Diary blog: WaterAid at the High Level Political Forum 2019

WaterAid's week 2 delegation at the 2019 UN High-Level Political Forum

From 9–18 July our delegates will be bringing you the latest news and insight from the meeting of the High Level Political Forum at the United Nations in New York City. Follow us on Twitter for more live updates.

13 July: Stand out and be counted – you can be on the right side of history 

Last week was another milestone in the history of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Governments have concluded the first full cycle of review of the SDGs at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York. Sadly, as reported by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his annual progress report, we are off track on most of the goals, and we have even moved backwards on some, such as hunger.

I strongly believe that this does not have to be this way, and that change is possible. Or, rather, we don’t have any option but to urgently change course for the sake of people, peace, security and prosperity. 

My three takeaways so far:

1. We need structural and systemic changes – a bold shift in global governance. 

This means a drastic shift in our current economic model, which focuses on growth at the cost of the planet and the future generation. 

We need to democratise the global economic decision-making model. Measuring growth should include the cost to the planet. The gap between the top and the bottom must be addressed. International financial institutions and private sector need to address their internal dichotomies and walk the talk.

2. At the national level, states must invest in good governance.

This includes strong and transparent institutions; engagement of people at all levels; ability to increase income from domestic sources; and prioritising resource allocations to essential services – good education, healthcare, clean water and decent sanitation.

3. Finally, the silver bullet – we need to ensure human rights and other agreed international instruments sit at the very core of the delivery end of the SDGs.

This includes integration between goals and with existing international mechanisms. Anything else is tinkering on the edges and is business as usual – and that is not working. 

The time is up! We need our political and business leaders, UN agencies and their staff, international financial institutions and those engaged in macroeconomics to show courage and act with a sense of urgency and purpose. 

If you do this, you will be remembered for being on the right side of history. 

- Savio Carvalho, Global Campaigns Director, WaterAid UK

11 July: A plea for action

Well, Thursday was an intense third day at the High-Level Political Forum!

Together with Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), International Labour Organization (ILO), the European Union and Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights, we hosted a side event focusing on SDG targets for decent work, inequality and peaceful societies and human rights. 

The panel at our joint side event on decent work, inequality, peaceful societies and human rights at HLPF 2019.
WaterAid/Lou Brydges
The panel at our joint side event on decent work, inequality, peaceful societies and human rights at HLPF 2019.

We had an exciting panel, each panellist coming with a variety of experiences and perspectives. Amber Barth from ILO focused on ILO conventions and how they need to be linked to the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) framework; Rockaya Aidara from WSSCC opened with powerful testimonies from women from different parts of Africa, before focusing on the challenges working women face around WASH and lack of menstrual hygiene facilities; and Inga Winkler from Columbia University built on Rockaya’s argument to propose what a menstrual hygiene framework would look like. 

We also had Abdoulaye Barro, a government representative from Senegal, who highlighted the challenges around providing social protection to informal labourers, and Senegal’s efforts in this regard. Finally, Helge Zeitler, representing the EU delegation to the UN, talked about the EU’s human rights guidelines and how they provide a framework to decent work.

Bezwada Wilson, of Safai Karamachari Aandolan, speaking at our side event on decent work, inequality, peaceful societies and human rights at HLPF 2019.
WaterAid/Lou Brydges
Bezwada Wilson, of Safai Karamachari Aandolan, speaking at our side event on decent work, inequality, peaceful societies and human rights at HLPF 2019.

A key highlight for me was going beyond these questions of universal access to really focus on the plight and rights of those who provide these services – in particular, the women, men and children all around the world who are forced daily to clear latrine pits by hand in order to earn a living. Our keynote speaker Bezwada Wilson, from India’s Safai Karamachari Aandolan – a movement for the rights of manual scavengers and sanitation workers – gave a passionate plea for wider acknowledgement and action around this issue, not just from the wider civil society but also from the member states sitting just across the road, inside the UN headquarters. 

Savio, WaterAid’s Global Campaigns Director and our lead for the HLPF, summed it up aptly to the room. He pointed out that collectively we have two choices: 1) to return home and forget about what we’ve each heard today, or 2) to call on member states with renewed vigour to do something concrete about these issues, once and for all.

And for us here at WaterAid, the first option is simply not an option at all.

- Avinash Kumar, Director of Programmes and Policy, WaterAid India

10 July: Releasing funding sources to finance the goals

Today at the HLPF we had the opportunity for some in-depth thinking about where our work fits in the broader landscape of both sustainable development and addressing inequalities (a main focus of this year’s session). 

Several of our delegation joined a discussion this morning on the role of fiscal policy in achieving SDG 10 (reducing inequalities) organised by The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development and German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. We engaged in this broad-reaching conversation about taxation, private vs. public sources of financing and the impact of increasing levels of debt on governments’ ability to provide the kinds of services and infrastructure that meaningfully improve people’s lives and wellbeing. 

Our Global Campaigns Director Savio Carvalho speaking at the inequalities event.
WaterAid/Lou Brydges
Our Global Campaigns Director Savio Carvalho speaking at the inequalities event.

When these services aren’t available, it’s people living in poverty and facing discrimination – especially women and girls – who pay the price. UN Women’s Shahra Razavi termed this a “reproductive tax” that relies on women’s physical labour to fill the gaps of absent piped water systems, for example. 

A representative of the International Trade Union Confederation shared that 10% of global GDP currently sits in tax havens. If even a fraction of those resources were instead harnessed as domestic revenue or international assistance, how much closer could we be to our goals? 

These policy questions have clear implications for WaterAid, in that they affect the ability of governments of countries in which we work to extend access to WASH for their hardest to reach populations. Current structures of economic and financial governance also constrain the available resources for public provision of infrastructure and services. 

Tomorrow we’ll share concrete examples of how WASH and inequalities intersect from WaterAid India and Sierra Leone. We’re looking forward to hearing from our colleagues, both now and when they return home, about how their engagement in these global policy discussions informs their interactions with their governments, including ministries in charge of water, sanitation and infrastructure and sectoral leads on health and education, and also finance and economic planning departments. As we heard reinforced today, budgetary allocation at national level and the global financial decision-making that shapes it are key factors in determining who has access to services like WASH and who doesn’t. It’s up to us to determine how we influence this conversation, throughout the HLPF and, more importantly, once it concludes.

9 July: Energy, enthusiasm and frustration…where will it all lead?

And we’re off! Our delegates have hit the ground running in week one of HLPF. Here’s the lowdown on all the key moments.

We spent Sunday hosting a workshop with more than 70 members of civil society organisations – a rare but vital opportunity to come together ahead of the HLPF to discuss our collective approach. It was inspiring and energising to see fellow activists from so many diverse areas in the room – and we were able to build on these important discussions at the MGoS meeting the next day.

WaterAid/Lou Brydges

Tuesday marked the official start of the HLPF. We joined about 800 other delegates at the opening ceremony, where it’s fair to say that the same message rang out loud and clear – that, while there has been some progress around the SDGs, there hasn’t been nearly enough. As the Under-Secretary-General of Economic and Social Affairs of the UN put it, “The clock is ticking – the most vulnerable people and countries continue to suffer the most. The global response so far has not been ambitious enough,” and “It['s] time to step up our efforts to achieve empowerment, inclusion and equality to achieve the SDGs.”

But it was without doubt Yolanda Jobe from Island PRIDE who stole the show. To a room packed with government officials, she said, “Today I look out to this room and I see power… the world doesn’t need any more power…what we need is courage.” Her address was received with rapturous applause and cheers from the audience, unusual for such an official UN event.  

It was good to see the plenary sessions centred around the ‘Leave no one behind’ theme, even though discussions were largely centred around economic equality, which is very important but inequality needs to be looked at through social and cultural dimensions as well.

Our afternoon strategy session on sanitation workers brought this out sharply. WaterAid hosted an event on the global issue of manual scavenging – in which women, men and children are forced to clear human waste from pits and sewers as a means of earning living. We were so pleased to facilitate this important discussion – it is time we focused a lot more on these dimensions of inequality when we look at access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and it’s absolutely vital that we ensure sanitation workers are represented in the SDGs.

Attendees at WaterAid's manual scavenging workshop.
WaterAid/Lou Brydges
Attendees at WaterAid's manual scavenging workshop.

And that brings us to the end of day one at HLPF. Overall it was a strong start to what promises to be an interesting ten days. But what’s on all of our minds here at WaterAid is whether this sense of frustration at the lack of progress will translate into action.

Let’s see what Wednesday brings.