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UN members hear call for MDG action


Episcopalians, Anglicans echo urgency throughout New York.

Parts of New York City were more awash than usual with diplomats, business leaders, royalty, advocates young and old, Episcopalians and Anglicans as the United Nations convened a day-long “high-level event” aimed at gaining a recommitment from the world’s leaders to the Millennium Development Goals.

Meanwhile, in fulfillment of the recent Lambeth Conference’s call, the Episcopal Church designated September 25 as a day of prayer, fasting and witness.

Halfway between the birth of the MDGs in 2000 and their target for achievement in 2015, the General Assembly session, with its surrounding activities, was meant to “inject new energy into the global partnership for development,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea told the assembly. “We are the first generation to possess the resources, knowledge and skills to eliminate poverty. Experience shows that where there is strong political resolve, we see progress.”

Ban asked the assembly to agree to his proposal for what he called “a formal summit” in 2010 to take stock again of MDG achievements and announce a plan for the last five years before the target date.

Amidst a day filled with announcements of new commitments and re-commitments to the MDGs, rock star Bono, speaking at the UN during the launch of the Education of All initiative, made a unique commitment. Asked by fellow rocker Bob Geldof what he was going to pledge to do, Bono promised “to continue to be a pain in the arse to people who make commitments and do not keep them.”

The day began with nearly 90 minutes of speeches to the United Nations’ General Assembly from UN officials, five heads of state, the head of the European Commission, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Elaben Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association. The rest of the day included two series of roundtable discussions on the MDGs, interspersed with news conferences and other events.

Ban set the stage for the day when he said that while the world has “many successes on which to build” to achieve the MDGs by 2015, “we are not moving quickly enough.”

“The current financial crisis threatens the well-being of billions of people, none more so than the poorest of the poor. This only compounds the damage being caused by much higher prices for food and fuel,” Ban said in the first of many references during the day to current instability in financial markets. “We must rise to all of these challenges immediately. We must inject new energy into the global partnership for development.”

Ban told the delegates that “poor people around the world look to their governments and to the United Nations for help and solidarity.”

“We are accountable to them,” he said. “Here in this house, everyone counts. So let us live up to our responsibility. I ask you to be bold in your commitments. I ask you to be generous. Tell us what you will do, and how you will do it.”

Few member countries have lived up to the commitments that they made in 2002 to allocate 0.7 per cent of their gross domestic product to development, said UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann.

“For every dollar that the developed countries spend on international assistance, they invest $10 in military budgets,” said d’Escoto, a Nicaraguan Maryknoll Missionary priest who is also senior advisor on foreign affairs to Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega.

D’Escoto said that the current credit crisis, which he suggested was caused “in large part by a preference for protectionist policies or special interests at the expense of the common good,” cannot be “used as a pretext for failing to honor the commitments undertaken” to achieve the MDGs.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown echoed concern about the effect the world financial crisis might have on achievement of the development goals.

“Some say this time of financial turbulence is the time to put our ambitions on hold, to cut back or postpone the dream of achieving the Millennium Development Goals, but this would be the worst time to turn back,” he told the General Assembly.

Archbishop of York John Sentamu, speaking at the Education for All launch later in the day, noted the planned $700 billion U.S. bailout plan for banks and financial institutions. “One of the ironies about the financial crisis is that it makes action on poverty look utterly achievable,” Sentamu said. “It would cost $5 billion to save six million children’s lives. World leaders could find 140 times that amount for the banking system in a week. How can they now tell us that action for the poorest on the planet is too expensive?”

Brown told the General Assembly that the “greatest enemy” of achieving the MDGs “is not war or inequality or any single ideology or a financial crisis; it is too much indifference.” He included the UN in that indictment, saying that its credibility was on trial.

Brown reiterated three challenges he made July 24 at the conclusion of the Lambeth Conference of bishops’ Walk of Witness in London and added a fourth. In addition to the challenges of recruiting and training one million health workers worldwide to save the lives of women and children, getting 24 million more children into school by 2010, and preventing starvation in the Horn of Africa by giving Africa the ability to feed itself and export food, Brown called for the end of all malaria deaths by 2015, by ensuring that everyone has a bed net by 2010 and funding research for a vaccine.

Gates, the founder of Microsoft and now the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, told the General Assembly that the invitation to speak to the delegates was “a sign of partnership; the world understands that no sector acting alone can achieve the goals for humanity that are the mission of the United Nations.”

Reiterating the MDG-related success achieved thus far, Gates acknowledged what he called disappointing but not discouraging evidence that a world-wide commitment to the goals is not being honored. “This is the first time the whole world has ever made a focused effort to track its progress in improving the lives of the poorest people,” he said. Of course we’re not going to be perfect"

Gates called for greater innovation in MDG work to compliment the attention he said the goals have garnered. “The Millennium Development Goals can guide the search for new discoveries by showing us where innovation can bring the biggest returns,” Gates said. “This is their genius, and I am really optimistic about what they can help us accomplish.”

In remarks that closed the morning’s session, Bhatt told the assembly that “the poor are not our priority,” saying that while the modern world is proud of its gleaming cities and high-tech achievements, “we are not ashamed of our dying villages.” As they re-commit to the MDGs, Bhatt said the nations of the world should partner with poor people and consider the plight of the working poor who can help develop the tools they need such as training and micro-lending.

“The poor are fully capable of evaluating the state of their poverty,” she said.

Among the other speakers at the opening plenary were Jakaya Kikwete, president of the United Republic of Tanzania and chair of the African Union; Wen Jiabao, premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China; Sheik Hamad Bin Jabr Al-Thani, prime minister and minister of foreign affairs in the State of Qatar; Winston Brown Spencer, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda and chair of the Group of 77; and Jose Manuel Barroso; president of the European Commission.

Video versions of their speeches are available here.

A list of the re-commitments made thus far to the MDGs is available here. In his speech, Brown estimated the monetary commitments pledged thus far at $8 billion.

At midday September 25, about 35 members and friends of the Episcopal Church marched in a “walk of prayerful witness” to support the MDGs, from the church’s headquarters several blocks to the UN.

Debi Frock, a layperson from the Diocese of Maryland, held a sign supporting the goal “to improve maternal health.” She said she was inspired to work for the MDGs after a visit to Ghana where she saw children unable to go to school because they had to care for younger brothers and sisters. In 2005, she started a Westminster, Maryland-based agency called Ghanaian Mothers’ Hope, which has built a preschool in the village of Akramaman and is building a medical clinic.

The MDGs, she said in an interview before the march, “are not some lofty goals; they are doable if we all pitch in and help. They get to the basic needs of people. We have so much in the U.S.; it’s hard sometimes to understand what it’s like to go without water, for instance.”

The group walked to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, in the shadow of the UN General Assembly building. Members of the group passed a talking stick around and spoke of their commitment to the MDGs.

Bishop James Curry, bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Connecticut, said, “Jesus calls us into partnership and transformation. The Episcopal Church calls us to raise up the Millennium Development Goals as tools to end poverty. We have influence with our lawmakers if we choose to use it.”

At mid-afternoon, Sentamu participated in the Education for All launch along with a wide range of advocates including Jordanian Queen Rania, Comic Relief’s Kevin Cahill, Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers and World Bank President Robert Zoellick. The initiative is part of the Global Campaign for Education which seeks to provide free, compulsory public education, and to meet the third Millennium Development Goal: universal primary education.

“As citizens, and as children of God, we need to build a society where each individual can flourish and become the whole person they were created to be,” Sentamu said. “Education is part of that transformative process for us to become fully human … As Christians, as educators, as human beings, our calling is to help others to attain their full humanity -- not to beat them in the race but to share with them the prize.”

The day before the events at the UN, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams released a video message in which he backed calls for a renewal of the pledges made by the international community in 2000, and spoke of the need for the members of the Anglican Communion to work in harmony with governments and non-governmental organizations around the world in order to achieve the MDGs by 2015.

A transcript of Williams’ message is available here.

Later, there was a “rally” and “teach-in” on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, followed by a “Service of Recommitment and Witness of the Achievement of the MDGs.” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori officiated and Sentamu preached.


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