Reflections from the Other Side: An Alumna's Trip to the UN

February 23, 2014

Written By: Megan Barry

I am a 2013 alumna of UNH, having graduated with a dual major in Anthropology and Sustainability, and worked for the UNHSI during my time in Durham.  I moved to Arizona this past August to begin a Master’s of Sustainable Solutions at ASU, in which I am focusing on policy solutions at the community and international level. I recently had the opportunity to attend the 52nd UN Commission on Social Development as a delegate representing SustainUs, a youth empowerment NGO.

Empowerment has been a common theme throughout the Commission on Social Development – empowerment of youth, aging populations, the poor, LGBT communities, women, and others. There were side events devoted to the unique challenges each of these groups face, as well as how to address the things keeping them disempowered. The variables at play are often limitless; the diversity of nations being represented makes the discussions even richer.

Issues affecting empowerment receive varying attention in different nations, depending on political climate, cultural factors, and economic standing. An underlying question we must ask is how to confront established cultural practices that perpetuate inequalities. This question is particularly important when we consider the history of Western-led development and our tendency to impose on other cultures aspects of our lifestyle we view to be unquestionably superior.

The issues we fail to focus on in the U.S. are often issues that either do not exist or manifest themselves quite differently in other cultures. For example, when it comes to aging populations, Western culture is structured such that it is acceptable to “contract out” caregiving for those that have been our caregivers. The elderly are viewed as a burden in the U.S., whereas in many other cultures they are recognized and honored as a vast resource of knowledge, wisdom, experience, and support.

At the same time, while the U.S. has made significant strides in gender equality, other cultures – for example, in many Islamic regions – greatly restrict the activity of women. Females often have access to education, and as they play very limited roles in the public sphere, their concerns are often not addressed. Education and representation are exalted as key sustainability solutions, yet they can be culturally abrasive – sometimes to both men and women.

Taking an anthropological approach, it is not the place of outsiders to alter cultural practices that have historical significance. In reality, this is often hard to reconcile – what is the best course of action when it is culturally acceptable to abuse one’s spouse, assault LGBT community members, or ignore the opinions and needs of valuable members of society such as youth and aging populations? What purpose do these cultural practices serve? Chiefly, they breed hate, fear, and social unrest.

How is this related to sustainability? It is widely understood that sustainability is a vast and fluid body of ideas. Most often it is thought of in the context of its environmental and economic implications. This week, I have been pleasantly surprised by the repeated focus on spirituality, relationships, and “wholeness” of the human being. In our current system, we can only do so much to address issues in the spheres of environment and economy.

In many of these diverse sessions, we came back to the same question – how do we begin the necessary social shift to achieve a “good life” for all? Culturally instilled values will be an enduring barrier to achieving sustainability. The technology is available, as is the funding; how our society chooses to use these resources is what remains blocking progress. Laid bare, this reveals a lack of respect for other beings, and a tendency to severely underestimate the value of relationships with others.

To understand what fuels these prejudiced practices, we must first engage with the populations perpetuating them. We must engage with populations being victimized to develop a path forward together, rather than forcing our own “solutions on them.

The concerns of all groups at the Commission on Social Development converge under a sphere of sustainability. The foundation of these concerns appears to be a lack of respect for all human beings regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and age, as well as a lack of respect for natural resources. While I do not have the ultimate solution, commissions like these that bring individuals together – and by extension the groups these people represent – are an excellent way to develop the understanding and respect necessary to move forward towards sustainable solutions.

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