NAIROBI - ‘Meaningful participation’ and ‘inclusion’ were the buzzwords at the opening on Thursday of a major UN conference in Nairobi, Kenya, where governments were urged to heed the diverse voices of civil society, which were well-placed to work alongside them in building a fairer and more just future.

Bringing together civil society actors, government representatives, senior UN officials, young changemakers, academic and other stakeholders, the UN Civil Society Conference is the premier event on the civil society calendar at the United Nations, ahead of the Summit of the Future, set for this coming September.

Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General, in a video message to the event, began by expressing deep condolences to the victims of the devasting floods in Kenya and reiterating the United Nation’s continued commitment to supporting the Kenyan Government during this challenging time.

Civil society’s ‘strong voice’

She underscored how every day, civil society groups around the world work tirelessly to advance the goals of the United Nations.

“You fight for global justice, for social justice and for climate justice. For peace, for gender equality, for human rights and for the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals],” said Ms. Mohammed, said, adding: “You stand in solidarity with the vulnerable and the marginalized.”

“This Conference is a testament to the strong voice of civil society, despite rising threats and shrinking space.”

Ms. Mohammed went on to explain the Conference reaffirmed that the upcoming Summit of the Future must resonate with civil societies priorities, concerns and expectations. September’s Summit was a generational opportunity to update international institutions and build a more inclusive multilateralism that served the interests of all peoples.

Organized by the UN Department of Global Communications, the Civil Society Conference will run for two days over May 9 and 10 at the UN Office at Nairobi (UNON).

‘We need you, civil society’

Opening the event, Maher Nasser, Director of the UN communication department’s Outreach Division, said that more than 3,600 civil society representatives from 2,750 entities had registered for the Conference, along with around 400 representatives of 64 governments, seven inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), 37 UN entities and over 100 media reporters.

In addition, 70 per cent of those registered were from Africa and 40 per cent of all registrations were youth, in the age group 18 to 34. Climate was the top issue for youth registrants. Before handing over to the Co-Chairs, Mr. Nasser implored the audience to remember that “today is yesterday’s tomorrow and last year’s future.”

Dennis Francis, President of the UN General Assembly, speaking via video message, said: “For the Summit to serve as a catalyst for impactful global action, we need robust collaboration and buy-in from those directly affected to drive its action-oriented outcomes.”

Referring to the documents that are expected to emerge from the Summit – the Pact for the Future, the Global Digital Compact and the Declaration on Future Generations – the Assembly President said, “we need you, civil society, to play a critical role in this process.”

Guy Ryder, UN Under-Secretary-General for Policy, said the next two days were a vital step in the journey towards the Summit of the Future. The insights, commitment, and call for action were indispensable to the processes that lay ahead.

“We are all acutely aware that we need to work together, if we were to have any chance of meeting today’s global challenges; ongoing conflicts, escalating geopolitical tensions; multiplying humanitarian crisis; rising inequalities…the climate emergency and so much more,” he stated.

Moreover, cooperation and solidarity were needed at all levels.

“And for that, we need systems, institutions, mindsets that are up to the task and reflect contemporary realities,” Mr. Ryder said, urging everyone, especially young people, to get involved and encouraged everyone to ramp up engagement with their governments in the lead up to September.

‘We want real change’

A highlight of the opening session was a keynote address from Karimot Odebode, SDG Young Leader, one of the 17 young leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals, who leads a civil society organization in Nigeria.

She read a poem entitled The Journey Ahead.

“My generation is tired,” she said, stressing, “we want real change. Are you ready to commit to peace? Are you ready? Because I commit. Do you?”

Ms. Odebode said that civil society had gathered today as a matter of urgency, to develop a roadmap towards a sustainable future. Civil society leaders had a unique responsibility in shaping the future of global and sustainable progress, she stressed.

Florence Syevuo, another SDG Young Leader, said the Conference was a call from civil society to address global inequality once and for all, particularly those between the Global North and South. Some 70 per cent of the participants hailed from Africa, which was important; those left out of the ‘New York bubble’ could not meaningfully engage in conversations on sustainable development.

“No future UN civil society conference should be held where the UN only sits for administrative purposes...we are hoping we can go to many Global South countries,” Ms. Syevuo said.

‘Raise the bar on multilateralism’

Carole Agengo, co-chair of the Planning Committee of the 2024 Civil Society Conference and Africa Regional Representative at HelpAge International, said civil society in the Global South faced challenges in accessing previous conferences for various reasons, mostly due to visas.

Reflecting on this, the current Conference had set a premium on inclusion and participation. Ms. Agengo said it was vital for organizations in the Global South to unleash the power in their numbers and collaborate, as they moved forward towards the Summit of the Future.

For her part, Nudhara Yusuf, Co-Chair of the Planning Committee of the 2024 Civil Society Conference, Global Governance Innovation Network and Youth Coordinator, Coalition for the UN We Need, said the Conference aimed to meaningfully support the Summit of the Future, which would be held at a critical moment.

During that Summit, civil society would ask UN Member States to raise the bar on multilateralism. In turn, civil society needed to be willing to push the envelope on how they engaged with multilateral and intergovernmental processes, he said.

The work of the Conference

The Conference on Thursday also featured 37 on-site workshops, co-organized by stakeholders, including civil society and United Nations entities and attended by various participants including UN Member States.

This was followed with the discussion on civil society recommendations on the Pact for the Future, Declaration on Future Generations, and Global Digital Compact and an interactive dialogue on those proposed outcomes and related issues.

Friday is expected to kick off with an interactive dialogue, Looking ahead to the Summit and Beyond and a panel discussion, with responses from UN agencies, philanthropic groups and UN Member States.

The closing session will take place in the afternoon and will be attended by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the President of Kenya, William Ruto.