home portions for parents. These meals are usually the only one the individuals will have for the day.
BREAKOUT SESSION II
ISSUE TRACK: SHARED ACTION FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: THE UN AND PARTNERS ON THE GROUND
The Human Rights panel hoped participants would walk away equipped with not only an actionable understanding of how the UN defends basic human rights, but also methods of standing up for these rights in our own communities. While panelists ranged from the Alliance of Families for Justice, to the Permeanent Representative of Chile to the UN, to the International Rescue Committee, the final panelist stole the spotlight. Sam Brinton, an LGBT activist with they/them pronouns, who fights against the use of conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy, which is still legal in 36 U.S. states and sees about 700,000 LGBT youth each year, consists of physical and emotional abuse. Methods include verbal degradation where minors are told that God does not love them and neither do their families. Physical abuse includes the use of ice cubes, boiling water, or electroshock therapy while viewing pornographic imagery of same-sex relations in order to create a negative association with homosexual relations.
Brinton is a survivor of this treatment. “I got out because I lied and said I was straight to make it stop,” they said. Brinton is a representative of The Trevor Project, which anyone can join by texting TREVOR to 40649. The Trevor Project is an organization dedicated to the prevention of LGBT-related suicides. At the end, I asked Briton about Seton Hall, which was recently found to support conversion therapy. “Sometimes, ignorance is the problem,” Brinton said. “As a person of faith… It makes no sense.”
BREAKOUT SESSION III
ISSUE TRACK: CITIES AND THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS
Because cities and human settlements are key factors in the Sustainable Development goals, specifically when it comes to carbon emissions, this panel discussion focused on ways we can on a local level. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s annual report found that even the best-performing city is only 68 percent of the way toward fully achieving the goals. Two-thirds of the U.S.’ cities are less than halfway there.
According to the Director of Sustainability in Atlanta, Penny Abeywardena, New York City is the first city to report directly to the UN for their progress in tracking the Sustainable Development Goals through Voluntary Local Reviews. “Every city should and can focus on Global goals to collectively achieve the 2030 vision,” she added. “As many cities as possible should do VLRs.”
When asked about funding for such large goals, most of the panelists grew quiet, but Abeywardena suggested a simple solution. In short, students and citizens should focus on reallocating resources that are wasted or misused. “You don’t need to focus on every goal, and you don’t need to do it alone,” she said. Small changes, directed properly, can have major impacts.
BREAKOUT SESSION IV
ISSUE TRACK: ACHIEVING ZERO HUNGER: THE NEW REALITY
Solving the issue of hunger is a tricky task, and this panel explored the context of both resource-scarce and resource-abundant nations. Global hunger has increased for the past three years in a row and undone over a decade’s worth of work on the problem. Most developing nations lose their food at the harvesting stage while most developed nations lose their food at the consumer stage. The U.S. throws away 1.3 billion tons of leftovers every year, enough to feed an entire African nation. These tons cause enough greenhouse gases to be third in carbon emissions behind China and the U.S.
Food shortage is not only an issue internationally. Food deserts, or places where food is scarce, exist in America, too. 23.5 million live in food deserts. “Hidden hunger,” an epidemic in which people consume enough calories, but not enough micronutrients. Marginalized groups in the U.S. tend to have lower incomes and purchase cheaper foods at fast food restaurants. Each meal can consist of 600 or more calories but lack nutritional value. This, by UN standards, is a form of hunger.
I noticed at this point that climate change is a factor in controlling hunger. Importantly, if hunger affects the health of women, then it also affects their education. Undereducated women, as we discussed, cannot in turn educate their children. Children who are unable to provide for themselves due to lack of education then resort to violence to meet their needs.
The Closing Plenary ended on a call to action. Students were encouraged to sign petitions, write to congress, and find ways to act in their communities. By texting CLIMATE and ACTION to 738674, students can still get links to UNA-USA’s mobile advocacy program. Attendants were reminded that we are always stronger together and that we do not need to wait to find a way to tackle every issue. We need to tackle the issues we see at the grassroots, with our effort, we can see a much more beautiful world by 2030.