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Vital Stories

My Glimpse into the United Nations

Ellen Mullan-Jayes joined Vital Strategies for an internship over June, and spent two weeks at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Here is a firsthand account of her experience.

Tuesday morning, my first day at the United Nations and I was met with a series of confusing acronyms, all relating to NCDs (non-communicable diseases). I learned what NCDs, FfD (Financing for Development) and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) and a variety of other acronym stood for.

Flags outside the United Nations Headquarters

This took place because I was working at the UN as an intern for Vital Strategies. Most of my work revolved around Financing for Development informal sessions. Don’t let the word informal fool you, this meeting was held in an elegant conference room large enough to include country delegates from all over the world.

Financing for Development is a process were governments meet to consider how to pay for international development, in this case, for the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will be approved by the UN General Assembly in September. The sustainable development goals focus on 17 different topics that tackle a series of critical world issues ranging from poverty and education to hunger and health.

One of the Financing for Development informal sessions at the UN

Over the next few days, multiple negotiations – mainly involving the G77 (a coalition of developing countries) the European Union and the United States – took place on financing development. One of the contested topics of discussion was tobacco taxes – an issue Vital Strategies has worked closely on.

The issue was debated back and fourth between countries that had varying levels of support for taxes on tobacco. The Ambassador of Palau, Dr. Caleb Otto, had the most supportive and impressive view:

“I would appeal to this group that if we mean business about sustainable development and eradicating poverty around the world, this [tobacco taxes] is the lowest hanging fruit that we can pick…This is the only industry that has explicitly indicated that they will exploit…the right to sell to the poor, the youth, the black and the ignorant. And I would hate that this body will be among the ignorant”.

He spoke with moral conviction, urgency, genuine concern and courage. It was evident that this comment was not just coming from a politician but from an ambassador that puts people before profits. Unfortunately, comments of this nature and tenacity remained quite uncommon throughout my weeks at the UN.

Ambassador of Palau, Dr. Caleb Otto, speaking at a Pacific Regional Environmental Event

Other UN activities included meetings about the SDGs and issues of climate change, which will be discussed officially at a conference in Paris in November

The one-day climate change meeting in New York included addresses by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and actor turned activist, Robert Redford. Both urged for immediate action to tackle carbon emission, pollutants and rising temperatures. This was another issue of urgency for Palau, along with other small island developing states (SIDS), as they are at great risk of flooding as water levels rise. While these islands are not responsible for climate change they are clearly among the most vulnerable to its effects.

Robert Redford speaking at the UN climate change event

After spending a few days at these negotiations, and seeing the many hours of hard work put into crafting UN documents, I realized that the importance of this work goes beyond representatives writing and editing. Global polices are created that affect billions of lives.

I am impressed by how the UN provides the grounds for which the Secretary-General, delegates, ambassadors, and members of non-profit organizations are able to come together over common ground – often in delicate situations – and work to create change and political action. From the conference rooms to the general assembly hall, meetings and negotiations take place, often into the wee hours of the morning that greatly impact people all across the world.

7 Random Things I Noticed While at the UN
1. The guards take down the flags in front of the UN around 4:30 pm everyday.
2. The guards at the entrance don’t smile very often.
3. You will find a lot of people sleeping off their jet lag in the East Lounge, which has comfortable purple velvet chairs.
4. It is very easy to get lost in the building – especially when the floors are labeled 1B or 2B.
5. Quite a few people take their shoes off during proceedings.
6. Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, draws a big crowd when he speaks.
7. There is a small island right in front of the UN in the East River filled with nesting birds.