My "Sustainable Development" as an APA UN Intern

By Joseph Hamer

What struck me immediately upon entering the UN is the pervasive use of acronyms. A working knowledge of the acronyms swiftly separates veterans from newcomers. Let me start by deciphering a few of them:

  • Some of the first ones I had to learn were ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) and DPI (Department of Public Information). These are the UN bodies through which non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as APA, have consultancy status.

  • CoNGO (Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations), represents NGO interests in general. During the year, its pronunciation and spelling were debated and ultimately modified to Co-NGO in respect of the fact that working in Manhattan is slightly less demanding than living in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

  • Domain specific committees, such as CSD (Committee on Sustainable Development), not to be mistaken for CSocD (Committee on Social Development), mirror UN Commissions that use similar acronyms. The commissions meet annually to set agendas and negotiate agreements. It is this process of setting agendas and implementing agreements that NGOs strive to influence. The APA team is very active with the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

  • Finally, I was pleased to discover that there are a number of Psychology organizations working at the UN, such as SPSSI (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues) and IAAP (International Association of Applied Psychology). These were perhaps the first acronyms that I had to decipher in APA and Psychology Day meetings.

pi-2011-10-hamerThe first major event I attended was organized by the World Health Organization (WHO). They had just completed a report articulating mental health as a development indicator and gathered a panel to discuss it. Once passing through security, I entered a meeting room, which was almost at capacity. Each seat had a set of intimidating headsets, which were for language interpretation. I did not dare touch them for fear of pressing the wrong button and drawing attention to myself. Fortunately, the meeting was conducted in English. The discussion was enlightening, particularly when a point of contention, or perhaps miscommunication, between a speaker from Africa and another from Europe drew everyone’s attention. The former mentioned the importance of local knowledge when attempting to implement mental health programs in non-Western countries. The European responded rather adamantly, that “respect for human rights trumps cultural sensitivity.” This served as a distraction from the original comment, which the gentleman further clarified was about cultural appropriateness of treatment methods. It was a rather revealing exchange, and I think an important one, as it alluded to one of the central polemics at the UN: the tension between affirmations of national sovereignty and efforts to negotiate international agreements.

The WHO panel was of interest because of my background in development work. At the age of 20, I studied abroad in Central America through a program coordinated by Augsburg College called “Social Change and Sustainable Development.” After graduating from college, I completed an internship in applied Anthropology with the Fifth Sun Development Fund, which promoted ethnographic methods to advance the use of sustainable technologies. So now, as a graduate student in Clinical Psychology, I was pleased to merge my interests and not have them appear to be as disparate as they, at times, seemed to be. Further, my passion for sustainable development has culminated with my work with the UN’s Committee on Sustainable Development (CSD).

Dr. Susan Nolan (APA) was also a member of CSD. I had the great fortune to work closely with her in exploring how psychological principles and theory promote sustainable development. CSD consisted of a variety of stakeholders who selected topical working groups of interest. Our working group on the “Integrity of Earth” took inspiration from Bolivia’s commitment to sustainable development based on indigenous values. Our task was to search for ways to assist in that endeavor. We met with the ambassador of Bolivia multiple times to discuss our ideas and strengthen our collaboration, resulting in my participation in the 19th Commission on Sustainable Development. However, it was clear that everyone’s sight was focused on next year’s 20th Commission, commonly known as “Rio + 20,” the 20 year follow-up to the Earth Summit, held in Brazil in 1992. CSD members were passionate and committed to sustainable development’s longevity. As much as I wished I had more time to work with them, I completed my year with tremendous inspiration to continue my passion in other ways and in other venues.

Most pertinent to my work in the area of development was the annual meeting of the Bretton Woods Institutions (consisting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank) and the UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The meeting began with the formality in which all such proceedings are conducted. The distinguished chairperson, depending on his temperament, periodically inserted humorous comments into his repetition of “I would like to thank the delegate from xxx for his comment. Now I give the floor to the delegate from xxx.” He expressed his intention that remarks function as a dialogue among members. However, his repeated reframe of “please don’t read from prepared statements” was rarely followed.

Generally, there is overlap and redundancy in the work of many UN institutions. However, in the area of development, there is obvious competition (as in David v. Goliath competition) between Commissions within the UN (such as UNCTAD and the Commission on Sustainable Development as “the David”) and external organizations (such as IMF as “the Goliath”). In 1967 during the first session of UNCTAD the G-77 was formed to promote the interests of developing countries. But for at least the past thirty years, the IMF has been imposing policies upon developing nations as a condition of its loans. “Structural adjustment programs,” which entail liberalization, privatization, and deregulation, while increasing the overall GDP of some countries, have simultaneously exacerbated the conditions of the impoverished worldwide and have left democratic regimes stuck between the demands of their citizens and those of foreign lenders.

Thus, had the meeting actually been “collaborative,” it would have indeed been significant. What was particularly striking was the starkly contrasting comments made by the delegates, especially between those of the developing nations (G-77) and those representing the International Financial Institutions (IFIs). The latter expressed their intention to speed up the implementation of multilateral (free) trade agreements and other policies negotiated through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the G20. In fact, the IMF representative unabashedly expressed his desire that the relationship between the G20 and the IMF be formalized in order to more easily implement the agenda of the richest 20 countries. Conversely, delegates of the G77 nations consistently expressed the need for “a new institutional framework.” The G20, they argued, primarily represents the interests of only 20 countries and instead, they expressed the need for a democratic forum through which to negotiate and coordinate economic policies. Not surprisingly, the U.S. delegate, did not share this concern for a new framework and instead, questioned the long meetings that result in “documents that no one reads.” Too much talk, in other words.

Perhaps it is because I am a student that I enjoyed the UN discussions to which I was privy. Whenever I had free time, I searched for interesting meetings to observe:

  • I attended a Security Council meeting (sat in the press section) in which resolution 1960 was passed. It was a followed-up to resolution 1820, which declared rape a war crime, adding more teeth in the form of agreements on monitoring and accountability.

  • I heard speakers from all over the world speak at the Commission on the Status of Women.

  • And I witnessed a meeting in which NGOs’ applications for consultancy status were being reviewed. There was nothing exciting about the process … until an application was reviewed from an organization whose work focused on human rights in Iran. Suddenly, many delegates raised their placards to question this organization’s application. The questions focused on the date that the organization was founded and its funding source. The representative’s answers were vague, leading the representative of Iran to request “the floor.” Citing reports from the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, he demonstrated that this organization received one million dollars in 2005 from the U.S. government, being one of the first to benefit from the Bush Administration’s “Iran Democracy Fund” to influence political culture in Iran. The representative of the NGO explained that over the years it has reduced reliance on government funding. Nonetheless, last year, forty percent of its funding came from governments (U.S. and Canada). The deliberations concluded with a rejection of its application for consultancy status as an NGO.

To conclude, my education at the UN began with deciphering the language; it developed into a practical working knowledge of how to navigate and traverse the UN’s many buildings; it enhanced my knowledge of diplomacy; it taught me managerial and diplomatic skills necessary to organize the annual Psychology Day; and it helped me make strategic interventions to promote psychology in my role as an intern. Finally, I worked regularly with distinguished psychologists who taught me much about International Psychology and the UN. All of these experiences have matured me as a person, as a psychology student, and as a member of the planet. I am grateful to the members of my working group in sustainable development, to the organizational committee for Psychology Day, and especially to the APA UN team for providing me with this rare opportunity.