Defend Truth


The UN General Assembly week, New York: A cacophony of noise and hope


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

Our world is polarised. The confluence of disasters and crises (including climate change, wars and ecological disasters) has brought our planet and the human species to the edge of a precipice. Everywhere, ordinary people are losing trust in the global governance system.

The blare of sirens escorting heads of state; the barricades outside the fortress-like luxury hotels they stay in; the innumerable security hacks, bureaucrats, secretaries, and drivers milling around with an enhanced sense of urgency; the exotic circuit of canapés and champagne; the ballroom waltzes of our political elites discussing weighty subjects varying from the Ebola crisis to ending poverty to securing a climate agreement to the last gasp of the Millennium Development goals.

And then there is the treadmill of civil society. The UN system barely recognises them. NGOs are dominated by the professionals in the development industry, many who dance to the tune of private donors and bilateral aid agencies. I am conflicted: the whole scene reminds me of the merry-go-round that as a child growing up under Apartheid I could only watch through the fence. White children prancing on dancing horses was like a forbidden fairy tale. “Why can’t I go on the horses?” I would ask my parents. They would bow their heads, perhaps in shame.

The UN system formed over 60 years ago was framed by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Six decades after the declaration was adopted, creating a global covenant, affirming the fact that “all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights”, this visionary document lies in tatters, made worthless by ever-increasing chasm between haves and have-nots. The living dead—zombies of inequality rising from Apartheid’s grave, ripping up our social fabric like so much toilet paper.

Our world is polarised. The confluence of disasters and crises (including climate change, wars and ecological disasters) has brought our planet and the human species to the edge of a precipice.

The architecture of governance from local to national and global is out of sync with a technological revolution that has forever changed the way we organise our societies and lives, redefining the nature of work, education, health and communication.  Our institutions today are archaic and welded to the old world.

Everywhere ordinary people are losing trust in the global governance system. They have little faith in elected governments and public institutions. They do not believe that big corporations tell them the truth. They see the intergovernmental system espoused by the UN as irrelevant at best and ineffectual at worst. They are trapped in a system established for the benefit powerful predatory economic and political elites.

As I sit through the consultative forums at the UN General Assembly, I am struck by how it is dominated by my generation. We are mainly old, gray-haired professionals, mainly white males from the North that work the system, are articulate and sometimes tech-savvy. We have the answers even before anyone can ask the questions. When grassroots voices are brought into formal and informal meetings, it’s window dressing—and usually better for all involved if those folks from afar wear spectacular traditional and cultural dress, because it makes for better selfies and adds color in the boring monotone of political-speak.

This year, a valiant effort was made by a broad coalition to build a global movement. The global climate march held in New York City at the same time was a critical nexus of solidarity and direct action that genuinely involved people from the ground up, although some international NGOs laid claim to it. I joined up with the labour section of the New York march. I listened to grassroots union leaders who had lost homes to Hurricane Sandy, one of the deadliest and most destructive hurricanes of 2012. They had to take on huge debts to rebuild their lives; they didn’t have second homes; many had to get second jobs. Even in the richest country in the world, the poor will pay for the greed of the rich.

As we stood a short walk from Wall Street I shuddered at the irony. Government had broken all the rules of fair play, taken extraordinary measures and poured trillions into the 2008 financial crisis to stabilise a banking system because of the “contagion” threat. Our governments in true socialist form for the benefit of the hyper-capitalists, and paid for their losses in a crisis generated by the greed of a plundering elite. Funny—they don’t seem to spread the wealth during the good times, do they?

Speaker after speaker struck the same refrain: “There are no jobs on a dead planet. We have a collective crisis of the future of the survival of the human species. And we have a worst case of denialism of a crisis.”

Almost all of the world’s scientists are telling us that catastrophic climate change will take place if we do not keep 80% of fossil fuels in the ground and take serious steps to curb carbon emissions to avoid a two-degree rise in temperatures. But our governments are going backwards, investing billions into old, dirtier technologies of oil extraction from tar sands, fracking and drilling in the Artic, or coal burning.

There is no urgency to act. If a fraction of the resources are invested in a just transition to a green, environmentally sustainable economy, we will create millions of jobs and create pathways of hope and opportunity for our youth. Then we will not have to spend trillions on a war on terror.

This is where we need new thinking amongst activists. Ultimately our governments decide on this flawed system of governance. And corrupt corporate interests of global capital have in many instances subverted our governance system.

Jay column photo UN Summit

Photo: With Sharan Burrow/General Secretary of the 180 million-strong International Trade Union Congress) and the workers marching in the New York Climate March.

Sadly, those of us who work in civil society organisations nationally and globally have come to be identified as part of the problem.  We are the poor cousins of the global jet set.  We exist to challenge the status quo, but we trade in incremental change. Our actions are clearly not sufficient to address the mounting anger and demand for systemic political and economic transformation that we see in communities each day.

We have to get out of the celebrity-driven activism that produces the 30-second sound bite and understand that real activism is hard, complex and painstaking. Are we really to face our moment of truth? Do we have the moral and political courage? Is the older generation prepared to make way for the next level of leadership?

The Climate Summit has come and gone. Are we ready for Paris 2015? Unless we turn our focus away from the endless conference circuits and refocus our work and resources in organising our communities, we will again lose momentum. This UNGA week showed few signs that we have understood the need to build peoples power to challenge the systematic and structural causes of climate change, war and the growing poverty and inequality in the world. We need to look ourselves as activists and ask the tough questions of whom we represent.

Pablo Solon, an activist from Focus on the Global South, best captured our crisis: “According to Ban Ki-Moon and other leaders, the Climate Summit was a success. To see if that is true, we should look at: 1) what science is telling us; 2) the previous commitments made by governments; and 3) how these commitments at the UN have improved in order to address the mismatch between what has to be done and what is being done.”

There needs to be a concerted effort to make sure that citizens understand the issues at stake; that we relate it to the development challenges we face locally; that we are organised from below and beyond our borders as our political leaders meet next year to finalise the negotiations on climate change, the post MDG framework and trade. Our demands are simple: People before profit; Reorganise governance to ensure accountability to citizens and not the political and economic elites; Implement the commitment to human rights, justice and human and environmental sustainability.

Now is the time to act; and time is running out. DM