Key note: From Council to Community – rethinking development in a rapidly evolving landscape from Council to Community

As prepared for delivery.


Your Excellencies,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A very important anniversary is celebrated this year.

The United Nations (UN) is 75 years old.

Over that time, the UN has been instrumental in achievements that were once perceived as impossible from the decolonization of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific to the prevention of devastating famines; to closing a giant hole in the ozone layer and preventing nuclear proliferation to eradicating smallpox.

But in those 75 years, a lot has changed.

In 1945, it was much clearer what ‘Council’ and ‘Community’ meant.

It could be argued that a functional but nonetheless patriarchal system was in place.

The ‘Government’ ruled ‘the people’; the ‘North’ helped the ‘South’; the ‘privileged’ were reminded that it was basic good manners to recognize and fulfil a moral obligation to help the so-called ‘disadvantaged’.

The UN was born into a global division of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, on which the concept and practice of development was originally premised.

It was clear, instinctively, who sat in ‘Council’, while the ‘Community’ toiled.

However, the realities and roles of both council and community in and across our societies today have changed.

They are being redefined by people across the world.

Governance systems must catch up, and quickly, or be rendered obsolete; as must international development.

Today, I will explore:

– What ‘Community’ means in 2020

– The changing role and construct of Councils

– And the meaning of these changes for international development such that together we continue build a new social contract for a fair, just world.

Communities Redefined

So, what does ‘community’ mean today?

We once thought of a community as a group of people who live in the same geographic area, or who share socio-economic, ethnic, linguistic, or religious characteristics.

The evolving global context, including the extent to which new technologies have empowered communication and information-sharing at the individual-level, requires us to embrace a far wider definition.

Many communities that drive change now cut across the boundaries of class, geography, language, religion, political orientation, and identity. They do not ‘respect’ the typologies of the past.

What binds them together is shared experience, understanding, belief, and common visions and ways of working.

In Ghana’s capital, Accra, I recently met with a thriving community of social entrepreneurs, many with extensive private sector experience, bound together by talent, ingenuity, and a vision of potential.

Turkey is now home to refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Somalia, as well as some 3.7 million Syrian refugees. In its refugee camps, shelter and safety are provided by communities that are come together through their determination and by the shared experience and values of their own members — rather than merely by their country or region of origin.

Consider the new global communities the new alliances — created rapidly in the past few years and made possible, in part by technology like social media.

Just like the decade it brought to a close, 2019 was a year of local and global protest.

From Algeria to Argentina, Chile to Colombia, Iraq to Iran, waves of movements across all continents, were led primarily by young people determined to lift the lid on disillusionment, indignity, frustration and unmet needs.

7.6 million vocal protesters across 185 countries came out to fight against climate change last year — spotlighting the growing global community of climate activists.

In Chile, when public trust in institutions bottomed out, the middle class allied with the most vulnerable in society to protest against the escalating cost of living, against poverty and inequality.

As a result, this year, Chileans will decide by popular vote whether their country will have a new constitution and — significantly — who will write it.

Consider Sudan, where I was just two weeks ago: a country now determined to transition to civilian, democratic rule by the end of 2022.

Women and young people led the protests that started in 2018 and resulted in this shift. These same groups — women and young people — are creating new, inclusive communities in their country and will play a central role in constituting its next council.

From the grassroots, to the business communities, to people voting with their feet in protest, mature democracies and autocracies alike are experiencing a new form of community today — a new form of people power — representing a profound shift in the global landscape of collaboration and dissent.

Such alliances to drive social change are not new.

Indeed, as the Indian economist, Raghuram Rajan, points out in his book, The Third Pillar, social movements born of community action have often been the primary drivers behind the spread of primary education and the expansion of the franchise.

But they are remarkable if only for their contrast with the destructive forms of populism, nationalism, and partisanship we are seeing in many national and multilateral Council settings.

Global protests, for example, tend to be peaceful, leaderless or ‘leaderful’, and to abstain from aligning with political groupings. Indeed, as people like Greta Thunberg, show, you don’t have to be aligned to a larger group to mobilize a community to action, to make a difference.

Like others who inspire us, she demonstrates how the power of one person can effect change.

In short, the concept of community is expanding rapidly and inclusively far beyond its original walls, driven in part by the Council’s inability to adapt more quickly.

As a result, one faces the future, while the other appears stuck in the past.

The changing role and construct of the Council

Therefore, are the social contracts between the Council and Community broken beyond repair?

Well, they are certainly damaged.

People are disillusioned with the product of the ballot box. Average voter turnout has dropped by 10 per cent on average since the beginning of the 1990s.

At the same time, the Council is shrinking civic space.

In the last five years, more than 70 countries have enacted laws to restrict freedom of association and to hamper the work of civil society.

According to the NGO Civicus, only three per cent of the world’s population live in countries with open civic space.

And as UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Report shows, we face a Great New Divergence in society — a new generation of inequalities, fuelled by climate change and technology, that could trigger further divides, disillusionment and instability.

Gender inequality remains pervasive. It will take 202 years based on current trends to close the economic gap alone, let alone the power gap.

The Council be it national or local governments, legislative, or executive branches or inter-governmental– has not yet delivered on its repeated manifesto of making the world a better place.

Moreover, determined opponents of inclusive, participatory governance take full and highly effective advantage of these failings, including by manipulating new media to distort and amplify disillusionment; to interfere in political processes, and to sow cynicism and discontent.

The Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age, for example, says that the rise of social media caused irrevocable harm to global electoral integrity and democratic institutions.

And yet, the role of the Council is and will be fundamental if we are to finally address these challenges, at speed and at scale to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 through an intensive Decade of Action.

This need is clearly set out in SDG 16, which calls for us to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

We urgently need to re-imagine, re-invent and reinvigorate the institutions of governance, of democracy — the Councils — so that theyreshape to be a greater part of the solution.

Consider the roles and responsibilities of all branches of government in regulating, managing and mitigating risks, in creating an enabling environment for investment, for jobs, for effective public services that go the last mile; in upholding human rights and ensuring that we leave no one behind.

Inspiring examples are emerging of the shifting configuration of ‘Councils’ especially at the local level — where communities and officials work most closely together.

In the Western part of Mauritanian, for example, local communities hosting over 50,000 Malian refugees have created village councils through which hosts and refugees come together to find ways to address the inevitable tensions that arise when you have a growing number of people reliant on limited natural resources and basic services.

These new forms of Council have prevented conflicts from escalating, protected populations from violence and exploitation, aided the process of refugee participation and access to basic local services, and supported women’s livelihoods.

In Indonesian Borneo, through a 40-year campaign to obtain legal recognition of land rights to their customary forest, the Indigenous Group of Dayak Iban of the Sungai Utik Long House have consistently defended their lands against illegal logging, palm oil production, and corporate interests.

Their determined Council has prevented the release of an estimated 1.31 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere to date, and protected people human rights at the same time.

What does this mean for International Development?

What do the changing identities of Communities and though more slowly of the Council mean for international development? For actors like UNDP?

The UN as a brand has strong legitimacy — according to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, the UN remains the world’s most trusted institution.

Nonetheless, there is a danger that — without innovation and re-invention — we will suffer a similar crisis of legitimacy as other forms of traditional governance.

At UNDP, therefore, we are working tirelessly to re-invent ourselves to reflect the needs of both the communities and councils out there, disrupting how we think, deliver, invest and manage to help drive SDG progress, with a special emphasis on bringing more people, more ideas, from more communities to the table.

For example, through the new UNDP Accelerator Labs network, established only last year but already covering 78 countries, we are surfacing sustainable development ideas and innovations from the grassroots to take to scale and quickly.

In the Congo, for example, our Labs team has taken to the road with the Government and two youth advocacy organizations in a Caravan of Innovation. Our theory of change is that if we can tour the country together, we can create, for the first time in Congo, a database of locally driven solutions developed by citizens to meet the needs of their communities.

Those solutions will then be tested for scale — giving the Government insight on the best role they could play to ensure success.

We are opening new conversations with the private sector community to help answer the kind of questions I heard in Davos last month.

Business has, I believe, started to embrace sustainable investment, and they are re-aligning trillions of dollars in that direction. But they need guidance. They are asking questions like how do I get money to green projects, how do I issue green bonds?

A new UNDP venture called SDG Impact is helping them find the answer, developing practice standards and investor maps. We have identified 21 SDG-linked investment opportunities in Brazil, for example, and are now replicating the mapping in Armenia, China, Colombia, Jordan, Nigeria and South Africa.

Through digitalization, we are helping to create governance systems of the future, disrupting traditional forms of bureaucratic gatekeeping and closing the gap between citizens and their governments.

In Papua New Guinea, for example, we supported an award-winning Phones Against Corruption initiative, where 38,000 SMS messages led to 850 cases of corruption being recorded.

In Bangladesh, digital centres supported by UNDP extended financial services to 3 million rural people without bank accounts, an innovation being replicated in Fiji and Somalia.

In Fiji, UNDP collaborated with 10 ministries and the private sector to establish mobile service delivery teams, bringing critical legal, financial and social services to last-mile communities. The teams pay social benefits and register births, deaths and businesses, servicing 71 per cent of the country.

And we can harness the power of social media and online communities to nudge people in the right direction on climate action.

For example, we are about to launch an online platform and campaign called Mission 1.5, which we developed with our partners at Twitter, Playmob, Browning Environmental and here at Oxford University!

It’s built around a mobile game that challenges players of any age to keep global warming below 1.5C.

At the end of the game, players can vote on the climate action they want to see and share their votes with friends, creating a treasure trove of climate insights that UNDP will deliver to governments to drive climate action and ambition.

At the same time, we recognize the acute need to support formalinstitutions, to bolster their ability to be more connected with the communities they are meant to serve, and to foster long-term stability and resilience.

Today, UNDP provides assistance to the parliaments of some 70 partner countries, for example.

With the support of UNDP and partners like the Inter-Parliamentary Union, for instance, the Parliament of Uganda increased budget allocations for health workers in rural areas.

Parliamentarians in Bangladesh are reaching out to communities with the highest rates of child marriage to advocate an end to this harmful practice.

In Rwanda, when parliament adopted a reproductive health law, MPs communicated with communities including universities and schools to make sure the benefits of the law are felt by all.


Ladies and gentlemen.

As development practitioners, students, thinkers and leaders, working as we do across countries considered poor and wealthy, in places that are stable one day and unstable the next, we must employ integrated systems-thinking to understand how a societies work in all their parts — and how they could work better.

With the universality and ambition of the SDGs, we have a unique opportunity to build a new social contract between communities and governments.

One that will build a future that is just and fair.

If dynamic and diverse communities continue to demand progress and take action;

If the exclusive, patriarchal processes of old Councils are retired and new, inclusive systems fertilized in their wake;

And if the international community can prove itself up to the task of a Decade of Action for the SDGs,

Then I believe we will see the change we seek.

Only then will we embody the opening words of the UN charter, written 75 years ago: We the People, and together write the next chapter.

Thank you.

Source: United Nations Development Programme