UN High Panel on the Millennium Development Goals

Recently CCC General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton was the only faith leader invited to attend an international meeting of the UN High Panel on the Millennium Development Goals. The purpose of the High Panel is to listen to the perspectives of civil society on the MDGs leading up to the end of their term in 2015.
Read her reflections on development, care for the world’s vulnerable, and global relationships in light of this important event in London.
BEYOND 2015: The Millennium Development Goals Past, Present and Into the Future

The marbled halls of The Royal Society in London, England have played host to thoughtful, deep and passionate conversations amongst the scientists of the world for centuries but on November 2, 2012, they played host to a different kind of gathering.

On that date those hallowed halls echoed with words that were also thoughtful, deep and passionate, also concerned with human life and the living of it but the conversation of November 2nd, 2012 focused on the Millennium Development Goals.

In the year 2000 the United Nations issued the Millennium Declaration from which were lifted eight selected targets then placed in a free-standing list. Since the year 2000 that list has been at the centre of the many national strategies of development and has provided a focus and framework for donor support. Each MDG has detailed targets and it was the overall goal that they be fulfilled by the year 2015, a goal that would make a significant difference to the lives of the most vulnerable people on the planet. The governments of the G8 and G20 countries and, of course, the U.N. General Assembly, also known as the G192, have made the MDGs and the proposed fulfillment of them a major part of their discussions and civil society Non-Governmental Organizations have spoken and worked vigorously for their fulfillment. In spite of the declaration, however, the targets towards fulfillment of the MDGs, set by the United Nations and by individual countries have fallen severely short, such that there is substantive concern that the MDGs will not be met by their target date of 2015.

The United Nations has therefore created a High Level Panel whose role it is to have significant conversations with various sectors of society, to listen to concerns and priorities about the MDGs and what might and should follow them and then to compile a report to the Secretary General of the U.N.

And so it was that I came to be at the Royal Society on November 2nd, 2012 as the only faith leader of the globe chosen on that occasion to speak to the U.N. High Panel on the Millennium Development Goals. Through the offices of the NGO Beyond 2015, based in Brussels, thirty of us were chosen to speak to the High Panel. We came from all corners of the globe and from a wide sector of civil society and we were chosen because of our knowledge and expertise in the crucial areas of development, poverty, marginalization and vulnerability, our ability to represent and be accountable to the perspectives of a wide constituency and our willingness and capacity to engage at national and regional levels.

The 21 members of the High Panel and the 30 representatives of global civil society were placed at roundtables each of which was to focus on a specific question. Our question at roundtable 5 was, “How can inequality be addressed to promote inclusive development? What lessons have been learnt in measuring outcomes from the MDGs? How to prevent aggregate national targets obscuring differentiated outcomes in the post-2015 development framework?

As I took my place at roundtable 5, and before we had done our introductions, I glanced at the nametag of the person on my left, a member of the High Panel indeed, Graca Machel, also known as the wife of Nelson Mandela. The other members of the High Panel at the table were Gunilla Carlsson, the foreign minister of Sweden, Sund-Huan Kim, the foreign minister of South Korea and Heru Prasetyo, development minister for Indonesia.

Our discussion covered a wide range of issues, all related to the MDGs and what might and should follow 2015. We discussed the definition of inequality and its many dimensions, we focused on gender inequality and possible responses. We also discussed the mutual responsibility of the High Level Panel and civil society in the formulating of a new development framework.

As one of the civil society participants, I had the opportunity to speak directly to the members of the High Panel in the context of roundtable 5. I strove to bring together the wisdom, development experience and knowledge of the MDGs of the faith communities, the briefings I received before leaving for London from Canadian Council of Churches related bodies and my own background and reading in the issues at hand, all in a few minutes. I spoke of the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen and his conviction that a crucial way that inequality needs to be understood is how it affects people’s capacity and their agency to act on their own behalf and that of their families and communities. I spoke about the interconnection between situations of conflict in the world and the poor fulfillment rate of the MDGs. The current list of eight does not include any reference to conflict and yet it is in places of conflict where the fulfillment of the MDGs is most lacking. I spoke about the faith communities of the globe and the fact that not only are most people, people of faith but it is so often the faith communities that are local, on the ground, so to speak, in situations of poverty and vulnerability. It is faith communities that are and can be instrumental in the delivering of healthcare and education. My final point was to say that the MDGs in their short eight goal format were something that are and can continue to be both accessible and inspirational. We need to have a way of speaking to the world of the vehicles of healing that is comprehensible and actionable.

These points were all very well received. The Swedish foreign minister, Gunilla Carlsson, immediately picked up on the importance of the faith communities being an integral part of civil society discussion and work on development. She talked about the need for the partnership of faith leaders, media and business as a part of the way forward. Her comments and those of others of the High Panel were not all ‘varnished’, however, Ms. Carlsson also said that faith communities have not always been entirely helpful in areas of development and vulnerability but their grounding in compassion, their networks and their current expertise make them essential partners in the current reality. She and other members of the High Panel listened well to what I had to say and to what the other 29 civil society representatives had to say and they issues a challenge back to us. They reminded us that the various sectors and constituencies of civil society have been and are often quite fragmented, with a tendency to compartmentalize and to work in the ‘silos’ of our particular areas of expertise. For the sake of the people of the world, we were challenged to work together better.

Roundtable 5 also brought forward such issues as the multiple levels of inequality that exist between rural and urban areas across the globe. There was an expressed need for more data and particularly gender-specific data in order to be able to assess how issues of inequality are concretely affecting women and girls. There was also a strong belief that while there may have been progress at lower levels of development, particularly in terms of women, there is very little progress at higher levels. There is, for instance, a great improvement in the number of girls attending primary school globally but much less improvement in terms of the number attending high school and university.

The U.N. High Level Panel members pleaded with the civil society representatives to communicate with them, during the writing of their report, about the particular political issues that will need to be addressed in order to make whatever the post-2015 development framework looks like be successful. The Panel members also challenged civil society to not let frustration with progress in the area of development discourage us. We are called to put the passion that we have to good use. And the final words of the High Panel members of roundtable 5 were vibrant and meant to resound through the room. In putting in place a new post 2015 development framework, the U.N. and civil society must work together to raise the moral and ethical bar. This is a highly significant comment in the context of a U.N. discussion. There is a tendency for U.N. reports and processes to be highly technical. With the U.N. representatives themselves calling for a higher moral and ethical reality to a new development framework, the crucial involvement of the faith communities could not be more timely.

At this point in the process of the day, the roundtable discussion came to a close and each table reported to the whole gathering. It was my privilege to be asked to speak on behalf of my roundtable into what will emerge as a spring report to the Secretary General of the United Nations.

But that did not conclude the day. Rather, the day came to a close in three ways that are actually not conclusions but forward directions.

First, in moving the six roundtables into plenary reporting, the moderator, in a room, remember, where I was the only faith leader but where no doubt there were many people of faith, spoke of the biblical story of the return of the people of Israel from Exile. He spoke of the re-building of the walls of the city and the Temple itself and the fact that when the older generation saw the re-built walls and Temple, they cried. Did they cry because they were so disappointed in the re-building or because it offered such hope? What will be the reaction of the world and particularly the vulnerable to ‘re-built’ development goals, he asked.

Second, there was a subsequent event to the roundtable process that occurred on the afternoon of November 2nd. At a ‘town hall’ kind of gathering, 250 representatives of civil society organizations, mostly but not entirely British, were invited to ask questions and make comments to the members of the High Level Panel. There was a great deal of energy in the room as so many of those representatives strove to be the ones who got to ask their questions or make their points in the time allotted for the live-streamed event. What was disappointing and is indeed a challenge that must be made to civil society is that each person who had the opportunity to speak, spoke only about the priorities of their own particular organization. The result was a huge spectrum of priorities with no sense of a commitment to working together. How will we come together so that goals are truly achievable and not just a plethora of fragmented issues?

Third, the final words for the day and for this article, however, must take me back to where I began, the presence of Graca Machel, the extremely inspirational presence of Graca Machel. She said, really she sang or spoke in words of poetry the commitment of the U.N. High Level Panel on the Millennium Development Goals to

– the eradication of poverty in our time,

– the eradicating of poverty as the core of all the development goals,

– and the belief that ALL people of the globe are assets to the globe.

How will we speak and act these words, sing this particular song with all our lives?

The Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton
General Secretary
The Canadian Council of Churches

Member of the International Executive
The World Federalist Movement

Award of Merit
St. Lazarus Society

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