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Queen Elizabeth II at the United Nations (UPDATE: Video)

UPDATE: The UN just released some footage from both the Queen’s 1957 speech and her visit to the United Nations yesterday.  Kinda cool, I think. 


The Queen of England addresses the General Assembly today. 

Mr President, Secretary-General, Members of the General Assembly,
I believe I was last here in 1957.
Since then, I have travelled widely and met many leaders, ambassadors and statesmen from around the world.  I address you today as Queen of sixteen United Nations Member States and as Head of the Commonwealth of 54 countries.
I have also witnessed great change, much of it for the better, particularly in science and technology, and in social attitudes.  Remarkably, many of these sweeping advances have come about not because of governments, committee resolutions, or central directives – although all these have played a part – but instead because millions of people around the world have wanted them.
For the United Nations, these subtle yet significant changes in people’s approach to leadership and power might have foreshadowed failure and demise.  Instead, the United Nations has grown and prospered by responding and adapting to these shifts.
But also, many important things have not changed. The aims and values which inspired the United Nations Charter endure: to promote international peace, security and justice; to relieve and remove the blight of hunger, poverty and disease; and to protect the rights and liberties of every citizen.
The achievements of the United Nations are remarkable.  When I was first here, there were just three United Nations operations overseas.  Now over 120,000 men and women are deployed in 26 missions across the world.  You have helped to reduce conflict, you have offered humanitarian assistance to millions of people affected by natural disasters and other emergencies, and you have been deeply committed to tackling the effects of poverty in many parts of the world.
But so much remains to be done.  Former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold once said that ‘constant attention by a good nurse may be just as important as a major operation by a surgeon’.  Good nurses get better with practice; sadly the supply of patients never ceases.
This September, leaders will meet to agree how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals when each nation will have its own distinctive contribution to make.  New challenges have also emerged which have tested this organisation as much as its member states.  One such is the struggle against terrorism.  Another challenge is climate change, where careful account must be taken of the risks facing smaller, more vulnerable nations, many of them from the Commonwealth.
Mr. President,
I started by talking about leadership. I have much admiration for those who have the talent to lead, particularly in public service and in diplomatic life – and I congratulate you, your colleagues and your predecessors on your many achievements.
It has perhaps always been the case that the waging of peace is the hardest form of leadership of all.  I know of no single formula for success, but over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal, and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration, to work together.
Since I addressed you last, the Commonwealth, too, has grown vigorously to become a group of nations representing nearly two billion people.  It gives its whole-hearted support to the significant contributions to the peace and stability of the world made by the United Nations and its Agencies.  Last November, when I opened the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad and Tobago, I told the delegates that the Commonwealth had the opportunity to lead.  Today I offer you the same message. 
For over six decades the United Nations has helped to shape the international response to global dangers. The challenge now is to continue to show this clear and convening leadership while not losing sight of your ongoing work to secure the security, prosperity and dignity of our fellow human beings.
When people in fifty-three years from now look back on us, they will doubtless view many of our practices as old-fashioned.  But it is my hope that, when judged by future generations, our sincerity, our willingness to take a lead, and our determination to do the right thing, will stand the test of time.
In my lifetime, the United Nations has moved from being a high-minded aspiration to being a real force for common good.  That of itself has been a signal achievement.  But we are not gathered here to reminisce.  In tomorrow’s world, we must all work together as hard as ever if we are truly to be United Nations.

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Melinda Gates on Microsavings

It turns out that microcredit is not just for developing small businesses and raising incoe levels. One of the major benefits of microcredit is the way it helps people survive emergencies and unexpected expenses. Far better to take a loan to cover medical bills, for example, than to kill an income-producing animal like a cow or sell necessary assets. However, microcredit isn’t the only solution to that kind of problem. Savings are equally – or more – effective in an emergency.

I suspect that the next big thing in microfinance is going to be microsavings. Even small amounts of money can make a major difference in a crisis situation, but it’s very hard for poor people to save money. Any savings tend to be eaten away by minor mishaps, like a relative in need of a loan. (For more on the topic, I strongly recommend reading The Poor and Their Money.) A formal savings opportunity can be – literally – a lifesaver.

Melinda French Gates agrees with me. She mentioned microsavings in a recent interview with Smithsonian magazine. She said that “At the Gates Foundation, we are particularly interested in the potential of small-scale savings accounts to improve poor people’s lives. When people have reliable access to savings, they don’t risk total destitution if there’s a death in the family or a bad crop.” She goes on to say that she visited villages served by the Opportunity International Bank of Malawi, and “I saw people waiting in an hour-long line to make an average deposit of about 200 Kwacha, or $1.40. That’s how much demand there is for savings in poor communities!”

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UN Under Siege in Sri Lanka: Why Accountability for War Crimes Matters

There is a stunning anti-UN protest underway in Columbo, Sri Lanka. Nationalist protesters led by a government official have blockaded scores of UN employees inside a UN compound.  Outside, protestors have burned Ban Ki Moon in effigy

As police looked on Tuesday, [Housing Minister] Weerawansa and a group of ultranationalist Buddhist monks led men waving national flags on a march to the U.N. office. The protesters initially tried to break into the compound, which sits inside a high security zone protected by checkpoints and soldiers, but failed to breach the high walls.

Instead, they held a sit-in, blocking both exists, spray-painting the security camera at the gate — in an apparent bid not to be identified — and preventing employees working inside from leaving.

What would inspire such venom being directed against the UN and its Secretary General?  Late last month, Ban Ki Moon appointed a three person panel, led by former Indonesian attorney general Marzuki Darusman, to advise the Secretary General on issues relating to accountability for alleged war crimes that occurred in the waning days of a 20 year civil war.

Nationalist protestors and the government apparently think this is a very bad idea. And it is not hard to understand why the goverment would be chary. From January to May 2009, the Sri Lankan military dealt the final blows to a twenty year insurgency by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (Tamil Tigers, or LTTE). The military’s strategy was fairly straightforward: encircle the LTTE and drive them to the sea. With the Indian ocean to their back and superior government forces to the front, the LTTE would have no choice but to surrender. 

They did not. Instead, the LTTE forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to remain in the conflict zone, ostensibly as human shields.  The government, in turn, declared that certain areas of LTTE held territory would be safe for civilians. They called these “No Fire Zones.”

No fire zones became free fire zones for the Sri Lankan military. Hospitals and humanitarian convoys were also targeted as the small swath of territory held by the Tamil Tigers and their civilian hostages came under heavy bombing.  At the time, UN figures put the civilian death toll at 7,000.  Last month, a report from the International Crisis Group accused the government of deliberately targeting the no-fire zones and makeshift hospitals. It puts the death toll from the final weeks of fighting “in the tens of thousands.” When the Tigers were finally defeated, the Sri Lankan government held everyone in military run prison camps that were out of bounds for journalists and international NGOs.

So far, there has been no judicial accountability for the government or military officials that led this brutal campaign.  Basic decency would demand that the people who ordered the strikes on no-fire-zones face some sort of justice.  But the need for accountability goes beyond simply demanding justice for war crimes’ victims. 

The sad truth is that the military’s brutal tactics worked.  After suffering 20 years of suicide bombings, assassinations and terrorist attacks by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government took the gloves off and destroyed the insurgency.  The bombing of civilians, and the terrorists who happened to be among them, succeeded as a counter-insurgency strategy. 

The Sri Lankan military showed the world that it is possible to destroy even the most intransigent foes if you are also willing to kill very large numbers of civilian non-combatants.  If these crimes go unpunished, what is stopping other countries with persistent insurgencies to adopt the “Sri Lankan method” of fighting terrorism?  The answer is nothing. Unless, that is, the international community is willing to show that there are real consequences for waging this kind of brutal, indiscriminate warfare.

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Traditional Birth Attendants Persist in Uganda

Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) are one of the trickiest topics in global health. On the one hand, they are a popular, affordable option for women who are unable or unwilling to use conventional medical care. On the other hand, they are often untrained and may do more harm than good to mothers giving birth. Recent developments in Uganda make that dilemma very clear.

When dealing with TBAs, there are a few ways you can approach the situation. You can train the TBAs to provide good medical care to pregnant women. That’s hard because you are taking non-medical professionals and allowing them to provide medical care. You can forbid them from practicing, which is difficult since you are taking thy livelihoods away from an entire field of women. Or you can try to change their role; have the TBAs do things like counsel and refer pregnant women but not provide care themselves.

That third option – gently shift their area of practice – is the most common choice. It capitalizes on the bonds that TBAs have with women in their community while preventing them from providing dangerous quasi-medical treatments. As Uganda has discovered, though, it is hard to make women stay in their new roles.

Ten months ago, the Ugandan Ministry of Health forbade traditional birth attendants from practicing. They found that “they had deviated from their major role of identifying and referring pregnant mothers to health centres.” In other words, the traditional birth attendants were still providing medical care.

The ban has had little impact. The TBAs are still practicing and women are still going to TBAs for their care. The TBAs themselves state that they’re not going to refuse care to women who come to them for help. They’re unwilling to give up their responsibilities to the women they care for or the income they earn from their work.

I suspect that the TBAs in Uganda will keep practicing as long there is demand for their services. They won’t disappear until everyone woman has true (affordable, geographically near, friendly) access to a trained midwife. At that point, the government can outcompete traditional midwives and they’ll fade away on their own.


Bangladesh and Our Global Future

Agriculture researchers in Bangladesh have released a new report on climate change. They predict that if nothing is done, rice production will dramatically decline by 2050, just as the nation’s population is peaking. As a hot, low-lying, agricultural nation, Bangladesh is especially vulnerable to climate change.

Because of Bangladesh’s low elevation, small rises in sea level leach salt into farmers’ fields. Changing weather patterns damage crops. Rice – the staple food of Bangladesh – is especially at risk. Rice production is expected to fall by 3.9% a year. By 2050, in combination with population growth, that reduction will have a serious impact on food security.  

According to the article on AlertNet, “Increasing climate variability is already costing Bangladesh’s economy $3 billion a year, and the financial toll could hit $121 billion for the 2005 to 2050 period.”

The government of Bangladesh has started to focus on adjusting to the change. On the resource end, this will require better water resource planning and new lower-use types of irrigation. It will also mean changing what kind of crops are grown and new varieties of older crops.

The problems confronting Bangladesh are a microcosm of what the entire planet is going to face. Its climate and low elevation mean that climate change will take its toll on Bangladesh sooner than other countries. We can learn from what works for Bangladesh to help prepare the rest of the world for the destruction brought by climate change.

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“UN Women” Comes To Life

For the past several months there has been an on going effort at the UN to combine four disparate UN agencies that deal with womens’ and gender issues under the leadership of one single under-secretary general.  Inside UN circles, this is clumsily referred to as the “Gender Entity” process. And at 3:30 this afternoon, the General Assembly unanimously voted to bring this effort to life.

They are calling the new body “UN Women.” It will merge UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues, and the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW). UN Women will be led by a yet to be named under-secretary general. 

Back in March, I reported out a post about why UN officials and those in the NGO community felt it necessary to bring these agencies under a common leadership and what they hoped the new entity would accomplish.  

To the outsider, this may seem like obtuse bureaucratic reshuffling. But many in the NGO community are hopeful that it could lead to tangible improvements in the lives of women around the world. “The gender architecture of the UN is very fragmented,” says Colette Tamko of the NGO Women’s Environment and Development Organization. “There has been only limited resources to work on gender programs.”Limited resources has translated into limited global progress on gender-specific issues, like the Millennium Development Goals of reducing maternal mortality and increasing girls’ access to primary education.  “There is too much of a disconnect between lofty goals of the UN and a capacity to see them through,” says Kathy Hall of the UN Foundation. (Disclosure)

The proposed new UN body, currently reffered to as the “Composite Gender Entity” is meant to bridge the gap between what UN member states say are priorities for gender equality and the UN secretariat’s ability to deliver. According to NGO officials with whom I spoke, this means significantly ramping up technical assistance to help developing world countries improve womens’ access to health care, education, and economic opportunity.

Still, there are some political challenges that must be overcome before the new entity can be fully established. Even though the General Assembly endorsed the idea in principal, it has been slow to formally approve the precise structure and function of the new entity. To a certain degree, the delay is a consequence of political wrangling between wealthier donor countries and the developing world that typically plays itself out at the United Nations. For donor countries, swiftly getting this new entity on its feet is a top priority. Before that happens, though, the developing world wants assurances on finance issues. 

A second hurdle is who, exactly, will lead this new entity? The original General Assembly resolution would establish a new under-secretary general to oversee the body. This is a top ranking position in the UN system. Naturally, member states are angling to promote their own candidates.

Guessing who might lead this entity has become something of a parlor game. The four most rumored candidates are Michelle Bachalet, former president of Chile; Winnie Byanyima, a Ugandan who serves as Director of the UN Development Programme Gender Team; Geeta Rao Gupta, a dual U.S.-Indian national who is President of the International Center for Research on Women; and Asha-Rose Migiro, the Deputy Secretary General and former foreign minister of Tanzania.

Beyond those four is a larger list of women rumored to be in the running for the spot. As one observer put it, these are names that “have been floating in the ether.”

Joyce Banda, Vice-President of Malawi

Alicia Bárcena Ibarra Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)

Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (from Sri Lanka)

Kathleen Cravero, President of the Oak Foundation; former Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS and founder of the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS (from the United States)

Cristina Elizabet Fernández de Kirchner President of Argentina

Nilcea Freire Minister of the Special Secretariat for Policies for Women  (Brazil)

Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir Former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland

Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda Secretary General of the World YWCA; former Regional Director for the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) (from Zimbabwe)

Tarja Halonen President of Finland

Ameera Haq UN Special Representative in Timor-Leste and Head of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste; (Bangladesh)

Musimbi Kanyoro Director of the Population Program at the Packard Foundation; former Secretary General of the World YWCA (from Kenya)

Asma Khader Coordinator of Sisterhood Is Global Institute/Jordan; (from Jordan)

Irene Khan Former Secretary General of Amnesty International (Bangladesh)

Moushira Khattab Egypt’s State Minister for Family and Population Affairs and member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

Rachel Kyte Current VP for Business Advisory Services at IFC – World Bank (UK)

Cecilia Lopez Senator from Columbia and former Minister of Planning, Minister of Agriculture, Minister of the Environment and Minister in Charge of National Policies for Women’s Equity.

Ruth Jacoby Current Ambassador of Sweden to Germany

Hina Jilani, Former United Nations Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders (Pakistan)

Hilde Johnson Deputy Director of United Nations Children’s Fund; former Development Minister of Norway

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Current Managing Director of the World Bank; former Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs of Nigeria

Rachel Mayanja Current Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (Uganda)

Sonia Montaño Current Chief of Women and Development Unit, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) Bolivia

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid Executive Director of United Nations Population Fund Saudi Arabia

Joy Phumaphi Vice President of Human Development at World Bank (Botswana)

Mamphela Ramphele Executive Chair of Circle Capital Ventures; former Managing Director of the World Bank (South Africa)

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) Tanzania

The appointment is ultimately the Secretary General’s to make, but he is said to be consulting widely with various stakeholders. Precisely when the new under0secretary general will be named — and when the General Assembly will take its final vote — is still in question. That said, experience shows that the closer the United Nations gets to its annual summit in September, the likelihood of resolving outstanding reform issues tends to increase. As Colette Tamko of the NGO Women’s Environment and Development Organization told me, “the issue is not whether the new gender entity will be created. But when?“

Well, it happened.  And make no mistake–this was an historic day at the UN. 


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