Dean Pittman
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
New York University, NY
September 26, 2013

As Prepared

There is a lot going on in the UN this week, but let me focus on one important effort and then open it up for questions on whatever is on your mind.

There is high-level focus this week on a post-2015 vision for our shared global development aspirations. Now, I am by no means an expert on development issues, and many in this room will have a deeper understanding of some of the issues in play than I. That said, I believe the success to date in reaching some of our MDG targets, and the serious and determined nature of the post-2015 conversations taking place here in New York and around the world underscores a crucial truth.

That truth is that in order to tackle successfully any of our most pressing global challenges, nations of the world, including the United States, must invest in shared solutions. Must engage constructively in multilateral channels. Must be prepared to recognize the interests of other states while pursuing the interests of ours.

Sounds obvious, perhaps. Unfortunately, that is not a universally-held vision, even in the face of issues that obviously cannot be addressed effectively by unilateral or even bilateral means. Climate change, pandemic disease, counterterrorism -- all demand global solutions.

When he first took office in early 2009, President Obama made clear both his intent to reengage robustly with the international system, including the UN, as well as his guiding multilateral premise, that “…the interests of nations and peoples are shared.”

And so world leaders are gathered here in New York for the annual opening of the General Assembly. For the United States, the annual UNGA represents an opportunity to highlight its leading role in the design and foundation of the UN, but also refocus world attention on the necessary, meaningful work that can only be sustained through international cooperation. We can’t do it alone.

In that context we’ve recently opened the 68th iteration of the General Assembly, and this week has already featured several events and activities designed to highlight the important work already done toward achieving the MDGs, and signal a global unity on the need for sustained attention to development challenges.

Yesterday the Secretary of State participated in a high-level meeting to discuss these very issues, and used the opportunity to highlight quite emphatically the U.S. perspective on development priorities. He said:

“… we must strive for a development agenda that recognizes that fighting poverty, combating discrimination, and safeguarding our environment are absolutely linked together, and are not separate endeavors. Protecting people from poverty, hunger, and disease, and protecting our planet from the threats that make all of those menaces even worse – dirty water, dangerous air, disappearing resources – these are challenges to all of us….”

The Millennium Development Goals represent an important, shared objective of the global community – an objective that requires sustained focus to maintain progress toward achieving the goals. The MDGs are a symbol of our common humanity and a statement of the world’s commitment to eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, combating disease, achieving gender equality and environmental sustainability, and extending hope and opportunity to billions across the world. It can and should be a blue print for the future.

As we gather here in New York for the annual General Assembly, we do so in the context of the enormous progress that has been made towards meeting a number of the MDGs. The most recent UN progress report highlights:

  • that the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been halved at the global level;
  • over 2 billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water;
  • remarkable gains have been made in the fight against HIV and AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis;
  • child mortality for children under 5 has been cut from 12 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011.
  • the proportion of slum dwellers in the cities of the developing world is declining; and
  • the hunger reduction target is within reach.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge that progress has been uneven. Much work remains to be done, and the United States is intent to provide its continued leadership in that regard. In part, we do so by propelling accelerated progress through major, focused initiatives such as the Global Health Initiative, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Feed the Future, and the Global Climate Change Initiative.

  • Through the Global Health Initiative, the United States is helping countries build and strengthen their health systems and achieve significant improvements in health outcomes, with a particular focus on women, newborns, and children.
  • Through PEPFAR, the United States has contributed to progress towards global achievement of MDG 6 by directly supporting life-saving anti-retroviral treatment for more than 5.1 million men, women, and children worldwide (as of September 30, 2012).
  • Feed the Future addresses continuing hunger challenges by investing in agricultural development, improved food and nutrition security, and strengthened management practices.

­ The challenge is daunting: some 870 million people in the world remain hungry today, and 98 percent of them live in developing countries.

­ In FY 2012 alone, Feed the Future helped more than 7 million food producers adopt improved agricultural technologies or practices.

­ We also reached over 12 million children with nutrition programs designed to reduce the prevalence of poverty and stunting in children.

  • The Global Climate Change Initiative is spurring global greenhouse gas emission reductions in the energy and land-use sectors, and promoting adaptation to the impacts of climate change in vulnerable countries and communities.

­ We have committed to working with our private sector, foundation, civil society, and government partners to achieve this task. The United States is investing approximately $800 million per year through the GCCI to address the climate needs of developing countries.

Now, let me note at this juncture that while the United States is playing a leading role in these important efforts, the MDGs are at their core multilateral. We cannot and will not reach all the aspirations outlined in the MDGs without concerted and shared action.

But event at their establishment, many of the original MDGs were characterized as fanciful at best. Critics of the United Nations were quick to scoff at the notion of the UN playing a useful role in promoting such lofty goals. And yet here we are.

The conversation today is no longer about the suitability of UN agencies for the task, or the will of the international community. The conversation now is all about acceleration, learning from the past thirteen years, and planning for what follows 2015.

That planning is well underway, and the United States is very much at that table. At every opportunity, we are promoting the vision of a future agenda that addresses the mutually beneficial relationship of sustainability and poverty reduction. Of economic growth and environmental sustainability. Of poverty eradication paired with sustainable development in all its dimensions.

And, as that conversation continues, the United States will push for appropriate roles for UN agencies, and will use the successes of the last thirteen years to return that conversation to the need for improved effectiveness, and efficiency of UN agencies’ development activities.

Let me conclude my remarks today with some very brief thoughts on the UN itself. The annual re-launch of the General Assembly is, in my view, a useful reminder that the UN is very much a work in progress. There are challenges and failings, of course. None of these failings, however, can diminish our commitment to the idea of multilateral institutions that serve national interests while advancing shared goals.

That’s no small trick, as I’m sure you will agree. Nations will have divergent and often competing interests. Rogue states will seek to employ these institutions to unhelpful ends.

Our test is not to be deterred or distracted by these challenges. The success toward realizing the MDGs is an excellent reminder of what can be accomplished with unity of action and by employing the convening, organizing, and implementing capacity of the UN.

Indeed, when critics of the UN target weaknesses in the institution, misbehavior by member states, or mismanagement by agencies, I would respond by challenging those critics to imagine a world without the UN, because it really isn’t that hard to do.

Critics of the UN tend to offer one prescription for these challenges which is to retreat from an institution the United States help create and withhold funding for the agencies and programs that advance our interests. Instead of working from within to improve efficiency and effectiveness, many critics would have you believe that we can somehow go it alone.

No one is suggesting that the United Nations is without its problems. Management and oversight weaknesses remain a challenge. Transparency in budgeting and expenditures must be improved. For the United States, meaningful reform of UN processes and procedures is not just a talking point.

And so, we near the end of this exciting and frenetic week in New York, and we look toward continuing global focus on crucial development goals. We do so in the hope and expectation that a strong UN system, with robust U.S. leadership, can continue to play a central role in translating aspiration into realization.

I would welcome your questions and thoughts on these important issues.