"Responding To Events, Building the Global Community", Statement to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, in Bern, Switzerland

02 Oct 2001

This is a very difficult time for all of us who care about development and the values that lie behind it. We have seen such sudden, terrible violence that it fills our minds and hearts, and everything has to relate to it. We are sad, angry and disbelieving—yet we have to make some response, if only because the circle of violence and terror is widening, and its effects reach even into the lives of our children.

It is our moral duty to condemn terrorism and violence in all of its shapes and forms and we must continue to do so. What happened on 11 September was an attack on humanity and we must see it as such. Nothing can reduce the impact of the tragedy nor make up for what we have lost. There can be no rationalisation, justification or apology for such violence. No values I am familiar with can explain, still less justify it. A very few individuals commit these unthinkable acts—but the power of modern technology is such that the actions of a few can shake the world.

One immediate response must be to protect the innocents from yet more harm. We are struggling to respond to a sudden flood of refugees from Afghanistan. United Nations agencies, including my own, governments and NGOs, are co-operating.. The donors have been very generous: but surely we must do better than picking up the pieces of yet another humanitarian crisis? How can we build a world where horrific assaults on defenceless civilians are, literally, unthinkable?

For the future of humanity on this globe, we have to find ways to reaffirm the universal principles and values in which we all believe—the principles of human rights in its widest and most inclusive sense, the right to social, economic, and cultural rights as well as the civil rights of all people. In the face of inhuman crimes we must reassert our belief in humanity.

If we look over the last half-century with the perspective of history, we see a revolution in human aspirations and behaviours; ever-faster communication across lands and time, and international arrangements and treaties that transcend national sovereignty and national institutions. The world is becoming a small village—yet the gulf between richer and poorer, between the culture of the haves and the culture of the have-nots is growing wider. Never has so much wealth been so visible: never have so many people in the world lacked even the necessities of life.

Many people in our countries, not only the poor, feel threatened and excluded by change, and feel an increasing fear of globalisation and the new technological revolution. They perceive a threat to their culture, to their very identity as individuals and communities. Sometimes people retreat to what they see as fundamental values as a way to stop the clock and avoid coping with the effects of change. In retreating from the world as it is, they misunderstand and pervert the very values they claim to respect.

Looking beyond the fundamentalists, the reality we must confront is that many people in many countries share a sense of injustice, oppression, disenfranchisement and exclusion.

Globalisation is like any other historical process that comes to sweep away the old and bring in the new—we are entering a new era and not all countries and peoples are benefiting equally. The process must give space for human development and develop tools that allow people to find their place in it. Change is a given in our world. But we can shape change and make it work for the poor and the dispossessed, not against them. So I would like to talk today about building community—among people, cultures and religions, and across nation-states and multilateral institutions.

The question becomes then—as globalisation has picked up momentum, what have we been doing in response? In particular, what has the United Nations been doing? In fact we have been doing a great deal, and we have had some successes: but we need to find new ways to implement our mandates, implementing universal principles of human rights, including the right of individuals and communities and nations to development. We need to build new communities that interact more positively across cultures and religions, among nations and through multilateral institutions. Those of us who work in international organizations are in a position to understand the very essence of this community building, for we work in a multicultural environment that shares, among the variety of nations and peoples, a common respect for the universal principles of humanity.

In a crisis, we find heroes. They come forward when they are needed, just as they did after the attack on New York. They are ordinary people, serving their community in an extraordinary way. I suggest that, if we look for them, we will find that such people exist all over the world. They are health workers and teachers, government officials and youth leaders, people who make their careers serving the community, and people who volunteer their services. They work long hours, day after day, year after year, usually for little reward, and in the most difficult conditions. They can expect little in the way of promotion or recognition. If they succeed, the best that will happen is that lives will not be lost, that disaster will not occur, that their communities will survive. They are real, everyday, heroes, sacrificing their lives for the life of the community. They are dotted everywhere. They are the people on whose labours the global community will be built, and through whom the universal principles of human rights will be realized.

If this sounds like Utopia, an impossible dream, maybe it is. But their work, the foundation of community, is not utopian. They are helping to create jobs and housing, health care and education—the basic elements of human dignity. And their work is reflected at an international level. The international community has already agreed on many aspects: universal education, universal access to health care, including reproductive health services, stabilization of world population, gender equality and improving the quality of life of people, are all accepted as global goals.

These goals are highly practical and affordable. There has even been some progress towards them. In the past thirty years for example, population has gone from being the stepchild of international action to being the poster child for its success. Thousands of people can take the credit, from international organisations to the host of dedicated workers on the ground. Together, we have shown that programmes in various aspects of population, including reproductive health and family planning, are not only acceptable in a very wide variety of cultures, but highly effective. They respond to people's needs; they save people's lives.

We have also helped to build a global consensus, which validates and encourages further action. As programmes became stronger and more widely accepted, the parallel process of international discussion moved on. In 1994 the International Conference on Population and Development, known as ICPD, produced a very solid consensus on action: after that, five years of further experience was followed by a highly successful review in June 1999.

What happened during this 30-year span was that programmes and process reinforced each other. Many factors were responsible, but I think UNFPA can claim a real contribution since we began work in 1969; for example in convincing governments that ensuring access to reproductive health services helps in stabilizing the population and

in ensuring the right of women and men to choose the number and spacing of their children. We were able to convince governments that investing in training and equipping workers at the community level, builds local institutions that respond to the needs of the people. We were able to bring to the forefront the urgency of education girls and the necessity to acknowledge the reproductive health needs of adolescents and youth. These issues are very difficult in most societies, but the countries met together and reached consensus on common objectives.

The 1994 consensus was aimed at bringing countries and cultures closer together. It is a compromise: we would not have achieved consensus otherwise. But it is quite uncompromising about universal values. The success of ICPD lies in its firm base in human rights, including the individual right to choose the size and spacing of the family.

Now, how that universal message is translated into the voices of all the world's different cultures and ways of life is another matter. It is not a matter of this or that culture or stage of development: it is a matter of expressing universal principles in terms everyone can accept and act on. In reproductive health, for example, one size doesn't fit all.

Programmes must be carefully constructed and adapted according to the needs of the people who will use them and in a way that allows them to integrate the programmes into their own sense of identity and understanding. It is a difficult task, but a necessary one.

And that is our challenge today. What we are trying to do, I believe, is to make the international consensus understandable and relevant to everyone in every society.

This may be a little hard to understand in the abstract, so let me put it in personal terms. With all the repeated messages about the 11 September events and the Islamic fundamentalist that generated it, it is very important to see another form of Islam. I am an Arab and Muslim from Saudi Arabia, yet the interpretation of Islam, as a religion of moderation, allowed me to rise and achieve the level of Under-Secretary General in the United Nations - a position that I never really dreamt to achieve but which I knew could be achieved. I was able to reach this level because my father, who was a product of the Islamic madrassah in the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, and my mother believed that it was their obligation, as Muslim believers, to educate all their children-both boys and girls—because knowledge is an essential principle in Islamic teachings. The very first Aya of the Qu’ran is an order to "Read". This order has become an obligation of all Muslims to ensure that their children read, that they are educated. It became also the right of every child to get an education. In me you see that the universal principle of the right to education has found its place in the Islamic teachings and in me you see how universal principles resonate in the cultural values of my society. But how I got educated and what schools were selected were the tools we selected to implement the universal goal of girls education.

I also grew up with the traditional saying that "knowledge is light." Knowledge allows people to assess their lives and their society; to identify what is positive and build on it; and to see what is negative and work to change it, with courage and confidence. Knowledge also allows people to make decisions based on facts and information, in other words to make informed decisions about the choices they have to make in their lives and about their lives. With informed decisions, comes both responsibility and accountability.

That is the context in which I was brought up. Through the support of my parents, but especially of my father, as the head of the household, I was able to pursue my education to the highest level, to choose my specialization, choose my husband, plan my family, work and pursue a professional career of the highest quality.

In many ways, I am what the ICPD consensus is all about—allowing women to make choices in their lives, taking into consideration the particular historical moment, social conditions and cultural context. The consensus is also about ensuring that parents, brothers and husbands are supportive, understanding and act as full partners. I am an example of what governments and NGOs in each country are striving to achieve by implementing ICPD recommendations, as well as the recommendations of the other global conferences of the 1990s. Unknowingly and in many different ways, my parents ensured that I exercised my right to development as an individual, and my government ensured my right to development as a citizen. This is the real linkage between universal principles and cultural values, but this linkage must be well identified, respected, understood and implemented.

I am, if you like, the very positive and concrete result of a relevant, well-managed and effective social agenda. What is important is that my story is not unique. There are millions of such women in the countries that UNFPA serves, and in the various cultural settings with which we deal. We need to identify these experiences, we need to show that supporting women to have choices in their lives does not threaten the social fabric. On the contrary, ensuring that people enjoy the full measure of their rights strengthens the community. And by way of shared values, it extends the sense of community, even to the global level.

The Need for Action

In all humility I think that UNFPA has a role to play in building the global community. After the success of ICPD, we are the organisation all countries look to for leadership in our field. We accept this great challenge with pleasure and some confidence, based on our experience of more than 30 years.

Regardless of our commitment, without resources we cannot move forward. The world of the privileged must do its share to help. Industrialized countries committed themselves to providing one third of the resources required to implement the ICPD Programme of Action, to reduce maternal mortality, stop the steady spread and destruction of HIV/AIDS; part of its contribution to building the global community. The commitment made in 1994 was not acted upon. What we need now is the same kind of vision that created the Programme of Action in the first place, the political will and the tenacity to stay the course: to invest in the future of all of us by investing in the human development of those among us who are marginalized and excluded.

UNFPA is a small organization with 1000 staff members globally. Our financial needs are correspondingly modest, some $400 million a year in the coming years. We have high hopes that despite the constraints on development resources and the uncertain economic outlook, that donors will find it possible to make these resources available.

They have never been needed more than they are today.

Every minute of every day:

  • 11 people are infected with HIV;
  • 380 women become pregnant;
  • Half, or 190 of these pregnancies are unwanted;
  • 100 end in abortion, 40 of which are unsafe;
  • and one woman dies from pregnancy related causes.

Many of these lives could be saved by one simple intervention: family planning; condoms in the case of HIV prevention. We estimate that about 485 million couples in developing countries use family planning; 120 million additional women worldwide would also be using family planning if they had access to information and affordable services.

In the next 15 years the number of family planning users should increase by over 50 per cent, to 745 million, as many of the present young generation start to build their families.

If we have the commitment, we write a new script: we can reduce maternal mortality by 80 per cent: we can prevent the spread of HIV infection, while caring for and supporting the afflicted.

We are pressing ahead with renewing the Fund as a strong, results-oriented organisation on which all our partners can rely. We are creating a culture in which the vast body of knowledge our staff possess will be freely shared; we are strengthening our presence and our ability to support operations in programme countries.

Most important of all, we are reviewing our experience to enable us to respond to the cultural challenge: to help countries, communities and individuals interpret universal principles, translate them into culturally sensitive terms and design programmes based on them, programmes that people can really feel are their own.

We can succeed in this if we keep close to our hearts the conviction that brought success at ICPD, that each human life is uniquely valuable, and that the right to development is the right for men and women to express the full measure of their humanity.

UNFPA does not have an ideology or a message for others to hear. On the contrary, we want to open our ears and hear the messages of those for whom we work and they have expressed it loud and clear. The challenge for UNFPA is to help countries as we always have—with no agenda of our own but with full commitment to ICPD; with sensitivity towards unique cultural values; with an infinite willingness to work with whatever is positive; and with a determination to help countries and people turn universal principles into concrete action.

This is the heart of the matter. We—UNFPA and our partners in government and civil society—are absolutely confident that we can help women and men build their lives together; protect and promote their children's health and well-being; strengthen their family life and the lives of the communities in which they live. And we know that we will thereby contribute to building a truly global community, a strong community that can stand firm against any threat.

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