Every now and then I get ‘historically reflective’.  A few years ago I did a post on “Back to the Future” (which also has some great discussion in the comments section).   Twenty years after a round of UN Forums, this new round of UN Forums we have ‘quietly’ moved into (seeming to parallel and in some cases, directly tied – i.e. Habitat III to those in the 1990s) is again causing me to reflect historically.

The Summits of the 1990’s

The 1990’s saw an unusual round of UN Summit activity with corresponding NGO Forums. They included:

  • UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) or “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 – and the resulting Agenda 21.
  • Human Rights. Vienna 1993 – Vienna Declaration
  • Population Conference in Cairo in 1994 and the Cairo Declaration
  • World Conference on Women “Women’s Summit” in Beijing – September 1995 with the resulting Platform for Action
  • UN Conference on Human Settlements (or Habitat II) in  Istanbul, 1996  with the resulting Habitat Agenda.

When I attended the World Summit on Children in 1990 at the UN Headquarters in New York (and prepped other colleagues to go to Rio and Beijing) little did we suspect how the decade’s events would change the role of NGOs. But this series of conferences held as the new ‘Internet Age’ was taking off, allowed NGOs and other civil society participants to continue to interact with each other after they returned home in previously unthinkable ways.

By the end of the 1990’s then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was giving credit to these forums for the increasing influence of NGOs in a statement that included the following:

“…to this day, Rio has become the benchmark against which future conferences and summits are measured in terms of civil society response — whether it be the summit on women in Beijing, the human rights conference in Vienna, Habitat in Istanbul, the population conference in Cairo or the conference on climate change at Kyoto last December.”… Today, NGOs are often on the ground before the international community gives the United Nations a mandate to act. They are indispensable operators in areas ranging from de-mining to human rights, from health care to refugees. And they are seen not only as disseminators of public information or providers of services, but also as shapers of public policy.”

Intervening years

Observing the five, 10, and 15 year anniversaries after these summits was ‘relatively quiet’ with the review of the action plans that came out of the conferences often held within the context of existing annual meetings such as the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

But in the 20 years since they took place we have seen some important changes including:

  • Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – The Millennium Summit of 2000 which created the Millennium Development Goals began to take into consideration this growing role of civil society organizations in how they were negotiated and have been implemented – by thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands of partners)  By the beginning of this decade, the post-2015 discussions included strong roles for civil society.
  • Role of social media – the last 20 years has brought us from an embryonic ‘Internet Age’ to an era when social media is an integral part of civil society communication and organizing, allowing greater participation, and pressure on UN agencies tasked with implementing agreements and member state governments.
  • Increasing growth of ‘youth’ population and their organized voices.
  • Re-evaluation of ‘how we do things’ on a global policy level (such as international aid).

What feels different about the 2012-2016 round?

Although Rio +20 – the Sustainable Development Conference, again in Rio in 2012 did not do as much for the environment as many had hoped, something feels different about ‘this round’ of summits.

Focus on Engaging Youth

  • A 1st Global Youth Policy Forum was held this year in Baku bringing together a number of UN agencies including UNDP and UNESCO together with the Council of Europe and chaired by a new UN Youth Envoy.
  • Other anniversary events (such as Beijing + 20) are incorporating youth perspectives in more significant ways.

Some broader, more holistic themes?

  • Rio+20 integrated post-2015 (after the Millennium Development Goals) discussions to begin deliberations around Sustainable Development Goals.  This process is a bit more open than that which led up to the MDGs in 2000.
  • World Humanitarian Summit  – Istanbul, 2016 -will look at a Re-evaluation of Humanitarian Needs, Development and Aid perhaps moving the informal discussions currently happening around “What is Smart Aid” to a new level.

Within the UN system progress is certainly being made to open up discussions, but are we impacting the planet and people’s lives in significantly different ways and as quickly as we need to? Are we bringing the lessons we’ve learned in the past 20 years into this next round of discussions?

There’s certainly a lot more that could be written here but this is meant to be a thought piece, not a comprehensive one. What are some of your reflections on where we’ve been and where we are going?