Recent events in the world, along with the global pandemic have forced us to look at the complex relationships between nation states. In this timely discussion with Lopa Banerjee we discuss the possibilities and challenges of this uncertain and emergent moment in our human history.

Lopa Banerjee is the Director of the Civil Society Division at UN Women, and leads the agency’s work on strengthening civil society contribution, participation and influence in the global, intergovernmental policy discussion and decision processes.


Generation Equality Forum Overview Background on Generation Equality

Full Transcript

Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves presented by INTER-CONNECTED. I’m Mallika Dutt. In this episode, The Future of Multilateralism, we’re joined by the very wise and strategic Lopa Banerjee, who’s the Director of the Civil Society Division at UN Women. Listen to this fascinating discussion about sovereignty, globalization, and the global good.

Mallika Dutt: Good morning, everybody and welcome to this series that we are doing with the BUILD community of the Ford Foundation.

I am so pleased today to be having this discussion with Lopa Banerjee on the future of multilateralism. Lopa is one of the smartest most strategic thinkers in this space that I have encountered. She is the head of Civil Society at UN Women and has really played an incredibly critical and strategic role in making sure that the voices of civil society, not only get heard but also shape the global public policy agenda. And I know that you’re going to learn as much from this discussion as I have in talking to Lopa over the years. So welcome Lopa, thank you so much for joining us today.

Lopa Banerjee: Thank you so much Mallika and it’s a great, great, great pleasure to be in this conversation with you and all colleagues. I recognize many names, so greetings to all the sisters and activists and leaders who are on this call.

Mallika Dutt: So Lopa what a day to be having this conversation! We just witnessed the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States of America, and it was quite a day yesterday for many of us. And certainly recent events in the world, along with the global pandemic, have really forced us to look at the relationships amongst us as nation states and amongst us as multiple actors around the world, and so I want to begin with really getting your reflections on where do you think we are right now in terms of the future of multilateralism? What are the possibilities that this moment is opening up and what are some of the challenges?

Lopa Banerjee: In fact, thank you Mallika I was thinking about this, you know, I was thinking of our conversation that we were going to have today, and I was thinking exactly this. That, you know, what a day to be having this conversation. You know, among the first executive orders that the new president of the United States does is actually strengthen the US’s role in multilateralism. He re-enters the United States in the Paris Accord. Even as we speak, Dr. Fauci is in a conversation with WHO. He’s leading, he’s back to leading the US delegation, or rather the US delegation is back in the WHO. And they are having, even as we speak, right now, there is a conversation going on with the scientists and medical leaders from across the world, right now, that WHO is hosting, which it does on a regular basis now with regard to the next steps in terms of dealing with the pandemic.

So, it’s, you know, it’s, to me, there were two things that strike me, both about this moment in time, and the fact that we’re having this conversation after yesterday. Two things that strike me, one is the enormous importance at this point in time of the fact that, if you look at the, if you look at the full, you know, plethora of executive orders yesterday they were to do with strengthening the idea of a global solidarity based shared governance. He talked about re-entering the Climate Accord, which is a global governance system. The WHO is part of a global health community that looks at global governance on health. He talked about domestic measures on race, on immigration, which is also linked with the ways in which countries and peoples engage with each other across the world. And economic recovery, economic justice, the whole point of looking at economic recovery.

So two things that struck me were about this, the fact of the importance of being a part of a global system of good. And the second that none of this would have happened without the movements that brought the Biden/Harris administration to power. And to me that was what was striking. And, as I reflect on multilateralism today, to me I, you know, we, the need for or the criticality of a multilateralism that is of this time in history, a modern multilateralism, a contemporary multilateralism that recognizes the importance of movements in supporting democracy, human rights, women’s rights. And movements that address justice and the centerpiece of what is creating crisis, which is an unequal, discriminatory economic architecture that then links with race, class, and gender.

Mallika Dutt: So Lopa one of the distinctions that you make that for me actually feels like a very important one is the distinction that you make between globalization and the global good. And certainly the way in which globalization has been practiced in the last couple of decades, whether it’s been in the regimes around territorial aggrandizement, or territorial protection, or whether it’s been around issues of trade, or whether it’s been around, you know, multiple issues, climate, so many so many issues that have been addressed through multilateralism. Globalization, the way in which it has been practiced, has had some pretty severe impact on communities around the world, and so a lot of the backlash against multilateralism has come from this place of people feeling that they have been really screwed over, really been exploited and discriminated against in terms of what was promised by nation states coming together.

Now in this distinction that you’re making between globalization and the global good we’re still looking at a global scenario where there are many different kinds of states, right. We don’t have necessarily a preponderance of states that are focusing on the global good versus using sovereignty arguments or national sovereignty as a way to protect their own power. How do you see this narrative shift around global good and globalization evolving, given that we also have huge trends towards states that are really pushing back against the global good?

Lopa Banerjee: So you know that’s such an interesting reflection, right. So if we look at it, if we look at, you know when I was talking earlier about a multilateralism for now, for the 21st century, if you look at the 20th century, then we look at, you know, the growth in the 20th century of democracies, many new democracies came into being in the 20th century, right. And they came into being also because of you know their own national democratic movements, but they came into being because their national democratic movements were supported and they found strength from you know, shared solidarity across different parts of the world, whether that was the end of apartheid in South Africa, whether that was the new democracies that came up in Eastern Europe, whether that was the growth of you know, the movement shift away from authoritarian regimes into democratic regimes in Latin America, many of the you know new democracies that also came up in Southern and Eastern Africa and so on, right. And it all came up also because of different ways in which countries collaborated, movements collaborated, and governments collaborated for that. So it was the growth of democracies and movement. And then we saw going in that whole idea of you know, this sort of shared endeavor, this sharing, that idea of, therefore, globalization, the original idea of globalization, which was connecting, connecting people, connecting movements, connecting ideas and then it shifted into moving goods connecting goods, rather than people, and ideas, and movements. And that shift into connecting goods, and strengthening goods, and therefore strengthening a whole development of an economic thinking, an architecture, you know, led by global structures that, you know, move, and what that did to the to the financial architecture, and what that did in terms of creating, you know, deep economic fragility. Because it shifted the locus away from local to a corporate governance structure that became global with no connection to the local. And it moved into a sort of a global architecture, and that was very different, that is very different. So that idea of globalization is very different from global good, which is about exchanging, moving, ideas, building solidarity movements.

And this is why, my, you know, from where I sit, I look at the shift in thinking about multilateralism today as from, you know, supporting, or strengthening, or focusing on States, to focusing on movements, movements that create, you know, that center at their core, the idea of democracy and freedom. You know, in the 20th century, the notion that economic growth and prosperity would lead, you know, were connected to democracy and freedom, and democracy and freedom, were, you know, so economic growth was a driver and so globalization and then that would sort of open up economies, and open up democracies that, you know, that is not what happened, and that is because the locus shifted.

So to me the big difference between globalization and global movements, because a global movement is only global because it is many joined up local movements, and local, you know, ideas, and local issues. That’s what makes a global movement. So the multilateralism of today needs to take into account the fact that the growth from the growth of democracy and strengthening people’s movements in the 20th century, we have moved into the 21st century into the growth of illiberal democracies, still based on the principle of electing, elections, but it’s the growth of illiberal democracies that are center-staging a focus on, you know, rule of law over justice, the notions of justice. So illiberal democracies which then look at eroding institutions of democracy, which is a free press, which is strength in civic movement, which is institutions of accountability and, which is, in you know, the access and participation in justice systems. All of these are eroded in the growth of illiberal democracies. And that’s what we have seen in the 21st century. So the counter to that is to continue to strengthen the movements that will continue to hold the institutions to account and continue to strengthen institutions.

And that is what we have seen in country, after country, after country, in the recent past, when we have seen, freedom and democracy movements that come out of addressing the deep structural economic fragility and inequality and then that lead, and connected with social justice, human rights and women’s rights.

Mallika Dutt: So Lopa, you know I think everybody on this webinar certainly would agree with the general framing that you’re doing of the desire for where we want this to go, and yet I’ve been in many, many conversations with leaders of organizations in this community and around the world where the shrinking space for civil society, the growing persecution of civil society organizations is a big trend. So the counter to what you’re saying is more and more pressure on organizations and movements and other types of civil society entities to buckle down to illiberal democracies, authoritarian governments, you know, however, we choose to describe them, or whatever shape they might take, and this is proving to be a very challenging issue for many of the folks who are on the front lines of social justice around the world.

So I want to make this a little bit more concrete. You know, one of the things that you’ve been spearheading is Generation Equality, and the Generation Equality Forum, which is the place that we are finding ourselves in to advance gender equality 25 years after the Beijing Conference in 1995. The 1995 Beijing Conference was a really important and significant marker for the advancement of women’s human rights. And in the last several decades we’ve seen great

strides and also great push back to gender equality. It’s also taken many different expressions and forms, and so here we are now with Generation Equality unfolding in the middle of a pandemic with a very ambitious agenda of creating this new kind of multilateralism for the 21st century that you are speaking about.

Could you talk a little bit more about Generation Equality and what it is that you are trying to encourage, and support, and facilitate around gender equality through this forum?

Lopa Banerjee: So you know what led to Generation Equality, why did UN women decide to, you know, have this whole idea of Generation Equality? We were coming into the 25th year of the commemoration of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. When Beijing happened in 1995, that whole moment of, you know, more than about 50,000 people coming together, governments and civil society, those were the two big actors, governments and women’s groups, and women’s rights groups, and civil society that came together in what I like calling an inside outside strategy where feminists within governments and feminists outside of governments worked together to develop the Beijing Platform for Action as the sort of framework for gender equality.

And we were coming into the 25th anniversary at a time when that movement, that solidarity, that engagement did not exist because of this whole, you know, the sort of, the atmosphere we’re in, in many ways, and what, so that, and did not exist, because we were also seeing the you know erosion of multilateralism, the pushback on gender equality, all of this.

At the same time we were also seeing the enduring power of protest. Whether it was the “Me Too”, whether it is “Neo Naminas”, whether it was all the you know climate justice movements, the ending violence movements, the movements around economic justice, equal pay and all of this that was going on in the world. Across the world, in spite of extremely deliberate ways to shrink civil space the strength of protest was also strong just as much as shrinking space was.

And so, looking at that, the idea of generation equality was that to centerstage that power of protest, that strength of activism, of civil society, women’s rights groups, and young people who were organizing in very different ways, so to centerstage that with the idea that there were still feminists within governments, that there was still states that believed in multilateralism, to bring them together with all of the other actors that have now developed in the ecosystem, you know the different actors, media and other influences and even private sector, which has a different role and it comes in different… to bring together two things: One – the power of activism, the power of protest, the power of women’s rights and civil society and young groups in equal influence building decision making with states and other actors who are duty bearers who have committed to implementing certain norms and standards for the creation of equality in their countries and communities. To bring them together to accelerate that implementation.

So the focus is very clear, it is not to build new norms, it is not to build new laws, but it is to, in a very focused manner, to look at a critical set of issues that will enable the dismantling or the beginning of the dismantling of the systemic inequality.

And who will be the actors? The energy and activism of protests that we have seen succeeding together with the allies, the willing, the committed to the idea of global good, to bring them together on an implementation and a shared accountability agenda.

And that to me is an expression of the new multilateralism, which focuses, I mean it’s you know in different ways, in some cases, countries adopted and call it a feminist foreign policy. But what

is a feminist foreign policy? A feminist foreign policy really is a focus on investment resources, rights, and institutions.

So that focus of the generation equality forum on driving investment and resources to gender equality, driving investment and resources to strengthening that core of that protest of civil society, and creating the political will, the shared accountability of what needs to change.

And the fact that this is not a mandated process, but those that are coming to it are coming to it voluntarily because they believe that this kind of alignment will work at this moment in time to accelerate action and to drive both the investment and the accountability that is necessary within this global system. And that’s what Generation Equality Forum is doing.

In a sense to me it is building the new models of multilateralism, which centers shared leadership and shared accountability and shared vision setting.

Mallika Dutt: So Lopa, you know that sounds incredibly powerful and very, very ambitious. When you talk about protest as the centerpiece of what movements bring in terms of an approach and an energy and sort of the drive to building these new kinds of alliances there are differing dimensions to this, right. So when you’re sitting at the table with multiple stakeholders and you’ve got, you know, the private sector, you’ve got governments, you’ve got media, you’ve got multiple parts of civil society, whether it’s nonprofit organizations, or social movements, or whether it’s trade unions, or the education sector, it’s an incredibly diverse group of people. And in that diversity there’s also lots of differences and power, right. So, the private sector has money that it can use in ways that most civil society actors just simply don’t have access to, you know states have a different kind of command and control power, that come with, even if they’ve been elected into power by communities and by movements that they still then sort of move into a different place of holding power. And within civil society there’s an incredibly diverse range of perspectives and positions.

And what I have seen over the years is that it’s sometimes quite challenging to move from a protest position to a place where this co-creation of something new, the co-visioning, the core accountability, new multilateral way of being in the world is trying to emerge. So I’m curious as to how the process has been going so far. Where are the challenges? Where are things still getting stuck? Where are things emerging that you didn’t even imagine could happen? And, certainly what has the pandemic done to this process? Because we started GEF (Generation Equality Forum) before the pandemic and then right when the meetings were actually supposed to be happening, we went into lockdown and now it’s still all unfolding in terms of Mexico and France, and all of the other actors that are involved. So I’m, so just to kind of get a little bit more specific with my question, this idea, this vision that you have, how is it actually playing out and what role has the pandemic played in shifting and shaping that process?

Lopa Banerjee: So, I want to also clarify before I get to your question about the pandemic and how it has shaped or is shaping the forum. I want to just clarify something when I said protest and what are the different aspects. I want to expand the idea of protest from just the conventional way of looking at protest as you know, just sort of, you know resistance. Because protest it is, of course, about civil society, women’s rights groups, bringing to the table issues of injustice and discrimination. But it is also not just civil society and women’s rights groups, right. When I talk about protests it’s about You know, lawyers and communities challenging injustice in court, it is about investigators building meticulous cases of you know, human rights violations, corporate violations in country, in different ways. It’s you know, journalists bringing into public view you know, deep cases of corruption or whatever it is, you know other advocates in different spaces, you know, working with within government.

So protest is a big area it’s, not just in terms of, you know, the way we consider, you know, women’s rights groups protesting in that sense, because it encompasses a whole other way of also working. It’s grassroots mobilizing, right. If we look at the manner in which, you know, Black Lives Matter, has affected or is going to affect policy making now in the United States, it’s not just through protests, it is about the grassroots organizing around issues together with other actors that is part of this protest. This is why, for illiberal democracies curtailing and controlling protest is the first and most important step, and that’s what they, you know, try to do all the time because of this power of protest.

So that’s what I want to say as I roll it into Generation Equality Forum, because that’s the point around the Generation Equality Forum, that it is looking at this ecosystem in a comprehensive way.
So yes, at the table are young people, civil society, women’s rights groups, states, not as many private sector but yes some private sector as well.

So how is it going? So first of all, to me, actually, I mean one of the most inspiring aspects of it has been, and some of the colleagues who are on this call, I can’t see everybody, but I don’t know if anybody here is part of the leadership of the Action Coalitions or not, but you know, to see a youth lead group or a youth activist sitting at the table with the government, with the UN agency, with you know, sort of an established civil society organization, and then with the private sector and debating, because what is being said as the actions that they will take is being decided in a collective way. And that engagement, that they’re sitting at the table with equal power, this is difficult, nobody knows how to do this. The UN doesn’t know how to do this. For us it’s been a learning exercise, because usually as an intergovernmental organization we’re kind of mediating, we are managing, we’re facilitating, we’re…

So, to be in that space of equal leadership – governments don’t know how to be in an equal decision-making position with civil society and youth groups. Youth groups and civil society don’t know because they are usually in a confrontational role. So how to be in a collaborative and co- creation role, this is tough, this is hard. But it is happening, it is happening, and in many ways it is also happening because of COVID. The pandemic, you know, one of the things that the pandemic did in an absolute, crystallized, laser focused manner is, not only did it illuminate the, no not only did it exacerbate existing inequalities but it illuminated them. And that is a really, really important aspect, that of course it exacerbated, but it highlighted what already existed, whether that was the deep racial discrimination across the world, whether it was the deep economic inequality. Who was affected? The frontline workers. Who was affected? Those that were holding up the pandemic response. I mean those, when I say holding up meaning holding up, you know, supporting the pandemic response, not standing as barriers.

Those that were supporting, those that were critical to the pandemic response, the frontline workers, were among, in the most fragile of jobs. So, it drew attention to the huge economic insecurity, the absolute paucity of resilient social security systems, the issue of profound violence. The fact that this became a topic, this was an issue of enormous concern within the global system. 148 countries immediately signed on to this, the fact that to the world that at the beginning of 2020 when the Secretary General’s report on Beijing+25 was being written and the report was released at the beginning of 2020, the violence numbers were in most countries of the world were at twenty percent and in five months that went into thirty, forty, fifty percent in countries. That acceleration in five months drew attention to the fact of how fragile the laws and policies that had been put in place to address violence were, and so it drew attention to these aspects of you know, profound inequalities.

And the other really important aspect of the pandemic is, that instead of going into an austerity mode, governments went into stimulus mode. And that idea of stimulus opens up the whole idea of not just building back better, because we’re not building back better patriarchy or inequality, but built into it the idea of transformation. And the fact that frontline workers, seventy percent of whom are women across the world, healthcare workers, the fact that they were not sitting at the table for the COVID response, all of this became so stark.

The fact that governments were using COVID to even further shrink because of the, you know, restrictions around public mobility and public gathering, they were using it to shrink civic space further. All of this came to light. And therefore, the response of the Generation Equality Forum, why it had been convened in the first place, to address the system and systemic inequality, became ever more powerful.

So, in fact through the COVID period the momentum that GEF was able to gather, and to this point right now, that the focus on building back transformed from COVID, so that we focus on resilience, so that we focus on the idea that going forward, you know, when we are talking about gender equality, that gender equality will have to be key, this focus on voice, choice, safety as the centerpiece, and resilience as the centerpiece going forward, and that can only happen through this kind of collaboration. That idea has become, you know almost, how will I say, you know, so self-evident.

So, right now the focus is on therefore arriving at those critical actions. Right now the focus is that the Generation Equality Forum its two objectives – one an intergenerational, multi- stakeholder movement building for gender equality across different actors, bringing them together, that focus that, drive towards it, and that this movement comes up with that critical set of actions that require resources, you know results, accountability, and a strengthened institution going forward.

Mallika Dutt: Lopa that was really actually quite inspiring. I mean this is the very interesting aspect of the pandemic in terms of all of the challenges that it’s created for us, but also all of the ways in which it’s really surfaced the deep transformation that is needed in so many of our societies. And to that point one of the issues that’s been brought up in the chat is the digital divide, and the exacerbation of the leaving out voices that don’t have access to digital means to be participating in these kinds of forums, these kinds of discussions that you’re talking about. So, is the digital divide also one of the issues that’s emerged as a big one for generation equality?

Lopa Banerjee: Absolutely, as you know, one of the action coalitions is on technology and innovation, and it is about technology and innovation for equality, it’s not just technology and innovation in and of itself. It is looking at creating conditions of equality. So one is the action coalition that will look at critical actions around it, but the other aspect of it, and this is something we’re still discussing and struggling with because we haven’t arrived at a you know, at a successful modality, which is we’re struggling with how to ensure now in this phase, as we are, you know, in the last sprint towards Mexico and then Paris is how are we going to ensure now going forward that those that are not part of the discussions and conversations and that need to be, how are we going to ensure that they are going to be part of the forum and that they’re going to be part of the conversation, and shaping.

So, in terms of right now how to ensure that this gets to, you know, that it’s not about people coming to the forum, but the forum getting to them in where they are. So that, we’re still struggling with that and different modalities of making that happen. But the fact that, if we look at

you know, what is going to be a defining factor in this new recovery, and resilience, and building back better is the role of technology as an enabler, not as a discriminator, but as an enabler, but also the role of technology in terms of enabling that restructuring of the economy.

In many ways the, you know, the original idea of technology as a disrupter, but really, and that’s about the creative aspects of technology, but really at this point in time thinking of technology in terms of how it is going to be a, you know, a factor in re-looking at an economic system that is going to be able to be more resilient and more focused on social protection and equitable distribution.

Mallika Dutt: So, to come back to your thoughts on what it is that you think civil society and certainly this community could be focusing on. I mean what are the shifts that need to happen within civil society movements, and actors, and communities to bring in this new 21st century multilateralism for the global good? What are some of the things that you’re seeing in terms of the trends that are necessary, the actions, the directions that are necessary to move forward for the for the global good/

Lopa Banerjee: I mean already I think the whole idea that this is, you know, that this sort of intersectionality, the whole focus now that you know, movements and issues are connected. That what we are looking at is an architecture right, an economic architecture, which means at its Center is land rights, labor rights, the rights of workers, the rights of, you know, so this whole idea of labor as value, and not as a good. So that focus – labor as value and not as a good, and labor as value that creates community, and then creates cohesion, and then creates shared aspirations towards it, that idea is dependent on a whole set of, you know, movements ideas, connectedness in communities. And therefore, for civil society, for women’s rights groups to really look at this entire, you know, connected system of different groups, different actors you know and the manner in which narratives and movements have shaped up in a holistic manner, in the ways in which groups collaborate, and in the ways in which groups work to hold governments to account.

That focus on, you know, and that’s why I go back to, you know, the kind of democracy protests that we have seen across the world, and yes, some of them have been successful and some of them have not, but the point is it’s also a long game. But to look at where solidarity, collaboration, strategy and that intersectional link of, you know, again, this inside-outside, but working with different sectors in society and community, number one. Number two, the really important idea that happens already, but that idea of the strength of the local, but the strength of the local is actually so organically now connected to the global. So, to make the strength of the of the local part of this whole idea of global movements and as part of that movements, it is civil society, yes, but it is civil society together with all of these other actors that are working for system change.

This, you know, this idea of the interlinkages of economic justice with social justice, the fact that we are now at a time when, you know, race, class, and gender are inextricably linked, we cannot have a discussion around gender justice without talking simultaneously about racial justice and understanding what racial justice means in different contexts and who gets left out, and why and, therefore, how do we align?

Also Tarcila, I think the idea of how do you take local, how does local become global? The point is a global is only an aggregation of local. And the fact today is that you know the strength lies in local movements, because there is, you know the focus on grassroots organizing and grassroots movement building, and by that I mean civil society, but also other grassroots actors. This is what is actually creating the shift in power, this is what is creating, you know, that accountability

mechanism in communities. Because, you know, it is those local elections, it’s those local officials, it’s that local engagement that is really where the strength is and then it aggregates up.

And in that context that link of race, class, and gender, and for movements to constantly work across that link, because then that addresses both institutions and it addresses actors. And to me that’s the way, you know, to move forward so that we do not fall into the trap of the siloization that happens as a result of the ways in which, you know, policymaking works. This shift back from that the lens on policymaking must come up from local shifts that policymaking hierarchy that, you know, that we have been used to for this long.

Mallika Dutt: This question of power really permeates everything, including our own movements and our own organizations. And so, everything that we’re talking about at the global public policy level is also reflected, as you said at the local level, and vice versa it’s all one of a piece. And I’m thinking about the impact that Black Lives Matter has had, most recently on so many of our own organizations that have seen huge disruption, huge reckoning, real shifts in leadership as a result of confronting the kinds of inequality and discrimination that exist within our own spaces, that exist within our own organizations, that exist within ourselves, if you will.

And so, as I listened to you articulate this new configuration of relationships, and power, and alliances for the 21st century, it is also, I think, really important for us to be thinking about how that reconfiguration is happening at the micro level of self, organization, our own movements, our own communities, all the way up, because you know the microcosm and the macrocosm are always interrelated. So it’s a very interesting experiment to watch what is happening with generation equality and all of the different dimensions of the forum, because to my knowledge, I don’t know that there’s any other similar experiment taking place around this recalibration of people at the table coming together to define these kinds of multilateral agendas, at least that’s not something that I’m aware of.

So, it also I think is important for us to remember the emergent nature of all of this. We are in the process of reconfiguration, we are in the process of shifting, and changing, and transforming from the self to structures. And certainly the pandemic has given us an opportunity to pay attention to that in a way that perhaps we may not have because we were so focused on, sort of, the external agenda and shifting the external agenda, as we have for so long.

I have one question that’s a little bit of a shift from the conversation that we’ve been having so far, and that is about U.S. exceptionalism. You know, this question of U.S. exceptionalism and the role that the U.S. has played in the multilateral space is something that we’ve all been discussing, and exploring, and challenging, and questioning for decades now, I mean from the time of Beijing to now.

And it’s an ironic, it’s one of those paradoxical spaces. On the one hand, we look to the U.S. to set certain standards, to advance certain values, while at the same time being aware of the country’s role in undermining democracy, in advancing very unequal agendas in different parts of the world. And in the last couple of years we’ve really seen the unraveling of this idea of U.S. exceptionalism in the global public policy space.

What is this shift in the place of the United States in the world enabling in terms of other voices, other leaders, other states, other social society actors, what is the potential that it’s creating and what is the harm that it’s creating?

Lopa Banerjee: Well, I want to look at it, you know, to what you said, but also extend it a little differently. So again, going back to this, you know, the idea of U.S., the role of the U.S. over the years, and you know. This, where we are today is, yes there are some countries that are, you know, important in a particular way. With that community of countries that are important today is geographically widespread today, and this is different from what it was in the 20th century. You know, post the second World War, the role of the United States and rebuilding mainly a Western economy in a Western, you know, democratic system and then its role that became in terms of, you know, its own foreign policy interests in different countries and how that played out in different countries.

But today the engagement is a very different engagement. There are many different actors, there are many different countries, and those countries are against strengthened by, you know, movements, and systems within those countries that play out. So, the role of the United States today, if you look at it, you know, around the interdependence of global cooperation. For the United States, why has the United States rejoined the climate accord?

Not because it wants to improve things in Guatemala, you know it, yes, it does want to improve things in Guatemala, because if it works to improve things in Guatemala, it is, its own internal conditions will improve. It has joined the climate accord, because it is through global shared cooperation getting to net zero, getting to 1.5 degrees will enable its own communities that are, you know being economically excluded to be included, to create green jobs, to create a more you know, more sustainable environmental spaces, because it cannot happen on its own, because of the way the world is connected, because of the way, you know, goods move, and people move and so on.

So, the world itself, the way it exists today, and the ways in which people connect, and the ways in which countries are interdependent, and people – our borders are porous. That idea of exceptionalism is an outdated idea, it is only held as an exceptional idea in order for, you know, certain interests to promote that worldview.

The truth is the United States doesn’t have that, you know, that position of exceptionalism. Yes it is an extremely important military power, yes it is. But you know, at the same time, and yes it is this you know, mighty army, but at the same time there are, you know, other countries that have you know, a sort of, that have their own, sort of, power. And the way the world is today, it is not in a situation where a number of other countries if they were to exercise that kind of military power, the destabilization for the entire world, including the U.S. would be you know, comprehensive.

And so just the structure of the world has changed, the geopolitics of the world has changed that idea of US exceptionalism. That said the manner in which the United States own democratic, you know, reckoning, whether it is through Black Lives Matter, whether it is the manner in which grassroots and women’s groups organized for this election and are organized now going forward in terms of what need to be the domestic policies and the condition of life changes in this country are linked to the ways in which the U.S. will engage and be present in the world, whether that is around sexual and reproductive health and rights, whether that is around women, peace, and security, and whether that is fundamentally around the economic architecture.

Mallika Dutt: Any last thoughts for us Lopa? What are some of the big trends that we should be paying attention to as civil society actors? What are some of the opportunities and perhaps some of the pitfalls that we should be thinking about and paying attention to?

Lopa Banerjee: I mean you know, I think that this, you know this sense of the you know, a moment in time right now that COVID has provided and the fact that the entire world, entire

world is at the same space, irrespective of, you know, what their industrialized state is and what the state of the economy is. In different ways, governments have responded in similar ways, you know small stimulus, big stimulus, just stimulus, unjust stimulus, doesn’t matter, but the response has been similar, and therefore, and the recognition that in every single country frontline workers have demonstrated where the locus of response lies.

This is an opportunity for us to really think in terms of our movements, the way civil society engages, the focus on re-looking at not just hierarchies but re-looking at the ways of our engagement, re-looking at our relationship with institutions, and how to you know look at that relationship between civil society movements and institutions and accountability. That link of movements and institutional accountability, that link of representation and therefore again, institutional voice, for civil society to look at that, as a piece. Many people here are you know, the role of foundations, philanthropies, and all of this, this new idea of a of a governance, of a global governance that looks at strengthening movements that address you know resilience and restructuring, movements that address resilience and restructuring as the focus of multilateralism in every space. So, every actor here believes that they are part of multilateral system, because that multilateral system to me, is an acceleration, is a coming together of local systems of solidarity and institutional accountability. So that solidarity and institutional accountability, as the juxtaposition for going forward, to me that’s a really important point to look at as we go ahead.

Mallika Dutt: Lopa thank you so much, that was an incredibly wide ranging and comprehensive conversation on the future of multilateralism on this very significant day and the history of humankind, and indeed the world. And want to wish you the very best with the Generation Equality Forum and everything that is unfolding for UN women. Thanks for taking the time to join us today, and we wish you well.

This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at

This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.

“Inter-Connected Theme” composed by Devadas, (c) Mallika Dutt, LLC 2021.

Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman