Big decisions in the Big Apple: my address to the United Nations

Written by John Pullinger on . Posted in Features

On March 23, joined by my counterpart from Botswana, Anna Majelantle, I addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the topic of how to develop indicators to support the goals and targets for sustainable development. This was the first time anyone in my role had been invited to do this and as I prepared to make my speech I was struck by the significance of the moment. I often talk about stepping forward to take our place at the table where the decisions are made, and in this room filled with ambassadors and representatives from around the world, decisions are made which affect the lives of everyone.

A few weeks earlier I had been given the extraordinary honour of taking the role of chair of the United Nations Statistical Commission. My task then was to guide counterpart national statisticians from across the globe through a complex agenda at a meeting in New York. A core part of the agenda was a discussion about indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals in the period to 2030 covering economic, social and environmental matters as well as means of implementation. It was because of this involvement I was asked to address the General Assembly and, despite the pressures of my UK job in the run up to the dissolution of parliament before the general election, I felt this was far too important a moment to be missed. I made arrangements for a day trip to New York.

Ahead of the meeting I received lots of useful advice and support from the United Nations secretariat and turned my mind to my introductory speech. It had to reach out to an audience that was new to me. It had to recognise and represent the reality of the world of statistics - a strong determination to help decision makers make wise choices but often in an environment where statistical work is hard and resources limited. Above all it had to offer a credible solution to an immense challenge.

My mind was whirring as I sat on the plane on the Sunday night ahead of the meeting on Monday. It continued to whirr as I got to my New York hotel sometime after midnight and settled down for a few hours sleep. Following the normality of a shower and breakfast, the calming support of a final briefing from the United Nations Statistics Division team and a brisk walk through the cold Manhattan sunshine I was ready to step up to the podium.

I was introduced to the co-facilitators of the intergovernmental negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda who were the meeting chairs, the ambassadors of Kenya and Ireland, and took my place. Reassuringly Anna joined me and we were ready to go.

We were to be in the hot seat all day. After introductory statements, I was invited to make my speech. I presented a report of the United Nations Statistical Commission on how we planned to tackle the task of developing the indicators. I felt I was getting across a true picture of the world of statistics - what we could offer and what it would take for us to succeed. I had decided to be straightforward and candid about the resolve of statisticians to step up and play their part whilst also recognising the seriousness of the difficulties and the need for support.

After I had finished, the meeting also heard virtual contributions from my opposite numbers in India, Hungary and Ecuador as well as Anna's perspective from Botswana. We were a good team. A lively debate followed over the next few hours. During the course of the day, I sensed support building in the room. At around 5 pm the chair asked me to address the questions that had been raised. The political significance of the meeting was clear and the nature of the questions reflected the seriousness of the occasion. Some real time shuffling of extensive notes compiled during the day enabled me to address all the questions head on.

As I stood up and left for the airport just before 5.30 pm, I felt the strength of political endorsement for a plan that will enable statisticians in all countries of the world to make a substantial and lasting contribution to sustainable development. After negotiating the rush hour traffic I boarded the plane and slept ready for the hard work that was to begin the following day.


The views expressed in the Opinion section of StatsLife are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Statistical Society.

John Pullinger United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

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