UNA-USA Youth Leader
Leo Nevas Human Rights Youth Advocate Awardee 2012
Marlow Svatek poses with UN Foundation Founder and Chairman Ted Turner at the Global Leadership Awards Dinner in 2012.1. Why is the United Nations important to the world?
The United Nations is a unique forum for dialogue and deliberation on issues which affect us all in one way or another. Simply put, we cannot mitigate complex problems such as climate change and world hunger without such a forum. For this reason, the UN is crucial in terms of addressing global challenges in the 21st century.
Whether the focus is on access to education, maternal health, or eradicating disease, the UN sets the global development agenda and many countries’ aid programs reflect these priorities. The Millennium Development Goals, in particular, represent an unprecedented effort to establish and attain universal development objectives. Consequently, the UN inspires and unites the efforts of national governments, nongovernmental organizations, and donor countries in order to make development efforts more coordinated, targeted, and effective. In this way, the UN plays a monumental role in the way we as a global community attempt to improve conditions in the least economically developed and most politically unstable countries.
On a symbolic level, the UN represents the ability of countries, each with their own distinct national interests, to reach consensus on problems which impact the well-being and prosperity of humanity as a whole. We are not only more effective by uniting in our efforts to solve global issues; we simultaneously create an atmosphere of international and cross-cultural tolerance which is essential to peace.
2. How do the UN and its work affect your work or life?
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, I witness the challenges that people in the developing world face on a daily basis: I have experience teaching life skills and English in cramped, under-resourced schools; women dying during childbirth is not uncommon at our local health center; many young children will not reach the age of five due to malaria or diarrhea; and in many of the marriages I have attended the bride was less than 16 years old. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to be exposed to these issues but for many in the developed world these problems remain out of sight and thus, unfortunately, out of mind.
However, the UN plays an invaluable role in my work and life by bringing these issues to light for my friends and family in the developed world. Since one of the goals of the Peace Corps is to educate other Americans about our respective host country, I correspond with American high school students and keep a blog to inform others about my experiences. My American friends and family members are already aware of many difficulties in the developing world because the UN has taken the first step by raising awareness about an issue and subsequently rallying political will and financial support behind it. Just being aware of challenges that people in the developing world face can inspire those of us in the developed world to get involved and take action.
3. Why should Americans care about the UN’s work?
Global issues have local impacts; what is going on in the rest of the world inevitably affects us here at home. Poverty, lack of educational and economic opportunities, and inadequate health facilities destabilize and destroy communities, creating a ripple-effect which eventually reaches us in America. The basic mission of the United Nations Association is to encourage this realization among Americans.
In my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, I have learned that people the world over—despite cultural differences—want the same things: happiness; health; and prosperity for themselves, their families, and their communities. By investing, politically and financially, in developing countries’ pursuit of these goals, we also invest in a better future for our own country. Our interconnectedness necessitates cooperation. If we succeed, we succeed together; if we fail, we fail together. The choice is ours. The UN is the medium through which we can achieve these goals.
In addition, the current situation in the neighboring country of Mali has made me even more cognizant of the detrimental effects that poverty and a lack of opportunity can have on communities. These conditions can create a perfect storm within which communities are more susceptible to political unrest, violence, and terrorist influence. In effect, investing in social goods is a security measure, above and beyond its own inherent value. If we are truly concerned about national security, we need to invest in education and anti-poverty measures in the developing world and we need to care about the work of the UN.
4. In your opinion, what has been the UN’s best moment to date?
Perhaps the UN’s role in the defeat of apartheid cannot be defined as a single moment, but rather as a series of struggles which included legitimizing popular resistance to the system and instituting embargoes against South Africa. However, it is nonetheless demonstrative of the UN’s exceptional ability to raise awareness about injustices and inspire member states to take action on human rights issues.
The UN denounced apartheid in 1950, long before there was widespread condemnation of the system, when the General Assembly declared that racial segregation was a form of racial discrimination. Finally, in 1973, a UN resolution categorized apartheid as a crime against humanity. In the decades that followed, this bold step taken by the UN would mobilize member states to denounce the apartheid system as well.
If the battle against apartheid can be summed up in any one historical moment, it would be Nelson Mandela’s presidential acceptance speech on May 10, 1994, which he delivered after spending 27 years in prison and which symbolically marked the end of the era of apartheid. Without the UN’s strong leadership in the decades leading up to it, this significant moment in the history of humanity may have never come to pass.
5. What do you think is the most exciting opportunity for the UN going forward?
Going forward, the UN has the opportunity to foster a more inclusive and effective approach to development policy by enhancing the influence of grassroots organizations. The UN has already taken steps, reflected in the post-2015 development agenda, to ensure grassroots participation in development decision-making.
Grassroots development efforts, in the vein of the work of the U.S. Peace Corps, are already being replicated in many countries with considerable success. They are more effective than top-down efforts in that they better address local needs, utilize existing local resources, mobilize local talent, respect cultural norms, and ensure sustainability in the long-term. In this way, grassroots efforts also work toward the reshaping of the global partnership to “avoid the perception of being a donor-recipient relationship,” one of the key recommendations cited by the task force responsible for devising the post-2015 development agenda. By directly participating in the creation of development policy, as well as in its execution, civil society organizations have a greater stake and sustainable outcomes are more likely.
In my own work as a rural education volunteer, I have witnessed how building the capacities of local people and relying on locally-available resources can empower and uplift communities in a way that top-down initiatives simply cannot.
6. What is the most effective element of UNA-USA’s work?
As a past participant in UNA-USA’s Global Classrooms program, I staffed Model United Nations conferences in Miami, Tampa Bay, and New York City for students from under-resourced schools. In this context, I witnessed firsthand the positive impact that exposing young people to the work of the UN can have.
By actively participating in debate and negotiations, young people don’t just learn about the UN, they partake in it. And while they’re partaking, they’re gaining research, public speaking, and writing skills. In this way, UNA-USA makes the UN accessible and inspires young people to get involved. I am convinced that this is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal for increasing the influence and improving the effectiveness of the UN for generations to come.