Activists are pulling out all the stops ahead of a development summit at UN headquarters on 20-22 September. Pro-aid and anti-poverty lobbyists are trying everything from giant letters to banging pans to raise awareness of the high-level event.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) suffer from a lack of widespread public recognition, not least in the summit’s host country, the US. Mobilizing popular support and influencing delegates will demand a range of online and offline techniques, according to advocacy specialists, some more quirky than others.
Human rights in general, and gender rights in particular, are at the heart of these calls. Amnesty International, for example, has a 3,865-strong online petition to put human rights at the centre of the fight against poverty. In addition, an enhanced focus on gender rights will likely be reflected in the revised “outcome document” to be signed by global leaders in reaffirming their commitment to the eight goals at the 10-year mark.
Another focus is the financial gaps: approximately US$20-$40 billion could be required annually until 2015 just to meet global targets on reducing child and maternal mortality rates, according to the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.
An energized public serves a crucial role in holding political leaders accountable to meeting financial and other commitments to the MDGs, says Lysa John, campaign director for the civil society coalition of more than 160 partners, the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP). It makes an even bigger difference when activists pressure leaders in their home countries.
Passionate rallies cannot always match the impact of a private meeting with top senior officials, however. Most NGOs and advocacy groups have been using this traditional campaign method in the past few months, said Elisa Peter, chief of the UN’s non-governmental liaison office in New York.
But the term MDG is not an easy sell, advocacy workers say.
“We’re trying to help people understand MDGs as global issues related to hunger, poverty, health, women and children and to use terms they can identify with,” said Aaron Sherinian, spokesman for the UN Foundation charity.
According to a 2010 Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans think the US and UN should be more focused on “issues” such as disease, poverty, education and health, Sherinian says.
When the UN Foundation unveils an “interactive” digital advertisement in Times Square at the beginning of September, it will be with the assumption that “people recognize the issue of the promises more than they recognize the term [MDG] itself”, Sherinian explained. “They understand the issue and they get behind the issue.”
The term “MDGs” is not widespread on the social change site BloggersUnite.com, where more than 50,000 bloggers log in monthly to post events related to health, climate change and education in developing countries.
“In the world I live in, the issues that the MDGs address are being talked about, but not in those exact terms,” said BloggersUnite founder Tony Berkman. “We all have our own approaches to getting the word out about eradicating poverty.”
As well as being little known, the investment and stamina required to maintain the goals in the face of public disinterest and public sector deficits needs a special type of commitment.
When Millennium Promise Alliance CEO John McArthur spoke at the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs on achieving the MDGs – the first hearing of its kind – in July, he lobbied in terms of domestic politics.
“The MDGs should be, but have not been, a strategic priority for the United States,” he said in the hearing. “The President’s recent national security strategy placed a strong emphasis on development in the poorest countries.”
“For the US to incorporate the goals into its development policy and thinking is hugely important,” McArthur later told IRIN.
During the June hearings, GCAP wrote a 1.8m high open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, recommending a stronger human rights focus within the MDGs.
UN security stopped it from entering the Secretariat, but Ban’s office heard about the roaming letter and invited GCAP organizers to a private meeting, pledging enhanced collaboration with civil society.
GCAP, with Oxfam, Amnesty and others, plans to continue its super-sized campaigning in September. Its partners are planning thousands of events, including a bell-ringing session in Indonesia and a gathering of homeless people to bang on pots and pans in Malaysia, during Stand Up, Take Action, Make Noise for the MDGs events from 17 to 19 September.
In Bhopal, India, university students will sign a compilation of songs about ending poverty. Activists in Italy will gather at various events to make a steady noise mimicking heart beats by pounding on their chests, drums and clapping their hands. Across the Philippines, people will partake in a massive church bell-ringing campaign on 19 September. More initiatives are being announced daily.
GCAP will also display giant signed charters from its networks across Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East that joined in answering the question of “The World We Want [in] 2015”. Viewers at multiple New York sites can then supplement the charters and write their own expectations and demands for the summit.
“We want to make a noise around the world and it is intended to be a big one,” said Rajiv Joshi, a GCAP organizer in New York.
If that noise is clear enough and uniformly pitched, it stands a strong chance of reverberating inside the General Assembly hall from 20 September. It remains to be seen if the activists make it past security with their giant paperwork or not.
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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]