Women’s Group Rep Says Civil Society Can Help ‘Rescue’ UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The Earth & I editors sat down with Merly Barlaan, the Women’s Federation for World Peace International’s (WFWPI) representative in its New York office, to get her feedback (as an attendee) on the high-level week of the UN General Assembly and recent Climate Ambition Summit.
E&I: When we looked at the media coverage of the recent United Nations conferences, there is a sense that, despite the high expectations, goals, and projections, the applications are lagging, and there’s a sense that not enough has happened. What was your impression?
Merly Barlaan: There were two conferences. One was about the [Sustainable Development Goals] SDGs, and one was the Climate Ambition Summit. A lot of the information that I'm going to provide is from the perspective of a civil society organization.
In 1997, WFWPI got its accreditation with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in General Consultative Status as an NGO at the United Nations. I was part of the team that pioneered the UN Relations Office of the WFWPI from then until 2012, about fifteen years.
During that time, I'd been attending meetings at the UN weekly as part of a nongovernmental organization (NGO). We had, and have, this opportunity, duty, and privilege to participate and to listen to the weekly briefing of the current UN agendas.
I felt that the UN leaders' conversations were on a macro level. At that time, most of the talk was about security and financial architecture. And we talked about the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs.). The SDGs were not there yet, so in 2012, after years of going to the UN weekly and listening, I returned to the Philippines, where I was born before I immigrated to America.
When I returned to the Philippines or visited poor countries, I felt that whatever policies and resolutions were discussed and debated at the UN usually took many years and were not being implemented at the grassroots level.
There is this big gap. Whatever they discuss at the UN is not trickling down to the communities. Having grown up in the Philippines in a remote farming community, I felt that if the UN has to be relevant, whatever they're discussing should be felt at the community level because these communities are the end-users or the recipients of whatever the UN is talking about.
I felt jaded because I did not see it happening. So, I resigned from my post at the WFWPI UN Office in New York and returned to the Philippines, disappointed with having observed the many high-level meetings year after year.
“In the Philippines, I created a ten-year community development framework to apply whatever the [UN] development agenda was at the macro level and bring it down to the community to fill in that huge gap.”
I took my four children, and my husband stayed behind to support my work. In my village in the Philippines, I created a ten-year community development framework to apply whatever the development agenda was at the macro level and bring it down to the community to fill in that huge gap.
The purpose of the United Nations is to maintain peace and, along the way, promote development. When I go to my village and any community worldwide, that dream of the United Nations is not being felt.
I spent almost ten years in the Philippines and was called back in 2020 to run the WFWPI office of UN relations. During those years, I was able to fully understand how to implement UN policies (and dreams), and make the local and national level stakeholders—the congressmen, senators, governors, mayors, counselors, the education sector, women and youth, and the community—understand the vision of the UN and what policies are available and align the local governments to the global UN development agenda.
Three to five years into my stay in the Philippines, the implementation of my development framework became clear to me: [It required] investing in capacity building and training of the stakeholders and especially the local leaders, meaning a bridge has to be created from my macro planning management down to the micro level. That would entail a lot of funding and investment to educate, empower, and equip them (local leaders) with the necessary knowledge, skills, and tools to be able to manage and be the co-owners of that dream.
Climate change was not a big issue yet. At that time, the issue was poverty—Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Fast forward to 2020, I returned to our WFWP New York office at the UN. Many of our programs are now more on balanced participation at the United Nations, listening in to the global agenda, but then translating it into programs, projects, and activities.
“I make sure that whenever I hear an issue being discussed at the UN, it should already have a clear streamline of systems, making it trickle down to the community level.”
I make sure that whenever I hear an issue being discussed at the UN, it should already have a clear streamline of systems, making it trickle down to the community level.
E&I: Please tell us about the recent conferences in New York.
Barlaan: The UN General Assembly is really a space for member states. You can only get there if you have a special interest, and you apply and have related projects and activities.
September 16 and 17 was an SDG Action Weekend. This time, the UN was more generous in providing space for civil society to have meaningful participation because they realized that midway through the implementation of their fifteen-year Sustainable Development Goals, the SDG implementation needed a rescue. They are nowhere near where they want to be. Civil society plays an important part in the SDG implementation.
So, this UN meeting opened a space for civil society and government, and they organized this SDG Action Weekend, with attendees from civil society, NGO leaders, the business sector, the education sector, and government representatives from all over the world.
It was like a festival of vibrant, synergistic activities that went on for two days. It was beautiful—the African delegates and others from all over the world came wearing their national costumes and talked about how to save the world and to rescue the SDGs. That was hopeful.
By Monday, September 18, at the opening of the SDG Summit, the member states would cement their commitment to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs. There emerged a Political Declaration to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs by 2030.
During the opening plenary session, you would hear speeches from the member states. They sounded, to me, like the usual rhetoric with a bit of urgency. But for me, that was promising and hopeful, despite the buzzword of an SDG rescue plan, that the SDGs need to be rescued.
It was still hopeful and cooperative because of the UN Climate Ambition Summit.
E&I: What can you tell us about the Climate Ambition Summit?
Barlaan: As always, the Secretary-General opens the discussion with very strong words, asking member states to commit to their promises. Last year, during COP 27, there was a push for a political will to make good on the commitment of $100 billion in climate funding, but many donor countries could not fulfill that. So, there was frustration during the meeting.
But I liked the discussions because presidents and prime ministers attended the meeting. They had three minutes to talk, not about promises but about what they had done in their countries.
Of course, half of it is really a promise, but most notable was the prime minister of Barbados, Mia Motley—she is a changemaker. When you talk about climate change, she is one of those strong leading figures because of her initiative, the Bridgetown Initiative, which was signed a couple of years ago in Bridgetown, Barbados. It is more about the funding of climate ambitions. She created five realistic approaches to getting climate ambitions achieved.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was there, as well; there was Mafalda Duarte, head of the Green Climate Fund. There were many women leaders, speaking and leading the way, and what they put forward was more about the details.
When I hear the national leaders speaking about what their country has done, my mind automatically goes down to the implementation systems, who they're working with, what agencies—all the way down to the local government, the community leaders, and their processes, the bureaucratic processes that go into the work so that it will lead to what they want it to achieve.
“I saw presidents and prime ministers talk about how they want their countries to solve the climate issue. It is very much on the macro level and very much on the energy sector—clean energy versus fossil fuels.”
I saw presidents and prime ministers talk about how they want their countries to solve the climate issue. It is very much on the macro level and very much on the energy sector—clean energy versus fossil fuels.
I did not hear so much talk about agriculture. A thorough discussion on the food systems was outside this summit. I am a bit disappointed because I wanted to hear something transformational about creating a new system or revising the system of food production and agriculture. But the conversation, the funding and money, was more on climate change in the area of fossil fuels and creating a green economy and energy. That is for the businesspeople—for the manufacturers.
Of course, that is important, but that is for the people who control the economy of the country, the big businesses. I wanted to hear more about agriculture because when you talk about agriculture, that's where food production is defined. When you talk about food, the farmers, women, and families are involved, and you go down into the community, to the systems of food production that are sustainable and regenerative. I wanted to hear more about this.
Palau stood out for me during the deliberations because I spent three months in Palau in 2019. I know very well their big climate environmental advocate, the former president, Tommy Remengesau, Jr., and the first lady; they love nature. I think 70% of their oceans are protected, and they have the biggest investment in terms of protecting their natural resources, ocean resources, for which Palau needs to be recognized, even though it is one of the smallest countries in the world. I think that is a powerful educational and awareness tool and a powerful practice for people.
Whatever the discussion was at the United Nations should be adapted in the form of legally binding instruments and mechanisms that adopt the UN mandates. However, they still have to be adopted by countries to become laws.
The governor level and then the municipal level have to adapt their policies to align with that. There’s this crucial process involving the investment of funds and education of people and project managers that needs to be understood well. This is where the weakness lies on the part of the UN and the national level.
The national level influences the local level, and that's where you introduce policies because the communities are the ones that are in need. If they work it out there, they create a track record of activities, projects, and programs that have been proven and vetted by the mayors. And you can present it to the national level, from which the president, ambassadors, local agencies, and national agencies can collect [and] consider your project and ideas as something that they can adopt and then use it as a model success story that is impactful.
When you develop a program that is impactful, the government will welcome you as a major contributor. The national-level leaders, department heads, ministry, and cabinets will follow suit. The ambassadors can then bring your voice and success story to the level of the United Nations and say that we did this together—with civil society.
Editor's Note: For The Earth & I, Jerry Chesnut and Christoph Wilkening spoke with Merly Barlaan.