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Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power at the Opening Session of UN Department of Public Information’s 65th NGO Conference
Hello, everybody. Welcome to New York. Totally energized to be here with you. I gather there are people from 117 countries who signed up for this conference – 900 NGOs. Apparently there are 4,000 people watching from various rooms around the UN today, and many more tuned on a webcast around the world. As much as I wish we could all be together in one room, I like the idea that – even here – there isn’t a room big enough to fit us all.
I’m also very honored to speak alongside such distinguished speakers. And they’re not just distinguished individuals. The people you’ve heard from so far are just truly fine people, fine human beings, and people who are asking themselves every day whether what they are doing is working sufficiently for real people in the real world.
It makes sense that there are so many of us here today. After all, what cause could be more worth joining than eradicating the world’s worst suffering and empowering people to live with dignity; ensuring that girls and boys, no matter where they are born, do not have to choose between getting a job to help their families and getting an education that could open doors for the rest of their lives; working together so that infants stop dying of illnesses that we can easily prevent; promoting human rights, freedom from fear, freedom from want; and making sure that creating opportunities for today’s poor never comes at the cost of sustaining the natural riches of our planet for generations to come.
But this conference, and the entire United Nations post-2015 development agenda, is not just about setting noble goals. It’s about figuring out what we can do to meet them. And I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t believe we had a shot at that. And neither would you.
We believe we can succeed because we’ve seen the progress made toward eradicating extreme poverty in recent years, in part because of the UN Millennium Development Goals. I don’t have to quote the statistics to you: more than 600 million people moved out of extreme poverty in just 15 years; girls and boys attending primary school in roughly equal numbers; nearly 14 million people receiving life-saving anti-retroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS. The list goes on and on.
Now, part of that progress has been achieved by countries focusing considerable energy, resources, and innovation towards empowering the poor, like Brazil’s programs to reduce hunger, Malawi and Botswana’s tremendous strides in reducing new HIV infections, and Rwanda’s reduction of child mortality by 10% annually since the year 2000, one of the fastest declines in recorded history. At the same time, we recognize that much of the statistical progress in making — in meeting the MGDs, in meeting the goals and the targets, has been made in countries like China and India, which have achieved massive and sustained economic growth in recent years. And we know there are many parts of the world where we haven’t moved the needle in addressing deep and crippling poverty and suffering. We have to ask the hard questions about why our efforts are still not reaching so many people around the world who long for opportunities that they simply do not right now have.
A critical part of succeeding with this new agenda is prioritizing goals that can drive transformative change. We need to make concrete progress toward ensuring access to sustainable, modern energy services for the more than 1.2 billion people around the world who are still literally left in the dark. We also need to tackle issues like climate change, which wasn’t even part of the Millennium Development Goals. Today, thankfully, we understand that if we don’t aggressively rein in climate change, its negative consequences could wipe out all of the progress we stand to make on other fronts.
Climate change also teaches us that we can’t meet global development goals if we only set targets for one part of the world. Our new goals must be relevant to all countries, just as they must be defined by all countries. This time around, our agenda must truly be a universal one.
President Obama, in whose cabinet I proudly serve, understands that. He gets that poverty and inequality are problems we also face here in the United States, and he has made it a top priority to tackle them at home as well as abroad. That’s why he’s worked so hard to ensure every American has access to affordable healthcare, and that women in our country have the right to equal pay for equal work.
But the president — President Obama — also understands that all of our destinies are interwoven with one another. More than ever before, inequality and poverty in any part of the world not only goes against our values, but also undermines our shared security and our shared prosperity.
Now, I know you have come together, in part, to shape an agenda for influencing governments. And so – as someone who has the privilege of serving in one of them – let me make two recommendations for how you can do that more effectively.
First, as many of you know, there’s an ongoing debate about whether to include goals on peace and good governance in the post-2015 agenda. Some have argued these goals are peripheral to reducing poverty. But the evidence tells a very different story.
From 1981 to 2005, countries that experienced conflict or severe violence fell twice as far behind in reducing infant mortality; their populations are three times as likely to be under-nourished; and their kids are three times as likely not to be in school. By 2015, more than half the people living in extreme poverty will live in places racked by serious violence.
A few weeks ago I traveled with the Security Council to South Sudan and to Somalia, both of which are at risk of famine. In South Sudan, I visited a camp of more than 17,000 displaced people living in deplorable conditions – knee-deep, sometimes waist-deep, in filth and mud, and terrified to leave the camp they were residing in for fear that they would be shot or raped outside it. The violence in South Sudan has prevented farmers from planting their crops, children from attending school, the sick from accessing medicine, and humanitarian groups from delivering crucial aid. 50,000 children could die in South Sudan in the coming months – 50,000 — if humanitarian access doesn’t improve and if the politicians don’t get their acts together and put their people first.
Now, one of the best ways to prevent conflicts like these – and to provide checks against the lawlessness and corruption that exacerbate poverty – is by passing just laws and building the credible, independent institutions to protect them. Countries with these building blocks are more likely to empower marginalized groups, such as giving women the right to inherit land, and allowing civil society and community organizations like yours to monitor their performance without fear of harassment or repression.
So, promoting peace and good governance goes hand in hand with development. And we all – governments, NGOs, and citizens – should fight to make sure that they are part of our agenda as we go forward.
My second recommendation is to focus your agenda on a narrow set of goals – each with concrete and measurable targets. In choosing them, strive for what can be the most transformative and the most enduring for the most vulnerable people.
I know that this won’t be easy. After all, you are each and all working on issues that are worthy of our global embrace. I know that, just from looking down the program and seeing what you all are working on. But if we set too many goals, we do run the risk of diluting our resources and our energy so much that we, in the end, reach far fewer of them.
I also know there will be excruciatingly difficult choices ahead of us. My team spent over a year working with other countries at the UN on a proposal for the post-2015 agenda. The report is a really good start. It has more than 160 targets, though, compared to the Millennium Development Goals, which had 21 targets. So governments have our work cut out for us as well.
I’m confident you can do this, and that you will insist that we governments do this. Every community, every family makes these decisions every day. So do your organizations, working on big problems with extremely limited resources. You have to prioritize which community needs the well or the training workshop or the medical supplies or the investment first. You – and we – must prioritize our energy in this effort in the same way.
You also know that to be effective, you need to measure your impact. So it’s not enough to say we’re going to improve our communication so as to better fight deadly diseases like Ebola; we need to know how many communication hubs we will set up in at-risk regions in the next five years, and how quickly they’ll be able to coordinate a response to outbreaks.
In a few days, many of you will return home to the countries and communities that you serve. I suspect that in some of those places, you start talking about MDGs and SDGs and post-2015 and people start to look at you like you’re speaking another language. And in a way you are.
This too is our challenge. Nobody has more of a stake in this agenda than the people whose lives it could change the most. Yet, right now, not nearly enough of them feel that way, or even know about this process. We want people to feel empowered by this effort – indeed, it’s the only way the shared aspirations we set will be the right ones. And it’s the only way that the shared aspirations that we set will become reality – only if people recognize that they can be the drivers behind this global effort and the ones holding governments and government partners to their commitments. Only then will we succeed.
You all – civil society in this room and well beyond – can bring citizens, families, and communities more fully into this effort. You have a unique ability to do that. You can help ensure that what is negotiated at the United Nations — at our United Nations — speaks your language and gives you a voice; that it meets your most urgent needs; and it gives you the openings on the backend to change lives. That is our most important goal – changing lives, changing the world. And I’m confident that together we can do it.
Thank you so much.