Take the Long view when judging UN summits

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When the Rio+20 Earth Summit ended in Brazil a couple of weeks ago, the immediate response from the skeptics was: it was a failure. As a UN staff member myself, I’d say, wait a bit first before you pronounce.

The UN has become a master at getting people together to agree on common goals. And though when the meetings occur many dismiss them as “talk shops”, when you look back after a few years, their success is patently evident.

Two summits come to mind: the 1990 World Summit for Children and the Millennium Summit in 2000. Both have led to better lives for millions of people throughout the world.

The Millennium Summit created the now familiar Millennium Development Goals. The UN, led by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, brought together what was the largest number of heads of state and government in history, with 189 countries represented. Among those who met were G-8 leaders like Tony Blair of the UK and George W. Bush of the USA, as well as leaders of the emerging powers, and of small island states like my own Jamaica. Together they agreed on the eight MDGs, and countries, civil society, and people who work in development, including—importantly—large donors, have taken them very seriously indeed in the last dozen years.

On July 2, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released the MDG 2012 report, saying that the targets on poverty, slums and water have been met. The number of people living in extreme poverty and the poverty rates have fallen in all developing regions, including Sub-Saharan Africa, reaching the target of cutting the extreme poverty rate years ahead of schedule. The target of halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of drinking water was met in 2010, five years early, with some 2 billion people having gained access since 1990. The target of significantly improving the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers has been exceeded. The proportion of the urban population living in slums went from 39 per cent in 2000 to 33 per cent in 2012, and over 200 million have access to improved water sources, improved sanitation facilities, or better housing. The world has also achieved parity in primary education between girls and boys.

It doesn’t mean that everyone in the world has safe drinking water—in fact 783 million still do not—that girls are not still out of school, or that people are no longer poor or living in slums. But it does mean that progress had been made, on goals which had been dismissed as “just talk”.

The World Summit for Children was the brainchild of James P. Grant, the visionary Executive Director of UNICEF. It was actually the first “summit” the UN held and set the pattern for others to follow. WSC was at the time the largest gathering of world leaders in history, bringing together 159 of them, including 71 heads of State or Government. They included the likes of George H. W. Bush of the USA, and Margaret Thatcher of the UK, and together they agreed on goals to be reached by the year 2000 for children’s health, nutrition, education, and access to safe water and sanitation.

The countries which signed on to the promises, and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child were held accountable for their commitments. They had to report to the new UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and had their progress mapped and compared in UNICEF’s Progress of Nations annual report. The results have been remarkable. In 1990 12.4 million children died each year before their fifth birthday; in 2010, that figure was down 7.6 million. The CRC has become the most universally ratified of any international convention—ratified by all but two of the world’s 192 countries.

In June, UNICEF and USAID had what could be called a mini-summit in Washington, called the Child Survival Call to Action: A Promise Renewed. It recalled to the nations of the world the promises made for children and asked for a recommitment to child survival. A new goal was set: by 2035 fewer 20 children per 1000 under five worldwide would die of preventable causes. Some say it cannot be reached, but if the past is really a predictor of the future, I’d say: don’t be so sure.

The UN works. And if you don’t believe, check us again in 10 years.

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