UNGA 2019: A Development Dispatch from New York

On the sidelines of the 74th annual proceedings of the UN General Assembly, one recurring idea caught my attention: interconnectedness.

The relatedness of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. How new technology can better connect a woman farmer in Africa to quick payments for her produce. And the linkages in supply or value chains that connect the world—particularly, the global health and humanitarian response systems.

Health and humanitarian issues are at the top of CGD’s mind at this year’s UNGA: this week we held two side events in Manhattan to bring together important stakeholders for frank conversations about changing the status quo in these critical sectors.

Health: don’t forget about procurement

On the heels of the release of our global health procurement report, CGD convened three leading health policy experts from Thailand, Ghana, and The Philippines to drill down on some of the findings and, more importantly, to discuss ways to elevate the importance of effective and transparent procurement at the national level—and how the global community can support that mission.

The conversation quickly turned to one central idea: that procurement is political.

“Health and procurement are political decisions, and therefore governance and transparency become critical in order to do procurement right,” said Martha Gyansa-Lutter of Ghana. Taking that concept one step further, Dr. Beverly Ho of The Philippines said, “If you don’t get procurement right, the people we serve won’t trust us and the lawmakers who set our budgets will question these critical future funds.”

One event participant, during Q&A, joked at the enthusiasm in the room of the 100 some-odd “procurement secret society members.” There’s no doubt it’s a technical subject, but one that is so foundational to the global health system. At CGD we’ll continue to press for procurement to be on the global health agenda and to raise this issue publicly—to ensure there’s nothing secret about it. The outcomes and follow-up from yesterday’s UN High Level Dialogue on universal health coverage, which CGD’s Amanda Glassman attended as an observer, is an opportunity to put that effort into practice.

Humanitarian response: it’s about people

So, procurement is political. And what are politics really about? People— our other focus this week. Jeremy Konyndyk convened humanitarian response experts at the Rockefeller Foundation to unpack how the humanitarian system should be reformed to put the people it is trying to help squarely at the center of response efforts.

“They want to be in the driver’s seat of their own response,” said Heba Aly of The New Humanitarian.

The discussion was anchored around new research from Jeremy and Rose Worden: People-Driven Response: Power and Participation in Humanitarian Action. The paper’s recommendations were illuminated by a lively discussion from the audience, which was filled with practitioners with on the ground experience from Africa to the Middle East to the Caribbean. The panel and audience talked about power centers in the system—from donor countries to large private sectors actors to the UN to non-governmental organizations with local operations—and how to level playing fields that keep people in need in focus.

There were clear differences of opinion about the way forward, but one thing was clear: crisis-affected people must be at the heart of humanitarian response efforts. Towards the end of the session, the room became quiet as we heard an impassioned plea from a representative of a Syrian woman-led NGO to help lift up their voices through better engagement and through literal translation services to ensure their proposals are seen by decisionmakers.

As the panel came to an end, Jemilah Mahmood, Under Secretary General for Partnerships at the International Federation of the Red Cross, offered a unifying statement: “This isn’t about you versus me, or us versus them, but rather, what is the collective response we all want to see?”

Yet another example of interconnectedness.

The SDGs: a global endeavor

Outside our small but impactful events, the wider energy of the world’s preeminent gathering of leaders and thinkers and activists hummed along. News broke down the street at the UN, where teen climate activist Greta Thunberg was castigating world leaders for their failure to act on climate change; President Trump arrived to begin his bilateral meetings and numerous speaking engagements; and the Iranians announced they had no interest in dialogue with the United States. Today, the British Supreme Court landed a devastating blow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, ruling his suspension of Parliament illegal and perhaps hastening his return to London from New York.

The world goes on, and it’s easy to despair when you think about collective challenges to humanity.

But UNGA is an opportunity to renew our faith in humanity and spur collective action toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. There’s a global stake in their success. I saw a demonstration of a solar lantern that can light dark villages with no electrical grid, and while questions of scale and cost-effectiveness should be asked, its innovation and intent are inspiring nonetheless. I saw residual protesters of the millions who gathered worldwide the past few days to demand action to fight climate change. And new commitments toward the Sustainable Development Goals were announced and others being prepared. More money, great political will, greater organization, and sustained activism—from governments, companies, NGOs and individuals—over the coming decade will give us a better chance at realizing them.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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