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American Citizens Voice Their Ideas for the Future Development Goals


UN high-level panel devising the post-2015 development agenda
The United Nations three-person high-level panel tasked with formulating the post-2015 development agenda: from left, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia (in blue tie), David Cameron of Britain and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

The concept of universality and how it would play out in devising the future set of United Nations development goals drew significant attention among a group of more than 1,000 Americans who participated in the continuing international conversation centered on the topic. This contingent of American citizens, based in a dozen cities across the United States, gathered in community meetings late in 2013 to talk about “The World We Want: Their Vision for the Post-2015 Development Agenda.”

The meetings were organized by chapters of the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA) in response to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s call for civic input into the creation of the new development goals for the period 2016 to 2030, drawing on material from the UN Development Program through its My World website. UNA-USA synthesized the conversations into a report submitted to Ban in March.

The conversations in the US represent a direct link from American civil society to the Post-2015 Agenda, or P15A. These discussions reflect a healthy complement to the main discussions underway for at least a year both within the US government and intergovernmental forums at the UN. Many large American nongovernmental organizations have also participated in meetings with the US representative on Ban’s high-level panel in 2012 and 2013, which is led by Britain, Indonesia and Liberia.

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The UNA-USA conversations could arguably have captured the broadest and deepest  engagement so far on the topic among national civic groups.

One particular aspect emerging from Ban’s panel on the P15A is the concept of universality and the construction of the new agenda in a global framework, differentiating it from the current Millennium Development Goals, which were conceived in a North-South dynamic. Universality gained cautious support in the meetings of UNA-USA and could represent new opportunities for engagement of civil society organizations with widely different concerns.

The potential for applying the new agenda in participants’ own communities as opposed to focusing on just the developing world was recognized in the UNA-USA consultations. In the  conversation in Washington D.C., for example, leaders from the Community Foundation for the National Capitol Region, who focus on local concerns, talked at roundtables with development experts from governmental and nonprofit groups who concentrate their work on the Global South, or the world’s developing nations. Participants expressed interest in continuing their conversations beyond the immediate UNA chapter event.

At the same time, however, there was informal recognition that universality could complicate the engagement of the US government in the final P15A negotiations. Indeed, references were made in the UNA-USA discussions as to the negative posture of the US toward the current MDG agenda on the occasion of the 2005 UN General Assembly summit.

In the community consultations across the US, UNA-USA reported that many people found that universality would require a strong public outreach effort to support the new agenda. People involved in development work tend to operate in silos, whether they are local or global and sectoral in nature, but a universal approach would require recognition that problems are common across the entire world and that learning together rather than a we-they approach is needed to lift the globe’s 1.4 billion people out of extreme poverty.

Those who work on poverty in the developing world found it difficult, for example, to relate their issues to those of people who work on poverty locally, so it was not easy for the two sectors in our conversations to see themselves engaged in a common struggle against poverty.

Outreach for such a tandem approach would be imperative, especially by large numbers of civil society organizations joined in coalitions such as InterAction, the biggest alliance of US-based international nonprofit organizations working with the world’s poor. The outreach needs to start now, and where it is already engaged, needs to go further and take place long before the formal adoption of the P15A by the UN.

More than one million submissions from around the world have been sent to the UN My World website; among American community conversations, education ranked as the highest priority. Good governance was ranked second.Participants from UNA-USA strongly underscored gender issues, ranking equality between men and women and action on climate change much higher than other respondents to the My World website.

UNA-USA participants added protecting the rights of refugees and migrants to the agenda, with finding durable solutions for refugees considered a P15A development priority. Finally, the role of the private sector and market-based solutions was stressed, along with the importance of public-private partnerships for achieving the new agenda. New forms of financial resources, both locally and globally, were also deemed important to  meeting the new goals.

UNA-USA plans to extend the community conversations on the post-2015 goals, as the dialogue continues at the UN and beyond. Additional cities are expected to hold community meetings like those held in late 2013. For the next set of development goals, it is not enough for governments to act. More and more citizens need to seize the moment and participate in setting the next 15-year agenda.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

A. Edward Elmendorf, who lives in Washington, is a former president and chief executive of the United Nations Association of the USA. He is a member of UNA’s Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force and spent most of his career, before retiring, at the World Bank.

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American Citizens Voice Their Ideas for the Future Development Goals
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