It’s UN week, the catch-all term meant to include everything happening in and around the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York City, and the Big Apple is even more awash than usual with a tsunami of world leaders, politicians, celebrities, humanitarians and other luminaries who speak eloquently about how to make the world a better place.
UN week usually has a theme, and this year the main issue is climate change. Sunday’s big People’s Climate March has been hailed as a massive success, followed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and President Barack Obama calling for aggressive action. Lots of calling going on there. Lots of echoes of previous year calls.
Humanosphere occasionally attends this celebrated but frequently vapid event (see, for example, my story from UN Week 2011), but we didn’t this year. That’s because not much is expected to actually happen. Here’s an amusing BBC story on this year’s UNGA UNGA party (UNGA: UN General Assembly).
Meanwhile, in a small room in downtown Seattle today, other humanitarians, leaders, the father of the world’s richest man, the first chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and business leaders mostly working in Africa met to talk about how to actually get things done.
“The real action doesn’t happen anymore in Washington, D.C., New York, London or Geneva,” said Mima S. Nedelcovych, the new president and CEO of the Initiative for Global Development, an organization launched out of Seattle in 2003 by Bill Gates, Sr., leading local philanthropist Bill Clapp, former Sen. Dan Evans, former EPA administrator Bill Ruckelshaus, the late and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili and others.
“Where are the answers to our problems to be found?” Nedelcovych asked the gathering at the Rainier Club. They aren’t coming from the centers of power or these big gatherings of the elite, he said, but from people like Nigerian business woman Adeshola Komolafe. Real changes starts with people who make it happen, he said.
Komolafe was the keynote speaker at the Seattle meeting. She is a Nigerian business woman and entrepreneur who started a media strategies company to do what media strategy companies do – help clients get their message out and improve their brand. In an interview prior to her talk, she said her first choice had been politics because of the many things she wanted to help change – starting with improving gender equity in her country.
“Nigeria is still very patriarchal and women are discriminated against,” Komolafe said. But she soon recognized that running a media business, especially using social media like Twitter or Facebook, would give her a much more direct and likely louder voice for change. Her company, Media Insight, now has 26 employees and works on all sorts of campaigns, including the #BringBackOurGirls advocacy effort aimed at getting the government to work harder to return the girls abducted by Boko Haram in the north to their families.
As a business person, she also helps the government promote its messages and advance its ‘brand’ to bring in foreign investment. That’s what Komolafe likes about using business as a vehicle for change; you have less political constraints on what you choose to do.
“I didn’t set out to become a business person; it just happened,” she said. It was clear to her that this was the best way she could hope to effect change in Nigeria, which is why IGD made her this year’s Jennifer Potter Emerging Leader award winner.
“We are fighting to improve things in our country but I also want to emphasize the positive,” Komolafe said. Nigerians are well aware that their country is infamously corrupt (though Komolafe noted much of the financial loss due to corruption seems to mostly benefit Westerners) and often in turmoil. But she is proud that Nigeria responded well to the Ebola threat and she said, unlike much of the Western media, Nigerians have not forgotten the abducted girls.
“We have campaigns every day,” she said. “Nigeria is getting better; we know we are a success story. You’ll see.”
As former IGD CEO Jennifer Potter explained, the organization had originally sought to create such positive change by influencing policy makers – those folks all gathered in NYC for UN Week.
Potter said the Seattle IGDers eventually decided that gang was too dysfunctional to work with much, and so the organization has shifted to recruiting business leaders like Komolafe to push for positive changes that, in addition to helping the bottom line, are focused on helping the poorest of the poor around the world.
IGD is still pretty low profile in Seattle, but with high influence elsewhere. “Seattle karma” is how Nedelcovych put it. Former Secretaries of State General Colin Powell (second Bush Administration) and Madeleine Albright (first Clinton Administration) co-chair the organization’s leadership council. The IGD was launched to promote federal government policies aimed at reducing global poverty and inequity.
“So yes, this is a small gathering and about as far away from the UN meeting as you can get and still be in the United States,” said Nedelcovych. That’s the point.