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Headline-Grabbing Day for Members as They Track the World

March 7, 2011

by Roger Nokes, reprinted from 

UNA-USA members, chapter leaders and interested nonmembers convened at the United Nations for the third annual Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference and Members Day on Feb. 11 to learn about the role the UN has been playing across the world in the last year. About 550 participants engaged with panelists on issues that included the recent tumult in the Middle East; climate change; health, gender and development; economic change in Africa; and the future of Afghanistan.

The title of the conference, “The United Nations and America: Relations in a Complex World,” says it all. To watch some videos of Members Day, go to and

Headline-grabbing complexity, for example, was discussed in the “Upheaval in the Arab World” panel, which took place, amazingly, on the morning that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned. During the panel, both Jeff Laurenti, a senior fellow and director of foreign policy programs at the Century Foundation and a member of the UNA-USA Council of Chapters and Divisions steering committee, and Hanny Megally, vice president for programs at the International Center for Transitional Justice, agreed that the region was in a “too early to tell” stage regarding the future. But through their discussion, they suggested that the region’s “black hole of impunity” may be vanishing, thanks to this year’s popular uprisings.

Problems in health, gender inequality and the environment, factors that can be just as destabilizing as conflicts and political disputes, were delved into in great detail. Panelists like David Aylward, executive director of the mHealth Alliance of the United Nations Foundation, talked about how new technologies can be used to collect health information for statistical analysis and to disseminate health care tips in poor, remote communities.

Leslie Black Cordes, senior director for partnership development at the UN Foundation and interim executive director for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, spoke extensively on energy and climate change. “Three billion people don’t have access to clean fuel to cook and don’t have access to fuels that don’t kill, that don’t pollute, that don’t cause harm,” she said, adding that “1.5 billion have no access to electricity; and one billion can’t afford the electricity that might be available.”

The UN, she said, has declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, which will focus on the topic throughout the UN system.

Africa’s economic potential also garnered great interest, as it avoided the one-dimensional lens of corruption, violence and disease.

The panelists, while admitting the difficulties of the continent, pointed out that its natural, industrial and human resources could make Africa the “new Asia.”

J. Skyler Fernandes, chief operating officer of the South Africa Chamber of Commerce in America, said that with the continent’s 53 countries, “it is hard not to be dynamic.” Africa’s economic potential and political progress were also noted when UN Under-Secretary-General Cheick Sidi Diarra said that “the doctrine of noninterference has been replaced with one of nonindifference; the era of military strongmen and coups d’étât has been replaced by a firm commitment to reject unconstitutional changes of power.”

The day-long event featured question and answer periods and encouraged other forms of participation. Ed Elmendorf, executive director of UNA-USA, and Mike Beard, director of the Better World Campaign, asked the attendees to take what they learned to show their Congressional representatives how important the UN is to US interests.

Ambassador Lazarous Kapambwe, the president of the UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc), and permanent representative of Zambia to the UN, told the audience that “You [UNA-USA] have been at the forefront of promoting the ideals and work of the United Nations. Be our advocates and our champions.” He added that members of UNA-USA can also play a role in telling the UN how it is doing, saying, “A true friend tells you how ugly you are.” It is likely that such calls for action fell on receptive ears as hundreds of stalwarts for the UN had traveled from as far as Texas, Southern California, Iowa and Washington for Members Day.

Jeanne Betsock Stillman, the conference co-chair, said afterward that “the day met its goal of bringing together high-level presenters on many topics of great importance to the United Nations and to the US.”

She added: “UNA members, students and faculty from many colleges and universities had a chance to learn, to share and to take home new ideas and renewed enthusiasm for educating others and advocating with their Congressional representatives.”

Roger Nokes is coordinator of UNA membership.

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