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Suzanne Ehlers Headshot

Everything I Needed to Know About the U.N. I Learned in Kindergarten

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As I predicted last week, the quality of input determines the quality of outcome. My blog in advance of the U.N. Commission on Population and Development, "Teens in the Tinderbox", didn't turn out to be true in the literal sense. But we did have a week of heated negotiations peppered with farcical untruths and a lot of back-and-forth that largely missed the point.

I spent the week away from my young daughters, immersed in conversations about young people. It made me remember Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten as a frame for the week's lessons:

1. Be nice to others.

There's a difference between acting nice and true compassion. My inspiration for this is the Holy See. I was raised Catholic, and yet the distance I feel from it is never more heightened than when I am at the United Nations. When the delegate from the Holy See took the floor at the final plenary to list its disagreements -- from comprehensive sexuality education to contraception to reproductive rights -- I frankly felt sadness for the church's inability to adapt to today's world. Its future is in young people. The more stubborn the church behaves, the less likely young people remain with the church.

2. Tell the truth.

Over the course of a week, one expects some exaggeration of your opponent's tactics and intentions. But we owe it to young people around the world -- some married at age 11, others living in abject poverty or conflict -- to tell the truth. "Comprehensive sexuality education" isn't about encouraging 5-year-old's to have sex. Protections related to "sexual orientation and gender identity" aren't aberrations of modern life. Change is not coming, it is here. Make room at the table or your own seat will be taken.

3. Share.

As the Fundraiser-in-Chief for Population Action International, I communicate our life-changing work to the people who generously support us. One might think it's critical to get our name out in front in bold letters. In fact, what really works is enabling and supporting the work of others. I remember being at the CPD by myself many years ago. I held morning strategy meetings in my hotel room, and one colleague came (she was at this year's CPD and we chuckled at the memory). At the 45th session last week, we were easily 150+ strong. This work was achieved because we were diverse, dynamic, responsive, and we shared with each other. Our good ideas, our honest questions, even our late-night snacks. Collaboration is the new competition, and the only truly sustainable way of doing business.

4. Connect the dots.

Almost every country has some sort of representation at the United Nations, typically in the form of a "Mission to the U.N." There is occasionally a deep and disturbing divide between what mission staff understand to be the best approach to an issue, and the reality of that issue back home. Delegates must resist the temptation to concentrate on networking with mission colleagues in New York City.  Schmoozing with delegates only gets you so far.  It is much more effective to ground interventions and statements on the true experiences from home.  If young women in your country, either married or not, need access to sexual and reproductive health services, then be their voice. 

The effort last week on behalf of young people around the world resulted in a resolution that speaks plainly but powerfully about adolescents and youth. It speaks to their need for sexual and reproductive health, reproductive rights, safe abortion, and the end to harmful practices like FGM and early and forced marriage. As we move into global reviews of various development-related agreements (from Rio to the ICPD to the MDGs), this CPD resolution gives us wind in our sails for the inevitable hard work ahead.

It reminds us that issues related to young people can be controversial and divisive. It reminds us that international development matters.

And it reminds us that those inspiring little quotes that people put at the bottom of their emails -- from Gandhi, Margaret Mead, and the like -- are grounded in a deep and sacred truth and deserve to be read daily, in a quiet moment:

Believe in a better world, and then work for it.