Speaking Out

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Wed Sep 1, 2010

If NGOs are so vital, why does the UN shun them?

By Sohaila Abdulali

Two days ago, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, continuing the UN’s confusing habit of saying one thing and doing quite another, lauded the critical role of non-governmental organizations and civil society in bringing about change. He was addressing the 63rd UN Department of Public Information/NGO Conference in Melbourne via satellite. The conference this year is focusing on global health, with a particular emphasis on meeting the eight internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that aim to reduce poverty, gender inequity and disease, among other things, by 2015.

This is a noble sentiment, but unfortunately the Secretariat has not acted according to it in recent memory. In July, the General Assembly took a potentially world-changing step and formed UN Women, due to open its doors in January, an agency for women that could be the first effective, powerful voice for real progress towards ending gender discrimination. The Secretary-General has repeatedly promised a “fair, open and transparent” process for selecting the Under Secretary-General who will lead the agency, and who has the potential to make or break it. He assured the world that the UN would seek input from outside its chambers, from the same civil society whose crucial role he acknowledged on Monday. He promised to announce his appointment, after this fair and open process, in September.

It is now September. There has been no significant outreach to civil society to try and gather names of candidates. The Department of Public Information, which organized the Melbourne conference, was formed in 1946 to be the public voice of the UN, to tell the world about the UN’s work, and to engage with civil society. It has made no notable effort to let conference participants, let alone the world, know about the creation of the new agency. It is acting more like a very expensive propaganda machine for the UN Secretariat than as a liaison with activists.

Inside and outside the UN, there has been much speculation and not much solid information about the selection of the potential USG.  Several names are being floated. Regardless of whether these four women are qualified, they have not made it into the final round of selections with the help of NGOs, if indeed they have actually made it. 

The International AIDS Conference was held in Vienna in July, one of the world’s largest gatherings of activists, feminists, NGOs — exactly the people Mr. Ban acknowledged in yesterday’s speech. Both the Secretary-General and the head of UNAIDS made keynote speeches, and neither they nor any of the other senior officials who took part mentioned the new agency, which will become a sponsoring organization of UNAIDS and thus a crucial part of the AIDS fight. UN Women was simply not on the agenda. It was a doubly wasted opportunity, both to tell the world about a possible new ally in ending injustice, and to find the right person to lead the way.

It is jarring to hear words of passionate support for civil society from the United Nations’ leadership, and then look in vain for evidence that civil society is anywhere in the picture when it comes to selecting the woman who could, and should, listen to and lead the world’s women to better lives. The Secretary-General is correct: without the participation of the world’s citizens, we will not come close to meeting any of the MDGs. His office’s secretiveness in these early critical days of UN Women is a disturbing sign that he is not serious about fostering that participation.