by Habibatu Jalloh, UNA-SNY Young Professionals Editorial Director
At the Global Engagement Summit on February 23, over 1,800 United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) members and other social justice advocates from across the country and beyond came to the United Nations to discuss pressing social justices issues facing member nations, particularly the U.S, in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals. The summit touched on all the main issues driving inequalities; extreme poverty, social injustice, and climate change. This year, the summit speakers highlighted the United States’ regression on all its social fairness progress: ending extreme poverty, tackling inequalities and injustices and climate change. Ultimately, the Summit speakers urged attendees on the necessity to advocate on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) locally.
Keynote speaker, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, lamented on the ever widening gap between the poor and the rich in the United States. He reminded us that even the Global Goals, which we may think are no long relevant to us, actually are; like ending extreme poverty (SDG 1) zero hunger (SDG 2) and reduce inequality (SDG 10). A claim substantiated by Professor Deaton’s article in the New York Times, in which he highlighted that there are currently 3.2 million Americans living on under $1.90 a day. The article went on to point out, that $1.90 is used to measure extreme poverty in the developing countries, for the US that would be equivalent to $4. He went to note that the number of Americans living under $4 a day is 5.3 million. It is concerning and disheartening to learn that millions of our fellow citizens are living in extreme poverty, in one of the richest countries on earth. Professor Sachs went on and said that economic progress must be socially inclusive and environmentally friendly, a fact Eleanor Roosevelt recognized long ago. In order for meaningful progress on social justice to be made, we must first tackle extreme poverty. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said “You cannot speak civil rights to hungry people”.
In the session on climate change, Hollywood actress Megan Boone reminded us all that regardless of where we live, the effect of global warming will reach us all, if we do not change course now. Within the same session, Lia Cairone, Senior Policy Advisor at New York City Mayor’s Office on Sustainability, discussed the city’s commitment to implementing the Paris agreement, highlighting current policy proposals to ensure drastic reduction on the reliance of fossil fuels. She also highlighted New York City’s aim to shift to fully renewable energy by 2050. Jamil Ahmad, UN Deputy Director and Head of Intergovernmental Affairs, UN Environment, emphasized the dire need for serious action on global warming. He stated that even if all current agreements were implemented by member states, it would not be a enough to meet the challenges of global warming. Ayesha Barenblat of Remake, discussed the role of the fashion industry in economic inequalities and environmental pollution, and her organization’s effort leading the way in creating environmentally friendly fashion.
Soffiyah Elijah, Executive Director for Alliance of Families for Justice, focused on an often neglected group, the human rights of incarcerated populations and their families. She discussed the abuses they face; overcrowding, rampant assaults and other forms of abuses that are widespread in our current jails and prisons. She also discussed her organization’s advocacy efforts in ensuring that these people’s rights are protected. During his keynote speech, Professor Sachs pointed out the United States’ embarrassing high incarceration rate compared to our counterparts around the world. He added that we are the only developed country lagging on peace and justice strong institutions (SDG 16), explaining the current epidemic of mass shootings, a result of our government’s inability to pass sensible gun laws; is evidence of lack of peace and strong justice institutions.
In the closing session, the great-granddaughter of Eleanor Roosevelt; Perrin Ireland, reminded us of her great grandmother who chaired and helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; believed and fought for refugees’ right to choose their country of destination. However; Amir Ashour of Iraqueer, an Iraqi LBGTQ advocate and refugee rightly pointed out to us in an earlier session, how far we have moved away from Eleanor Roosevelt’s vision, by drastically reducing the number of refugees we allow to enter our country. He said, “Lebanon, a country about the size of Brooklyn took in 2 million Syrian refugees, while the United States, only accepted 1,600 refugees.” Restaurateur and Chef Lidia Bastianich, a Champion of Adopt-a-Future, highlighted how she herself was once a refugee and understands what it is like to have nothing but hope, and urged summit participants to hold-on to that America that welcomes refugees and gives generously. She encouraged UNA-USA members to host dinners in support of UNA-USA’s Adopt-A-Future Champion initiative; to help fund refugee children’s education in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, in Kenya.
Clayton Ferrera, the Executive Director of Ideas for Us, emphasized the power of technology and how it has revolutionized advocacy for the better. He explained that we can educate ourselves on what our government is doing just by browsing websites like https://www.opensecrets.org/ and taking action on websites like https://hearmyvoice.com/. He emphasized the importance of using technology to harness advocacy and by educating ourselves on the issues we care about, we can become more effective advocates.
Bearing in mind, the focus of the United Nations Association is to advocate for United States support for the work of the UN, the main summit takeaway is, that now we need to have a dual advocacy focus; to support the UN work abroad, while also advocating for implementation of these essential global goals locally. We must advocate for the three pillars of the United Nations: the promotion of peace and security, human rights and sustainable development locally, in order for us to be effective and credible champions of the UN’s three pillars globally.