Press Releases

    SG/SM/7946
    NGO/435
    PI/1376
    11 September 2001

    SECRETARY-GENERAL FOCUSES ON AIDS, POVERTY, PROTECTION OF ENVIRONMENT IN SPEECH TO NGOS

    NEW YORK, 10 September (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of a statement made by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in New York this morning to the fifty-fourth Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organization (DPI/NGO) Conference:

    It is a great pleasure to welcome you to New York for this annual conference, which is almost as old as the United Nations itself, as we heard earlier.

    In this, the International Year of Volunteers, you are taking a timely look at the volunteer experience.

    Many people say that volunteering only occurs in rich countries, and among the better-off members of society. I say that volunteering is a basic human impulse, found in almost every country. In many developing nations, volunteers are often described as being the backbone of society.

    Another myth about volunteerism is that it is altruism or charity. Today we know that everyone gains, perhaps the givers most of all.

    Volunteering is also seen at times as an admirable pursuit, but one with little real economic consequence.

    In fact, statistics suggest that volunteering in the United States is equal to nine million full-time jobs with a value of $225 billion per year. In the few countries where these contributions have been measured, they are believed to account for as much as 8 to 14 per cent of gross domestic product.

    In the short time we have together today, I want to focus on three challenges: the AIDS epidemic, the fight against poverty, and what we must do to protect the global environment. Not only are they among the most pressing issues on the global agenda, they are especially ripe for what NGOs and volunteers do best.

    It has now been more than two months since the Special Session of the General Assembly on HIV/AIDS.

    Awareness of the disease continues to rise. People and governments are speaking more publicly about it -- countering the stigma, silence and shame that for too long hindered their response to the disease.

    A comprehensive strategy has been agreed. Pledges to the Global AIDS and Health Fund have now reached $1.4 billion. And pharmaceutical companies are beginning to sell life-saving drugs to developing countries at greatly reduced prices.

    NGOs and volunteer activists should feel particular pride in the role they played in this progress. After all, theirs were often the only voices calling attention to the impact of AIDS, especially in the early days of the disease. Today we know better.

    It has been said that this battle will now be won community by community. Indeed, grassroots home-based care services provided on a voluntary basis are proving critical in providing basic care:

    * In Venezuela, a buyers' club was launched to buy drugs and medical supplies.

    * In South Africa, local shopkeepers and vendors distribute condoms and information.

    * And all over the world, young people's peer education projects are changing attitudes, and local financing schemes are helping to prevent families from becoming destitute.

    Still, infection rates are rising rapidly in many areas. Care and treatment remain beyond the reach of far too many people. Silence reigns in too many places. Science has yet to deliver a cure or a vaccine. As societies mobilize for the third decade of HIV and AIDS, we look once again to you.

    We have worked hard to frame AIDS not only as an issue of public health, but as a question of development. After all, the disease takes its biggest toll among breadwinners and the most productive members of society. The devastation includes almost 22 million deaths, 13 million children left orphaned, and 36 million men, women, boys and girls living with the virus today. AIDS itself has become one of the main obstacles to development, particularly in the worst affected countries.

    The other obstacles we face in the fight against poverty are all too familiar: trade barriers, debt relief, falling official development assistance, poor governance, discrimination against women, conflict.

    Today we face a new test: whether globalization can be shaped so that its benefits reach the poor, the great majority of whom have been left outside the new global economy.

    The feeling that something is wrong with the current face of globalization has been at the heart of protests we have seen in recent years in Seattle, Genoa and elsewhere.

    Those protests have been difficult, even traumatic -- especially, perhaps, for the many NGOs which combine a firm rejection of violence with a genuine concern about globalization and related problems -- such as inequality within and among nations, and the need for more inclusiveness in decision-making about the global economy. Those NGOs took to the streets peacefully, only to find their voices drowned out by those bent on violence and destruction.

    As poverty persists, and as more such meetings approach, it would be shaming for all of us if we found ourselves unable to engage in constructive dialogue. It would likewise be tragic if globalization were to be discredited before we had a full chance to seize its potential.

    Neither globalization nor development will succeed if they are not pursued in harmony with the earth's ecosystems and natural resources. That was the conceptual breakthrough of the Earth Summit in 1992. Yet too often, in the decade that has passed since then, we have gone on with business as usual. And some damaging misconceptions have taken hold.

    It is said, for example, that protecting the environment would constrain or even undermine economic growth. In fact, the opposite is true: unless we protect the earth's natural capital, we will not be able to sustain economic growth. Moreover, the costs of inaction are often ignored.

    It is also said that solutions to global warming and other problems must await discoveries to be made by future generations. Yet hundreds of cost-effective technologies and eco-friendly practices exist today. And advances in the use of renewable resources have been exceeding expectations in recent years.

    Finally, it is said that conservation has only limited potential. But economists broadly agree that improved energy efficiency, and other "no regrets" strategies, could bring great benefits at little or no cost.

    The truth is that we have at our disposal the human and material resources with which to achieve sustainable development. But to do so, we must stop being so economically defensive in the short term, and find the political courage to focus on the long term.

    NGOs know, better than most, that doom-and-gloom scenarios are not enough to inspire people and Governments to act. That is why they have been so active on the ground, from clean-up campaigns to rain forest advocacy programmes. Volunteers also play a crucial role in helping the World Meteorological Organization monitor weather and climate. Indeed, the environmental movement has in some respects brought out the very best in the volunteer experience.

    Next year in Johannesburg, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, world leaders have an opportunity to show that they take this issue seriously. I hope you will bring all your experiences, and all your influence, to bear on the task of making that meeting a success.

    To these three challenges, let me add one more: attracting more young people to your respective causes. Young people should be with you at the forefront of global change. If they are left on society's margins, all of us will be impoverished.

    Between them, your organizations offer young people many opportunities to get involved in working for a better world -- as does our own UN Volunteer Programme. I encourage you to reach out, and to replenish your ranks with the dynamism and ideas that young people have in such abundance.

    People who volunteer in their youth are far more likely to volunteer again later in life. So the very future of civic activism could depend on how well you do in this respect.

    The impulse to contribute is there. It is a potential wellspring of human progress. Our challenge is to tap it.

    The agenda set out for all of you by the Millennium Declaration is complex and ambitious. Governments cannot do it alone -- nor can NGOs.

    Governments should resist the tendency to see NGOs solely as adversaries. They need to acknowledge the value of the contribution made by NGOs to creating a healthy society.

    At the same time, NGOs need to acknowledge the legitimate roles and responsibilities of the State.

    Everyone stands to gain when Governments and NGOs learn to work with each other, at home and internationally. Fruitful and innovative partnerships have sprung up in great profusion in recent years. The United Nations will do its utmost to continue opening its doors, and to be a place where all can come together and find common ground.

    I want to thank you all, NGOs and volunteers alike, throughout the world, for all you are doing to make the world a better and safer place. You understand that what matters most of all is not the access you gain or lack here at UN Headquarters, but what you do when you return home to achieve our shared goals of prosperity and peace. Let us, together, focus on implementation.

    In that spirit, I wish you a truly productive and memorable conference.

    Thank you very much.

    * *** *