A view onto the Manhattan skyline from United Nations Headquarters during the week of the General Assembly's annual general debate. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / U.N.

NEW YORK — No single story can encapsulate one of the most frenetic and wide-ranging weeks on the global development calendar.

While humanitarian agencies fight for safe passage and better opportunities for people fleeing conflict, a multinational consumer goods company might unveil its commitment to use digital payments, just as a minister of health announces new HIV drug procurement plans that could help turn the tide against the epidemic. Navigating the road closures, security checks, and traffic jams that lie between these proceedings is its own form of art (as is the actual art that sometimes pops up).

Underlying the scattering of news-making announcements, pledges, partnerships, and disappointments that make up Global Goals Week, a few currents tend to emerge. These speak to deeper shifts within the global development community, and point to the direction progress — or failure — might travel.

Here are some of the biggest trends to emerge from this Global Goals Week.

Development through the Trump prism

A big question coming into Global Goals Week was whether President Donald Trump would inflict more damage on U.S. global development programs than his proposed budget cuts already have. That’s not exactly what happened. “The United States continues to lead the world in humanitarian assistance,” President Trump said on Tuesday. “We have invested in better health and opportunity all over the world through programs like PEPFAR, which funds AIDS relief, the President’s Malaria Initiative, and the Global Health Security Agenda,” he added.

Those comments came in the context of Trump’s “salute” to the United Nations for seeking to address “the problems that cause people to flee from their homes” and an endorsement of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ reform agenda.

More than a blanket disregard for all U.S. development investments, the Trump administration’s presence in New York last week made clearer that there are global health and development advocates within — and outside — the administration who have the president’s ear. As this administration’s cadre of development leaders continues to take shape, somewhere inside the White House there seems to be an opening to convince the president that certain global development investments can advance his priorities.

As one malaria advocate pointed out to Devex, it took seven years — until his last State of the Union address — for President Barack Obama to make specific mention of the malaria initiative Trump referenced in his first speech to the global body. Following on Trump’s remarks, the administration expanded PMI to four additional African countries. If last week is any indication, programs that contribute to security, grow markets, and show a return on investment can still hope for the world’s biggest endorsement.

“President Trump, the leader, understands that malaria isn't simply a matter of global health. Malaria itself is a tax that robs countries of their vitality, of their strengths,” said U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green, announcing PMI’s expansion to a room full of African heads of state. The initiative appeals to “Trump the businessman,” Green added.

For development professionals who need the U.S. government’s support, the lesson from last week might be that under Trump, the prism for examining health and development investments overseas has shifted — but it has not completely shattered.

Refugees and migration

This year’s General Assembly marks the midpoint in global negotiations toward two compacts on the treatment and equitable response to refugees and migrants. States gave themselves until 2018 to finalize and sign the documents, and took the opportunity last week to check in on the status of discussions.

Significant progress has been made, although advocates say the thorniest issues — including merely defining key terms such as “equitable" distribution and states’ “responsibility” — have yet to be defined. In hopes of avoiding political pitfalls, the final mechanism may be more about mechanics than binding commitments. “Rather than focusing on a blueprint, the concept is more moving toward a blueprint for process,” said Brooke Lauten, humanitarian policy and protection advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Ten countries are currently taking part in a pilot approach toward integration, donor solidarity, and host-country support that the negotiations will then aim to refine, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework. The compacts’ respective ushering organizations, the High Commission for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration, will continue to hold consultations with civil society and member states through the end of the year. State-to-state negotiations will take off in earnest beginning in January.

Humanitarian water-treading

Guterres took office promising a “surge for peace,” but few of the world’s active conflict zones look close to resolution last week. Instability churns on unabated despite high-level discussions last week on Yemen, South Sudan, Venezuela, and Libya, among other fragile zones. In frustration and also out of the realization that protracted conflict is the new normal, humanitarians are starting to break their traditional quiet on politics. U.N. agencies have called out parties of conflict, named names, and pushed U.N. Security Council members to put aside high-level politics in favor of trying to end the fighting.

Moreover, humanitarians are starting to think about how their own efforts can plug into the slow and hard fight for stability. Peacebuilding, engagement with local authorities, and a host of other strategies to tackle “root causes” are making their way into the relief effort. “We’ve been too rigidly stuck on concepts of neutrality. In a world in which 80 percent of humanitarian crises are driven by conflict, I think it’s irresponsible not to wrestle with root causes,” Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, told Devex last week. “Some of us have to speak up in a respectful way and challenge that paradigm.”

Putting business to work (for the SDGs)

The message Bill and Melinda Gates took from Seattle to New York — that progress on the SDGs is possible but not inevitable — made its way into many of the conversations at Global Goals Week. There were a range of new models proposed to accelerate progress to 2030.

At the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit, there was a call for getting business involved in a more meaningful way. Takeaways from a panel Devex moderated called Answering the Call for Business Leadership included the need for business leaders to revise their approach to profit-making and reset their metrics to account for social and environmental returns. The World Economic Forum also launched the Fourth Sector Development Initiative, which supports an emerging sector of the economy made up of for-benefit enterprises that combine profits with purpose. This suggests that as traditional businesses broaden their purpose beyond profit-making, they will enter a new category of company that will be needed to achieve the SDGs.

But not everyone agrees that companies can pursue both profits and purpose, with Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and father of microfinance, calling for social businesses, which reinvest all profits back into the business in order to generate more impact, as the only way to achieve progress against poverty at the pace needed. Yunus was one of the speakers at We the Future: Accelerating Sustainable Development Solutions, organized by the Skoll Foundation and the United Nations Foundation. Other models for change discussed at that event included unlocking capital flows, driving behavior change, taking more data-driven approaches, and investing in human capital.

Breaking down siloes

Some of the most compelling innovation on display in New York did not take the form of virtual reality headsets or clever ways to use drones, but in the new arrangement of very different actors in partnership to tackle huge challenges. Organizations from the World Bank, to U.N. agencies, to pharmaceutical companies, to national governments showcased ways they are breaking down institutional silos to draw on each other’s unique capabilities in pursuit of shared goals.

One of the most news-making examples was a new pricing agreement for a front-line HIV drug that is widely used in wealthy countries, but has been prohibitively expensive for broad uptake in low- and middle-income health markets until now. The agreement will allow generic manufacturers to offer the single-dose tablet at one-tenth of the original cost — a move that could save South Africa alone $900 million over six years, while helping to combat the looming specter of anti-retroviral drug resistance in Africa.

Another — albeit still largely untested — partnership between the United Nations and the World Bank aims to make investments in climate smart infrastructure more attractive to private investors. The two international organizations have launched a “platform” they hope will become a place where these kinds of deals can be brokered.

What’s next for development and new partnerships

The absence of the retired Clinton Global Initiative left openings for new forums to help shape the dialogue last week. Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies, launched the Bloomberg Global Business Forum and — like CGI — brought in big name power players (including even President Bill Clinton himself).

Conversations at the forum — from World Bank president Jim Kim to California Gov. Jerry Brown — stressed the need for new types of partnerships, especially those at the local level in cities, where populations continue to grow quickly. That will become especially important when it comes to climate change, Bloomberg stressed, predicting that urban environments are going to be at the center of many future development discussions and partnerships — including in unexpected places, such as the U.N.

United Nations reform

The U.N. itself was guided last week by a new set of leaders and characters, and, in turn, priorities. It was U.N. chief Guterres’ first opening of the General Assembly. It was the first, as well, for other top officials, such as Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and U.N. agency heads, including American politician David Beasley, now running the World Food Programme. Guterres and his team also offered their first, detailed look at how they envision a reformed U.N.

They spelled out how the institution could work more effectively by linking peacekeeping and conflict prevention with the 2030 development agenda, as well as by strategizing and streamlining the work of U.N. agencies, as Mohammed told Devex last week. The overhaul, which Trump happily threw his general support behind last week, is still in its infancy. We’ll be following to see how the details of the plans progress before December, when a more detailed proposal is expected.

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About the authors

  • Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.
  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.
  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.
  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.