Radhe Patel

NYC Urban Fellow: Policy, engineering, economics, & dance.

Thoughts from the Social Good Summit

This week, I had the privilege of attending the UN Foundation’s Annual Social Good Summit, a 2 day conference. The speakers at the event represented a variety of leaders, celebrities, journalists, and activists representing different social causes and initiatives. The theme was #2030NOW, an effort to start conversations on the post 2015 agenda world we’d like to see. The hashtag also represented the key place of technology in accelerating development and empowering young people across the world, through lifesaving apps, community building, information transfer in developing countries, and social network activism. Below are some thoughts about two of the many panels and speakers at the summit.

Empowering Women: What’s Stopping Us, Where Do We Go From Here??

The first day of the UN Foundation Social Good Summit was kicked off by an incredible panel of women leaders: Helen Clark (Administrator, UNDP and former Prime Minister of New Zealand), Graca Machel (Children’s Rights Advocate, MDG working group), Juju Chang (Co-Anchor, NBC Nightline), and Kathy Calvin (President and CEO, UN Foundation).

The group discussed, among other things, post-2015 challenges being faced in closing the gender divide internationally. Clark identified the need to work on getting better local level data. She explained that globally, we’ve made strides in identifying Africa and East Asia as high priority regions for the work, but the problem is “all we have is national numbers on things like girls in school and maternal mortality. This hides deep injustices,” she explained, because conditions could be very different province by province. Though there has been lots of progress in raising average statistics in these regions, the next step in her eyes is to collaborate to map every country and district.

Calvin agreed, and added that access to technology was a specific metric there was not much data on. This is a key issue as more apps, even for basic phones, are being developed that target women in developing regions- for everything from FAQs for pregnant mothers to tools checking the validity of medications for girls. The problem is, many of mobile phones are owned by men in these regions, and with a technology divide comes an information divide- leading to an opportunity divide and ultimately a continued power divide.

Machel remarked that one way to begin addressing the access to technology issue and getting men to share these tools with wives and daughters was to continue working on grassroots level campaigns and education around the perception of women in some communities as inferior. To Machel, it all “comes down to understanding the value of a girl as the same as that of a boy,” constructs she urged us to consider in terms of arbitrary norms, rather than a cultural truth.

As one of the first panels, this conversation gave attendees a lot to think about in terms of the ‘new age’ problems we are facing in empowering women and girls. They set the stage for other activists to respond with ideas to confront these barriers, and innovation for how to sustain our level of engagement in these movements world-wide.

The Psychology of Social Good:

The second day of the Summit was filled with a diverse variety of content and conversations, kicked off by journalist Sheryl WuDunn and husband Nicholas Kristof, authors of Half the Sky and new book A Path Appears. They discussed one of the focuses in their new book, the fallacy of childhood resilience. Though it’s true that kids can heal quicker than adults in many cases, there’s a common thought that this translates into their mental development. As WuDunn put it, “if they have a tough beginning education-wise,” referring to the lack of schooling many young children in developing countries get, “they’ll go to school later in life and compensate.” The problem is that this is simply not true, as our capacity to take in information is accelerated between the ages of 1-5. The issue is that on average, many governments still put the majority of funding on later education. We need a norms shift to flip this model.

WuDunn and Kristof were optimistic about the possibility of this change, and discussed the power of altruism to make social movements flourish through action and donation. According WuDunn, studies show “when donating to a cause, half the people feel more intense pleasure when they give than when they receive,” and that this happiness also corresponds to the same part of the brain that gives us pleasure from candy and other desirable things.

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight and face behind the viral Ted Talk from a few years ago, built on this point later that day in her speech on ‘The Neuro-Tech Network of Humanity.’ She discussed the tendency of our left brain to perceive ourselves and everything around us as energy. This makes us collaborative and non-confrontational, because “why would we want to hurt that which is ourselves?” She urged us to find that foundational element of ourselves once more, and appeal to it in others to develop a network founded on our common humanity. This is great news for advocates and those who had lost hope in our generation’s ability for a meaningful #2030NOW- we can use our natural tendency as human beings to reach out to people via the social networks we’ve commanded for our causes, and build momentum for donations, paradigm-shifts, and action.