Monday, November 28, 2011

Discourse Surrounding the Final Declaration of the 64th Annual United Nations DPI/NGO Conference

Semantics played an important role in the Draft Declaration of the 64th Annual United Nations DPI/NGO Conference. It is evident that this becomes problematic when trying to create discourse or legislation when definitions vary across NGOs. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) present at the Conference collectively focus on a vast array of issues – Eradication of Poverty, Child Mortality, Population, Women’s Education, Sustainability, Nuclear Disarmament, Global Health, etc. – which are in turn influenced by these vast array of issues.

For example, the image below shows that ‘development’ means very different things to many different NGOs.
This is a specific example of where it becomes problematic in having meaningful dialogue or in creating legislation that centers on development.  In fact, according to Aram Ziai of Vienna University, any intervention can be called development as long as it is “a non-political intervention in the name of the common good, is based on expert knowledge, and is located in the global South.” While broad, it is also quite exclusive in that it alienates ‘development’ simply in the global North. Ziai asserts that, “NGOs should be clear about whether they are working for justice and solidarity or for economic growth and industrialization – and avoid the catch-all term ‘development.’” Ziai goes on to further state that, “NGOs should break up the consensus that all ‘development’ organisations are working for the same objective.” This not only applies to the term ‘development,’ but to any other issue NGOs choose to tackle.

In terms of the Conference, semantics were at the center of the Plenary Session of the Final Discussion on the Conference Declaration. For example, a delegate asserted that the term ‘gender and social equity’ is commonly referred to as ‘social and gender equality’ today and this change should be reflected in the Declaration. Another delegate pointed out that a phrase made it sound like “sustainable development should be the ‘only’ form of development.” He stated that this only “shoots us in the foot.” Vagueness was also a problem. For instance, the draft Declaration states, “support the role and important needs” and then a delegate argued that it was too vague because what is an important role and how do we support it? This discussion continued for an hour where delegates debated how specificity, in terms of words and description, can either hurt or help other’s goals. It was also stated that, “within the language is the problem of using a Eurocentric language and does not reflect a ‘united nations.’”

Suggestions for changes in the Draft Declaration were made not only during the hour session, but other roundtables, workshops, and communication via email as well. It is also important to note that work on the Draft Declaration took place a month before the Conference even convened. It is difficult to determine the exact reasons for each change in the Draft Declaration. However, it is evident that most suggestions at the Plenary Session reflected the perceptions of the poor or vague use of language. The Final Declaration can be seen here.  

What are your thoughts on the Final Declaration? Do you think it balances effectively between being specific, yet broad? Do you think it uses Eurocentric language? Do you think it provides meaningful dialogue for the Rio+20 Conference? After seeing the amount of time, scrutiny, discourse, and revision surrounding the construction of the Final Declaration, I believe the NGOs, Youth Sub-Committee, and Department of Information constructed an influential, operative Declaration invaluable to the Rio+20 Conference. Yes, individual words and phrases will continue to be scrutinized in the Declaration; however, it provides an essential and carefully balanced framework from those who understand that “The future does not belong to those who are content with today.”1

Alexandra Lively attended the 64th Annual United Nations DPI/NGO Conference in Bonn, Germany as a UN Delegate. She is a first-year MA student in European Union Studies and an EU Center FLAS fellow. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Advertising at UIUC, with a double minor in Business and Communications. She graduated with High Honors and as an Edmund J. James Scholar. Her research interests include telecommunications, consumerism and trade within the EU.

1 Quote from Felix Dodds, Chair of the 64th Annual UN DPI/NGO Conference, during the Closing Ceremony. 


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