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AI, small fixes, and the world beyond Big Aid: Takeaways from the UNGA sidelines

‘All of us have to leave something on the table.’

This is a composite image done in collage style. At the center we se Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Amor Mottley addresses the 78th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, U.S., September 22, 2023. She is mid-sentence with her pointer right pointer finger in the air. Behind her are cut-outs from two protestors holding banners against climate change. Composite: Brendan McDermid and Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados addresses the UN General Assembly in New York on 22 September 2023.

The world is inching closer to “a great fracture”, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned as global leaders converged in New York. 

So did days of high-level summits and sideline chatter at the UN General Assembly pull us back from the brink? 

The agenda was ambitious: kickstart systemic reform, accelerate climate action and pandemic prevention, and reverse poverty backslides. 

By the time the general debate wound down for its last day on 26 September, world leaders had nudged forward on some counts, but spun their wheels on many others.

Overhauling the unequal global financial system has become a top-of-mind issue, but the smaller, climate-exposed nations pushing for reform continue to be frustrated with the slow pace of progress. Few hard promises emerged from either the summit meant to stir climate action or from the separate one on preventing pandemics.

And that’s not to mention the lack of headway on addressing either the humanitarian crisis in Sudan or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – despite a high-level summit on the former and fiery speeches on the latter. 

Here are a few notes and takeaways from the margins of this year’s UNGA high-level meetings:

It’s splashier on the sidelines

The General Assembly spotlight may start at UN headquarters in midtown Manhattan, where nearby streets are annexed behind police barricades for a week. But pictures of motorcades and staged handshakes (“11:15  a.m. Photo Opportunity: The Secretary-General with H.E. Mr. Xavier Bettel, Prime Minister, GRAND DUCHY OF LUXEMBOURG”) can hold attention for only so long.

Meanwhile, in conference venues, studios, and repurposed offices across Manhattan, sideline events – some only tenuously tied to UNGA – are polished to a stage-managed sheen.

The Clinton Foundation turned its marquee Clinton Global Initiative into a two-day affair of panels and pledges peppered with TED-lite talks, micro-doses of inspiration, celebrity cameos, and yes, Clintons. 

Climate Week, meanwhile, run by a global network of businesses, is nominally pegged to UNGA but has become its own ecosystem of confabs, policy chats, and protests. Like many events staged alongside UNGA, attendees may have come for the mission (tagline: “Driving climate action. Fast.”), but they stuck around for the networking breaks and cocktail receptions.

One filmed event urged attendees not to be late for curtain time: “The show,” organisers warned, “will start promptly.” Another had black-clad bouncers gatekeeping a daytime affair. Microsoft played host to a tech-y 34th-floor reception that featured UN-blue wristbands and a jazz combo.

The elephant in the room

Artificial intelligence had only minor billing on the official agenda but was a looming presence on the sidelines. Blame it on months of hype, hope, and fear triggered by the rise of ChatGPT

Discussions focused on AI risks and opportunities in everything from climate action to geopolitics, big data to development, and international justice to biosecurity. 

Public health must be a central part of the AI governance discussion, Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told one such panel at the Clinton bash.

“The benefits we’re talking about will not be evenly distributed and the burdens will fall on the already marginalised.”

While AI can be used to predict or respond to outbreaks – quick dengue detection, low-barrier diagnostic tools, or sped-up vaccine manufacturing, for example – it can also be misused and weaponised.

“To realise the benefit of that, my worry is that we also have to take the concerns of AI head on,” Inglesby said.

Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, warned of the inherent bias baked into technology that’s trained on homogenous datasets. Her interest in the subject was sparked as a grad student, when she realised she was invisible to the facial recognition software she was working with.

“The benefits we’re talking about will not be evenly distributed and the burdens will fall on the already marginalised,” Buolamwini said, “though we can change that.”

Read more: Generative AI may be the next AK-47

AI will likely play a headline role at next year’s UNGA high-level meetings. Guterres’s planned “summit of the future” – a gathering to double down on anti-poverty goals and prep for coming risks – includes proposals for a digital accord that calls for global AI oversight and developing norms on its military use.

The UN tech envoy is set to announce the members of a high-level body on AI in October (for now, the envoy’s current website leads with a highlights video from a 2020 event). 

The world beyond Big Aid

The pool of people trying to improve the world is much broader than what humanitarians or the UN system tend to embrace.

Startups are touting solutions, and philanthropists are funding them. Legacy tech companies now have humanitarian departments. And, as always, there are the first responders: neighbours helping neighbours, volunteer community groups, diaspora aid.

One firm, Vital Strategies, is using data analysis to spot signs of hidden gender-based violence in Brazil’s health system; its country director thinks the same tech could be expanded to humanitarian settings. US healthcare operator MedStar Health is using AI and machine learning to detect bias in health records and train staff accordingly.

Google joined a UNGA side panel on early warning systems. Microsoft’s president shared a stage with the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor. GoFundMe is mulling over how to contribute to crisis prevention and preparedness.

Some want to circumvent the system, or at least shift the emphasis from Big Aid to grassroots communities.

Aseel, an Afghan-run business that stepped in with food deliveries when many big humanitarian programmes stalled after the Taliban’s resurgence, has launched a “direct aid” model on its app. Its founder, Nasrat Khalid, wants to see aid giants like the World Food Programme focus on fundraising while startups like his handle hands-on aid.

Read more: Afghan doctors warn of healthcare crisis as international aid cuts bite

The AI for Good Foundation, a US non-profit, is expanding its AI-fed platform that matches Ukrainians who need help with Ukrainians who can offer it. The goal, CEO James Hodson said, is to keep businesses and communities afloat – and not dependent on an aid system that can disrupt local markets and drain resiliency.

“You don't go to the Red Cross to get insulin as your first port of call if you can afford to get your insulin, through your prescription, through your normal doctor at a pharmacy,” Hodson said. 

Solutions, not soundbites

Mia Mottley is frustrated, and she’s not alone.

The outspoken prime minister of Barbados has become the figurehead of the movement to rebalance a global financial system that buries climate-vulnerable countries in a cycle of debt

Some of the world’s most powerful leaders say they’re on board. But Barbados still struggles to get the resources it needs to protect vulnerable coastal communities. 

“We still have to find ways to get the needed help faster because we are definitely right on the forefront of the negative impacts of climate change.” 

“When we get to [the COP climate summit], the cameras and the lights are on and we talk about all these commitments, and everybody forgets about how do we have the capacity to be able to deliver,” Mottley told a panel on scaling climate finance. “I’ve said it for over three years and it’s made no difference. And yet we want to go to Dubai and to make further commitments in circumstances where we are writing and providing copy for journalists rather than providing development for people.”

Separately, Silveria Jacobs, the prime minister of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean, said her country has been reliant on mobile phone networks for storm warnings since Hurricane Irma knocked out its early warning system in 2017. 

“We still have to find ways to get the needed help faster because we are definitely right on the forefront of the negative impacts of climate change,” Jacobs said on the sidelines of a UNGA meeting on early warning.

A Guterres-backed programme calls for everyone on Earth to be protected by an early warning system by 2027. Today, only half the world’s countries have adequate systems.

“I was here last year. Gave a nice speech,” Jacobs said. “Where are we today?”

Tiny steps, not giant leaps

But leaders of small island nations – in the process of rebranding themselves as large ocean states – are still searching for solutions. 

They’re trying to leverage development funds into private capital. They’re insisting on loan clauses that would allow them to suspend debt servicing after disasters or even a pandemic. They’re pursuing debt swaps that exchange debt for green (or blue) investments.

“If you don't feel that you're exposed, then you're not living in the real world today,” Mottley said. “All of us have to leave something on the table. The question is, who will take the lead? And the question is, who will enforce it?” 

Other small signs of progress on long-standing humanitarian roadblocks:

  • A group of philanthropic foundations signed on to a pledge to boost funding to local aid responses, and to share power.
  • Local aid networks outlined plans for a new pooled fund capable of steering grants to small and medium grassroots groups.
  • Plans are proceeding for a sharia-compliant humanitarian funding pot for refugees, backed by the Islamic Development Bank and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
  • Legal experts and activists say there are viable options for states to pay reparations to survivors of sexual violence in conflict.

Who didn’t make it to New York

UNGA is one of the world’s biggest stages for global politics and policy, but not everyone gets a ticket.

People from the so-called Global South in particular often struggle to get visas to attend big international events in the Global North; UNGA was no different.

A member of Start Fund Bangladesh was meant to sit on a panel on local aid funding moderated by The New Humanitarian, but couldn’t attend due to visa issues. Panelist Farouq Habib, deputy general manager of the White Helmets, the Syrian volunteer group, didn’t receive a visa until the last minute.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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