Influencing UN policies: the art of people-watching

Earlier this year when I presented at a Youth Forum at the UN, I felt inspired to be sitting in the same seats as decision makers. But this week at the Multi-stakeholder Forum for Science, Technology, and Innovation, the feeling was different – that I could influence decision makers. Influencing decisions and policy means translating the stories and evidence of challenges and solutions that are experienced on the ground into a language that changes policies, project cycles, and budgets. And once translated, it requires advocating for the right people to make those changes.

Learning how to do that is hard. There is no book about how to navigate the way that the UN makes and evaluates policies; it is an art that can only be learned through observation (people watching) and asking questions. There are specific rules about language and timing of statements — a balance of acknowledging points made by others and pushing forward sharp arguments about an overlooked topic.

Here’s an example: Non-formal types of information and knowledge, such as indigenous and traditional knowledge, in some cases prove to be more relevant and adaptive to changing environments than formal, scientific, quantitative information. Yet due to its typically qualitative and non-aggregatable nature, indigenous or traditional knowledge is rarely acknowledged as viable when making decisions at the national level. And if it is integrated, it is often extractive and tokenized. This conversation existed at the UN but was insufficient and was kept at a high-level: it had its own panel discussion during the main session but was never expanded to specific recommendations of how informal knowledge can be better integrated into specific SDG targets and goals. This gap was be pointed out in a few ways, one of which was by organizing a side event during the Forum that brought together a range of perspectives to outline the issue and produce recommendations for the UN.  The intention was that, if done correctly, the problem and recommendations would be incorporated into the Forum Outcome document and presented at the Annual High Level Political Forum in July.

As a science policy focal point for the UN Major Group for Children and Youth, I helped organize a side event on this topic, titled “Resilient water and energy systems: fed by local knowledge and led by local stakeholders”. The event included partners and panelists from UN-Water, UN Development Programme, International Council for Science, Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities, TERI School of Advanced Studies, Engineers Without Borders Cal Poly, Water Youth Network, and the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers. We also were honored to welcome Dr. Myrna Cunningham, a human rights activist who served as the Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the UN, as well as adviser to the President of the UN General Assembly during the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples at the UN in 2014.

Conversations revolved around how tools and approaches are available for involving communities in decision making, assessment, and governance for water and energy systems such as establishing technical assessment committees and supporting local innovations. Yet, the concept of scaling these approaches to a national or global level is the greatest challenge. There is a need to not just gather knowledge from the local governments and communities but build their understanding of their rights, resources, and allow them to govern their water and energy systems. Development practitioners need to be taught to value these concepts and to use tools to do so, such as the work by the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities. But it cannot stop there — at the national and global level there is a need to advocate for policies that legitimize and support local and indigenous knowledge. Doing so can increase the system resilience, as indigenous communities have been adapting to changes for hundreds or thousands of years.

Over the next month we will work to get these outcomes, among many others, embedded into conversations at the High Level Political Forum, where Sustainable Development Goal 6 (water/sanitation) and 7 (energy) are being evaluated at a global level by the UN. I’m excited to be a part of this important work and look forward to continue learning about this strange and nuanced process. This is a skillset that I’ve been seeking ever since I started working on my first projects as an environmental engineer – from drought-adapted wastewater reuse plans in California to impact evaluations of water filters in Northern Thailand – and need to continually develop so that my work can make a real impact.

Kimmy Pugel is a Civil Engineering PhD student at CU Boulder and MCEDC focusing on civil systems and collaborative management of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) projects and organizations. In the Global Projects and Organizations Research Group, Kimmy researches the impact of systems analyses and systems approaches that engage, understand, and strengthen local WASH service delivery systems and stakeholders. As a part of the USAID Sustainable WASH Systems initiative, she focuses on the application of these approaches at varying levels of decision making and organizational contexts in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Cambodia.

She has been involved in the UN Major Group for Children and Youth (UNMGCY) for three years and is currently the Technology Focal Point for the Financing for Development Working Group, helping coordinate activities surrounding the UNMGCY Youth Commission on Science, Engineering & Technology for SDGs.

Follow her on twitter @kimmypugel



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