Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The Jamboree Begins - but how will it end?

Tuesday 23rd Sep, 0500 GMT

Monday saw the start of the proceedings in the big apple - with parts of New York ground to a standstill as leaders, ministers, and assorted VIPs began to descend on the city for the week's activities, followed by a smattering of civil society representatives labouring without the security convoys and sharp suits.

This is the week when New York gets taken over by the UN General Assembly. Already the news agenda includes protests over the arrival of the Iranian President and concern over the aftermath of the crisis in Georgia - but is most of all saturated by the resulting traffic jams... Nuclear proliferation, international conflict and global poverty seems unable to compete for airspace with the sight and sounds of a sea of yellow taxi cabs and their horn-honking drivers.

Today's focus on 'Africa's Development Needs' saw African Heads of State agreeing a political declaration outlining their common view of what needs to be done on a range of issues from debt, aid and trade to health, education and climate change. All clear, desirable and uncontroversial, yet the declaration was worryingly short of detail, not least on water and sanitation. Offering nothing beyond the reiteration of past commitments, the declaration was silent on how these commitments should be delivered, what they would do to implement them, or what donors needed to do to support them.

Surely an example perhaps of what we need to avoid this week. The last thing we need is another paper simply compiling the same unmet promises, another document to add to the burgeoning library of repeated - and repeatedly ignored - commitments. Surely we just need an outline of concrete actions to deliver them, not a process to negotiate once again what has already been agreed. Otherwise this could all be done by teleconference and we could save New Yorkers the trouble of sitting bumper to bumper in traffic while world leaders move at an equally slow pace (and possibly in a less certain direction).

But what of the rest of the week? The two big days are on Wednesday and Thursday - the former being the date of a 'partnership event' being organised by Germany, Japan, Netherlands and Tajikistan that is meant to provide leadership and ideas for action in the water and sanitation sector, and the latter being the main day where leaders get together to discuss and agree actions on achieving the MDGs. Although cynics might say that 'discussion' may mean reading pre-prepared statements, and 'action' may mean anything but, I will reserve judgement...

The outcomes of these two days remain uncertain and partly open. On the one hand, there could be some positive announcements and commitments from individual countries taking forward some of things End Water Poverty has been calling for. On the other, a comprehensive, ambitious, collective agreement of the sort needed may be harder to achieve. This UN meeting won't be the place where a final agreement is reached to agree a global action plan to meet the sanitation and water MDGs, but it could be an important step on the way.

A huge question remains, however. One being asked all over the world. How long can we wait? On current trends it will be 100 years until the target to halve the proportion of people without access to sanitation is reached Sub-Saharan Africa - 93 years later than promised by world leaders at the start of the millennium. If waiting 30 minutes in a traffic jam is something to get upset about, something to fill a news bulletin, how about this? How about having to wait 100 years to be able to use a safe toilet without the indignity or health hazards of open defecation?

Yet it doesn't have to be like this. There are things that can be done. To deliver them requires a different mentality. There are a few things that leaders in New York need to keep in mind this week:

Firstly, that there are big wins available by tackling the sanitation and water crisis, big opportunities to make real progress with comprably modest investments. Historical evidence shows that the provision of sanitation is perhaps the single most effective development intervention in improving public health. And the UN estimates that investments deliver a nine-fold economic return.

Secondly, that the world just won't succeed in the fight against poverty and disease unless they tackle the sanitation and water crisis. Without action, poor sanitation will continue to kill more children than any other single cause, hundreds of millions of school days will keep being lost, and the lives of women will continue to be blighted by hours of daily labour collecting water.

And finally, that they just would not stand for this situation if it was their family suffering the indignities and health hazards of public defecation, or their child lost to an easily preventable diahrreal disease.

Surely inaction and prevarication would be not only be foolish and short-sighted but unconscienable too?

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