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National leaders must act globally to meet our most pressing challenges – developmental and environmental as well as economic

The last issue of New World invited UNA-UK members to share reflections on global events that touched their lives. The responses were inspiring, spanning the past 65 years. Reflecting on the past 12 months, it can seem as though a decade's worth of events took place in 2011, from the toppling of four veteran African dictators to the birth of a new nation. Small wonder that politicians struggled to keep up. Some developments – notably massacres in Libya and Côte d'Ivoire – prompted concerted action. Others, like Europe's economic woes, appeared to paralyse leaders. At times, these leaders seemed bewildered by their own citizens, especially those who descended on Wall Street, Tahrir Square and Delhi's Tihar prison.

This year, domestic affairs look set to command more attention. Four of the UN Security Council's five permanent members will hold national elections (or, in the case of Russia and China, managed transitions). In Europe, governments are finding it hard to sell austerity measures to their electorates. Greek and Italian leaders have experienced at first hand the fate of many a developing country politician, forced out by Washington Consensus prescriptions. In other countries – be it Burma or Scotland – democratic deficits have been brought into sharper focus.

But, as is eloquently argued by Mark Malloch-Brown and our Chairman, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, leaders would be unwise to turn inwards. They are, in any case, unlikely to be granted the option of doing so. It is no longer enough to 'think global'; we must act global too, even if it is to the (short-term) detriment of those closer to home. The recent financial and political volatility has highlighted just how much foreign and domestic issues have now converged. Paradoxically, this has led to an increase in self-interested behaviour at a moment when challenges and opportunities require co-ordinated action. Attempts to tackle one pressing issue – the dire situation in Syria – have already been scuppered by states pursuing narrow national agendas on the Security Council.

An opportunity yet to come is the Rio+20 summit (see article by UN environment chief Achim Steiner). The meeting presents a chance to demonstrate that people, planet and prosperity are not mutually exclusive and that we can deliver improved living standards sustainably. Too many policymakers and activists continue to rely on a narrative of gloom. Progress is ignored or denounced as too little too late, leading to despair and a lack of creativity in devising solutions. We are left wondering if, not how, we will address problems.

The climate debate often falls into this trap. Instead of pretending that we can escape unscathed if only we can persuade the world's governments and peoples to change course, we should accept that climate change is already happening and that, as so often happens, the poorest are bearing the brunt (see UNA-UK Executive Director Phil Mulligan). We must prepare for the effects of a warming climate, rising sea levels and extreme weather events. And we should seize the opportunities that these changes will bring, such as the chance to build different types of economies and strengthen environmental management, urban planning and healthcare.

We must also look at better ways to measure progress. At Rio, governments will consider a set of "sustainable development goals". These could represent a way forward, especially if they incorporate lessons from the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals and don't ignore human rights and security concerns.

All those interested in contributing ideas and approaches should take part in our UN Forum on 14 July. The event is a must for anyone who believes that promoting sustainable, equitable and peaceful development is both possible and necessary.

Natalie Samarasinghe is Editor of New World and Head of Policy & Communications at UNA-UK