The United Nations Civil Society Conference is a prelude to the UN General Assembly held in New York in September each year. It is shaped as a conversation to bring together representatives of civil society from around the world with senior UN officials, to discuss the challenges of delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030. The conference ensures that civil society’s voice is represented amongst the cacophony of the 193 global leaders meeting in New York. This year’s theme was “Building Inclusive and Sustainable Cities and Communities” focusing on SDG 11 to address future planning as the number of the world’s population who currently dwell in an urban environment rapidly rises from the current 55%.
In its 68th year history the UN Civil Society Conference has not left the environs of the UN Headquarters in New York since its inception in 1945. To highlight the importance of delivering cohesive action to develop sustainable cities, the conference broke with tradition and brought this global gathering to Salt Lake City; a city with its own goal to become carbon neutral by 2032.
Two city blocks around the Salt Lake Palace venue were closed to the public and heavily policed highlighting the level of attendees from senior UN officials and associated UN agencies, Ambassadors, senior business leaders, religious groups and members of civil society organisations. 40% of the attendees were under 32 which reflected the conference aim to be inclusive for youth groups to hear their voice. An active dedicated youth hub showcased community action, young entrepreneurs and discussed employment opportunities with organised events such as packing children’s school kits.
In the opening plenary session on Monday 26th August 2019 Alison Smale, Head of UN global communications welcomed more than 5000 delegates from over 100 countries to reiterate that “no one can deliver results alone”.
“We are here to learn from each other, to share ideas and to strengthen a global coalition to transform our cities and communities to be more inclusive and sustainable,”
Smale welcomed the participation of youth groups at the event highlighting the need to engage with them as the next generation to take up the baton and encouraging civil society to create partnerships to work in unison with youth groups to tackle the global crisis of climate change and the need to develop sustainable solutions.
Salt Lake City Mayor, Jackie Biskupski, has been spearheading the organisation of the conference in her city for over a year. Biskupski declared that cities and local communities have never before played such an important role in the health and well-being of the world.
Cities, she said, are becoming denser, and more diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion, physical ability, sexual orientation, and economic status, which presents great challenges and tremendous opportunities. Salt Lake City, she added, is innovating and building sustainable solutions to meet the challenges of our time.
“We are creating coalitions with other local communities, NGOs, and businesses, to maximize our impact. There is a phrase my fellow US mayors have begun using regularly. ‘The world can’t wait, and neither will we’
People centred multi lateralism reverberated through the opening plenary session as speakers reiterated the UN commitment to leave no one, or the planet, behind. Although a quarter of the world’s population live in just 37 cities and 55% live in an urban environment there was also a call for inclusivity of rural dwellers. In a thematic session “Inclusive Communities-leaving no one behind”, Soraya Sayed Hassen of the United World College described villagers in India migrating to the cities because they felt invisible. Mariarosa Cutillo, Chief of Strategic Partnerships UN Population Fund, described the 2020 UN census as a method to make those currently invisible, visible. However, she acknowledged the issues with addressing the fear of undocumented individuals becoming visible only to loose the rights they were seeking and facing deportation.
Over 200 committee meetings ran over the three days in a kaleidoscope of themes and issues. Heavily attended sessions highlighted the collective interest in financing SDGs, partnership development and the use of innovation and technology to deliver results quicker, smarter and in time for the planet. Delegates were left wishing that new innovation stretched to cloning technology to be able to participate in so many engagements.
A thematic session on the financing of SDG included representation from business investors and government backed foundations including the Chinese People’s Friendship Association. Fran Seegull of the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance described the need to bridge the financial gap of over $7 Trillion US dollars to deliver the UN SDGs by 2030. “Governments and the UN will never achieve this alone”. She described the role of impact investment with over $12 Trillion currently under investment in the US. This is when private equity investing is aligned to delivering sustainable goals but also to deliver a profit to investors.
Business investment initiatives were represented by Swiss bank UBS who have funded a new ecosystem platform Align 17 to provide their investment clients with a portfolio of projects that deliver against sustainable objectives. It’s CEO, Georgie Benardette, described her client base as very mixed from retired high net worth individuals to next generation investment managers who want to move all of their portfolios to this new sector. Benardette described a recent World Bank survey reported that “only 4% of investors want to create wealth from the same base that they have inherited it from. This emphasised a shift to invest in technology innovation around food production, clean air, climate change to sustainable housing and water purification initiatives.
The Innovation and technology session on the second day of the conference was heavily attended with a diverse speaker panel chaired by Daoud Kuttab, Director General of Jordanian Community Media Network who launched an internet radio to bypass licence regulations. Kuttab spoke of the rise of artificial intelligence and the need to harness it for good; not to displace low paid workers in the overall ecosystem. Salem Avan, Director of the UN Policy, Strategy and Governance Division with responsibility for UN cyber security, expressed his belief that we are entering the 4th Industrial revolution and the only way to succeed was through inclusivity. Technology provider SAP senior vice president of SAP Next Generation, Ann Rosenburg, asked the audience to consider science fiction to drive innovation while two entrepreneurs, Jasmine Crowe of food waste company GOodr and Kelly Lovell of @ChangeGenOG spoke of the need for community and youth engagement to build out networks to ensure sustainable goals can and are delivered.
The conference was about building relationships and developing collective ideas. Participants fed their ideas into the conference outcome document and the Youth Compact pledge and shared their evenings at a series of events such as the world premiere of ballet “Let there be rain” from Billie Redford who invited her husband Robert Redford to recite a call for each one of us to protect the planet.
The 68th session was closed by H.E. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the United Nations General Assembly. Who, receiving the UN Civil Society Conference outcome document, assured the audience,
“you can count on me to be your advocate.”
Delegates left Salt Lake City with a greater understanding of the magnitude of the task to deliver all 30 SDGs by 2030 and a combined commitment to work in partnership together to make it happen- The world can’t wait, and neither can we.