Monday, November 30, 2015

Human Rights Awards Reception – Spotlight! on Dr. Wes Reisser

Dr. Wesley Reisser, Senior Foreign Affairs Officer,
Office of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Bureau.
US Department of State

We are less than 2 weeks away from our Human Rights Awards Reception on December 10, and so excited to honor individuals and organizations dedicated to furthering human rights across the world and in our own community!

Today, we want to introduce you to our F. Allen "Tex" Harris Diplomacy Human Rights Awardee, Dr. Wesley Reisser. He currently serves at the State Department as the Senior Foreign Affairs Officer in the Office of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, International Organization Affairs Bureau, and we took a few minutes to catch up and chat about his background, current pursuits, and human rights.

Between now and December 10, we will be introducing each of our other awardees, but for now, let's get to know Dr. Reisser!

UNA-NCA - So, Dr. Reisser, can you tell us a little about where you come from and what brought you to both DC and Human Rights work?

W.R. - I grew up in Denver, CO and Dallas, TX and came to DC for college at GWU. I started at the State Department through a student program while in undergrad, and stayed with State while I did my MA at GWU and then my PhD at UCLA. My background is in geography, international affairs, and history. I only came to human rights work once inside State.

UNA-NCA - What does your office at the State Department do exactly—if you are allowed to say?

W.R. - My office leads the efforts of the State Department to protect human rights throughout the United Nations system. We also work on humanitarian issues throughout the UN, as well. We engage with other countries to highlight U.S. priorities and to talk about critical human rights issues. We also work to draft UN resolutions, write speeches given at the UN, and work to ensure that the U.S. pursues our top human rights priorities at the UN and that this work complements what we do on the ground around the globe.

UNA-NCA - I love that we have a whole office that is working hard on human rights and humanitarian efforts… Can you walk us through a day in your life? 

W.R. - Hectic would be a good way to describe it. No two days at the State Department look the same as we respond to myriad crises around the world. I would say that my work day consists of a lot of meeting with and conversing with people from within the U.S. government, civil society, foreign governments, and U.S. missions around the world. I am always focused on our objectives and pushing forward what we need to do in order to win key votes at the UN and come up with new things we should be engaging on. Things stay just as busy after I leave State, as I teach a geography course every semester at GWU, have dance rehearsal every week, and am working on my second book.

UNA-NCA - Wait, you work for the State department, teach geography, write books, and do dancing? You are going to have to tell us more about the dancing and other hobbies.

W.R. – I run an Eastern European folk dance group – The Carpathia Folk Dance Ensemble -  so dance is definitely my favorite pastime. I am also an avid biker and love to swim. Travel is of course another major favorite, especially to places with ancient ruins and a long history. I love to read, especially books on history, geography, and art.
“…Since I started working on human rights at the State Department, I have of course found ways to tie this into other parts of my life…” 

UNA-NCA - That is really neat! In all of these things that you are involved with, both work and your extracurricular activities, where does your passion for human rights work enter in and connect?

W.R. - For work, human rights is of course central to what I do. I have been able to “personalize” this partly by working on LGBTI issues, which I first worked on with GW Pride as an undergrad. My activism there had been mostly focused on LGBTI rights in the United States and even within the employees at State, but when Hillary Clinton gave us space to engage on this internationally, I was lucky to be selected as one of the first people to engage. Since I started working on human rights at the State Department, I have of course found ways to tie this into other parts of my life. I love that my dance group works on cultural preservation and this includes teaching audiences about other places and not just the main groups, but minorities too. We perform Roma dances and I am careful to be sure we also educate about the plight of these peoples and others that are facing grave challenges to their cultures and rights, such as what is happening in Ukraine today.

UNA-NCA - Do you have any human rights heros or role models you would want to share with us?

W.R. - I would say my biggest hero in this realm is Woodrow Wilson. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on his peace plans at the end of WWI. I think that his ideals are what underpins the international system we live in today. I am also constantly inspired by those who risk everything to bring rights to those less fortunate and those under threat. Some of those people I think about a lot include Malala, Harvey Milk, Aung San Suu Kyi, among many others. I have to admit, I’m not a huge quote guy, but there is one Winston Churchill quote I like to use with those that say the U.S. should retreat from the global stage – “The price of greatness is responsibility.” For me that includes the responsibility for the world’s most wealthy and powerful country to engage not just at home, but around the world, to make sure that people’s lives get better and freer. We have a long way to go at home, but this does not abrogate our responsibilities globally.


You can have a look at Dr. Reisser's current book here, and check out his dance group here. Be sure to purchase tickets to the Human Rights Awards Reception on December 10 at the Rayburn Gold Room to join us in honoring him and our other Awardees. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The digitalization of payments, advancing inclusive finance, and pioneering the implementation of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development

by Vanessa Zabala

On Friday, September 25, 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were officially adopted by all of the United Nations’ (UN) member states. The 193 countries accepted the 17 SDGs as part of their national agendas and pledged to achieve a more sustainable and equitable society by 2030.  This event was followed by conferences addressing each of the goals through exemplifying country initiatives, methods, and entertaining new proposals to accomplish the ambitious goals.

On Saturday, September 26, 2015, I attended one of the conferences held at the UN headquarters entitled, “Governments Leading The Way: Digitizing Payments and Advancing Inclusive Finance to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”  This conference continued the conversation of the Third International Conference on Financing Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia about financing the SDGs. Private actors were the main focus of the Addis conference due to the current global economic slowdown and inability to rely on governments for funding. On the contrary, the New York conference shifted the focus to what current governments are already doing, plan to do, and to include policy and compliment private sector initiatives. 

Financial inclusion has the potential to achieve 7 of the 17 SDGs.
        – Ms. Helen Clark, UNDP

The Governments Leading The Way conference began with a panel entitled, “Leadership to Achieve the SDGs,” which focused on Peru and Tanzania. Tanzanian President, Mr. Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, boasted about his country’s advancement by describing how government intervention will provide leadership and facilitate private sector involvement by de-risking the country’s investment rating. The Ambassador Luis Miguel Castilla of the Republic of Peru, praised his country’s detailed strategy of access, usage, and quality through the platform of public-private partnerships. Tanzania and Peru have already begun digitalizing payments and want to further encourage other nations to follow suit.

Currently, 42 UN members have followed Tanzania and Peru in pledging to make efforts to transition from cash to digital payments. The UN has partnered with The Better Than Cash Alliance to provide services to UN members and accelerate the shift to digital finance. The digitization of payments has the potential of profitability and social inclusion. Some benefits include:

  • Cost savings: increased efficiency and speed.
  • Transparency and Security: by increasing accountability and tracking.
  • Financial Inclusion: by advancing access to all financial services.
  • Women’s Economic Empowerment: by giving women control over finances.
  • Inclusive Growth: through integrating digital payments into developing economies.

The second panel of the conference featured eight ministers from a variety of countries addressing how their actions towards mobile payments would not only help financial inclusion, but also assist in  realizing the other SDGs. Even though government initiatives were praised, there were also major concerns.

The SDGs suggest rates of progress outside of any historical norm, from infrastructure rollout through economic growth to poverty reduction and the fight against infectious disease. World leaders are also right to suggest that meeting such goals, if it is possible at all, will take urgent and dramatic changes in the way the planet operates.
                                          – Charles Kenny, Center for Global Development

New initiatives include Colombia’s use of digitalized payments to distribute government subsidies and address Goals 1 and 2 – Eradication of Poverty and Hunger. The Minister of the Republic of Rwanda expressed how his country is approaching Goal 8- Inclusive Growth, through mobile payments and reinforcing banking systems to increase savings, and therefore leading to increased lending. Bangladesh has begun to address Goal 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions – by making mobile payments available with a combination of financial assistance with more than 5,000 information centers that offer 70 different kinds of services.

Still, there is trepidation over country dynamics and their abilities to provide institutional and financial support to its citizens. Fragile nations, such as Sierra Leone, face bigger challenges in digitalizing payments and fulfilling the SDGs. Finance Minister Dr. Kaifala Marah , explained that since the outbreak of Ebola, high interest rates have been hindering financial inclusion and have increased administrative costs due to high risk ratings. Understanding the social, economic and political hardships of nations is essential to accomplishing the SDGs in both developed and developing countries.

Risks are not unique to fragile states and each country faces different jeopardies. The Minister of the Republic of South Africa expressed concerns about leaving the vulnerable unprotected through either under and over-regulation. He was also disturbed by the fact that only 1 percent of low-income families have access to mobile payments, how there is a lack of understanding of financial education when switching from cash to credit payments, and that less than 45 percent of women have access to the internet, contributing to gender inequality.

The Minister of the Republic of Belgium mostly expressed concern over the inherent nature of banking and financial systems. The Minister emphasized on the private sector’s role in the provision and expansion of services. He stated that “it is not a bad thing for companies to profit” and it is the best way to have a sustainable product, service, or institution. Concerns should not be placed on the nature of business, but on the nature of the financial system. Exposing the poor to a system that was designed for middle and high-income individuals requires a change in regulation and implementation to avoid the exploitation of the most vulnerable. The opportunities presented by the digitalization of finance are not without risks.

The conference concluded with the hopes of solving economic and social problems through digital payments. Furthermore, the inertia of mobile banking seems inevitable, but the conversation must continue to incorporate the way safeguards and regulations will avoid unwanted secondary effects. It is clear that the digitalization of finance and payments offers positive tools for society, but it can also leave negative consequences that usually affect the most vulnerable, the poor. As the UN continues to promote the digitalization of payments, it is up to the member countries to implement these tools to advance financial inclusion and inclusive growth.

Author’s Bio: Vanessa Zabala is a member of the UNA-NCA’s Sustainable Development committee and reports and writes on current events. She holds a Master's in International Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Economics and International Relations from the University of Central Florida.