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By Mikiko Tanaka, UN Resident Coordinator in Guyana
UN Day on 24 October marks the 75th Anniversary.
The visionary Preamble of the UN Charter from 1945 says it all: “We the Peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, and for these ends, to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, … and to employ the international machinery for the promotion of economic and social advancement of all peoples, … have agreed to the Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.”
We may have averted World War III, but we find ourselves in a world that is debilitated by a virus, climate change, rising disparities, social polarization, sharpened political divisions and new and old conflicts. Freedom House reports that in 80 countries, the quality of democracy and respect for human rights has deteriorated since COVID-19 began.
Only five years ago in 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and 197 parties signed the landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Action. After halving extreme poverty under the previous Millennium Development Goals, the ambitious 2030 Agenda envisaged the world free of poverty, hunger, inequalities and violence. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals encompass people, prosperity, planet, peace and partnerships and are universal for all. COVID-19 has plunged us backwards by decades and has exposed divisions, disparities and weaknesses of economies, societies and politics.
Guyana is not spared by the COVID-19 pandemic and wide socio-economic impact. The electoral crisis compounded hardships and social divisions and shattered citizen confidence in political and institutional systems. The new Government has acted swiftly in instituting tax and policy measures to revitalize economic activities and provide much-needed emergency assistance. While most of the world is trying to save their economies from a freefall, Guyana’s favorable position of becoming a new oil producing nation is attracting foreign investors and giving hope (and high expectations) for a faster recovery and future prosperity.
Guyana has the opportunity in its hands to reshape the economy, society and governance towards the SDGs but a genuine transformation entails addressing some difficult legacy issues that are structural and systemic in nature and challenges some entrenched norms and values. It would take the full participation and collaboration of government and state institutions, private sector, civil society and citizens to make this transformation.
The last two years have exposed fundamental issues in citizen participation and representation. Protecting the integrity of elections and ballots is critical, but the ability of citizens to participate in public policies and decision-making in between elections is also important. Parliament is the supreme institution of citizen representation. When the margin between the government and opposition is one or two seats, parliamentary decision-making should entail consensus-building and compromise to be inclusive of all Guyanese citizens. Parliamentary oversight should go beyond opposing and defending, and genuinely serve to improve accountability and performance of the public sector in the interest of every citizen. Parliament would not be viable if no-confidence motions and judicial actions become political instruments. Regional and local governments can bring decision-making closer to citizens if meaningfully decentralized with accompanying resources, authority and tools. The potential for citizen participation and community development is far-reaching, if enabled.
Citizens are beneficiaries and financial contributors of public services, and public services are ultimately accountable to citizens. Education, health care, social protection, police are essential services that need uphaul in standards, quality and accessibility. COVID-19 has shed light to the tireless and often thankless work of many health workers, teachers, social workers, police. Distinguishing and recognizing good work and service is as important as properly addressing sub-standard performance. Instilling meritocracy in the public sector requires system-wide consistency and integrity encompassing recruitments, training, management, promotions. Citizen participation and feedback can contribute to the betterment of public services.
All men and women should have equal opportunities to decent jobs in Guyana. Doing business in Guyana is challenging, but extremely difficult for those without assets, connections, skills, status, identification documents and access. The same applies to getting jobs in the public sector, and jobs in the formal private sector are scarce in number. Over half the labor force is informal and 12% were unemployed before COVID-19. An inclusive and sustainable economic transformation entails professionalism, competition, meritocracy and quality standards. It calls for tailored and affirmative actions to equalize the playing field for all individuals and to stop sexual harassment, power abuse and discriminatory practices and conditions. Citizens can demand and help create these conditions with civil society, labor unions, private sector and state institutions.
Civil society and media (including social media) are essential channels for citizens to participate and to shape the culture, values and principles that underpin how institutions and society operate. Hate speech and violence are harmful in their own right but also close down space for constructive civil society and citizen voice and participation. A big thanks goes to the journalists and media outlets who displayed courage, reason and integrity through the electoral crisis.
The work of the UN needs to evolve to help find solutions to overcome these hard issues and to catalyze transformations that last. Whatever SDGs we work on, how we do our work is even more important. Policy advice should foster citizen participation, protect rights and make detailed refinements to remove disparities and inequalities in practice. Lawmaking support should help citizens to comprehend and shape laws. Development projects should be catalytic investments for positive and lasting changes in the relations between the state and private sector, civil society and citizens. The UN has to act by example to instill the values and principles of the UN Charter and the 2030 Agenda’s “leave no one behind” rights-based approach.
In UN75 conversations in Guyana, young people wanted to contribute to national development and be part of shaping a future that is equal, just and in balance with nature, free of violence and discrimination, with equal access to services, opportunities and jobs and where people respect and understand each other in dialogue. The Preamble of the UN Charter still resonates 75 years later. The work is hard and far from over but worthwhile for a better world.