UNGA heats up

Plus: Bill Clinton seems tired of talking.
UNGA heats up

Greetings, UN delegates and UNGA watchers!

Over in London, the most impressive funeral in decades captivated the attention of millions on Monday. But in New York, where UNGA week is off to its typical overload of competing conferences and events, the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II barely seemed to register.

Barring some high-profile schedule changes (US president Joe Biden’s address to the assembly was delayed by a day), it’s all business as usual—a sign of the diminishing impact of a monarchy that shaped the world, and brought about inequities the UN is still struggling to rectify. But as World Health Organization special envoy Ayoade Alakija said while keynoting an event on frontline workers, there is great symbolism in the queen’s funeral happening as the world meets and takes stock of what worked, and what didn’t, in addressing covid: that of a system that is no longer fit to address the world’s challenges, and is being put to rest.

Former US president Bill Clinton sits with his arms folded.
Photo: Noam Galai/Clinton Global Initiative (Getty Images)

Bill Clinton seems tired of talking

In an uncharacteristically brief keynote at the Clinton Global Initiative (back on the UNGA sidelines after a six-year hiatus), the famously loquacious former US president suggested the world has had enough discussion merely identifying its urgent problems. “We even know, usually, what are the most effective ways to address the challenges,” Clinton said.

The question, which he put to the CGI audience in the midtown Hilton’s massive ballroom, is how to turn an abundance of good ideas for solutions into real change. “When it’s all said and done,” Clinton said, “I think that unless you can answer the ‘how’ question, the rest of it doesn’t amount to much.”

He also warned against letting gridlock and polarization overwhelm the effort. “Nobody has to do anything except figure out how to work with someone else to make good things happen,” Clinton said. “I think there’s been quite enough of the other stuff.”

CGI goers responded Monday in ways large and small, whether dutifully (and in some cases happily) filling their buffet lunch plates with miso-glazed tofu and ancient grains salad, or announcing millions of dollars of commitments to improve the world. But will the momentum continue after the delegates have left Manhattan?

José Andrés, the famed Spanish chef whose World Central Kitchen has become a vital responder to calamities around the world by getting food to people affected by war or natural disasters, suggested the Clinton imprimatur could help sustain the momentum. When Clinton was president, he once mentioned Andrés by name in a speech. “I was 26,” said the chef, 53, who was not yet the celebrated philanthropist he has since become. “It gave me this kind of extra strength to say, ‘You know, we can do more.’”

What to watch for

Tuesday, Sept. 20 (all times local to New York unless otherwise specified). It’s going to be a busy day—these are just a few highlights. Consult a more complete schedule here.

💡 India’s Big Idea. At 9am, Climate Week NYC asks influential actors in government, business, and wider society how to unlock the trillions of dollars in economic opportunities that could accompany greater climate action in India. A livestream will be available to virtual registrants.

🤝 Who exactly will always have Paris? At 9:30am, the UN Capital Development Fund takes up the challenge of “Making Paris Work” for people in underdeveloped nations.

👀 Local focal point. At 10am, a panel of climate activists discuss “How Global Solutions are Failing Local Communities,” part of the Holistic Climate Solutions Summit at the Tzu Chi Center (229 E. 60th St.)

📱 A very Meta discussion. Over at the Concordia summit, Meta executives invite a panel of governance experts to weigh in on rules that would help the company formerly known as Facebook to balance safety, free speech, and accountability. The 90-minute session begins at 10:30am.

🌍 Justice for Africa’s children. At 3pm, African leaders and Nobel Peace laureates address the poverty ensnaring sub-Saharan Africa, at an event at 866 UN Plaza.

🎸 Bono. It would not be a Very Important Global Conference™ without the U2 frontman and (RED) co-founder, who will be on hand for the CGI closing plenary at 4:30pm, along with Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton, playwright and activist Lin-Manuel Miranda, WHO director Tedros Ghebreyesus, and other guests.

A bunch of colorful tiles showing the different Sustainable Development Goals from the UN
Graphic: Ritchie, Roser, Mispy, Ortiz-Ospina. “Measuring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.” SDG-Tracker.org, website (2018).


In 2015, the UN member nations agreed to the Sustainable Development Goals, a series of ambitious targets meant to reduce poverty, fight inequality, and halt climate change by 2030. Throughout UNGA, we’ll dive into a few of them and let you know how they’re going (spoiler: overall, not great).

Today let’s look at the very first of the 17 goals: “No Poverty.” Simple, but ambitious, its aim is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere.

Until recently, the trend in poverty reduction looked good. The fraction of people living in extreme poverty around the world dropped from 36% in 1990 to 10% in 2015. Extreme poverty is defined as those living below the International Poverty Line of $1.90 or less per day.

A graph showing the share of global population living in extreme poverty from 1990 to 2018. It's gone down steadily from 35% in 1990.
Graphic: Quartz

Unfortunately, covid-19 has reversed the progress. Forecasts suggest the global poverty rate increased from 8.3% in 2019 to 9.2% in 2020, which would be the first rise in extreme poverty since 1998. This jump means an additional 93 million people around the globe entered poverty because of the pandemic.

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News from elsewhere

The UK harbors few hopes of a free-trade deal with the US. Liz Truss, on her first prime ministerial visit to the US, admitted that no negotiations are taking place, and said the UK aims to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership instead.

Investors lined up behind the Paris Agreement. Pension funds and insurers in the Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance have committed to managing $7.1 trillion in assets in line with the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Joe Biden committed to defending Taiwan from “an unprecedented attack.” The US president made the statement in a 60 Minutes interview, which drew stern criticism from China.

The trial of Cardinal Zen began. Along with five others, the 90-year-old former head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong—and a fierce critic of Beijing—is being tried for setting up a legal fund for 2019 protesters.

Southwest Mexico was hit with a magnitude 7.5 earthquake. Buildings in Mexico City shook yesterday (Sept. 19), the anniversary of not only the deadliest tremor in its history in 1985, but also a quake that killed more than 200 people in 2017.

Thanks for reading! We’ll be back soon with more UNGA news.

-Heather Landy, executive editor; Amanda Shendruk, things reporter; Annalisa Merelli, senior reporter; and Morgan Haefner, deputy email editor