At the modernist U.N. building on New York’s East Side, “United Nations” means the trappings of protocol, the gravitas and pettiness of diplomatic relations, the grandiose speeches and agendas of heads of state. But out in the world — the place where the nations that unite here actually are — the words evoke something different.
In the field, sure, there is still bureaucracy and its maddening assault on language, but there is less showmanship. In the field, to many, the “United Nations” means water wells and mosquito nets and vaccination drives. It means busloads of peacekeepers and truckloads of cooking oil and rice.
One by one this week, African leaders brought the field to the headquarters as they spoke in front of a green marble backdrop and told stories of illiteracy and malnutrition, about people living with HIV and without electricity.
“As I speak, poverty thrives in the least-developed countries,” President Peter Mutharika said Thursday. And sub-Saharan Africa “has more people trapped in poverty than any other part the world.”
Guinean President Alpha Condé told world leaders that two-thirds of Africans do not have access to electricity. Zambian President Edgar Lungu reminded them that 1 billion people still live in extreme poverty. And Burkina Faso’s president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, warned that attacks by Islamic extremists had forced his government to divert money to security that had been meant for education, health and other social programs.
This is very different from the material that the big-ticket speakers bring to the podium. For the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations, the General Assembly is a chance to meet one another, often in swank New York hotels outside the vast riverside compound. For countries locked in protracted conflicts, it’s an opportunity to face off against rivals and argue their case on a world stage.
The dance the African leaders must perform each year is delicate. Paint too bleak a picture, and rich countries, global funds and the U.N. system itself might wonder: What happened to the money we gave last year? But fail to lay out the very real challenges of people living through drought and rebel attacks and crop failure and malaria, and they will fail to ignite the urgency needed to solve those problems.
President Idriss Deby of Chad lamented Wednesday that the “excitement in the air” when countries adopted the “Agenda 2030” plan to eradicate poverty four years ago “was not followed by far-reaching results compared to the commitments that were made.” But he was careful to note, too, that the country had continued to invest in education despite an economic crisis.
The dance is not limited to African nations. El Salvador’s president addressed it with reporters after a speech in which he urged the U.N. to overhaul how it holds the General Assembly. When asked why he hadn’t used his speech to talk about his country’s problems — that is, to do what we expect of a leader from a poor country beset by violence — Bukele said he had already spoken about them elsewhere. Doing so here, he said, would add nothing.
“What should I have done? Tell fairy tales, as other presidents who have presented a version of El Salvador that didn’t exist? ‘We’ve fought poverty, inequality, we’ve grown, people are fine, as well as health and education,'” he told reporters after his speech. He might have been talking about an African nation.
On Thursday, Sierra Leonean protesters gathered outside the U.N. building while their president spoke inside. They accused him of propagating that kind of fiction.
“We see the U.N. week as a hypocritical stage for African leaders to set out their agenda to the international community,” said Joseph Kalokoh, who was among the protesters. “Falsely!” a fellow protester added.
Inside, their president, Julius Maada Bio, touted his country’s investment in education, especially for girls, its provision of skills training for young people, and its adoption of progressive sex-crimes legislation.
But, he warned: “The threat of inequality, lack of opportunity and exclusion of our youth still persist.”
In other words, it’s getting better, but we’re not there yet. And the dance goes on.
Sarah DiLorenzo has covered global affairs for The Associated Press on five continents since 2008. Follow her on Twitter at @sdilorenzo. Associated Press writer Claudia Torrens contributed to this report.