UN Week Notes: Friday – the Final Thoughts

lots of confusing logos

My final impressions of the MDG summit, the UNGA sessions I saw on the web, and the Clinton Global Initiative boiled down to three main things: optimism, self-interest, and the private sector.

1)      Optimism: there was a relentless focus on the achievements that have been made to date toward the MDGs, rather than much discussion of how far we have to go. We’ve missed the boat already on many of the Millennium Development Goals, and that really didn’t come up all that much. It could be manufactured, as ODI suggests on their blog. Or it could reflect the fact that we all knew that we’d miss the MDGs anyway. It’s not a surprise that we’re falling short at this point.

2)      Self-interest: Over and over, speakers talked about the benefit to the donor of supporting international development. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton talked about development’s benefits to the United States, and about development as a pillar of US foreign policy. Corporate representatives talked about the benefit of international development to the private sector. Even Greenpeace, at their closing session at the Digital Media Lounger, talked about the economic benefits of green energy.

It seems we’ve given up on human altruism, and now we’re framing our moral imperatives as self-interest. As long as it works to support development, it’s okay with me. But I wonder what happens when development doesn’t show the immediate benefit to the wealthy world that we’ve been promised?

3)      Private Sector: I wrote about this on the End the Neglect blog but it bears repeating. The partnership of business with NGOs and governments was a big story this week. Coca-Cola was everywhere, and other companies were right there with Coke. The private sector has decided it’s in their interest to support development, and governments have decided it’s time to encourage it. This is going to have a huge impact on the way international development efforts are supported and implemented. I doubt that impact is going to be 100% positive.


Disclosure: I attended UN Week as an Oxfam VOICE, which funded my trip as part of an effort to increase awareness of the MDGs.


photo credit: Francisco Diez

UN Week Notes: Wednesday

I spent the morning at CGI and meeting with several different people to talk about the MDG summit and what they expected to come out of it.

No one wanted to go on the record, but the general consensus is that the meetings seem like a repeat. There is very little that’s new coming out this week. And while we don’t expect huge new research discoveries or anything, a new perspective or two wouldn’t be too much to ask for. The always brilliant Janet Ginsburg did give me one key piece of advice for interpreting the hype around the MDG Summit: look for what they’re not talking about. So I’ve been keeping my eyes open for that. One thing she pointed out is that the only water mentioned in the MDGs is drinking water, which ignores the other major use of water: irrigation.

After lunch I headed over to the Mashable Digital Media Lounge. I watched the live broadcast of Ban Ki Moon’s big announcement about the new global strategy for women and children’s health. He has commitments of 40 billion dollars from governments and private donors to back up the strategy.

I find myself very tired of linking women and children together in health approaches, but an additional 40 billion dollars is all to the good. I am a little suspicious. Often these kinds of commitments are just rehashes of money that would have been provided anyway (see Obama Global Health Initiative, Gates Foundation vaccine funding). Oxfam shares my skepticism about the money for the strategy, by the way, and also estimates that we really need more like 80 billion. I also heard from someone in the know that the team charged with overseeing the global strategy for women and children’s health is scrambling to figure out how to measure all of the things they have promised to do.

Also interesting: inclusion of Paul Kagame in the Every Woman, Every Child speaker’s roster.

The other big highlight of the day was the Millennium Promise Reception, a fancy shindig at the plaza hotel to “celebrate the leadership of Ban Ki-Moon, the MDG advocates and Champions, and innovators who are guiding breakthroughs for the Goals around the world.” (If you’re thinking that sentence makes no sense, I agree.) It was a little disconcerting to go to a lavish event at a luxury hotel to talk about extreme poverty.

But the purpose of the event was to get pledges from people to support the MDGs. And I guess you need rich people in their comfort zone if you want them to do that. It was a big deal event – Bob Geldorf spoke, and quoted Goethe. They started collecting MDG pledges at the reception. There are eighty so far, and some of them are big.

I don’t really have thoughts about the reception yet. I ran into several ex-colleagues and waited in the rain for 20 minutes for a bus to get back to my hotel, but that’s not really relevant.

Disclosure: I attended UN Week as an Oxfam VOICE, which funded my trip as part of an effort to increase awareness of the MDGs.


photo credit: Mr Azed

It was the only picture I could find of Bob Geldorf on flickr that was cc licensed

I’m Going to Disney World!

Well, no. Actually I’m going to New York to cover the MDG summit, which is way better for a development geek like me. If you’re going to be there too, comment. Maybe we can cross paths. If there’s an MDG event you’d particularly like me to write about, comment and I will try to hit it and report back. If you have helpful advice for how to get the most out of this week, comment and offer it.

This is an exciting opportunity for me, and I want to share it as much as I can. Let me know how, and I’ll do my best.

Disclosure: I attended UN Week as an Oxfam VOICE, which funded my trip as part of an effort to increase awareness of the MDGs.

Blog posts I am apparently never going to write

Linus Pauling Photo

I have started all of these posts more than once, and I never seem to get them fully written up. Therefore, some half-baked ideas for your consideration.

1. How I learned to love the MDGs

I used to think the Millennium Development Goals were a cruel cheat. I thought that since they were set too high to actually achieve, they were dooming developing country governments to failure and disillusionment. It turns out, though, that governments are used to missing their targets. And the MDGs make sure that everyone is aiming for really good targets. So I take it all back. The MDGs are pure genius.

2. Why I don’t hire development studies majors

Because the degree doesn’t leave you with any actual skills – maybe it would be useful for someone who’s been working in development and needs a frame. But it is not preparation for international development work. Learning a whole chunk of development theory has remarkably little to do with the actual work of improving lives and creating better opportunity.

3. All volunteers are not the same

Whether or not you get paid has nothing to do with your skill set. Volunteers are capable of doing vital work extremely well. However, they may also be unskilled, unqualified, and damaging to the programs and communities that take them on. It is very hard to use volunteers well because they tend to want a short-term commitment so you lose a lot of time training and integrating them, and because often people with relevant skills get paid jobs in development. Long-term volunteers are more likely to be useful than short-term volunteers.  Volunteering has more impact the closer to home it gets, because the learning curve gets shorter and shorter.

4. International development is difficult

It’s hard, it’s expensive, and we have trouble knowing what works. We make the same mistakes over and over. I have seen individual projects that actually succeeded but I honestly don’t know what theory of development is most likely to be true. (Though I do think people believe anything they see in a soap opera. Is that a development theory?) This field feels sometimes like medicine back in the age of leeches and bloodletting and I have no idea if Jeff Sachs, Paul Collier, or Bill Easterly is going to turn out to be Louis Pasteur or Linus Pauling.

5. The official list of crushes on development thinkers, as confessed to on Twitter:

  • Hans Rosling
  • Mohammad Yunus
  • Amartya Sen
  • Ruth Levine
  • Robert Chambers


Photo credit: Wikipedia – Doesn’t Linus Pauling look handsome and idealistic? No clue at all he’d turn into a Vitamin C quack at the end of an illustrious career.