Sustainable Development and Self-Empowerment: United Nations Adds to the Dialogue

A few weekends ago, I participated in a Model United Nations conference in Chicago.  Having gone through this experience and having conducted research on UN policies, I am refreshed to say that a portion of the UN’s attention is given to initiatives that establish groundwork for self-empowerment and community development.  Both of these items are included in the PovertyCure agenda and are crucial in ensuring that space for people to live out their freedom and responsibilities is created and protected.  True progress in self-empowerment and community development is made when the human person is allowed to unleash his/her creative potential.  

Representing France on the Commission on Sustainable Development, my delegation partner and I, along with around 50 student delegations representing different countries, discussed, researched, and proposed solutions to improve rural development and sustainable agriculture practices.  Although each delegation had a slightly different take on these issues, reference was made to key UN reports, and discussion was based on framework provided by Agenda 21 and the Education for Rural People Initiative, among a multitude of other initiatives. 

Agenda 21, one of the cornerstones of UN sustainable development, is a "comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment."  Portions of the document focus on strengthening the role of NGOs, recognizing the role of local farmers and communities in the development process, and engaging women in sustainable and equitable development.  Through the plan, the UN encourages creation of local and village organizations, whose prevalence can lead to decentralization of the decision making process.   When the government's role is reduced, through decentralization, the ability of human potential to flourish is much greater. 


 The French delegation (AnneReneé Parks and I) American Model United Nations 2011

Education can foster the need for decentralization and promote sustainability of locally based initiatives.  Unfortunately, not all people have access to this education, lessening their ability to compete on the global or even local market.  The Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has fostered the Education for Rural People Initiative (ERP) which aims to overcome the urban/rural gap in education, to increase access to and the quality of basic education for rural people, and to build awareness of rural education in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.  Decentralization can be the first step to greater community involvement, notes the ERP.  Once a skill is learned it can be shared with those nearest to them.  This “locals teaching locals” method, a byproduct of the decentralization system, is an efficient pedagogical style which unleashes power to communities rather than large government education entities.  The principle of subsidiarity is a key component of the education and sustainable development process as it recognizes the ability of perfectly capable human beings to operate effectively.

Nepal, a country with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, has greatly benefitted from a shift to community-managed schools.  The 1999 Local Self-Governance Act permitted these transfers, and by 2006, over 2, 200 previously government-run schools in 62 out of the 75 districts in the country had been turned over to local communities, according to an ERP report.  International development organizations and agencies, such as the Community-Owned Primary Education Program (COPE), a program of the United Nations Development Program, as well as national and local NGOs, were called upon to ensure a greater probability of success.  Data shows that the transfer has been successful.  In a survey of 30 selected community schools covering 10, 000 households, the World Bank’s International Development Association found that the number of out of school children (5 to 9 years of age) decreased from 41 to 15 percent and out of school girls from 42 to 15 percent.  The FAO also notes that rural education benefits from the introduction of policies that promote increased interaction among research institutions, the private sector, and the government. 

Community education that focuses on a specific skill can be of equal importance.  A PovertyCure partner, Partners Worldwide, has created a comprehensive program in Uganda which combines farming, business, and sustainable agriculture education.  Farmers in Gulu, Uganda are provided with a team of oxen, offered by Talanta Finance, a local business affiliate of Partners Worldwide.  Before receiving the oxen, Talanta Finance business owners provide farmers four days of training in agronomy, business skills, and record keeping, in order to ensure the sustainability of each farm. Learning to view farming as a business, rather than a separate operation, has caused increases in productivity and income.  “It enables them to take control of their lives and restore their sense of dignity by having their own source [of] livelihood,” says Francis Ssennyonjo, Partners Worldwide partnership manager of Uganda.

Vital to success in any industry is having access to the market.  A person can produce as much as they want, but as long as the market is not open to sale of these goods, this production will not be beneficial.  Doug Seebeck of Partners Worldwide uses a commonly recognized proverb to demonstrate this scenario.  “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” According to Seebeck, this saying is not quite complete.  People know how to fish, now they just need access to the pond.  

Also essential to any business start-up is having financial means.  Large multi-lateral or state-to-state aid packages do not always provide sustained support for individuals or communities and have potential to create patterns of dependence.   Microfinance, heavily supported by PovertyCure, and recognized by the UN as having played a significant role in the fight against poverty, is an important piece of sustainable development.  It allows individuals and communities to be self-empowered and to come to realize the value work has for themselves and others. 


AMUN 2011

In 2005, the UN launched the International Year of Microcredit in an effort to build support for making financial services more accessible to poor and low-income people.  Prior to its launch, José Antonio Ocampo, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs proclaimed, “By viewing poor people as vital contributors to their local and national economies, the International Year of Microcredit 2005 has the potential to unleash a new wave of microentrepreneurship, giving poor and low-income people a chance to build better lives.” 

General Assembly President Joseph Deiss reaffirmed in October 2010 the essential role played by microfinance in reaching the Millennium Development goals, noting, “improvement of women’s access to financial services, their consequent empowerment and the indirect positive effects on children’s school enrolment and health care as proof of that fact."

Along with microfinance, increased education initiatives, and plans to improve sustainable agriculture and rural development, the UN recognizes the importance of foreign direct investment.  By improving basic infrastructure, institutions for rule of law, and the transfer of technology, among other things, industries and sectors are made more appealing for investment.  NGOs and private sector efforts can facilitate many of these improvements.  The UN advocates for better dialogue between the private sector, government, and civil society, recognizing that each has important insights and actions to contribute.  Communication can also foster increased responsibility, acknowledging the capabilities of each entity and their role in society. 

The United Nations provides many different approaches on a variety of different issues, including poverty alleviation and sustainable development.  As when looking at all mega agencies, it is important to tread carefully, looking deeper into the underlying policies these actions contain.  The United Nations uses all the right rhetoric, but its general lack of transparency makes it difficult to appraise efforts that from the outside look very appealing.   Solutions proposed by the UN do indeed include international and state-to-state aid initiatives.  Although in the wake of humanitarian disasters or international crises this aid is very necessary, prolonged distribution does not often provide long-term benefit, and furthermore usurps the power of the human person to provide prosperity for him/her self and the community he/she is a part of. 

Support given for the self-empowerment initiatives and sustainable development plans listed above is only one part of the UN agenda, but it is important to recognize that it does exist.  As member states become enlightened by the success of NGOs and locally based initiatives, hopefully more attention will be given to plans that unleash the capability of the human person.  For an international body as large as the UN to hold some stake in these initiatives shows that considerable progress is being made.  Traditional forms of aid distribution are beginning to face competing methodologies, as more creative and situation-tailored plans of action are being created. 

Dec 092011
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