Future Shocks: Participation-Related Impairments of Conflict-Affected Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Feb

Being a child in a war zone is more dangerous than being an armed combatant. Save the Children UK

We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children. Jimmy Carter

I could taste the fear, and I could see that my mother was frightened, which I had never seen before, and this made me even more frightened.  Alfred Nestor

As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular. Oscar Wilde

War-making is one of the few activities that people are not supposed to view “realistically”; that is, with an eye to expense and practical outcome. Susan Sontag

Children and youth have been on my mind and in the news much this week.  A year after the Parkland (Florida) school massacre, we recall both the horror of that incident and the degree to which the massacre revealed some passionate and quite remarkable leadership skills in the student survivors, students who refused to give in to the fear they obviously experienced and “gave it” instead to older persons, including a few media personalities who dared question their sincerity or their right to an opinion about current social policies that helped to cut short the lives of their peers.

I was also moved by the sight of young people in different parts of the world taking the risks associated with school truancy to voice their displeasure at the pace with which we adults are taking action to reverse the climate change that threatens to interrupt any alleged school-to-career pipeline with drought and flooding, coastal erosion and massive storms, even decisions to embark on dangerous and vulnerable displacements because “home” is no longer hospitable.

Such bold and defiant young people seem to have already grown tired of waiting for what appear to be complacent adults to rescue their future from the destruction of armaments and climate events.   Despite what might be implied in a Guardian report that the Australian Prime Minister was actually urging protesting students to “be less activist,” these are not the youthful voices of social anarchy but of legitimate impatience with political leadership that seems to be taking its sweet time silencing the guns and bringing our planetary health back from the brink of utter dysfunction.

This past Monday at the UN, Belgium hosted an Arria Formula discussion with the UN office on Children and Armed Conflict on how to protect children from the consequences of armed conflicts in settings of “shrinking humanitarian space.” Focusing on the children of the Central African Republic, Security Council members and others wrestled with the many ways in which insurgency and other armed conflict inflict undeserved (and often untreated) misery on children, the “expense and outcome” of armed violence including implications regarding the ability of conflict-affected children to manage the “shocks” of what is likely to be an unstable future in their later years.

Children’s events at the UN, including the recent meeting of the UNICEF Executive Committee, tend to be a mixed bag – generally well attended and enthusiastically engaged while offering only bits of soul-searching on the part of we-sometimes-irresponsible older folks. The trauma in this world to which children are routinely subjected – children as precious as our own and with every bit as much innate potential for leadership and productivity in the global commons — are beyond any excuse or rationale we might wish (or need) to suggest.  By shortchanging these children in the ways we have, we also (if inadvertently) compromise their common future, robbing it of some of its capacity for healing, its creativity for solutions that have not yet crossed the thresholds of our collective mind.

I won’t bore you with facts and figures on children victimized by the world’s violence, most of which you have no doubt heard before.  The diplomats, NGOs and UN officials have heard them also, almost to the point that they cease to sufficiently trouble our consciousness let alone shock us into ratcheting up our collective response.

And yet there is a basic (and often hopeful) consensus evidenced in UN conference rooms where children’s issues are raised that is unlike deliberations in other conference rooms.   There may still be insufficient action at present on child protection, insufficient attention to the disastrous long-term effects of childhood trauma resulting from malnutrition, armed violence, displacement and a host of other ills that must surely cause children to wonder – if they dare – just what kind of world they have been destined for? What kind of planet welcomes these children and then abandons them to circumstances that would drive most of the parents we know to utter despair?

But there is no delegation which would dare to utter indifference to the recruitment of child soldiers or deny the need to improve access to basic educational and health services. Few would question that children must be better protected from the armed violence that claims too many young lives and sends even more on dangerous journeys in search of something safer and better, only to find themselves locked down in holding cells or taken in by criminal gangs.  There is virtual diplomatic consensus on the need to generate new forms of meaningful employment for this large and uneasy generation (a topic also raised this week at the UN by the International Labor Organization); or that we must do more to guarantee better access to educational opportunity and health care, all in the context of a recovering planet that has sufficient bees to pollinate our flowers and crops, birds with something in their stomachs other than plastics, and a climate that stops warming faster than its remaining life forms can possibly adapt.

We also know that time is not on our side, that it will take more skill and energy to solve the problems that threaten futures than we now have at our disposal.   And every child recruited into armed groups or snatched up by traffickers; every child whose growth is stunted by infectious disease or malnutrition; every child whose mind is denied creative engagement in quality schools; every child who must watch the fear in their mother’s eyes and wonder if circumstances are really as vulgar as they sometimes seem;  virtually every one of these children will struggle mightily to take their rightful place among those young people “fighting for their lives,”  fighting for a world of greater health and equity, fighting to silence the guns minus any incentive to carry guns of their own.

In the generally-excellent Arria Formula event mentioned above, a representative from the well-respected Geneva Call  noted that we must do more to ensure that “boys and girls are not forgotten” when we start to talk seriously about peace.  But it seems obvious that any peace that could possibly “forget” – even for a moment — the diverse and negative impacts of war and armed conflict on children is surely less than the peace we need.  For all the life-saving work that the UN is doing on behalf of children, for all who are immunized against disease or provided access to schooling or freed from servitude to traffickers or armed groups, our collective, “adult” response to the world’s children is still and too-often more vulgar than mindful, more tactical than determined.

I suppose it is true, as we often say here, that “children are our future.”  But more than that, they are their own future, a future that promises to be better for some than others, but which is nevertheless threatened for all.  If this generation of children is to pass on a healthier more sustainable planet to those who will follow, if they are to successfully manage the shocks that are sure to come their way, then all capable and responsible hands must be on deck. Those who have survived school shootings and now seek a saner policy on guns; those skipping class to rally for stronger measures on climate health; these and other youthful voices need assurances that their global peers are ready and able to help “save what’s left” and forge a more peaceful, sustainable path.  We older folks can and must try harder to provide those assurances.


Relentless:  The UN Doubles Down on a now-Familiar Foe, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Feb


The melody of your ears must not be the cries of the powerless.  Shahla Khan

Morality, after all, had fallen with society. He was his own ethic. Richard Matheson

Many also bear their cross of imagined deprivation, while their fellow human beings remain paralyzed by real poverty.  Anthon St. Maarten

Yet we must choose each step we take with utmost caution, for the footprints we leave behind are as important as the path we will follow. Lori Lopez

In the desert, the only god is a well.  Vera Nazarian

One of the things that our interns notice quickly about life inside the UN is the extent to which issues are often raised but not routinely resolved.   From development financing and ocean health to efforts to restrict the production of small arms and the recruitment tactics of terrorist groups and criminal elements, most key issues on the UN’s agenda are certain to “come around again” before too much time elapses.  This tends to frustrate onlookers, especially the young, who yearn to see greater levels of intentional movement towards more reliable resolutions to today’s multiple threats, some of the “footprints” which we older folks would do better not to leave behind.

However, given the degree of difficult associated with many global problems, this doubling-down is mostly appropriate.  As any good therapist (or parent) knows, naming a problem accurately is only the first stage in a successful outcome, not to be confused with the solution itself.   Many problems we confront in policy, much like problems within ourselves and our families took a long time to evolve into their current forms.  Like a ball of yarn, we wind ourselves and our societies into tight, if destructive habits that cannot untangle overnight, if at all.  If they are indeed to untangle, such will require us to engage over and over in a complex “dance” that includes elements of sometimes-painful honesty, careful assessments, legal accountability, and a continual renewal of our intent to see these processes through to a healthy conclusion.

And yet we in this UN space habitually seem to over-simplify what it takes to sustainably resolve global challenges.  We pass resolutions, year after year, without attaching assessments of why so many of these resolutions have so little impact.   We continue to raise the right issues in diverse conference rooms without also raising the stakes on success – integrating honest and careful analysis of what we’ve learned since the last time such issues came up for consideration and what we now must resolve to do differently.   In essence, we “double down” on our consideration of global challenges without also doubling down on both our reflection and our resolve, as though the solution to our current stable of grave threats requires little beyond ratcheting up a bit of additional political will to do more of what we’ve already committed to doing.

One of these “come around again” threats was examined on Friday during a Security Council “Arria Formula” on how accountability for crimes can serve as a contribution to prevention.  The specific context for this Arria is the often-horrific violence perpetrated mostly against women and girls in situations of armed conflict.  Led by Germany with the endorsement of most current Security Council members, the event was a reflection of a problem to which much energy has properly been devoted, but where progress has been elusive (or even non-existent) as was reinforced by prosecutors of the Special Court established to deal with such abuses in the Central African Republic.  Women especially remain the “currency of conflict” as claimed by Ireland’s Ambassador noting that we must refuse to separate the physical security of women and men abused in conflict zones with what she referred to as “other forms of security” including of the social and economic variety.  In a similar vein, the director of the Global Justice Center reminded delegations that the genesis of much abuse can be laid at the feet of our persistent and toxic inequalities, including of gender, reinforcing our own view that we must do more to “level the playing field” before it can properly be groomed.

This broader security must also integrate accountability for abuses already committed, as several states and the always-thoughtful Tonderai Chikuhwa of the UN Office on Sexual Violence in Conflict duly maintained, underscoring the importance of ensuring that, however painful it might be for some, such crimes must never be stricken from the “historical record” of states.

But if we must, as Chikuhwa and others insisted, double down on accountability for these humiliating crimes, Council members and others insisted that our lens must also focus on related matters, specifically the call by Germany and other speakers for more victim services to help minimize prospects for “re-traumatizing.” Indeed, states including Côte d’Ivoire and Chile, insisted on the priority need for “healing” — in part a function of services and reparations but in part a function of ensuring that there is a “cost” for such abuse, a “cost” that can be made consistent across states and that can be employed to help citizens remain mindful of the deep trauma suffered by far too many.

In listening to this good discussion with one of our interns, two things came to my mind.  First was the “relentlessness” of the dehumanizing abuse which casts a fog over human life that never quite seems to lift.   In the relative triviality of my first-world bubble, I have encountered only episodic stalking – by a few people who wanted things from me I was unwilling to give them or through exposure to online hackers demanding ransom in exchange for keeping silent about alleged behavior which, thankfully, never took place.

And yet even within these limited and mostly modest bouts with our sometimes frayed and predatory social system, one now defined by a largely “fallen” and self-authorizing morality,  I could revisit some lessons about the unrelenting nature of more grave abuse, specifically the degree to which external violations leave “footprints” within us that continue to hijack our best selves long after the physical or psychological violence stops: those remaining in hyper-vigilant mode for signs that stalkers might be close at hand; those refusing to communicate unless completely sure who is on the other end; those dreading turning on the computer because of yet another virus ready to inflict mayhem in ways much like the “virus” of conflict-related abuse — doing its dirty work now from inside the systems on which we must rely and changing how we engage the world in ways that we are more likely to defend than to carefully examine.

And the second, related insight comes courtesy of the 2030 Development Agenda which is filled with positive implications for those who might otherwise risk humiliation in conflict zones, but which insists to all who participate that we must not only “leave no one behind,” but that we must reach “those in greatest need first.”  It is difficult and at times counter-productive to create priority lists for human need, and yet there must be some special dispensation, some special accountability in situations where grave crimes have been committed against women and girls, men and boys in too many conflict zones, crimes more akin to slavery than to the “first world” dramatics that we far too routinely indulge.

I confess that my own patience for “first world problems” is now even lower than before, not because growth and change in own my life are no longer needed (they are), but precisely because I acknowledge more deeply an unearned privilege allowing me to trust (albeit with gratitude) that my own fog is destined to lift, my “well” is largely close at hand, my erstwhile “deprivation” is almost entirely imaginary.  The “cries” of the powerless don’t always penetrate my thick skull as they should, but neither have they become the “melody” that transforms sexual violence as a tactic of war and other traumatic circumstances from something preventable and accountable to something that we simply accept as part of the price tag for getting on with the “world’s business.”

The “paralysis” of many trapped in poverty or in cycles of dehumanizing despair must never become acceptable to those of us ensconced in the policy world, including “accepting” that the drama of our own lives constitutes some rough equivalent.  We at Global Action were deeply appreciative of the reminder provided to us on Friday by Germany and other Security Council members, a reminder that while many windows of opportunity seem always to be open to us, such windows are still largely and even serially impaired for persons humiliated or otherwise traumatized at the point of a gun.

Fort Worth:  The UN Presents Diverse Lenses on Human Potential, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Feb

Mother Earth

Most of us must learn to love people and use things rather than loving things and using people. Roy Bennett

We know that we are the ones who are divided; and we are the ones who must come back together, to walk in the Sacred Way.  Ojibway Prayer

Isn’t it sad that you can tell people that the ozone layer is being depleted, the forests are being cut down, the deserts are advancing steadily, that the greenhouse effect will raise the sea level 200 feet, that overpopulation is choking us, that pollution is killing us, that nuclear war may destroy us – and they yawn and settle back for a comfortable nap. But tell them that the Martians are landing, and they scream and run.  Isaac Asimov

Cover my Earth Mother four times with many flowers.  Zuni Prayer

And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.  George Eliot

Teach us to walk the soft earth as relatives to all that live.   Sioux Prayer

We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. Michael Crichton

In beauty it is finished.    Navajo Chant

As many of you have gathered from even occasional readings of these Sunday missives, the UN offers what at time represent an equally dazzling and frustrating lens on global policy but also on the people who, among other things, establish its norms and responses.  This week alone, saw government experts convene to establish the basis for a framework to address the growing threat posed by the militarization of outer space, a well-organized briefing on Yemen to “hold the fort” on humanitarian response until a viable political process to end the conflict can be established, and a joint presentation by the presidents of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council respectively in an attempt to ratchet up both funding pathways and diplomatic urgency to keep our collective commitments to the 2030 Development Agenda at least somewhat on track.

We do lots of “holding the fort” at the UN, trying to maintain global attention on the difficult (non-Martian) issues that cause many constituents to turn their gaze away or “settle back for a comfortable nap,” but also to gather resources within the UN and in member states to support “good faith” responses to what are at times ugly manifestations of the human condition. The UN does what it can, in many instances keeping the focus on often-ignored matters of planetary urgency while organizing competent and strategic responses in the hope that various forms of “reinforcements” — of funding, capacity support and political will — do not lag too far behind.

Of all the “ugly manifestations” of human conduct that the UN highlighted this week, perhaps the most discouraging was an event on human trafficking organized by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime.  The event itself was very well done, focusing on the launch of two related reports, UNODC’s full assessment of global trafficking and a second report covering much of the same ground but focused specifically on trafficking in the context of armed conflict.

The latter report was directly requested by the UN Security Council and is perhaps more germane to Global Action’s organizational priorities; but both “booklets” paint a sordid picture of the willingness of human beings in diverse circumstances to contribute to brutality, abuse and “exploitation” that contexts of armed violence merely magnify.  Highlighted within booklet 2 is the recruitment of children into armed groups to serve as everything from porters to suicide bombers, and victims trafficked for purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation.  In addition to copious statistics on trafficking demographics, law enforcement responses and conviction rates, mention was made often of the particular vulnerabilities of displaced persons — including those many thousands displaced by armed violence — and the often-desperate people, mostly women and children, who sign on to what are certain to become exploitative arrangements in the complete absence of viable options, arrangements perpetrated by those who, at the very least, “love things and use persons.”

One can (and we often do) laud the efforts of law enforcement, peacekeepers and UN officials to provide urgent perspectives and high-quality data on this soul-crushing issue. At the same time we also lament the “blows” inflicted by traffickers to any sense of optimism about the ability of human beings to do any better than to “hold down the fort” as our norms of international order prove themselves “thinner” than we imagined and predation in many forms continues to flourish; traffickers, yes, but also an economic system that allows some to build massive wealth casting dismissive shadows on the many millions resigned to running (if they can) from people and institutions content to treat them mostly as “things” to be used, rather than beings to be cherished.

For many younger people, even those around Global Action’s orbit contemplating careers in international affairs, one can perceive a pervasive sense of cynicism about the human condition, a sense that self-interest is fully entrenched as our collective guide-star, that narcissism has become a social expectation and, moreover, that there is really not much that people can do – UN resolve notwithstanding — to “turn this tide” characterized by too much ugliness, too many people content to sleep through crises or turn a blind eye to the inequities that are actually within their power to change.

This assessment of “human nature” – less a science-based lens for exploration of both our warts and potential, and more an excuse for not changing what we are able to change – must also be countered.   After all, the forts we “hold” will not stay held forever.  We see evidence throughout that the walls are cracking, that provisions are scarce and unequally distributed, that communications are increasingly vexing, that promises of reinforced capacity are too-often unreliable. We simply cannot go on the way we are, cannot reverse our current slide while simultaneously enabling (often unintentionally) the forces committed to an unequal and rapacious exploitation of what little is left to exploit.

As the gorgeous group of quotations above makes plain, there is another path that integrates honor and gratitude, that upholds the dignity of human beings while rejecting indignities directed towards our natural home. The UN also knows this other path.  On Friday in the General Assembly Hall, the UN launched the International Year of Indigenous Languages, an event that included powerful statements from President Morales of Bolivia and the President of the General Assembly Maria Fernandez. The event also highlighted indigenous representatives who spoke directly to the multiple benefits of indigenous language preservation – not only the safeguarding of indigenous culture itself but the life given to forms and depths of expression to which indigenous languages are particularly well suited – expression that links people to each other and to the many blessings of creation, that reminds us of the power of beauty to inspire our better selves, that urges us to cover our “mother” with flowers of her own making rather than with bulldozers and space weapons of our own.  As Ecuador’s minister affirmed, the words of indigenous languages “have a soul, a memory, a heart.” They tie together those who live where their sounds are uttered, binding the human and non-human, ties of gratitude and what the PGA called “symbols of belonging,” all held together with pledges to walk more “softly” on a planet that too many of us have conspired to treat much too roughly for much too long.

This event was not designed to romanticize indigenous culture, to promote the soul-energy embedded in indigenous languages as the singular antidote to modernism’s excesses. Indigenous leaders are all-too-aware of the “divisions” that need to be reunited in their own communities, the many sources of pain (including the self-inflicted variety) that require a more robust healing response.  And yet there is so much richness embedded in these language forms, so much beauty, connection and “will to cherish” that culturally-homogenous modern societies — too comfortable in what they “know” and too resolved to “have their own way” — need much more of.

An aboriginal woman from Australia told the diplomats in the GA Hall of the joy it brings her to “whisper into the ears of her grandchildren words from my ancestral language.”  We owe our children and grandchildren more than smart phones and foolish owners, more than forts buckling under the strain of assaults coming from predatory humans in many forms.  We owe them, as one indigenous speaker on Friday noted, the chance “to sing the songs of the earth,” songs that in too many corners of this planet “have simply grown silent.”

Cool Spa:  Endorsing Emotions Appropriate for Urgent Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Jan


It was like when you make a move in chess and just as you take your finger off the piece, you see the mistake you’ve made, and there’s this panic because you don’t know yet the scale of disaster you’ve left yourself open to.  Kazuo Ishiguro

But there’s another sort of terror: the terror of failure, of being blamed for some disaster, or of assuming responsibility.  David Weber

The two of them, the smart ones, the clever ones, the great defenders of truth and fairness and justice, had done nothing while others had worked themselves to exhaustion.  Michael Grant

It’s a cruel fact of war that it takes little more than applying pressure to one finger to end another person’s life. More than that, it’s a cruel fact of life that we are hardwired to follow the crowd in a moment of panic.  Trevor Richardson

This was potentially a tide-turning week for the world and the UN found itself at the epicenter of much of it.

Yesterday the Security Council held a rare Saturday session to focus on the situation in Venezuela.  The conversation attracted numerous ministers and other senior diplomats, both Council members and many interested regional states, and featured the presence of US Secretary of State Pompeo who stuck around long enough to bash Cuba and issue a warning to countries still on the fence regarding the legitimacy of the Maduro presidency that it is “time to choose.”  He was replaced around the oval by Elliot Abrams of Iran-Contra infamy who was making his debut as chief adviser on Venezuela to the current US president.

The optics of this were not ideal for the US, for whom the presence of Abrams and the bullying tactics of Pompeo underscored fears of some states that the US is now resurrecting a modernist version of the Monroe Doctrine and its “backyard” justifications for aggressive intervention.   There is still vast, lingering pain throughout the region regarding prior “arrangements” between the US and its client states, governments at times willing to throw their own people under the bus to enable the policy objectives of its larger neighbor over which they essentially have no say.

And yet, many states were clear that the current situation in Venezuela, one which has resulted in mass displacement, rights violations and widespread economic ruin, has conspired to delegitimize the Maduro government.  European states at this meeting went so far as to propose an “eight day” window within which Maduro must arrange for new elections, a proposal subsequently mocked by the Russians.  Others preferred the “path of negotiations” approach with facilitation offered by Mexico and Uruguay.  Regardless, emotions were raw during much of this five hour session. Tensions among states seeking to transition the situation in Caracas and do justice to the many thousands of currently displaced (and the neighboring countries hosting them) as well as among states fearing the return of a more hostile US “backyard” remained consistently high.

Surprisingly a bit less “raw” was Friday’s Council debate on the climate-conflict nexus organized by January’s Council president the Dominican Republic.  In a discussion that spanned eight uninterrupted hours and involved 82 state speakers, both the urgency and the politics of climate response were on display. While there were no “climate denying” statements made (the US spoke effectively on disaster response but failed to utter the “C” word), many states (including Germany and some Council colleagues) noted that while climate change might not be the cause of conflict, its impacts have a “multiplier” effect on political and security tensions, adding flooding, drought, storms and other “disasters” to a worrisome global mix characterized by still-too-high levels of poverty and mass displacement, too much plastic in our oceans, and too many hands grabbing at the “cookie jar” of dwindling natural resources.  While some states shared concern about Council energy being “diluted” by excess attention to this particular “thematic obligation,” the Fiji representative rightly noted that we have reached the “tipping point” on climate, echoing Japan’s call for climate considerations integrated “throughout the conflict cycle” and Ireland’s call to explore the climate-conflict nexus across the spectrum of UN policymaking.

Beyond the UN this week was the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, bringing together the elites of the planet –complete with their copious entourages and private jets — to deliberate on the fate of a world they (in the aggregate) have done much to destroy on behalf of global citizens about whom too many of these “leaders” seem to actually care little.  This toxic (in my view) event which draws media attention as though this were the policy equivalent of a Super Bowl or Academy Awards, provides yet another reminder of the residual “vertical” dimensions of global governance, placing on display guardians of the planet who, so far as we can tell, are principally skilled at guarding their own privilege.  Media coverage this year focused on the “gloom” of Davos as elites contemplated the uncertainty of these times – as though much of the rest of this largely “exhausted” planet doesn’t cope with higher levels of uncertainty all the time!

But something did come out of Davos this year that grabbed considerable media interest and not without reason.  Perhaps my favorite quotation of the entire week came from a Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, whose warning to the Davos elites seemed to prompt at least a bit of soul-searching:

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

Preaching panic and culpability to generations (including diplomats and elites) that so often go out of their way to “keep cool,” that too-often misconstrue the difference between “keeping your head” and willful indifference to anything that might cause someone to actually and practically care, surely seems like risky business.  But in these times it is also essential business.

Let’s put this “panic” in some perspective.  The “playing it cool” game, like most other games we now indulge, has positive and negative repercussions.  To the extent that it implies keeping your head while others around you are losing theirs, this is surely a skill worth cultivating.  But the degree to which “cool” and its attendant platitudes become the mask behind which we hide from seeing, from feeling, from responding, then such “cool” becomes merely the latest iteration of a narcissistic pattern that too-easily hardens into inattention and dismissiveness; indeed into a potential “disorder” in its own right.

A similar distinction can be attributed to “panic.”  If panic is, as it so often is these days, a sub-set of our now-chronic anxiety, then it is related primarily to our perceived incapacity to control outcomes and/or to recover our brand from ill- advised movements “on the chess board.”  Panic in this sense is more likely to drive an irrational herd than to drive productive outcomes, concerned more with finding “spas” and other niches of personal relief and escape than urgently using those skills and capacities available to help resolve whatever crises make their appearance before us.

As much as we might like to think otherwise within our bastions of “cool,” there are many times when “panic” represents the more accurate reading of circumstance: the parent hovering over a desperately sick child; the homeless person on the cusp of a deadly hypothermia; a family evading traffickers as they seek fresh water and arable farmland, or escape from political instability; an entire nation watching helplessly as melting ice caps raise ocean levels, breeching fresh water supplies with salt and shifting fish stocks away from the access on which local populations depend.  These circumstances are not diminishing in frequency; indeed they threaten to carry us to our collective demise unless we grasp both the urgency they represent and our still-potent (for now) capacity for contructive response.

If some of the “small island” and other states who participated in Friday’s Council debate on climate change and conflict are correct; if their growing and still-unheeded concerns are indeed justified by circumstance; if the warnings uttered in Davos by Greta Thunberg have the merit that many seem to think they do; then “panic” in its most urgent and productive sense is fully warranted.  Not the panic of the herd, but neither the “cool” detachment of persons who don’t (or refuse to) understand that the metaphorical house fire whose potential and implications they fear has long been burning.


Tuesday’s Child: Leadership to Inspire Next Generations, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Jan

Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. E.M. Forster

We must desire to see people rising in life, rather than looking for ways to contribute to their fall. Bamigboye Olurotimi

Youth and elder meet where the pressure of the future meets the presence of the past. Michael Meade

He had a courtly way of exclaiming over whatever was exclaimable in people – especially kids. Susan Cain

The UN sprang back to life this week with several key events and with the faces of diplomats and secretariat staff looking fresher and more eager than they did a few short weeks ago.

Our own interns, with one notable exception, have largely scattered, soon to be replaced by others.   Some of what took place this week would have been really good for all of them to experience, the enthusiasm of a system that has taken some lumps over the past years, led by people who are determined to make that system not only work more effectively, but work for all.

One of the things that we ask of the young people who pass through our program is that they give a good-faith effort to understand the UN in all its policy facets – from the Security Council and the work of the GA committees to specialized bodies focused on the rights of women, the care of children, the health of oceans and agriculture, the sustainability of cities, and much more. At the same time, we ask them to evaluate (not judge) the personalities sitting at conference room podiums, to interrogate which UN leadership is most believable, which is keeping his/her eyes focused on the issues of greatest significance for the planet, but also has a plan for how to enable and promote meaningful and sustainable change among the UN’s diverse constituencies.

The rationale for these requests is twofold.  First, we want interns and fellows to, in essence, rub the interests and priorities that they come to us with up against the priorities and interests of a system that is now weighing in at so many significant policy levels.  While the UN is still some ways from being a viable learning community, learning opportunities abound, both diverse and of high quality.  Indeed, in much of the 20 years of Global Action’s existence, we have “mined” the many nuggets of learning available throughout UN system – its security crises and cutting-edge side events, its pandemic responses and gender justice sessions, as the best means available for keeping our minds focused and our vision sharp.

Some of the most interesting events have also been a bit of a welcome surprise – the Arria Formula meetings organized by Security Council members outside the Council’s formal structure, the impact-filled side events such as a fall briefing on the crisis of the Aral Sea region presided over by the president of Uzbekistan, or this past Monday’s multi-stakeholder discussion on finance for development presided over by the highly-regarded and able-listening president of the Economic and Social Council, Ambassador Rhonda King.

Given the vast and high level learning opportunities that abound in UN conference rooms and to which they have access, many of our interns leave the UN with a different passion than they entered with.  They take advantage of the “front row seat” provided for them to review their potential contributions over the frustrations and opportunities that punctuate virtually every UN policy discussion.  Do I want to contribute to policy or to direct humanitarian response?  Do I want to assist with development finance, with humanitarian risk assessment, with efforts to control our hunger for new and improved weapons?

But the second aspect of this UN journey is equally important, the assessment of the many “players” in the UN system who set agendas and guide negotiations, whose voices have an outsized importance in terms of how the UN directs its internal energies and engages external audiences.

Our interns, with few exceptions, have not been successful in cultivating relationships with diplomats and UN officials that go beyond the merely “professional.”  Thus, there have been few opportunities for them to experience what we would consider to be “mentoring” in UN contexts beyond commitments to their growth and well-being available through our own office and “community of peers.”  The balances that constitute mentoring in the best sense – a combination of character and skills development made possible through an invitation to explore the struggles and successes of life “up close,” is elusive for many in this policy space.

And yet there are occasions when bits of personality leak through the formalities of UN protocol, giving all of us – but especially young people – glimpses of human agency and possibility in these challenging times.   The interns might not know in any detail what makes UN leaders tick, or more importantly, the stories that lies behind their commitments, the life circumstances that gave rise to a career of service in multilateral settings. But despite these personal limitations, they can make observations of value in a time of great uncertainty.  After all, young people are gazing towards a future that can spin in a variety of directions, some of them quite discouraging.  Does UN leadership grasp this discouragement or even share it?  And beyond discouragement itself, which figures at the front of the room truly inspire?  Who is really listening to others?  Who respects contributions beyond the status limitations of diplomatic protocol? Who are the leaders grasping the momentousness of the times, calling us to cooperatively focus our intellectual, moral, diplomatic and technical energies on the problems that threaten our existence?

This past Tuesday, two events sought to affirm the values of multilateralism, inspire stakeholders to higher levels of collaborative engagement, and focus energies on the problems of our own making that threaten to grind human progress to a halt.  The first of these was a handover of leadership of the Group of 77 (G-77) and China from Egypt to Palestine.  President Abbas made the trip to New York to appear on the dais with senior UN officials and the Egyptian Foreign Minister to affirm the importance of the G-77 to the fair and able functioning of the UN development system, integrating what is promoted here as “south-south” cooperation.    Both President Abbas and the president of the UN General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés of Ecuador, underscored the importance of the G-77 to creating conditions of greater “global solidarity” from which we can tackle poverty and inequalities, climate change and “decent work,” these and other problems critical to a healthier and more just world.

In the afternoon president Espinosa Garcés herself took center stage, outlining priorities for her term in a voice that was both resolute and thoughtful.  She cited the current “turbulent” challenges that require all member states “to reaffirm their fidelity to the values of the Charter and the enduring value of multilateralism.”  She was gracious in thanking states and stakeholders for the many contributions they are already making to a more just and sustainable world.  And she put forth an appropriately ambitious agenda for change – from “fact-based” migration governance and eliminating ocean plastics, to the full inclusion of persons with disabilities and the “common cause” of ending poverty and gross inequalities — that communicated both the scope of her concern for the planet and her willingness to use every “soft power” tool at her disposal (including the convening of a breathtaking range of high-level events) to leverage additional collaborative change.

It fell to President Abbas, earlier on this Tuesday, to remind the large diplomatic audience that “people are the real treasure of nations.” Our people (especially young people) need to be inspired to “rise in life” by leaders who demonstrate both vision and compassion, who understand the challenges of the times and more specifically that such challenges are unlikely to be resolved successfully without the urgent and respectful engagement of all of us.  On this Tuesday, the UN demonstrated to all its stakeholders, young and old alike, that it is getting that message.

Finish Line: Honoring the Accomplishments and Aspirations of our Common Journey, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Jan

finish ii

I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have. Abraham Lincoln

One who lives without discipline dies without honor. Icelandic Proverb

To be able to look back upon one’s life in satisfaction is to live twice. Khalil Gibran

There is no beauty in sadness. No honor in suffering. No growth in fear. No relief in hate. It’s just a waste of perfectly good happiness. Katerina Kleme

On Friday, the UN Security Council held its regularly scheduled meeting on the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a briefing from the always-enlightening Special Representative Leila Zerrougui. Part of her task was to introduce the latest sobering and comprehensive report of the Secretary-General on the situation in DR Congo including issues affecting the promotion of regional peace and security – efforts to control the latest Ebola outbreaks, assaults from armed groups on civilians and medical personnel, and the ongoing theft of natural resources – as well as the activities of the UN Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO), to protect as many civilians as possible and ensure a modicum of stability in this vast country.

This Council session was a bit different in that the focus was on recently-concluded and twice-delayed presidential elections in DR Congo, the conclusion and final certification of which is to (hopefully) lead to a peaceful transition of power in the country, the first such transition in DR Congo history.  A bevy of speakers, including from the African Union, the Foreign Ministry of neighboring Zambia (representing the Southern African Development Community) and the DR Congo National Electoral Commission (CENI) lent gravity to the proceedings, reinforcing the importance of this process for the often-compromised political legitimacy of the country as well as its implications for stability both within and even beyond the region.

Also highlighted was the suspension of the vote in Beni territory and Butembo in the North Kivu province due to health and security concerns.  Such suspensions, which promised to be resolved in time for March parliamentary elections, were duly noted by speakers but not fully interrogated, specifically in terms of how such suspensions might have affected the electoral outcome (a provisional win for Felix Tshisekedi).  In a country where trust levels are acknowledged to be low, the absence of Kivu votes is sure to become an issue that will linger past any upcoming inauguration and subsequent calls from the new president for patience and reconciliation.

Moreover, there were charges at this meeting that many votes had not been properly counted prior to certification.   Among the thousands of trained monitors at polling places across DR Congo were those of Conférence Épiscopale Nationale du Congo (CENCO) one of whose officials addressed the Council and who laid out (in respectful tones) concerns over the vote count, concerns exacerbated by the lack of cell phone access for many during the voting process.  Simply put, CENCO’s polling figures are at times significantly at variance with those of CENI, prompting the request that CENI share its complete polling data in full transparency in order to “set minds at rest.”

It is not necessary to gloss over these concerns, nor “fetishize” the benefits of elections on other matters afflicting DR Congo (as some in the international community are prone to do) to recognize the enormity of this electoral achievement, made possible in part by the decision of DR Congo’s long-serving (but still relatively young) president Joseph Kabila to remove his name from consideration for another terms as president.   DR Congo is a huge and unevenly developed country facing a myriad of threats including its own legacy of corrupt, unresponsive and at times abusive governance.  As noted by several Council members – including new member South Africa — and more forcefully by CENI’s president; that these elections were as successful as they appeared to be — with only sporadic violence, robust monitoring of polling places, the successful registration of millions of Congolese, and voting machines (those not destroyed by fire) that appeared to work better than some had predicted – was as much as could have been hoped for, and should be respected and duly honored as such.

This entire discussion inadvertently underscored a deeper concern for me, one that punctuates much of our efforts within and outside this policy space: when is our work within the complex contexts of policy good enough?  And who decides?  Is it possible to walk the line defined by Belgium and other Council members whereby we can laud the courage and persistence that led to the prospect of a peaceful transition of power while at the same time demand that the political will of the Congolese be fully honored and that persons seeking to report on irregularities be both listened to and protected?

To put it another way, can we put our hands on the oft-elusive formula that allows us to both honor accomplishment and demand better, that makes it possible for us to integrate and even appreciate the diverse expectations of policymakers and constituents that drive equally diverse assessments of our successes and failures, assessments that can (and have too often) become wedges distancing official proclamations of progress from the unrealized aspirations of constituents?

CENI’s president was clearly frustrated by much of what he heard at this Council meeting, rightly citing the legal requirements pertaining to his office, the massive logistical challenges of registering voters and votes in an area larger than western Europe, even the emotional challenges associated with citizens putting faith in the ballot box to help solve a myriad of development and security problems in a country with a democratic culture that is literally in its infancy.  On the other hand, if electoral challenges are unaddressed or even ignored, if a fledgling trust in an equally fledgling political culture is once again trammeled in part by too-easy “reassurances” from state authorities, then all of the thorny problems that a new government will be expected to address will become that much more daunting.  And DR Congo already has more than its share of threats to human dignity to which it must respond.

This week, I came across another in a series of recent articles providing data sets that ostensibly demonstrate that, in some significant ways, 2018 was the setting for much in the way of “global improvements.”  While I have rarely met persons whose immediate circumstances “felt better” on the basis of published percentiles and other data sets, it can certainly be valuable to take stock (albeit cautiously) of progress in the aggregate.  And yet human striving has mostly yielded mixed (and often unequal) benefits, including with regard to human motivation (and human gratitude).  We are clearly making some progress on reducing absolute poverty, halting the spread of infectious disease, communications within and across cultures; this and more deserve appreciation and respect.  But we are also losing ground in several key areas including levels of food insecurity and forced displacement, and the health of our oceans and climate.  Moreover, despite the proliferation of “smart phones,” direct access to capacity such as technological innovation and financial instruments seems less equal in this world than has been the case at any point in my lifetime, perhaps in human history.

Data can be critical to keeping progress on track and exposing gaps and limitations in even our best intentions.  But it cannot – indeed must not – become a substitute for the decisions by people in families and communities regarding the point at which good enough is truly “good enough,” that time when promises by governments and policy leaders for greater health care, education and social equity are both kept and in line with aspirations, aspirations that are now continually stoked by the incessant displays of high lifestyles to which those in developing countries, and especially the youth, enjoy at least remote digital admission.

All is not doom and gloom in our times, to be sure, but we still have a long road to travel before we achieve the world envisioned – indeed demanded – by the UN’s sustainable development goals.  Along the way, we have things yet to learn, including the tricky matter of honoring without settling, critiquing without discouraging.  Moreover, we must continually rethink those too-tempting conclusions by government officials and data experts, that what seems “good enough” to them is actually “good enough” for others.


Value Clarification: Recovering Norms that Bind the UN Community, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Jan


Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.  José Ortega y Gasset

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Ralph Waldo Emerson

If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention.  Dorothy L. Sayers

To value gold over water is to value economy over ecology, that which can be locked up over that which connects all things. Rebecca Solnit

Perhaps at no time in the 20 years of Global Action’s existence have differences of opinions about the value of the United Nations been as sharp as they are now.

Some continue to idolize of the UN as an indispensable presence on the international scene, an institution that, as attributed to former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, may not “bring us to heaven” but might be the only existing setting that can “save us from hell.”

For others, especially in this age of nationalist resurgence, the UN has become little more than a relic of the 20th Century, a place of stodgy protocol and undeserved privilege, where elites with excess ambition and little decision-making authority craft texts that few states actually abide by and that add too little practical value.

As a small organization that gratefully spends much of its life energy in UN conference rooms, we take what we hope is an attentive and reflective “third rail” approach to the UN.  We appreciate the expanding scope of UN policy interests as well as the time and effort that diplomats expend in keeping the UN properly funded, seeking to better-balance the power of states inside and outside of the Security Council, and ensuring (as best they can) that those who represent the UN in the field are properly protected and equipped, but that they are also held accountable for behavior inconsistent with mission values, priorities and mandates.

And we always recall that the UN is far more than its headquarters machinations, far greater in its scope and application than the ability of any one NGO to scrutinize.  Its peacekeepers, humanitarian workers, experts in promoting food security and pandemic response; these and many more are the lifeblood of the UN system, the reason that many frustrated over UN failures especially in the peace and security realm still cling to the hope that UN Charter values can become more deeply embedded in the culture of its members, can help guide all states on a path to a world that “values” the dignity and well-being of all citizens, that affirms in practical terms the cooperation that the challenges of climate, weapons, migration and more demand and that the UN should be well-placed to promote.

But this hope now displays frayed edges for many and not entirely without reason.   As I tried to explain in a recent interview with Global Connections Television, albeit clumsily, we are living through a “thin skinned” age, a time when many governments and individuals believe themselves to have earned the equivalent of a “plenary indulgence” shielding them from criticism or constraint, asserting their sovereign right to do pretty much what they want without judgment or indeed without consequence.

Such indulgence is toxic enough when asserted by individuals, but for governments it is discouraging at best and gravely dangerous at its worst.   Moreover, it is potentially life-threatening for a UN system that, at some level, must be able to bind its members to the values embedded in its Charter, values which are not always as straight-forward as some claim but which constitute a hopeful promise of sorts to global constituents who seek in multilateral engagements the capacity to hold individual states accountable for internationally agreed norms in ways that their citizens in (too) many instances simply cannot.

We have long taken the view that the “culture” of the UN which plays out in various conference rooms and political processes must itself better promote the norms and values which give hope to constituents and allow them to maintain faith in a system that has not always justified that faith.  The UN will never be perfect any more than its stakeholders will, and that includes tiny organizations like ours.  But the UN does have an obligation, we believe, to keep our collective eye on the prize, a world that has safely backed up from the brink of “hell” currently inflamed by existential threats from climate change, pandemics, plastic-filled oceans and weapons of mass destruction.

This is certainly no easy agenda.  As we on the NGO side are reminded all-too-frequently, the UN is largely what its member states want it to be.  And frankly it is not always clear to us that UN member states are uniformly and sufficiently interested in preserving the health and integrity of this system, a system that most all would affirm the value of (even if only to keep tabs on their adversaries) but where commitments to preventive maintenance are relatively rare.

Here are some of the practices we have witnessed by UN member states (you know who you are) that are both increasingly commonplace and undermining of the integrity of a system that, frankly, cannot tolerate any more shocks to its global reputation:

  • Articulating lopsided and self-interested versions of the “truth” that obsess on issues of national interest while ignoring relevant contexts
  • Demanding that smaller states abide by rules and obligations that seem not to apply in the same way to the more powerful states and their allies
  • Asserting that agreements negotiated under UN auspices are legally (or normatively) binding and then choosing to simply walk away from those that no longer suit national interests
  • Insisting that the UN has a role to play in assisting the internal capacity of states but has little or no authority regarding the internal behavior of states
  • Speaking (even in the Security Council) from the sole vantage point of national interest rather than investing more thought in how to promote the “best interests” of the system
  • Proclaiming the importance of the “liberal international order” without being transparent about the ways in which states – including the so-called guardians of that order – have undermined trust in its institutions and objectives
  • Advocating the presence of NGOs while blurring the distinction between merely “having a voice,” and actually “having a say”
  • Refusing to acknowledge mistakes and misjudgments while harping on the failures of others

One of the ceremonies I have long been intrigued by are those “renewals of vows” that are most often experienced in the context of marriages but which could certainly be arranged for member states and other stakeholders through the UN General Assembly.   As we have advocated previously, opportunities to publicly reaffirm the values and objectives of this system could encourage and energize global constituents while hopefully causing states that play loosely with the UN’s normative framework to reconsider their approaches and realign national values with those of the Charter.

Whether our various mistakes in language or judgement are “made in error” or “by intention,” it’s past time for us – all of us – to get back on the same page, or at the very least to acknowledge that there is a “page” to which we are all ostensibly accountable, indeed to which we must all be more attentive. If the UN is to avoid becoming another “dead institution,” another pious incarnation of a rapidly-diminished liberal world order, we need to work harder on improving the “culture” of the system itself – not just what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for all.

If we fail in this, prospects for resolving the challenges of climate, weapons, oceans, migration, pandemics and more – challenges that bind us all (whether we like it or not) and require more cooperation and trust than we currently exhibit – will be severely impaired.  And whatever history will eventually be written about us –our priorities, preoccupations and attentions– will surely not be kind.