On Pandemics, Plagues and Security, by Professor Hussein Solomon

26 May

Editor’s Note:  We are grateful to be able to post these latest reflections on human security by Hussein Solomon.  Of particular interest to us is how his ideas on security have evolved over time, from weapons and big-power politics to the diverse and still-unaddressed challenges facing so many global constituents. We share his view that our lens on human security must continue to expand, integrating threats to communities not only to war rooms and board rooms. 

As a young political science undergraduate student phrases like “national security” made sense. It was the 1980s and the machinations of the Cold War rivals fascinated me. In the national context of apartheid South Africa, the National Security Management System of former President PW Botha drew my attention. The realpolitik of the time, both global and national, resulted in my avidly reading countless tomes of first-strike capabilities of the nuclear powers and regional destabilization strategies of the apartheid pariah. With the passing of time, I grew increasingly disillusioned with national security as a suitable fit for contemporary times on account of two reasons.

First, national security considerations were far removed from the lived experiences of ordinary people. A US factory worker in Michigan is more concerned with the closure of his local automotive plant than the machinations of Beijing in the South China Sea. National security always reflected the concerns of the elites of their respective society as opposed to the bread and butter considerations of the vast majority of humanity. In the African context, such elite-driven state security was often purchased at the expense of human security of ordinary citizens. Here the guns of the military were often directed at marginalized and hapless citizens as opposed to directed at keeping borders safe from a possible foreign invading force. National security thus needs to be expanded to incorporate the concerns and well-being of ordinary citizens.

Second, in this rapidly globalizing world, insecurity anywhere is a threat to security everywhere. The Covid-19 pandemic illustrates the point well whether one resides in Wuhan, Milan, Moscow, New York, São Paulo or Cape Town. The world is one and national security needs to be jettisoned in favour of more integrated conceptions of security.

The current locust plague sweeping across East Africa vividly highlights the need for more expansive definitions of security. This locust plague has been labeled by the UN as an “extremely alarming and unprecedented threat”. Currently, Sudan and South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda are all affected by swarms of locusts travelling at 90 miles per day and eating their own body weight in crops. To put matters into perspective, a swarm of locusts only one-third of a square mile can eat the same amount of food as 35,000 adults. This undermines food security across the region. To exacerbate matters, the lockdowns as a result of the corona virus has hampered efforts to eradicate the swarms. Regional governments are overwhelmed, as Helen Adoa, Uganda’s Minister of Agriculture has admitted.

This admission highlights the fallacy of national security in a globalizing world. Regional governments need effective regional organizations to support their efforts and need to partner with international organizations including the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, civil society and business to holistically respond to the threat posed. I write this paper on Africa Day, 25 May, a day celebrating African solidarity. This African solidarity stands in sharp contrast to the realpolitik and insular politics embraced by the concept of national security and its corollary, national interest. Sovereignty in defined areas needs to be ceded to regional organizations and global institutions in an effort to craft truly regional and global solutions. No one country can deal with either Covid-19 or swarms of marauding locusts.

The origins of the current locust infestation currently overwhelming East Africa also points to the imperative of integrated understandings of security. Climate change created the ideal breeding grounds for the locust population in the Arabian Peninsula to increase by 8000 percent. A phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole created unusually dry weather in the east which resulted in wildfires which so ravaged Australia. The same phenomenon, however, also created cyclones and flooding in parts of the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia. The resultant moist sand and vegetation proved the ideal conditions in which desert locusts could thrive. Aiding the burgeoning locust populations is the collapsed state authorities in both Yemen and Somalia ravaged by civil war and fighting Al Shabaab insurgents. As the writ of the “governments” in both Sanaa and Mogadishu hardly goes beyond the capital, neither country can craft even a national response to the locust plague. The origins of the swarms of locusts devastating east Africa link climate change, civil war, state authority and capacity and the Covid-19 pandemic. This stresses the need for holistic solutions which are rooted in expanded and integrated conceptions of security. We cannot afford to work in silos at national, regional or international level.

Extraordinary times call for more holistic conceptions of security. The Cold War is over and thus my undergraduate lectures on security are a poor fit to today’s realities. The world stands at a pivotal point much as it stood following the Thirty Years War in Europe and the resultant 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the 1815 Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic Wars and in the aftermath of the Second World War. We need to be brave and refashion our security architecture to reflect integrated, global and human security considerations.

 

Bubble Wrap: Unpacking our Digitalized Enclosures, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 May

Bubbles

For a bubble, even the gentlest touch is fatal.  Mehmet Murat ildan

The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.  Nadine Gordimer

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.  Oscar Wilde

What fools we mortals are to think that the plans we make are anything more than a soap bubble blown against a hurricane, a frail and fleeting wish destined to burst. Barbara Nickless

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.  Joe Klaas

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.  Flannery O’Connor

On a weekend when we celebrate the end of Ramadan and mourn the loss of the fallen on our various battlefields, I have spent much of the time cleaning out file cabinets filled with old letters.  Some of these letters were angry, some grateful, some filled with insight about the writer, the intended audience, the world at large.  But what was most revealing is the amount of care that went into them, page after page in longhand, people often younger than me committed to disclose and share, to make sense of a world which was often making none, to decipher and embrace the core of their being amidst a cacophony of conflicting and competing messaging, to transcend fleeting joys and hurts and find the north star within themselves to guide what would hopefully be a long life of care for self and service to others.

We rarely communicate like this anymore.   Our introspective longhand has become digital shorthand.   We have trouble sustaining attention of any sort let alone sustaining a train of thought that promises genuine insight, even possible breakthrough.   Our messaging is ubiquitous but thin; we “stay in touch” by dropping in and out of lives from which we extract highly-branded versions of key “incidents” but with less and less of the backstory that explains why such incidents actually matter and what longings might yet exist between what are often lengthening cracks revealing our obsessive efforts to convince others we’re OK when we may only be partially so.

As is often the case with these posts, I am preaching to the choir; but also to myself.

This week, for me, was immersed in communications-related issues.  It began with a “new” campaign-related initiative by the US Republican party and ended with what will hopefully be an important opening gambit in the UN Security Council examining how the cyberspace we are now reliant on to almost desperate degrees is digressing into “bubbles” of self-referential propaganda and even hate speech that directly threaten international peace and security.

The aforementioned campaign initiative was given a most interesting name:  The Truth over Facts Investigative Website which is designed primarily to highlight the gaffes of the US president’s political opponent, but which neither interrogates the president’s own slippery relationship to facts of any stripe nor breaks any new ground regarding our general confusion regarding how “facts” are and are not constitutive of a fuller “knowing” of the world and our own relationship to it, how “facts” divorced from context can just as easily reinforce our various cognitive bubbles as puncture them.

As someone whose long-ago graduate school experience was literally drowning in epistemological considerations related our diverse “ways of knowing” the world, I have long been a believer that data and truth are kissing cousins but not quite marriage partners.   I won’t waste your weekend on a protracted diatribe about the ways in which we misuse data by failing to properly contextualize it, or about the ways in which we use “facts” to place people in boxes that we don’t want them to escape or even use “facts” to justify an end to exploration rather than as the engine of its continued evolution.

But I will communicate this.  In my erstwhile-jaundiced view, the behavior of several leaders of major power governments during this pandemic has been nothing short of criminal, principally in its lack of humility, its unwillingness to consult and abide by those of greater knowledge, and its utter lack of urgency regarding the preservation of life.   It is certainly the case that scientists are learning more and more each day about the pandemic, its modes of transmission, effective treatment options, even the consequences of infection – from kidney failure in the sick to psychic depression in those merely fearful of sickness, but also with sustained periods of loneliness and of protracted economic uncertainty.

But the certainties that many seem to be looking for in this time of pandemic remain elusive. Yes, we have vaccine trials with results that are sometimes encouraging and we can generally ascertain when the viral “curve is flattening” and where relapses are most likely.  But do GDP or official unemployment statistics really communicate the “truth” about our collapsing and vastly unequal economies? Is “official” data on COVID-related deaths and infections the “truth” about our viral circumstances, or might matters actually be more dire due to people dying in places other than hospitals and tests yielding untrustworthy results?

It is alternately intellectually interesting and emotionally unsettling for me to watch public officials struggle with their COVID messaging in an environment where trust in officials is low across the board, where the “facts” of infection change regularly as we learn more about what works and what doesn’t, and when national political leadership seems more inclined to stoke anger and anxiety than coach it away.   As a result, too many people of all ideological persuasions feel abandoned to cope with the current uncertainty largely on their own, to pull the metaphorical blinds and double-down on the “bubbles” with which are most reassuring, even if those bubbles are riddled with half-truths, even if those bubbles only offer equally false choices between hard certainty on the one hand and conspiratorial make-believe on the other.

Our remaining confidence in authorities and experts seems now less about the credentials behind what we are being told and more about who is telling us, who we choose to believe, who is able and willing to confirm what it is that we have more or less already concluded about the world and what in it truly threatens us.

This week, the UN launched what it calls Verify, a useful initiative to combat the growing scourge of COVID-19 misinformation “by increasing the volume and reach of trusted, accurate information.”  Of course the test for Verify will be less about the accuracy and trustworthiness of the data it scrutinizes and more about the trust that the UN and its World Health Organization can garner as a responsible arbiter of the “truths” of COVID – what we know, what we don’t know, and why some of the rumors and conspiracies floating around the planet (and especially in the digital universe) do not pass the test either of facts or context.

Does the UN retain the capacity to do more than offer its version of competing narratives about the pandemic or, for that matter, the many other, science-relevant, global challenges also on its policy agenda?  Sadly for me, this is unclear.  As much of a proponent of science (and of the UN) as I have been all my life, I lament that we have misplaced so much of our capacity to educate people about what it is that scientific and medical experts can and cannot (yet) accomplish, to have an honest conversation with people about the nature and limits of scientific inquiry, the findings of science that might well eventually set us free but, in the short term, are almost as likely to “piss us off.”

We need to have those conversations in our schools, our communities and especially in bastions of social and political authority such as the UN.  No, our data is not static.  No, all of our facts are not situated in proper contexts.  No, our “authorities” are not always authoritative. Sometimes authorities do what we now mostly all do and much too often – re-purpose “truths” espoused as a manipulative pathway to get what we want rather than as a means of enriching our connections and the quality of our common life.

In reading this over, I recognize how naïve and old school it must seem to some readers, especially those who have given in to the modernist assumption that we can be expected to do no better than to encase ourselves in our bubbles of choice and then pray to whatever powers we might still acknowledge to preserve our bubble from puncture.  But puncture is inevitable.   Our bubbles might be lovely to behold but as even the reference dictionaries acknowledge, they are also fragile, temporary, fleeting, insubstantial, unable to withstand much in the way of the winds of change and the challenges of new lenses on truth that now buffer them routinely.

When those bubbles do finally burst, when disenchantment towards our governments and official expertise has been set loose, when the convenient untruths communicated by our digital media preferences start to unravel, when our resentments (and the entitlements to which they are often tethered) are allowed to overwhelm our collective solidarity even more than they already do now, then we have set the stage for fresh ugliness that even the excellent Security Council discussion on Friday on “digital threats” to peace and security could barely discern.  We have shaken and awakened our hunger, not so much for truth and the data to which it must remain attached, but for grievance-based vengeance, for our petty cancel culture and its righteous minions, for a “rules based order” created by powerful states and individuals who don’t play by the rules they advocate. And this is encouraged by a media and “information system” that often seems relentless in its attempts to manipulate emotions not help them reach maturity.

This is a larger problem even than the virus, even than the digital culture on which we increasingly rely and which now seems to offer many more opportunities to reinforce prejudice and distance than wisdom and connection.   We are being pushed into bubbles from many angles, but we often now offer little resistance and even less inclination to abandon their false security.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple as Oscar Wilde noted.  The question now is whether we have the “stomach” to pursue — with humility and even in longhand — the truths of our time along their winding, rocky path; and then create a post-COVID world of security, health, equity and beauty once we are fortunate enough to catch them.

 

Star Wars: Guidelines for Reaching our New Normal, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 May

Evola 2

The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.  Maya Angelou

It is hard work to control the workings of inclination and turn the bent of nature; but that it may be done, I know from experience. Charlotte Brontë

Something – the eternal ‘what’s the use?’ – sets its bronze barrier across every avenue that I open up in the realm of hypothesis.  Gustave Flaubert

Where there is not community, trust, respect, ethical behaviors are difficult for the young to learn and for the old to maintain.  Robert Greenleaf

Even eighty-odd is sometimes vulnerable to vanity.  L.M. Montgomery

The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes. Frank Lloyd Wright

We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Samuel Ullman

One of the challenges for me of writing these weekly messages is resisting the temptation to focus on issues of national interest rather than on human interest or, as my organizational mandate would suggest, the multilateral interest.

My own country is completely at odds with itself now.  We attack the very people trying to save lives and manage a generation-shifting pandemic.   We have allowed the stresses of the moment, egged on by some tone-deaf leadership, to justify the release of demons we would have done better to keep in quarantine – not only those flashing guns and symbols of intolerance in front of cameras and legislatures, but also those making fortunes off the misery of others, going so far as to consciously divert resources meant for struggling families to line their own pockets yet again.

In this time of viral threat, we have created no common symbols of mourning for the many persons we have lost, no places of public esteem for those who have honored their oaths and thrown themselves into the most harrowing medical emergencies. Our leadership misrepresents the times and its challenges, leaving us all to double down on the mistrust of institutions – and each other – that defines our era in many respects.

And neither has this been a moment of ringing endorsement for multilateral alternatives.   The World Health Organization is being scapegoated, UN peacekeepers struggle under external threats and mandate confusion in several global regions, the UN’s general budget is under strain –reeling from decisions by key member states to withhold assessed contributions — and the UN’s humanitarian relief functions are experiencing both resource limitations and access barriers that make it difficult to bring aid to the millions suffering under violence that we seem almost powerless to prevent.

And the eminent Security Council remains a place of some paralysis, consumed by big-power stalemates over COVID origins, Israeli annexation plans, remnants of the Iranian nuclear agreement, unabated weapons flows to Libya, and much more.   Council members, at the direction of their national capitals, have some successes to which they can point – notably in Sudan and Colombia.   But the presence of so many unresolved conflicts – and this at a time when the global public is becoming more restless, not less – raises the specter of new agenda items for the Council on top of those it has already demonstrated an inability to resolve in a timely and effective manner.

As with our own projects and ambitions, some of the Council’s under-baked mandates are related to the ways in which it does its business.  An as was the case on Friday, the Council has been willing to take up issues related to working methods, understanding at least in part that how we do our business is as integral to our success as what the goals of that business are.   In other words, the manner in which we go about reaching for the stars has much to do with whether or not those stars become attainable.

As is typical for these “methods” sessions, the Council brought in briefers who are well-known and reliable to their interests, briefers armed with suggestions such as improvements in the system of “penholders” and sanctions committees, of better preparatory processes for incoming elected members, of restraints on the length of statements made in the open chamber, of avoiding what one called “adopt and forget” peacekeeping mandates, of working more closely with other UN entities to keep the Council from becoming, as China noted, the policy equivalent of a “grocery store.”

But at best, and despite calls from the UK and others for the Council to “lead with innovation and urgency,” the day’s truth lay more in Vietnam’s statement (on behalf of other elected members) — that the COVID crisis has “laid bare” the current limitations of this Council.  It simply is not the case, as one briefer suggested on Friday, that the global public judges the Council on the number and content of its resolutions.  No.  We judge the Council on the practical impact of those resolutions, on the Council’s willingness and ability to insist that policy text results in tangible, improved conditions for the many millions who yearn for relief from war, famine and disease.   These resolutions should be understood as opening gambits towards genuine change, not as ends in themselves and certainly not as excuses to downgrade “seized” into some version of unresponsive.

Policy differences aside, there is a bit of “heart sinking” for me in much of the multilateral scrutiny that we try to perform.  Simply put, I can’t resist expecting more of the people making these decisions in these precarious times, people who, too often, are indulgent of the changes they are willing to make but not of the changes that they need to make.  In such a scenario, we can likely maintain some measure of our collective ambition but have lost in large measure our capacity to “reach the hearts” of people who need to believe in us – our goals and methods — more than they do at present if the stars in our firmament of peace and sustainable development are ever to be reached.

I have considerable sympathy for diplomats who are trying to steer an effective policy course amidst severe budget constraints and conflicting messaging from national capitals.  And I have particular compassion for those who have toiled in the fields of peace and human rights, of humanitarian relief and sustainable development, for so many years and who now find that work not only unfulfilled but considerably unraveled by a virus and the selfishness, corruption and ethno-centrism which it has unleashed.

Maybe we simply didn’t do things in the best way.  Maybe our own working methods have been as flawed as those of the institutions we critique.  Fair enough.  But as some in our world want desperately to get back to “normal,” in some instances at the point of a gun, we who have lived a long while under the shadow of different promise need to model a more honest, thoughtful and courageous way forward – to endorse ambition, yes, but not the folly and vanity that often accompany it, follies which for us can include a lack of both mindfulness and the practical respect and compassion that can reassure people that leadership is more than high-sounding words in elite settings uncontaminated by the ills that affect large swaths of global communities.

While life does indeed become more beautiful for some as they age, for others it portends grave physical and economic limitations as well as for those of us in policy criticism from the young who feel – and not without cause – that any abandonment by us of our ideals for the world and its peoples, or any indulgence by us in “what’s the use” cynicism, only serves to make their work to reach a new and better “normal” that much more challenging.  This we cannot, should not do.

We are in trouble now to be sure, but there is opportunity and possibility – and hearts looking for connection and reassurance — still within our reach.  We who have long been in this work have a special responsibility to reflect and encourage, to reach out respectfully to those poised to take over for us as well as those whom we may have overlooked over the years. And we must do this as best as we are able without malice, without vanity or ego, without “wrinkled souls,” modifying our wisdom to context but not abandoning the ideals that have inspired us, albeit unevenly, over our lifespan.

Together, we still have what it takes to “control the workings of inclination” that are, in this moment, bringing us to the edge of an economic, health and rights precipice.  And those of us who have been at this for generations still have a role to play in avoiding that cliff.  But as we age, roles and methods must shift.  Our task now is to demonstrate the will to make the changes that we need to make, not only those we are willing to make.

Mamma Mia: A Mother’s Day Message to Fit the Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 May

Through the blur, I wondered if I was alone or if other parents felt the same way I did – that everything involving our children was painful in some way.  Debra Ginsberg

What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. Margaret Atwood

Women, who struggle and suffer pain to ensure the continuation of the human race, make much tougher and more courageous soldiers than all those big-mouthed freedom-fighting heroes put together.  Anne Frank

It’s come at last, she thought, the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache. Betty Smith

Being a parent wasn’t just about bearing a child. It was about bearing witness to its life.  Jodi Picoult

Mothers today cannot just respond to their kids’ needs, they must predict them–and with the telepathic accuracy of Houdini. Susan Douglas

It is a chilly and blustery Mother’s Day morning in New York – more like late March than mid-May.  It is also another day when legions must stay physically distanced from their mothers who, if you are not still young enough to live at home, remain beyond the reach of direct contact regardless of their health or other life circumstances.   For some especially unfortunate souls, this Mother’s Day is destined to be their last, leaving this life in perhaps a more fearful and discouraging manner than could ever have been imagined – without those loved ones alongside whom they have stood for many long years now unable to stand by them at this time of their passing.

I have been in many such homes and hospital rooms in a prior life, and I can barely manage a more heartbreaking thought.

Of course not all that heartbreak, not all of that emotional uncertainty and longing, is confined to the edges of a mother’s resting place.  The virus has adjusted some of what “mother” means, including injecting positive new opportunities for some to bond with children still at home, allowing them to witness to changes in their children’s lives that they might otherwise have been too busy to appreciate.  But for many others it ushers in an intensifying fear that the children they have borne will now fall further out of the loop, fall further behind their peers, will forever be watching their backs while others have their eyes on what little still exists in their purses and wallets.  It is not clear yet what “opportunity” will mean for these children in the coming phase – for employment, for schooling, for access to public spaces without the threat of violence or discrimination.  And for too many mothers, it is not at all clear what they should do – what it is even possible to do – to ensure the safety and well-being of children when there are now so many viral and political forces allied against those interests, so many invisible threats poised for a dangerous incarnation.

In various parts of this country and others, some mothers today have decided to join a lengthening chorus line – egged on by preachers and politicians – deciding to roll the dice on their own and their children’s future, hoping that the virus will degrade before their family fortunes do, betting on behalf of their children that efforts to reconvene “normalcy” and recover livelihoods will spare them the loss of a parent.

These are choices that, in the overly-sentimentalized mother’s days of past years, would have been inconceivable.  Those days were about flowers, “I love you mommy” cards, and dinners outside the home.  And while we all recognized that such ceremonial expressions were often better for business than they were for mothers, we did them anyway, collapsing too-often the sentiments that might well have been more beneficially distributed over longer periods into one Sunday in May.

Indeed, during such times, we collectively indulged a caricature of “mother,” the self-less, stay-at-home force with a seemingly uncanny ability to predict the needs of children before the demanding and whining could commence, a self-serving, taken-for-granted “fabrication” of a parent that, in too many aspects, didn’t always hit whatever mark was intended by our scribbled cards and floral arrangements.

This caricature needs immediate amending. In policy spaces like the UN, our primary focus is on “women” rather than mothers, acknowledging skills too-long undervalued and ensuring spaces for participation that are (hopefully) part of a larger project of engagement which recognizes the large number of voices of all races, cultures, religions, genders and social classes who remain on the outside of political and peace processes at a time when they should already be finding themselves much closer to the center.

But among those mis-positioned voices are many mothers.  Within the UN system, it is the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) that retains a laser focus on mostly newer mothers and the even newer lives they are bringing into the world.   For many, the obstacles that must be overcome in order to ensure healthy births and equally healthy mothers to care for them are formidable indeed.   From food insecurity to limited hygiene, the challenges for new and expectant mothers in many global regions remain heart-wrenching despite the best efforts of UNFPA, UNICEF and partner NGOs.  And with the complicating factor of COVID-19, invisible bonds of misery are likely to be extended across the seas, connecting the fears of young mothers with those older mothers gasping for their final breaths.

All around the world, it seems, the lives of mothers are becoming more complex in their physical and emotional circumstances.  All around the world, the needs of mothers to have their voices registered in community and political life remain largely unmet.   All around the world, women continue to endure in relative obscurity the pain and struggle which so often accompany the gift of new life which they bear.  All around the world, those who nurture at least part of our common future must work too hard to offer their testimony on what that future should look like, and to have that testimony respected.

I entitled this post “Mamma Mia” because I was advised by colleagues of the many emotions that this phrase has come to embrace, especially for persons of Italian descent.   From fear and exasperation to joy and surprise, the phrase captures better than most the range of emotions – deep and real – that characterizes the lives of so many mothers, especially in this time of viral challenge.   Many mothers know the heartache that life seems poised to inflict on their children, and understand as well the limitations of their ability to protect them from it.  And many mothers continue to bear at least portions of this heartache in private as the world swirls around them in all of its anxiety, greed and self-importance, oblivious in the main to what the current, pervasive and often cruel mis-applications of our human condition mean for the lives of the children who are just getting started walking their long and uncertain path:

Oblivious as well to the emotional and physical needs of mothers devoted — this day and every day — to accompanying such children while they walk.

Gold Rush: Ending the Confinement of Youth Voices, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 May

eni

It’s going to take some time, this time. Karen Carpenter/Carole King

What a weary time those years were — to have the desire and the need to live but not the ability. Charles Bukowski

This is the age you are broken or turned into gold. Antonia Michaelis

Our lives were just beginning, our favorite moment was right now, our favorite songs were unwritten. Rob Sheffield

Youth ends when egotism does; maturity begins when one lives for others. Hermann Hesse

The adult mind can lie with untroubled conscience and a gay composure, but in those days even a small deception scoured the tongue, lashing one against the stake itself. Daphne du Maurier

This past Friday I was privileged to log in to a presentation by students of Otis College of Art and Design as part of a class directed by Gina Valona and focused on creating conditions for “inclusive governance” and “environmental stewardship” through their organization T.I.A. — Transparent, Inclusive and Accountable government for all.

Her coaching of these young people has clearly been superb, and the results were stunning. Despite the COVID-inspired disruptions, limitations and discouragements, these students created a series of hopeful projects which, if they could be funded and duly implemented, would better connect the people of Los Angeles with their natural and built environments, helping them make healthier decisions, connect more effectively with government officials, and engage a much wider array of stakeholders in the longer-term, post-COVID work of sustainability. From mobile curriculum and “Green Mapping” to design for a TIA Mascot and a Los Angeles Environmental Center, these young voices were determined to be recognized amidst the gloom of an isolating, stealth virus and an economy on the brink.

This isn’t the only youth-energized project that we come across. We have extraordinary young people passing through our joint office regularly, many working on initiatives dedicated to lifting the veil of weapons-related policies that have been  allowed to continue threatening entire societies. And we have written previously about the (#1MillionTrees2020) eco-leadership of Burundi’s Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze which actually attracts more attention on our twitter feed than any other initiative we cover.

As we surely recognize, there is plenty more where that came from: Caring for the planet and its diverse communities. Living for others.

From our vantage point there are many good reasons to lend whatever coaching and publicity we can to youth initiatives. We recognize the need for our political and social leadership to get younger, more diverse, more attentive to the values and aspirations of generations now and those to come, more sensitive to the unique constellation of obstacles and limitations – from pandemics to climate threats – that force too many young people to sit on their often-legitimate impatience rather than directing their abundant energy to more personally satisfying and socially productive ends.

From those whose early lives have been dominated by the aspirations of schooling to the even greater number of young people seeking more immediate employment opportunities to keep their families fed and safe, we struggle still to make space for young people, to exit the ride we’ve been on for some time and let the next group of younger ticket holders take their seats. Their collective clock is ticking and too many of us seem deaf to its ominous warnings, more akin to a time-bomb than a travel alarm.

The UN struggles at times to hear as well, as do many of the governments which form its membership. But this past Monday, under the leadership of April’s president Dominican Republic, the Security Council revisited its responsibilities to promote and ensure participation through its Youth, Peace and Security agenda (Resolution 2250). Among the more compelling statements was the one delivered by UN Youth Envoy Jayathma Wickramanayake who questioned whether governments are up to the challenge of creating a viable, multi-generational, change framework. As Belgium made clear, rightly in our view, if the lives of young people are to bear the scars of climate change and pandemics, hate speech and economic upheaval, shouldn’t they also be consulted?

The Youth Envoy made additional reference to the frequent media images of “irresponsible youth” while lamenting what she sees as the less frequent images of young people renouncing violence and caring for the needs of their communities. Her statement points to one of the problems with discussions of this sort, the endless struggling over stereotypical imaging that mis-defines entire groups of people, indeed in this instance, entire generations; theirs of course, but my own and others as well.

The larger truth is that efforts of young people to find their voice, to find their place, to move past the obstacles that often seem both formidable and endless – these are often very personal, even intimate struggles embodying dimensions both individual and generational. They are struggles now buffeted by pandemic distancing and economic uncertainty, but also by gross inequalities that represent a large and hostile foot on the necks of millions of young people who will never be invited to policy discussions or consulted about the path forward in this seemingly impediment rich and opportunity poor world. If this is indeed the stage of life, as it was for me long ago, where we are either “broken or turned into gold,” we have for too long accepted “broken” as the inevitable outcome for so many young people, ensuring that their often-considerable idealism and rightful sensitivity to the hypocrisy of we older folks who purport to “lead” them will be forever buried under a virtual avalanche of survival-related concerns.

At the UN on Monday, one of the most successful statements was delivered by the Ambassador of Niger, during which he pointed to the remarkable “optimism” expressed by many youth in his youngest of the world’s continents despite impacts on their young lives from violence, disease and unemployment. I have been in many parts of this “youngest continent” and have seen the talent taking shape in many forms and at many levels. I beheld as well the frustrations related to forms of economics and governance that are not making sufficient space for youth nor are they doing enough to nurture the skills and aspirations of young people, including those for whom displacement remains as likely a prospect as a university degree. How long will governments interpret youth advocacy and energy as a threat rather than an engine of social renewal? How long can this youth optimism possibly survive when the “gold” they might well become is so often ignored or dismissed by their elders?

It is surely a “weary” time for many of the world’s young people, a time when levels of trust in older folks are often lower even than levels of opportunity.   One of the blessings of youth has been, and surely remains, its varying but considerable levels of resilience, especially to disappointment.  We have all made messes in our lives, fallen out of line, suffered pain and heartbreak, sometimes self-inflicted.  Many of us have made decisions about labor and love that resulted in less than we imagined but from which we were able to move on rather deftly, to learn what we could and head out again on an uncertain, unpaved path. Many of us have boxed ourselves into corners but managed to escape their confinement and resolved never to find ourselves in such a place again.

But this time seems different, different of course from what people like me experienced long ago, but also different in terms of what is required of the youth of today. In this age of viral loads and climate meltdown, of mountains of debt and economies too strained to service them, the message to youth too often is that we expect them to remain patient while keeping their lives on hold, restraining their tongues, deferring their dreams, and socially isolating in confined spaces. It makes me sadder than I can communicate to think of so many energetic young people stuck in a starting gate with no clear sense of when the horses on which they are sitting will be released.

I know that the release will come. The obstacles will shift. The mean-spirits that dominate our political discourse will give way to kinder, more honest voices. The economic addictions that have imperiled the planet will evolve into a softer consumption. And the recognition will grow that young people are neither saviors nor narcissists, but people of varying portions of optimism, skill and energy who are often quite able and willing to help us all make the transitions we in our socially-distanced, stay-in-place realities are now so desperate to make.

But sadly, much of that is unlikely to happen as soon as it should.  The old habits and fresh challenges of the moment seem much too daunting. We must all keep working at ending the confinement of youth voices, youth potential; but also warning them honestly.

It’s going to take some time, this time.

Repentance: An Earth Day Imperative, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Apr

Sun Stroke

Earth Day, a useful idea that could only occur to a civilization estranged from Earth. Hugh Roberts

In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. Carl Sagan

I am so absorbed in the wonder of earth and the life upon it that I cannot think of heaven and angels.  Pearl S. Buck

But for us there was no wilderness, nature was not dangerous but hospitable, not forbidding but friendly.  Chief Luther Standing Bear

It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.  Rachel Carson

In this state of total consumerism – which is to say a state of helpless dependence on things and services and ideas and motives that we have forgotten how to provide ourselves – all meaningful contact between ourselves and the earth is broken. Wendell Berry

It was inevitable. This week, as states in the US controversially prepared to “open” sectors of their economies, a spate of articles has appeared proclaiming what would otherwise appear to be obvious: that many of us here in the privileged west have had just about enough of confinement, enough of economic uncertainty, enough of a contact-free life.

And perhaps most importantly, enough of cycles of news and “information” that offer too-little in the way of guidance or comfort, that fail to reassure us that our leadership is listening to the right people, making the right connections, demonstrating that they are as concerned with the loss of lives as with the loss of elections. It is this dissonance that, more than anything, piles frustration on top of loss, that makes us wonder if anyone is telling the truth about the values and habits we still need to adjust, the planetary matters to which we still need to pay attention, let alone for how long our “lives in limbo” are destined to remain in that state.

For all of its warts — and we have called attention to many over the years — the UN in the midst of its own forced isolation has been trying hard to keep our collective attention focused on the big picture –on science more than politics; on fairness and solidarity with states unprepared for viral threats still to materialize; on support needed to soften the blows of the devastating economic fallout that SG Guterres referenced this week in a virtual meeting on development finance, fallout that might well push states on the margins of viability into deeper holes of inequality and decimated livelihoods despite the global community’s best preventive efforts.

And as highlighted during two valuable Security Council meetings this week, we were all reminded that many of our global ills, while “reinforced” by COVID infections (as noted by Fiji), were not “invented” as the virus washed up on our collective shores. On Tuesday, under leadership from April’s president The Dominican Republic, briefers from the main UN agencies tasked with enhancing food security for millions painted a most disturbing picture. None was more devastating than the World Food Programme’s David Beasley who used his video time to “raise the alarm” regarding the current “hunger pandemic” that exists alongside the COVID pandemic, hunger which has multiple causes beyond COVID including armed violence, locust plagues, economic collapse and a spate of climate-related natural disasters. “We need peace,” he pleaded, in order that we might more successfully address both a looming famine for millions and still-growing COVID infections in all their causes and manifestations.

And then there is the proverbial elephant in the contemporary policy room, a threat which looms large in our panoply of challenges and which affects all others, and that is the climate threat. Despite the welcome improvements in air quality and emboldened wildlife that have resulted from our current social isolation, our ice caps continue to melt, our oceans continue to warm, species of all sorts still face immanent extinction, and calls in many parts of the world to “return to normal” raise the specter of new waves of pollution, extraction, warming and even violence once this initial stage of the current viral threat has run its course.

I am reminded in this context by a cartoon which appeared recently in the Economist depicting the human race slugging it out with COVID while a much larger opponent, that of climate change, looms in the background, egging on COVID to land a few good punches to make we humans even less able, willing and focused to engage our larger and even more formidable foe.

While there is still some debate among Security Council members regarding the specific impacts of climate change on conflict, a Wednesday (Earth Day) Arria Formula discussion organized by France and others focused on precisely this linkage. The briefers, including USG DiCarlo, insisted that climate threats will surely outlast the current COVID pandemic and that such threats tend to multiply occasions for conflict in much the same way, as Niger opined this week, that COVID has multiplied misery for populations already impacted by climate-affected flooding and drought.

The takeaway’s from this Arria meeting included a call from Crisis Group’s Malley to “shorten the timeline” on how we both prevent conflict and prepare states to respond more rapidly and effectively to a range of climate-affected threats.  It also featured a reminder from the ever-thoughtful Ambassador of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Rhonda King, that “our darkest hours” require more constructive forms of engagement that can yield people-centered solutions.

But how are such solutions to be pursued? During the Arria, the Stockholm Peace Research Institute’s Smith called for a “larger knowledge community” to engage these difficult relationships.   And there is surely good value to be had in bringing together policymakers, academics, scientists and other “experts” to examine challenges in earnest and suggest pathways forward.

But my own preference is for “learning communities” that can integrate but move beyond expertise to help those of us now tethered to our television sets and I Pads examine our relationship to a world in which some have taken far more than their share while others have yet to find their portion; persons who can’t bring themselves to pay sufficient attention to their own “helpless dependence” on economic interests that create material addictions and anxieties that we can now scarcely manage, that place endless consumer distractions in the way of a deeper sense of humility and wonder, indeed of repentance itself.

It may seem like an odd segue from COVID and climate impacts to personal repentance, but I am convinced that solutions to our multiple challenges will simply require more from us than isolation and social distancing: more than policy and expertise; more than a mere “pause” in our often-stubborn me-first-ness; more than simple apologies and facile commitments to “do better;” more than expressions of anxiety that get us no closer to personal growth; more than an annual day of appreciation for a planet which we then collectively desecrate the remainder of the year.

Within the confines of our COVID-restricted private spaces, while we impatiently await official permission to resume larger portions of our lives, please give a bit of thought to the ways in which those lives have interacted to the detriment of our neighbors, our communities and indeed the planet itself.  Repentance for such interactions requires much of those who choose that route – the acknowledgement of mistaken ways, the firm resolve to amend those ways, and the attentiveness and perseverance needed to turn verbal commitments into life-affirming habits, to trade away vestiges of anxiety and indifference for greater portions of humility and wonder. In these and other instances, repentance is a practice well-suited to the times.

Whether we accept it or not, whether we like it or not, we are not going to easily be rescued from our folly; not by experts or governments alone, certainly not by beings visiting from other celestial realms. The rescue we now require will only be secured if it includes ample portions of a more attentive, humble and resolute version of ourselves, indeed, all of ourselves.

A Catch-22: Unpacking South Africa’s socio-economic plan amidst the global Corona-pandemic, by Sanet Madonsela

22 Apr

Editor’s Note:  Earlier today, the UN Security Council discussed the impact of COVID-19 on security and development options in the Great Lakes Region.  Here, Sanet Madonsela assesses her country’s current economic-health tradeoffs that, if not properly handled, will merely exacerbate misery in a country already experiencing deep economic uncertainties, instances of institutional corruption, and uneven access to health and other services. 

On the 21st of April 2020, South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa announced the country’s plan to inject a staggering R500 billion into the country’s social and economic support package amidst the global Corona-pandemic. This support package makes up 10% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). It is said to be the country’s biggest one-time fiscal outlay. While some economists believe the stimulus package to be well targeted, questions have arisen regarding how it will be funded. Of the amount announced by the President, only a mere R130 billion will be reprioritized from the country’s existing budget. Ramaphosa stated that the rest would be sourced internally as well as from international finance institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, BRICS New Development Bank, and the African Development Bank. Financial support from the IMF and the World Bank for Covid-19 is said to not come with the usual calls for structural adjustment. However, the political left, in South Africa remains skeptical of receiving funds from these institutions.

It is important to note that South Africa’s economy was bleak before the outbreak of the global pandemic. The country was experiencing a technical recession, credit rating downgrades, rotational power outages, and high unemployment levels. This has resulted in business groups and economists requesting the reopening of the economy. The President has experienced increased pressure due to the economic impact of the current national lockdown. He has responded stating that the country would take a risk-adjusted approach to dealing with this challenge. While opening the economy could ease the economic burden on the country, it could result in a massive outbreak of the virus. Instead, the country has implemented measures to cushion the blow of the pandemic. Amongst these are: subsidies for businesses and wages, social grants catering to the poor and vulnerable and the prioritization of the health sector’s budget. While the health budget will be boosted, details regarding how the health system will be capacitated have not been provided. While these measures could assist in closing the inequality gap in the country, they can create further opportunities for looting given the endemic corruption existing in the country.

The global Corona-virus pandemic has managed to expose the many internal challenges the country is faced with. It has highlighted the shocking levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality in the country. While some citizens have eased into the nationwide lockdown, others are unable to do so as they are confronted with overcrowding, poor sanitation and food insecurity. They face greater nutritional and hunger challenges. Some even fear dying of hunger more than they fear dying from the virus.

It is worth noting that that the lockdown of schools means that the 9-million children who normally benefit from school nutritional programmes will not have access to food. While government has implemented the provision of food parcels to impoverished communities, its’ efforts have been countered by officials allegedly hoarding and selling food parcels. This means that resources allocated to assist the most vulnerable, including vulnerable children, are now being redirected to opportunistic government officials and their supporters. They do this through exploiting the government’s now-relaxed procurements system in the midst of this global crisis.

While the government’s immediate social grant increase is welcome, it should be noted that it would be insufficient as social grants tend to be redirected towards household expenses of adults who are usually employed. The Minister of Labour and Employment, Thulas Nxesi, confirmed that the country’s 3-million informal sector workers would not be covered by the department’s measures to lessen the impact of the national lockdown, as they are not registered for the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). Government however, has now introduced a temporary distress unemployment grant to assist those who are not currently receiving any other grants or UIF. It is estimated that over a million people will lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic. The question now is “Where to from here?”

Like most countries, South Africa is faced with a catch 22 situation. Should they open up the economy to reduce the economic impact? Alternatively, should they extend the lockdown to ease the burden on a health system seeking to flatten the curve? Any viable solution would have to take into consideration the vulnerable health system, the high levels of unemployment, low economic growth, and the reduced income per capita. While some trade-off may seem sensible, it should be noted that an extended lockdown could undermine health services such as the immunization of children; while the blow to the economy could be fatal. Instead, a good mitigation strategy should be put in place to deal with the virus until a vaccine is available. It should be stressed that the immediate removal of the lockdown without a clear health and economic plan could result in both high levels of mortality and economic downfall.