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Weird and wonderful UN week

A general UN assemblage
A general UN assemblage
Flickr, morten gade

As heads of state, officials and other bigwigs descend on New York City for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, key city streets are closed, the traffic replaced by police officers, patrol cars and vans, and New Yorkers are irritated. It’s UN Week and most of the buzz is about the Palestinian push for UN recognition as an independent state.

President Obama is already in town, scheduled to speak at the UN on Wednesday.

But I’m not here for all that. I just came to see the UN deal with a proposal to re-set the global health agenda — something that, arguably, could do a lot more to increase global stability, our national security and worldwide economic growth than all this other blather. Arguably.

It’s called the UN High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases. As boring as it sounds, it could be a big deal.

But I discovered upon arrival that even though I’m registered as Official UN Media (yes, with capital letters) I’m not actually allowed into the meeting. I assume that’s because I’m hardly “high-level,” which is fine. I’m not sure I’d even want to get that close to UN headquarters right now.

It’s friggin’ crazy around here.

Instead, I am skirting around the edges of the meeting visiting with others who have come here for the variations on the theme of making the world better.

Ted Turner
Tom Paulson

Like Ted Turner, a so-called media mogul, rich guy and the founder of the UN Foundation. I’m here, along with about two dozen or so other journalists sponsored by him and this philanthropy that promotes black helicopter government takeovers and democracy-hating jihadists (Just kidding. That was how one of the UN press officers described the view some Americans have of the organization.)

I’m a global health fellow sponsored by the UN Foundation to come learn more about the UN, specifically its work on health issues.

We met with Turner briefly before he went on stage at the Social Good Summit — a new media event aimed at stimulating, well, social good, largely aimed at young people.

Somebody asked how can we make the world a better place? Here’s some of what Ted said:

He told us to call him Ted, by the way. They don’t call him Captain Outrageous for nothing. On stage at the Social Media Summit, in conversation with Adam Ostrow, editor-in-chief of Mashable, Turner decried as idiocy the amount of money the U.S. spends on military adventures and the reluctance our nation has to spend money on those less fortunate in other countries.

Social Good Summit
Tom Paulson

“A billion people went to sleep hungry last night,” Turner said. In the medieval age it made sense to fight and kill each other, he said, because life was so boring. “Now, we have TV and Viagra…. We have better things to do than drop bombs on each other.”

A global view has never been more critical, he said, and the UN has never been more relevant.

“We’re going to have to make it together or we’re not going to make it all,” said Turner, who added when asked about success: “I studied history. People who had lots of friends were successful while people who had lots of enemies weren’t…. We don’t make friends by dropping bombs on people.”

Fun stuff, but it had little to do with global health.

Me and Mandy Moore
Tom Murphy (with my camera)

So then we met with Mandy Moore, a musician and actress, to talk about malaria. Moore is the celebrity spokesman on malaria for PSI, otherwise known as Population Services International — which, as its name implies, started out focused on family planning issues. So did Seattle-based PATH, which also has since branched out as well into many new arenas of global health.

I wonder why PATH doesn’t have a celebrity spokesperson.

Anyway, Moore spoke eloquently about the need to reduce malaria deaths and the people she met on a visit to a poor community in Cameroon. Someone asked about T-shirts and I decided, like most, to get a photo of myself with Moore.

Then we met with Michael Elliott, the newish president and CEO of the ONE Campaign — that humanitarian grassroots effort Bono started. I did a story a while ago about the organization’s efforts in Seattle and its strong connections to the Gates Foundation.

Oddly, for the former editor of TIME magazine’s international branch, Elliott seemed a bit apologetic about his lack of detailed knowledge regarding matters of global health and development. We’d ask some questions and Elliott tended to deflect them, turning to his media relations staff for guidance.

ONE Campaign’s Michael Elliott meets with journalists
Tom Paulson

Elliott said his main interest now at ONE is to use its prodigious lobbying clout to turn more attention to the need for sustainable agriculture. That sounds like a good idea, I said, but asked why we were talking about it right now if this week’s “high-level” meeting at the UN was about chronic disease and the global health agenda.

“They are all good,” said Elliott.

I had to agree, but wondered how we were supposed to decide which of all these good things we should act on immediately, since we clearly can’t do them all.

I have to admit I’ve come away from my first day at UN Week a bit overwhelmed. I can only hope that somebody can figure out how to establish priorities among all these good things. It seems like we need some kind of organization that can bring everybody together to reach consensus, set priorities.

Oh wait, that’s why I’m here. It’s UN Week.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.