Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in the United Nations Global Engagement Summit at UN Headquarters in New York City. This summit, orchestrated by UNA-USA (United Nations Association of USA), brought together nearly 1000 leaders and advocates from around the world to discuss ways we can work together towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and supporting the evolution of the UN-US relationship in every way possible.
Empowered and Emboldened for Impact
For me, the UN has always felt like some faraway entity that I’d seen in a James Bond film or referred to vaguely in conversations about European conflict or climate issues. But on Friday morning, as I made my way through security, it began to become much more real. I made my way up the steps, soaking in all the fascinating architecture, and met another attendee who was as dumbstruck as I was. She offered to take my photo, and I returned the favor.
We had no idea what was in store for us as we entered the Great Hall, “the room where it happens”. Our entire day was spent sitting in the chairs of dignitaries who solve global issues and make decisions that affect people all over the world. It was a humbling reminder that each of us is individually responsible and capable of creating positive change on a global scale. The microphone at my seat was a vivid symbol of using your voice and having it amplified to the world. I was fascinated by the powerful translation tool that allowed everyone to comprehend the words that are spoken, no matter the language. And lastly, the sheer magnitude of the world’s issues, from the beginning of the day to the very end, left me sober and determined to be a more committed catalyst for change.
Throughout my time at UN Headquarters during this summit, it became clear that no one person or organization can solve these complex global issues alone – it will require cooperation between governments, businesses, nonprofits, and individuals at all levels. However being part of such a passionate community working towards common goals gave me hope that we can achieve great things together.
United Nations Global Engagement Summit Highlights
Though I can’t possibly capture everything that was talked about, I can share some important highlights with you. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you’d like to discuss the summit or how you can get involved!
- Elizabeth Cousens (President & CEO United Nations Foundation)
- Marielle Ali (UNA-USA National Council Chair)
- Rachel Bowen Pittman (Executive Director UNA-USA)
- H.E. Mrs. Linda Thomas-Greenfield (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations).
Rachel Bowen Pittman proclaimed clearly that violence and inequity are as present here in the US as they are globally. Hearing how they were kicking things off, I knew we were going to be in for a roller coaster ride of a day!
“The greatest problems of our time can only be solved together by collective action.”H.E. Mrs. Linda Thomas-Greenfield (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations)
The Ambassador (whose presence caused enormous applause and a standing ovation) also said how pleased she was to see so many young faces in the Hall, and that she thought the UN needed a “glow up”, citing the need for modernization of the Security Council to make it more inclusive, as well as the need to defend the UN charter and hold those who violate it accountable. She even snuck in a little nod to Amanda Gorman’s UN poem “An Ode We Owe“, including the lines “Together, we won’t just be the generation/That tries but the generation that triumphs” in her speech.
Reflections on Ukraine at One Year
- Peter Yao (President of Better World Campaign, Sr VP of United Nations Foundation)
- Elizabeth Metraux (Director of Engagement Strategy at Better World Foundation)
One year into the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the world is still facing the dire consequences of war. 7200 civilian deaths. 500 children dead. 18 million refugees.
Questions are surfacing on the trajectory of the war and the ways the UN is supporting the humanitarian crisis. In addition to displacement and violence, many are now at risk of starvation due to food shortages caused by the conflict. The United Nations is working hard to provide food security and stabilization of global markets through efforts like the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
According to Peter Yao, president of the Better World Foundation and Senior VP of the United Nations Foundation, “There are many casualties to war, and food should not be one of them.” The UN is actively working to provide humanitarian aid and support to areas where food insecurity is most severe. In addition, the UN is focused on identifying long-term solutions like establishing ports, food supply lines, and distribution centers to ensure that communities in need have access to food. With the help of world leaders, the UN is committed to ensuring no one goes hungry as a result of war.
Ending this panel with a call to action, Metraux and Yeo asked for members of Congress to come and visit the UN, to see the countries working together and that UN engagement truly matters.
Delivering Humanitarian Aid
- Maher Nasser (Director of Outreach Division, United Nations Department of Global Communications)
- Shamez Abdulla (Senior Emergency Specialist, UNICEF)
- Selly Muzammil (Partnerships Officer UN System and Multilateral Engagement Division, World Food Program)
This particular discussion was a fascinating glimpse into how integrated NGOs (Non Government Organizations) are and how critical it is that they each specialize in specific humanitarian needs. The mission of the 100% volunteer-funded World Food Program is zero hunger. UNICEF handles water sanitizing, nutrition, child protection, shelter, and displacement. And Save the Children focuses most on education efforts.
Most impressive was the fact that Shameza Abdulla was rushing straight to the airport after their segment to provide aid on the ground in Turkey. These people are not just talking heads — they really are actively working to make the world a better place.
But in all honesty, the greatest takeaway in this discussion was this:
The biggest humanitarian challenge is silent crises — making sure the urgent and major emergencies (war, natural disaster) get the support they need as well as keeping the silent crises (human rights, hunger) on the agenda of decision makers and donors.
Protecting Human Rights
- Leyla Sharafi (Senior Global Gender Equality Advisor, United Nations Population Fund)
- Craig Mokhiber (New York Office Director, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)
- Himaja Nagireddy (UNA-USA Youth Observer to the UN)
There are positive and powerful changes in human rights movements, including feminist movements and youth movements, which are working in dangerous situations to demand change and are making a difference, especially in the U.S.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) highlights the prevalence of inequalities, discrimination, and unequal access to healthcare for women, particularly those who are disadvantaged before, during, and after pregnancy. These issues can be compounded by factors such as racism, sexism, and ableism.
For instance, shocking statistics reveal that an African-American woman with a college degree is twice as likely to die from childbirth-related complications compared to a white woman without a high school diploma. This underscores the urgent need for addressing systemic biases in healthcare and promoting equitable access to maternal care.
Human Rights are under attack but not in retreat.
“Refugee camps are no place where human beings can recognize their full human rights. It’s a matter of humanity to welcome refugees – and of international law.”Craig Mokhiber
New York Office Director, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
- Look at the contrast between the reception of Ukrainian refugees vs. black/brown refugees around the world. It’s horrifying.
- The US has not ratified the rights of children in the Universal Human Declaration of Rights.
- We still have an apartheid situation in Myanmar involving the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State.
- We’ve tried to get access for 5 years. No country should be allowed to veto publishing information.
- The horrors Beijing has rolled out in Xinjiang are almost too nauseating to name. With thousands of so-called “re-education camps,” Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities have transformed the entire region into what The New York Times describes as a “virtual prison,” with everything from race-based facial recognition tools to the tracking of DNA samples and iris scans stalking Uighurs wherever they go.
- Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled in terror and they deserve to be protected.
- 24,000 women each month give birth in hard-to-reach areas and are cut off from services.
- Women who served as health care workers aren’t allowed to now, and it’s causing huge healthcare problems.
- As fertility declines, we’re seeing governments put together criminalization of reproductive rights, contraception is being omitted from health insurance coverage and undercurrents of population manipulation are everywhere.
- Every single country in the United Nations is a human rights violator.
Actualizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
- Jamal Hill (President & Founder, Swim Up Hill Foundation; UN 2022 Young Leader for SDGs; American Paralympic medalist)
- Jen Mozen (VP of Product & Delivery, InnerView Technologies)
- Harshani Dharmadasa (Senior Director, Global Partnerships & Initiatives, United Nations Foundation)
Young people can be heroes too!
“Be open to learning.”
Top contributions of youth this year include:
- Quality Education (SDG 4) – peer tutoring, reading programs
- Good Health & Wellbeing (SDG 3) – sewing masks, fundraising
- Sustainable Cities (SDG 11) – recycling programs
- Peace, Justice, & Strong Institutions (SDG 16)
Youth have also been critical in supporting refugees by making friendship bracelets and welcome packets through InnerView app.
How else can we support the SDGs?
Encourage private companies to TALK ABOUT the way that they’re socially responsible. While some are actively working to participate, these efforts are often buried pages deep in their Corporate Social Responsibility Reports, and they aren’t seen by the public. Ask them to talk about their SDG support so that is helps call attention to what we are trying to do globally.
Maintaining International Peace and Security
- Paul Snyder (Former Security Focal Point and Strategic Planner for Eastern Africa, UN Office of Military Affairs; former US Special Ops Lieutenant Colonel)
- Daria Miglietta Ferrari (Sr Political Affairs Officer of Europe, Latin America, and Asia Integrated Operational Team, Department of Peacekeeping Operations)
- Elizabeth Metraux (Director of Engagement Strategy, Better World Foundation)
The most inspirational story of this segment was hearing Paul Snyder talk about his former female deputy:
“I love peacekeeping. I love the work that has been done. We can do more. During my first mission, there was only one female deputy in the entire staff. I put her forward, gave her an opportunity and she crushed it. She won the UN Gender Advocate of the Year Award.”Paul Snyder
Former Security Focal Point, UN Office of Military Affairs
He followed up with these comments on LinkedIn a week later:
“We’ve had 75 years of UN peacekeeping with almost exclusively male leadership. We are at a critical junction for world peace and one solution, in line with our SDGs and mentioned by our esteemed UNA-USA delegates at the United Nations General Assembly is to change the old leadership dynamic and encourage the next generation of women to pursue careers in peace operations and peacekeeping.”Paul Snyder
Former Security Focal Point, UN Office of Military Affairs
Preserving Cultural Heritage
- Christinia Eala (Director, Tiyospaye Winyan Maka)
- Justin Hansford (Director, Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, Howard University and UN Representative to the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent)
- Kathryn Kross (Executive Director of Communications, Better World Campaign, United Nations Foundation)
- Estelle Zadra (Senior Liaison Officer, UNESCO Liaison Office to the United Nations)
This panel covered the topic of the global family, one that has never been more relevant than today. UNESCO is here to protect and transmit our shared humanity., bringing people together through what we share. I was particularly enamored with Christinia Eala, who is very clearly an elder carrying deep wisdom and storytelling of the Lakota people.
“The indigenous is rising in all of us,” were the poignant words she left us with, reminding us that we all come from somewhere, and the world is waking up, reconnecting and remembering who we have always been — whether Irish or Chinese, Maori or Polish. We each have a unique and IMPORTANT heritage that is worth preserving and passing on to generations that come after us.
Upholding International Law
- Sofia Borges (Senior Vice President and Head of the NY Office, United Nations Foundation)
- H.E. Mr Odo Tevi (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Vanuatu to the United Nations)
Admittedly, this segment was harder for me to follow, as I am frankly unfamiliar with much of what was being discussed. But the UN Charter gives the General Assembly the power to initiate studies and make recommendations to promote the development and codification of international law. Both of these speakers were former Presidents of the General Assembly and they recounted the challenges and successes of the UN and international law during their tenure.
With a call to action about creating and implementing climate change legislation at the international level, Ambassador Tevi spoke deeply about his admiration for his country and the need for smaller countries to be listened to in these times of crisis.
Why is important to learn more about this? Women’s rights in the United States are not as protected as you might have thought.
You can help secure equality by advocating to ratify the “Women’s Bill of Rights”, Convention on the Eliminations of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It secures the basis of women’s equality by ensuring equal opportunities in political and public life including the right to vote, education, health, and employment.
There are only 6 countries in the world that have not ratified this UN treaty. The United States is one of them. The Convention was signed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, but it has never been ratified by the U.S. Senate.
We need to further advance the efforts to provide equal opportunities for women and girls, to encourage municipalities to join our efforts to encourage equal rights, and ensure dignity and respect for women to end systemic forms of discrimination and abuse of women and girls in the United States.
Supporting the Evolution of the United Nations
- Jordie Hannum (Executive Director, Better World Campaign; Senior Director of US-UN Relations, United Nations Foundation)
- Deanna Bitetti (Head of External Relations and Communications, UN High Commissioner for Refugees)
- Jake Sherman (Minister Counselor, UN Management and Reform, US Mission to the UN)
What’s on the table for 2023?
32.5 Million people have crossed a border seeking safety. 74% of those are hosted in low income countries.
The Global Compact on Refugees is a framework for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing, recognizing that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation.
It provides a blueprint for governments, international organizations, and other stakeholders to ensure that host communities get the support they need and that refugees can lead productive lives. It constitutes a unique opportunity to transform the way the world responds to refugee situations, benefiting both refugees and the communities that host them.
Its four key objectives are to:
- Ease the pressures on host countries;
- Enhance refugee self-reliance;
- Expand access to third-country solutions;
- Support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.
Ultimately, women in crisis adopt negative “coping mechanisms” (as they were dubbed by the speakers) including child marriage, prostitution, etc. — all of which can be combatted with cash assistance. We tend to want to send blankets and food, but in reality, cash allows women the ability to make decisions for their households as well as support the local economy by purchasing the goods they need from businesses that are also in need. The spending in local communities and economic inclusion of refugees is critical for putting the power in the hands of people.
The panel spoke candidly about advancing the SDG’s; in particular, reducing carbon footprints and gender equity dominated the conversation. The need for DEI experts has never been more urgent as climate crises create more disproportionate barriers for endangered populations, people of color, non cis-gendered individuals as well as placing the burden on young people.
Support Sustainable Development & Climate Action
- Selwin Hart (Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Climate Action; Assistant Secretary-General for the Climate Action Team; Executive Director Caribbean, Inter-American Development Bank; Former Ambassador to the U.S. for Barbados)
- Sophia Kianni (Founder, Climate Cardinals; member of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change)
- Faith Hill (Entertainer and Conservation Advocate)
- Maggie McGraw (Public Policy Professional and Conservation Advocate)
Women of all generations are leading the charge in collaborative efforts to combat climate change. The women who have come before us inspire us to step up today and continue their work towards a more sustainable future. From Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya to Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, women have been at the forefront of environmental activism for decades. Selwin Hart and Sophia Kianni each made a special point of recognizing the women who have paved the way for us.
Research shows that when women take charge, it leads to better climate action. Studies have found that countries with higher levels of gender equality tend to have stronger environmental policies and better outcomes in terms of reducing carbon emissions. Women bring unique perspectives and experiences to the table, which can lead to more holistic solutions that take into account the needs of diverse communities. By empowering women to take on leadership roles in climate action, we can create a more just and sustainable world for everyone.
Faith Hill and Maggie McGraw were hilarious together on stage — joking back and forth about not embarrassing one another, but ultimately, having an incredible amount of respect for each other’s passions. At one point, Faith apologized for being honest to a fault, then came right out and said, “I don’t think anyone should be in office if they aren’t talking about climate change.”
As a member of UNA-USA, I am committed to using my platform to advocate for women’s rights, which is usually referenced in SDG 5, but was not directly addressed during the United Nations Global Engagement Summit this year. However, if you read through my highlights, you’ll notice that in nearly every panel discussion, women were front and center.
I am personally committed to working to promote education and economic opportunity for women and girls in underprivileged communities around the world. I have been actively speaking up about the importance of closing gender gaps and supporting initiatives that seek to empower women and girls. I have been working to shed light on the importance of investing in women, advocating for women’s empowerment, and promoting access to education.
Additionally, I am hoping to get more involved with UNA-USA to raise awareness about SDG5: Achieve Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls, encouraging people around the world to take action towards achieving the goal.
Overall, my experience at the 2023 United Nations Global Engagement Summit was incredibly inspiring. I left feeling motivated not only to continue taking action towards achieving these ambitious yet urgent targets within my own community but also to identify ways I could get involved globally with organizations working towards similar causes.
I am proud to be part of an organization that strives to make a positive impact on the world, and I look forward to continue advocacy as a UNA-USA member.