57th Annual DPI/NGO Conference Report

September 8-10, 2004 - New York
By: Bonnie Berry

Millenium Development Goals: Civil Society Takes Action

The theme of this year's DPI/NGO conference created an opportunity for the UN and NGOs alike to focus on the importance of nations, NGOs and civil society turning their attention to the Millennium Development Goals. The DPI/NGO Executive Committee, in considering the options for possible midday workshops, and plenary sessions put emphasis on those NGO representatives and UN officials who could share success stories and best practices in working toward fulfillment of the MDGs, as well as give guidance regarding facing difficult obstacles to achievement of MDGs. Considering that in 2000, 189 member states committed to and promised fulfillment of the MDGs, it is appropriate and necessary that all concerned about our collective global future discuss and determine how to move forward on these important milestones. In addition, if our respective national officials are not discussing how to facilitate fulfillment of MDGs, we as NGOs must lobby and encourage our governments to fulfill their promises to the UN and fellow member states to commit funds and effort to this end. Achievement of these goals would improve the lives of countless people and make vast headway toward the alleviation of the most egregious human suffering.

Lest we forget, the Millennium Development Goals are:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
  • Achieve universal primary education.
  • Promote gender equality and empower women.
  • Reduce child mortality.
  • Improve maternal health.
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
  • Ensure environmental sustainability.
  • Develop a global partnership for development.

In his message to the conference, Secretary General Kofi Annan stated, "I am very pleased that you have chosen the Millennium Development Goals as the subject of this year's DPI/NGO Conference. As representatives of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, you are potential leaders of the MDG campaigns that we need in every country. This is a campaign in which all people - young and old, rich and poor, women and men, have a role to play. Indeed, our chances of success depend in great part on the degree to which you, the individuals and groups that make up civil society, mobilize around this mission.

There is a growing, if fragile, consensus that we have reached a historic moment at which we have the means to end extreme poverty around the world.

Consider the consequences of failure. If we do not achieve these minimal goals by the target year of 2015, we will have failed hundreds of millions of people who are looking to us for assistance and solidarity. We will have doomed another generation of children to lives of deprivation and insecurity. Not least, we will have lost a major battle in the struggle for human rights, for multilateralism, for development assistance, and for inclusive, equitable development in a rapidly globalizing world.

There is a growing, if fragile, consensus that we have reached a historic moment at which we have the means to end extreme poverty around the world. We have the information through the national and global reporting processes. We have financial resources, although not enough yet, which are being used more effectively and with greater accountability. We have an ever-growing catalogue of best practices. And there is growing public awareness about the importance of the goals and their role in building strong, stable societies."

Secretary General Annan also stressed that the MDGs are different than previous lofty promises because not only are they measurable, but they enjoy unprecedented support from the political arena. Finally, they are achievable. Secretary General Annan, President of General Assembly, Julian Hunt and Under Secretary General for Communication and Public Information, Shashi Tharoor all stressed the crucial role that NGOs are playing in implementing programs that bring achievement toward goals as well as communicating both to governments and citizens, and monitoring progress.

It became clear at the conference that UN reform is increasingly geared toward strengthening interaction and the working relationship between the UN and NGOs/civil society. At last year's conference Sec. Gen. Annan announced the formation of a High Level Panel to examine ways to strengthen these ties. The outcome report from this panel was released just prior to the conference and was sited by numerous panelists. In fact, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the UN, a panelist at one plenary session, stated that even the Security Council is examining the options for the creation of an avenue for input from nongovernmental organizations to the Security Council.

Although it is impossible to give a full account of the conference proceedings in this article, I would like to share highlights of one particular plenary: "Strategies for Overcoming Obstacles to the MDGs". This lively panel was moderated by New York Times Op-ed Columnist, Nicholas Kristof. Panelists included Bineta Diop, Executive Director of Femmes Africa Solidarite in Senegal (and founder of the Mano River Women's Peace Network), Sir Emyr Jones Parry, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the UN, Miklos Marschall, Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia of Transparency International, and Wu Qing, Director of Cultural Development Center for Rural Women in China. Main obstacles to achievement that were discussed; insufficient public awareness, absence of political will, lack of commitment in the private sector and among individuals, inadequate financial resources, corruption, misallocation of funds, and the difficulty in implementing programs in the midst of armed conflict.

Kristof stressed that security is a key factor in advancing on the MDGs, siting China and India as nations that have made progress after years of stagnation. He stated that there are two strategies for progress toward good governance and healthy economic policy. Large organizations improving large structures, such as creating law that enhances progress is one way. The other is local grassroots efforts to develop programs and impact the morals and values of the immediate community through education and publicity.

Bineta Diop defined the crucial role of women in peace building. Her observation about Africa is that historical problems such as slavery and colonization still weigh progress down. In addition, there is still raging conflict in many African nations. She has been successful in implementing efforts to bring women together to lobby their governments to cease fighting. She also sees progress in the area of gender equity. In Rwanda, half of parliament is women. Also, civil society put pressure on leadership to insist upon gender parity among commissioners to the African Union. Now, five commissioners are men and five are women. In spite of these successes, and the commitment of 53 African nations to the fulfillment of the MDGs, Sub-Saharan Africa has seen no progress in 4 years. Bineta emphasized that civil society; particularly women must continue to apply pressure to leaders in order for progress to happen. Finally she called for the international community to focus on goal 8, reminding us that when people have their basic needs met, and rights respected, it is a safer more secure world (referring to the problem of terrorism).

Miklos Marshall told a compelling story of a very hilly developing country purchasing tractors from a flat country with a tractor surplus. This transaction came about as a result of a small bribe. Loans were arranged for farmers, only to find out the tractors could not be used on the hilly land. Farmers defaulted and the economic devastation was severe for the nation as a whole. He quoted a statistic that 5% of the global economy is used for bribes or corrupt transactions. Marshall insisted that systems of accountability, good governance and democracy are requirements, key components for achieving the MDGs.

Sir Emyr Jones Parry spoke from the perspective of donor countries, echoing Marshall about the importance of accountable systems and getting the delivery of aid money right. A sense of ownership of the goals by each nation needs to be cultivated. He saw NGOs in a role of custodian, guardian and "holders to account" of governments. He also stressed that development without security is impossible and security without development is not lasting. He did site some success stories. In Mozambique, poverty has been reduced by 50 to 70%. Uganda and Thailand have reduced the spread of Aids considerably. Parry also advocated a stronger role for the UN in facing not only development issues but also the serious political issues in the world.

Wu Qing shared about the tremendous successes of the Center for Rural Women she directs. Their target is training for grassroots women leaders and girls who have dropped out of school. The focus is skill building for job preparation, which empowers the girls and women economically. The impact spreads because these girls and women are able to support other family members to complete school. The center also has a legal aid fund, emergency relief funds, classes in math, computer, Chinese and English. The center's magazine offers inspiration to women for self-improvement and practice for their literacy skills. It also provides training about gender equality and citizenship. Wu mentioned that funding comes from foundations around the world because of the goals of the center, the transparency and the democracy with which they function. Through her work she has gained a constituency strong enough to run for public office and win.

Altogether, there were four plenary sessions and approximately 30 different midday workshops on various topics relating to fulfillment of the millennium development goals. Improvements over last year's DPI/NGO conference were: much more opportunity for networking and interacting with other NGOs and the panelists, more focus on successes and best practices, as well as more youth involvement. Much of the content of the plenaries, copies of speeches, videos and opportunities to email comments are all still available at the conference website. (www.undpingoconference.org)