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You Won't Believe How Many Special Days Are On The U.N. Calendar

Patric Sandri for NPR
Patric Sandri for NPR
Patric Sandri for NPR
Patric Sandri for NPR

This year, prepare to have your awareness raised. And raised. And raised. And then raised some more.

At least, that's the goal of the United Nations' packed calendar of "observances" — days, weeks, years and decades — dedicated to subjects deemed worthy of the world's attention. But what was once just a few dates has now ballooned into a list that's pretty much impossible to digest. Which is kind of funny, given that we've just kicked off the U.N.'s International Year of Pulses. (You know, leguminous crops like chickpeas and beans.)

Adding up everything for 2016, the international organization will be marking 129 days, 10 weeks and eight decades.

That's way too much, says Thibault Devanlay, who has been a negotiator at the United Nations General Assembly for more than a dozen recently added observances.

a diplomat who's worked on many proclamations.

"It's a wonderful thing to raise awareness. But the more international days, the more we lose the point," he says.

One example: March 21. That date is now shared by a whopping five international days — including three added since 2010. The latest is the International Day of Forests. (Devanlay points out that the declaration celebrates "the importance of all types of forests and of trees outside forests" as a way to be inclusive of nations without, um, forests.)

But Devanlay's problem isn't with the themes being highlighted, which are typically worthy issues related to health, the environment and equality. It's the process that's behind the day-declaring spree.

"Days are easy cookies," he says. That's because they are one of the few things a country can propose that doesn't have financial strings attached. As long as the subject isn't controversial, there's no compelling reason for other members to oppose it, especially if the diplomats want to stay on cordial terms.

"Once a proposal is on the table, no one says no," says Devanlay, who can only think of a couple that haven't passed in the last few years. (Sorry, International Day of Telework. You were not to be.)

This system, he says, has led to the creation of several days he finds questionable. There's World Autism Awareness Day, April 2, which was championed by the Bangladesh delegation because the prime minister's daughter — a child psychologist — specializes in the issue.

"Nothing against autism," he says, but he wonders why that disorder deserves more attention than others.

Devanlay has the same concerns about World Migratory Bird Day (May 9-10). "Why not non-migratory birds? Why not migratory mammals? We need to protect wildlife. That makes sense," he says. And that, of course, already has its own day on the calendar: March 3.

All of this willy-nilly day declaring is done without an overarching strategy or a way to remove or consolidate days over time. So the U.N. has ended up with some seemingly bizarre calendar entries, such as World Television Day, November 21. (The medium was recognized in 1996 for its importance to the freedom of information.)

There are real consequences to this, Devanlay points out. The secretary general must make a declaration about every observance, every year, in perpetuity. So even if that's the only effort expended, it adds up to time and money that could have been spent another way.

Maher Nasser, director of the Outreach Division in the United Nations Department of Public Information, realizes that Devanlay isn't the only person baffled by this state of affairs. "There's cynicism about the number of days," he says.

But, he adds, "the U.N. is where everybody has a place," and if people are passionate about an issue, he thinks it's necessary to provide a platform to broadcast their views.

That doesn't mean his office treats all days equally. Some, he admits, "just sit there on the calendar."

It's easy to tell which ones haven't seen much action lately. Each observance has a webpage with info on accompanying events, so you can see what, if anything, is really going on that day. It's easy to tell which ones haven't seen much action lately. A sampling: International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims (March 24), International Day of Human Space Flight (April 12) and International Widows' Day (June 23).

Other days, however, hold panels or other events each year. Observances such as the International Day of Peace (September 21) and the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (March 25) always generate discussions or other programs. That can make a real difference, Nasser says: "It shames governments into doing more."

YouTube

Having such a broad range of days also helps the U.N. tap into resources that wouldn't otherwise be available, he adds.

The International Day of Happiness (March 20), proclaimed in 2012 at the request of Bhutan, initially left some folks scratching their heads, he says. But the concept that happiness is an important public policy objective caught the attention of Universal Pictures last year. The studio was releasing the film Minions — the cartoon about little yellow creatures that like to dance to the Pharrell Williams song "Happy."

So the U.N. partnered with Williams last March to promote a huge "Happy" campaign in New York and online focused on climate change. "Because if the future is at risk, then we can't be happy," Nasser notes. "And through those media impressions, we reached billions."

Really, that's the point of these days — effectively spreading a message.

That's why World Toilet Day (November 19), which Devanlay initially opposed because of his general opposition to new calendar days, is now one of his favorite examples of an observance that works.

"It makes people laugh at first, and gets their attention," he says. And when the U.N. can raise awareness of the fact that more than two billion people don't have access to proper sanitation, that's a good day.

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