Reform School:  The UN Seeks to Fix What and Where it Can, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Sep

Reform School

In our view, successful reform is not an event. It is a sustainable process that will build on its own successes – a virtuous cycle of change. Abdullah II of Jordan

Someone recently asked what keeps me up at night.  My answer was simple:  Bureaucracy. Fragmented structures.  Byzantine procedures.  Endless red tape.  UNSG Guterres

Don’t marry a man to reform him – that’s what reform schools are for. Mae West

The security and access barriers are starting to come down, the celebrities have left the building and motorcades are less numerous by the day, indicating the immanent end of this year’s High Level Segment at the opening of the 72nd UN General Assembly.

And what a time it has been: Yemen’s president now insisting on a military solution to an already gut-wrenching conflict; another typically slow and tepid response by the international community to Myanmar military abuses of Rohingya; insults hurled at each other by the US president and the North Korean (DPRK) Foreign Minister in which the specter of an “inevitable” attack was invoked, rhetoric mirroring provocations occurring in real time, with real deadly weapons, across the Korean peninsula. At the same time, leaders from Eastern Europe and the Caucuses called attention to still largely-ignored security concerns and the reluctance of Russia to address them forthrightly. And support for the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) was being questioned (mostly by the US) and potentially undermined behind closed doors.

On the plus side a staggering array of events took place in UN conference rooms – from torture prevention and ocean care to Yemen relief and financing for development –often in parallel and generally with too few participants beyond the myriad officials accompanying their Ministers and Heads of State.  A Security Council resolution demanding justice for victims of ISIL abuses in Iraq was highly regarded and another Council session on peacekeeping reform added value – including what appeared to be some Russian openness to a Minsk-focused peacekeeping mission for Ukraine — despite a bit of an “off the rails” statement by the US Vice President which merely highlighted the political and logistical complexities associated with attempts to make already-stretched peace operations simultaneous more security efficient and cost-effective.

Not surprisingly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) received vast attention from state officials and other UN stakeholders, mostly in a sincere effort to move our collective implementation commitments and energies from the current stroll to more of a full-out sprint.  Most all key aspects of what we now call the 2030 Agenda received ample attention – finance, data, national strategies, private sector engagement.  One of the matters left unaddressed, unsurprisingly, is how we use sustainable development policy to inspire people to modify their eco-footprint, change their habits, interrogate their “needs” for comfort and consumption, do our fair part to build a world that is not only fit for children but fit for their children. That the UN – this particular week and every week – generally fails to blend policy norms with personal commitments to change and modify life habits from its norm entrepreneurs makes the sales job with the global public that much more difficult.  If those closest to sustainable development norms and their various states of urgency don’t particularly feel the need to adjust their lifestyles, it becomes harder to make the case why any of us should do so.

But even more that the SDGs, the preoccupation of the week seemed to be on strategies for UN “reform.”   UN SG Guterres laid out his recommendations to address those “things that keep him up at night” and received much rhetorical support from states and others for his efforts. He outlined administrative reforms to bring service back to the bureaucracy, suggested adjustments to the way in which we deliver development and humanitarian assistance, and offered new tools and ideas to move our peace and security architecture to a more preventive space. Included here are more robust mediation resources, more effective early warning, and (we hope) a broader consultative role for the Peacebuilding Commission and Support Office beyond the post-conflict configurations that have largely defined (and restricted) their role.  We must do more, he as noted often as part of his “sustaining peace” initiative, to get out in front of conflict and, where such strategy fails to prevent, to ensure that any peace arising from the ashes of conflict is sustainable and lasting.

Guterres also acknowledged the degree of difficulty in any UN reform process, one of which is related to reform’s end game.   If the objective, as the US and some other states suggest, is to create a leaner, more cost-effective structure, this is a relatively easy if painful objective to pursue.  The large contributors pull parts of their funding commitments altogether and place much of the rest into earmarked programs that essentially remove discretion from UN leadership.

But if the objective of reform is more along the lines of helping “the UN to better meet today’s complex and interlinked challenges,” then we need to examine priorities and impediments beyond tightening our collective fiscal belts. Money is not always the answer to global problems; but the demands currently being placed on the UN system in the areas of social and economic development, migration governance, humanitarian response, peacekeeping, conflict prevention, human rights, gender violence and much more will require more (not less) of the very same “predictable funding” that the Security Council is now examining seriously with regard to SC-authorized, African Union peace operations.

In the often-sordid environments of reform schools, the emphasis is too often on reform-as-punishment.   “Beating the devil” out of children was a common phrase in my childhood, and apparently the devil was believed to have established quite a productive beachhead within many reform school residents.  “Reform” positioned as a stand-alone, dehumanizing, cost-obsessed project can certainly seem like an institutional Tsunami – jobs are threatened, programmatic relationships are severed, expectations for assistance and relief are dashed.  But the point of reform in UN contexts should not be about punishing an erstwhile ineffective bureaucracy but inspiring the system to ensure, as the SG has noted, that “we are positioned to better deliver for people” and uphold the values in our Charter.   This is the only reform objective worthy of our time and support.

There are many ways in which we can help make this UN system more accountable to constituents, and more inspiring to all who work within its walls.  There are still under-utilized capacities including the Office of Genocide Prevention and the Peacebuiling Commission.  There are “byzantine procedures” to change that might offer a predictable environment for some delegations but that equally reinforce the system’s endless rhetorical replication that dulls the senses and even obscures the best of the changes that our constituents long for.  We can even do a better job of recycling our waste!

There is also an urgent need to address the persistent power imbalances at the UN both inside and outside the Security Council, imbalances that at times seem as entrenched as distrust in a troubled child.  As Guterres has noted, “We don’t need to hear more from the SG.  We need to hear more from the large states that have imposed their will on the UN system, and especially on its peace and security priorities, for too long.”  What we especially need to hear is what these large powers are willing to change, to adjust, even to renounce, in order to make the system they seek to “reform” function in a more inclusive and accountable manner, a system that might actually be able to stop the violence as effectively as it now cleans up messes left in violence’s aftermath.

If “reform” of the UN is to matter to the world, if it is to be about anything more than cost-cutting and control, then the full UN system – including its largest and most powerful states — must reinforce its full commitment to address the urgent and difficult circumstances that plague our planet and endanger the future health and well-being of all our children.  The remainder is mere posturing, using “inefficiency” as an excuse to impose national will on multi-lateral affairs. It is this will to impose, more than any bureaucratic or budgetary excess, that endangers that “virtuous cycle of change” that UN reform could otherwise become. The SG was right to place this responsibility where it most belongs.

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Peace Day:  Turning Aspiration into Inspiration at UN Headquarters, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Sep

Evola

Without peace, all other dreams vanish and are reduced to ashes. Jawaharlal Nehru

It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. Martin Luther King, Jr.

You cannot find peace by avoiding life. Virginia Woolf

September 21 is designated each year by the UN as the International Day of Peace.  Given the centrality to the UN’s mission of eliminating war and armed violence,  mediating and protecting peace agreements, and otherwise “maintaining” international peace and security, one might imagine that the entire UN building would be given over to inspirational discussions and hopeful commitments under this rubric.

Well, sort of.  For this is also the week that heads of state make their way to New York to represent their countries in a range of high level discussions on issues related to the tools, stakeholders, funding sources, and aspirations that we are ostensibly (and hopefully) to address as a global community.   While the primary purpose of many heads of state is to address the General Assembly, there will also be opportunity for an array of bilateral meetings and more general program gatherings on topics relevant to peace and security ranging from peacekeeping reform and human trafficking to ocean health and “south-south” cooperation for sustainable development.  And to show more tangible support for the millions of migrants forced from their homes and communities by violence, discrimination, drought and other threats to peace, dignity and social inclusion.

As is the case every year, this week serves as a reminder that while UN diplomats are skilled at developing global norms, the decisions needed to turn norms into peace-promoting actions, aspirations into inspirational practices, are mostly made in national capitals.  So too are the decisions to adopt arms treaties and security-related resolutions without teeth, to turn the power of state security-sector capacities against civilians, to jeopardize in a myriad of ways the global interest in the name of national interest.  In that light, one can only hope and pray that global leaders will see fit to lobby each other – and by extension instruct their UN ambassadors – to do more to resolve ongoing crises in South Sudan, Myanmar, the DPRK and Yemen; to reduce arms production and not simply control its flows; to turn away from weapons technology that abstracts the processes and consequences of killing; to endorse reformed UN peace and security architecture that replaces downstream coercion with upstream mediation, conflict prevention and early warning; to double down on international justice and reconciliation as viable means to end impunity for high crimes and restore citizen faith in governance.

It is noteworthy that the UN decided to honor this international peace day –with both a youth summit and the annual observance held at the Peace Bell — on September 15, prior to when global leaders were set to gather in our neighborhood.   With all due regard for the youth representatives who chimed in from New York and Bogota, it seemed like an opportunity missed not to have presidents and prime ministers get to join hands in solidarity with the UN officials who now labor for peace under difficult political and bureaucratic circumstances.  A photo op to be sure; but perhaps one with more influence and staying power than some of the interminable images this week as heads of state climb to the GA podium in an attempt (sometimes futile) to convince us that they are already doing everything needed to solve global problems, and that circumstances in their countries (or in the world) really aren’t as dismal as they seem…

Global Action, like many NGOs around UN headquarters, has a strong vested interest in how these global leaders assess and support their country’s UN presence.   In such a political and (now) overly branded environment as this one, it is nevertheless relatively easy to spot disconnects between the policy priorities emanating from missions and those from foreign offices.   One of the reasons that we value multi-lateral policy spaces is that it does bring out progressive impulses in delegations that might not play so well at home.  Those same impulses, however, can at times mask domestic concerns that would do well to receive more concerted international attention:  the delegations for instance that champion “peace” in UN conference rooms while their capital counterparts are laying plans to bomb civilians, arrest journalists, suspend constitutional freedoms or otherwise undermine the rule of law.

We also have a vested interest in promoting full spectrum policy engagements that can contribute to the resolution of concrete threats inflaming larger existential worries such as climate warming, another world war, or the death of the oceans on which we all rely. To the extent we (collectively) are able to do so, we need to make peacekeeping and atrocity prevention more reliable and less political.  We need to make better use of the UN’s growing peacebuilding expertise including moving it from its current, post-conflict ghetto into a broader, prevention-oriented, consultative role with states.    We need to invest more stakeholders in the “worldly tasks” of violence prevention, conflict mediation and environmental care – inclusive stakeholders operating well beyond the remit of states, corporate interests and erstwhile “experts.” We need to endorse in practical terms the peace and security implications of all obligations under the 2030 Development Agenda – from education and gender equity to healthy forests and sustainable cities – not only the targets listed within Sustainable Development Goal 16.

And we need to insist in every conceivable forum that resolutions and treaties to manage weapons flows must overtly support the goal of reductions in weapons production.   Despite our normative efforts, the world remains awash in weapons that enrich traffickers and arms merchants while emboldening criminality and insurgency.  States that encourage weapons production while simultenously endorsing efforts to end weapons diversion need to rethink the implications of those commitments without delay. The more weapons we produce, the more will escape even our best efforts at management and control.

As the International Day of Peace approaches, we are keenly aware of intractable conflicts in places like Central African Republic and Libya, but also of hopeful transitions to peaceful futures in places such as in Liberia and Colombia.  We are aware of the many unheeded resolutions emanating from the UN Security Council, but also of capacities within and outside the UN system based on the premise that “maintaining” international peace and security implies more skillful proactivity and less coercive reactivity – more attentiveness to the smoke rather than waiting for the fire.

Whether we like it or not, the global public tends to judge us here on our peace and security effectiveness – not how many victims of violence we assist so much as how successful we are in stopping violence in the first place. This is the standard which the current UN leadership has overtly endorsed.  We will be anxiously listening for openings from global leaders that will help all of us plot the next preventive path.  We will be anxiously listening as well for commitments from these leaders that we can use to help inspire more inclusive, global peace participation – integrating inspiration from diverse issue advocates and from peace-oriented artists such as Lin Evola — and renew at least a bit of global confidence in the UN’s commitment and effectiveness regarding its (more urgent than ever) core peace and security responsibilities.

 

 

 

 

Ode to Inspiration:   The Challenges of UN Leadership on the Run, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Sep

Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration. Robin S. Sharma

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation. Simon Sinek

One of the trickiest aspects of our (mostly self-authorizing) mandate is the assessment of the contributions of outgoing presidents of the UN‘s General Assembly.   Part of this is a function of timing – with three months to prepare and only one year to implement, the gap separating the end of the institutional honeymoon and the crossing of the institutional finish line is thin indeed.

The accelerated pace at which this office must attempt to make its mark is made more complex by the sheer volume of policy activity for which the office of the president is responsible.  On more and more matters of global governance, including at times matters directly affecting international peace and security, the full General Assembly membership is demanding a voice and expecting the president to enable and magnify that voice.

And finally there is the nature of leadership itself.   More and more, it seems, everyone in our overly-schooled cultures is now presumed to be a “leader” in some fashion or other.   This leadership “saturation” has many implications, not all of them problematic, but one troubling implication is the reticence of erstwhile “leaders” to agree to be led by others.   The “herding cats” analogy is probably overused, but the “forging of consensus” which is such an important component of modern leadership is made more complex in a setting where so many of us “know differently” and so often  claim to “know better.”

Into this cauldron of expectation and impediment stepped Fiji’s Peter Thomson, elected president of the UN General Assembly on June 13, 2016 in the closest of votes over Cyprus Ambassador Mavroyiannis.  In his acceptance speech, and with the personal humility and Hollywood-quality voice to which we have all become accustomed, he cited this “great moment” for the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (SIDS), pledging to keep their voices and their issues –especially ocean health and climate impacts – at the top of his agenda.   He also pointed to the critical need to ratchet up our engagement with all Sustainable Development Goals – perhaps the most important promise that the UN has ever made to its global constituents. He subsequently pushed to ensure that all aspects (even the controversial ones) of what is now known as the 2030 Development Agenda – national ownership, inclusive participation, reliable (real-time) data, predictable finance – received urgent and adequate consideration.

His catholic vision was embraced by many of the top diplomats in the UN system who lent their own expertise and leadership to a range of issue critical to the future of the planet, from climate impacts and migration governance to human trafficking and improving modes of participation for women, youth, indigenous people and other persons whose skills and aspirations have spent far too much time already isolated on our global margins.

All the while, a core focus was maintained on the alleviation of global poverty as well as on the implementing health of the UN system itself.   In the latter instance, Thomson and colleagues understood that as the demands on the UN grow and resources remain problematic, it is essential that key UN bodies encourage clear, efficient and scandal-free expectations.   Though it is fair to quibble (as we have done ourselves) over priority reforms for the UN system, the attention of the PGA and other top diplomats to how the General Assembly does its business – and how the office of the president enables and facilitates that business – has been most appreciated.

The abiding question for us here, beyond the specifics of policy investments, is what lessons of leadership can be gleaned from the Thomson presidency?   We would like to suggest the following.

  • Keep focus on the most urgent crises: While there has been over the past year a bit grousing from the disarmament community about Thomson’s level of commitment in this area, for the most part he has invested the energies of his office on the crises that are most likely to undermine human dignity and threaten our common future.  He has recognized, as we all should, that it is important to keep the kitchen clean but less so when the house is burning.
  • Keep relevant issues and issue stakeholders connected: While there is much talk at the UN about “eliminating silos,” we continue to allow bureaucracy and politics to stifle broader policy responsibilities. Connecting the policy dots has been a hallmark of our office’s work for over a decade. Having a president who has been so visibly committed to full spectrum policy engagements, including and beyond SDG goals and targets, has been highly encouraging, both for the UN and the world surrounding it.
  • Be present: This president brought exceptional personal energy to the UN system.  With help from his policy advisers and speech writers, he was seemingly everywhere in and out of headquarters.  My interns often found it remarkable that he could make his presence felt in so many diverse policy settings, sharing relevant remarks both humble and impacting, but also lending credibility to UN discussions that might otherwise have remained in the policy shadows.
  • Promote hope and agency in others: In many ways, Thomson’s signature achievements were a function of his devotion and loyalty to the people and leaders of the small island developing states.  Their voices have rarely enjoyed the volume and resonance that they have over this past year. But beyond the SIDS, welcoming and growing participation by women and indigenous peoples was high on the president’s agenda.   And our young people – the largest generation in human history — were consistently invited to the UN by this president in a manner that was inclusive without being patronizing.  He was able as few are to recognize the skills and energy of youth and endorse their urgency and even skepticism; all while reminding them that they still have much to learn and that there are generations behind their own for whom we will also need to find productive and participatory spaces.

In remarks shared at one of the many high level events he has sponsored over the past year, Thomson concluded this week’s Culture of Peace dialogue with the following: “Let us work to build bridges of understanding amongst our people; to create environments that foster inclusion and mutual respect; to develop education systems that teach harmony; and to raise children and grandchildren who will safeguard a global culture of peace. “

Amen, Mr. President.   During one short and frenetic year, you and your office have set a high bar for Slovakian Foreign Minister Lajcak who is set to take over your duties. Indeed you have raised the bar for all UN leadership as they seek to rally the skills and energies of this system needed to clean up our messes, eliminate our habituated discrimination, armed conflict and wastefulness, and fulfill our urgent policy promises to those next generations now looking anxiously over our shoulders.

Labor Pains:  The UN Undermines Some Key Stakeholders, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Sep

1940s-miners-with-children-in-colorado_8a29486v

Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty. Rebecca Solnit

People with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest. Hermann Hesse

The only kind of dignity which is genuine is that which is not diminished by the indifference of others. Dag Hammarskjold

On Friday as I was preparing to speak to a group of Bard College students about the UN and the ways in which it does and does not promote human dignity among the world’s peoples, I discovered an announcement on the UN Website informing NGOs like ours that access to UN Headquarters was being restricted for the entire month of September.

In that same announcement, NGOs were offered the option of huddling around a nearby street corner to (essentially) “beg” UN staff tasked with the onerous duty of providing half-day-only event passes to NGOs so that they could attend events – like one produced by UN Habitat and another sponsored by the Office of the PGA on a “Culture of Peace” – to which we and others would normally be invited as a matter of course.

There was no prior discussion known to us regarding this change to NGO access, no obvious consultations or negotiations amongst our erstwhile UN/NGO leadership.   Moreover, I would be shocked to discover that any member state – including those who routinely lift their voices in bland and non-specific praise of NGOs, had bothered to invest any political capital in preserving our access during a September period for which our presence has traditionally not been – and should not now be – an issue.

On that same day, on another part of the UN’s website, I discovered that tourists visiting the UN will be allowed access through September 18.  The “plan” for such access is the same arrangement that we and other NGOs had become accustomed to (and more or less accepted) in the past – a two-week hiatus in late September while Heads of State occupy the UN space for the opening of the General Assembly and seating (even for UN-based diplomats) is at a premium.

But let this sink in for a moment:  The money collected from tourists is apparently more important to the UN than the monitoring work of the handful of NGOs (including our own overseas guests) that bother to be present during important UN discussions, many of which do in fact take place in the days before the General Assembly formally opens. Aside from inspiring fresh allegations of hypocrisy regarding how the UN too often treats non-state actors, this move is likely to accelerate a trend which we have long rejected – NGOs that bypass the occasional indifference and indignities of this system by ingratiating themselves to governments – often as well their funders – governments that then ensure access by these NGOs as needed via their own credentials. These quasi-state NGO agents will find their seats at the table and will surely not be milling around on street corners waiting perhaps in vain for some magic entry pass.

Given all of the discouraging news in the world and the many millions of people under immanent threat from armed violence, flooding and starvation, it is imprudent at best (and a serious diverse at least) to worry excessively about one’s own deficits of access and respect.   We do routinely acknowledge both our privileges and our limitations.  But we also understand that access restrictions impact persons far beyond our own office, people who are seeking (and deserving) their own seat in UN policy space, but also the people who depend on folks like us to identify policy niches and opportunities into which a more diverse set of policy actors can hopefully become immersed.

And these manifestations of disregard or indifference are hardly confined to NGOs.  In the General Assembly this week, several states (including Mexico and Singapore) took the floor to complain that the annual Security Council report was both late in arriving to delegations and contained (once again this year) little analysis or reflection on how and why the Council made the decisions it did, and why more peace and security didn’t emerge as the result of so many of those decisions.

In the Council itself, during a week which featured an excellent debate on peacekeeping operations and a powerful statement by Uruguay’s Ambassador Rosselli in response to briefings on the political and humanitarian tracks in Syria, working methods frustrations also flared.  For instance, during a contentious renewal of the mandate for the UNIFIL peacekeeping mission (Israel-Lebanon), Italy’s Ambassador Cardi took the unusual step of chastising the resolution negotiations process – which apparently included veiled criticisms of the mission itself — in the name of the large contingent of Italian forces without which UNIFIL itself could barely function. Japan, which has ably chaired a committee on Council working methods, presented agreed recommendations that stressed matters such as briefers’ brevity and preparations for newly elected members rather than perhaps more fundamental deficits in communications and negotiations that raise frustration levels needlessly.

Like a number of states at the UN, we are fully committed to a framework wherein tradition assumptions of security – based primarily on weapons systems and power-politics – evolve steadily into a more “human security” perspective.  This evolution implies several important transitions, including the willingness to address security-related dimensions across issue frameworks as well as the determination to place human well-being at the center of our policy objectives, well-being that is fully inclusive of cultures and conditions, and that recognizes policy goals resonating far more with sustainable development than with arms races and endless “asymetrical” warfare.

But human security requires more than people promoting more inclusive, progressive policies. The key to successful human security is bringing out the best versions of human beings themselves, people of dignity and purpose who understand and nurture their connections to the communities around them, people who can and do contribute to secure futures in ways other than fearing adversaries, trading in explosive weapons, defending narrow national interests, appropriating resources not their own, or politicizing the application of rights and legal standards that could otherwise help to create fairer and more predictable social environments.

The importance we attach to enabling better people as well as better policy systems will lead us to “double down” this coming year on some evolving commitments in the US and beyond, including on “servant leadership” with colleagues at the Business School of Georgia Tech University; and on “Inner Economy” with a group on the US West Coast associated with Women in International Security, in the latter instance specifically on examining “the inner resources one gains, uses, and loses in the exchanges of daily life.” These and other commitments will hopefully help leverage and inspire more of the traits of character needed to build both sustainable communities and more trusthworthy state and international institutions.

While pursuing these aims, we won’t go begging for access this month on any Manhattan street corner.  As we gaze from this now uncomfortable distance at the policy drama soon to unfold across the street, we will however do our best to discern how yet another UN promise – this time to a cooperative and transparent relationship with non-governmental organizations both around and far beyond UN Headquarters — is currently being undermined.

We remain in this UN community, year after year, because we believe that this essential policy space can be healthier and more highly regarded as it better honors its commitments both to its global constituents and to diverse stakeholders beyond the diplomats: those like us who critique, compliment, cajole and complement the often good work which the UN does in the world; but also those who serve our coffee, clean up after our many messes, keep the heat and lights working, and provide a helpful, steadfast security presence, day after day.

This and more is labor worthy of the day we celebrate tomorrow. It is also labor that deserves more than bureaucratic indifference from an institution whose essential presence in the world we still very much acknowledge.

Glass Cleaner: Reflecting the Inspiration We Find in the World, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Aug

flood

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. Edith Wharton

It is never too late to be what you might have been. George Eliot

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world. Desmond Tutu

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. Joseph Campbell

I’m sitting in the office early on a beautiful Sunday morning in New York, sifting through seemingly endless lists of “inspiring” quotations, hoping to locate one or more offering a bit more insight into what “inspiration” actually requires — why we in the NGO world need to address our own inspiration needs; but also why it is such an important (if often overlooked) aspect of our work that we are willing to offer inspiration for and/or “reflect forward” the inspiration provided by others.

This might seem like an odd topic to take up in a setting like the United Nations, a place that most people who have not given up on us entirely think is literally dripping with inspiration.  Look at all the good work that emanates at least in part from this space; the disaster relief supplied, pandemics overcome, landmines disabled, refugees housed, impunity challenged. Under the UN flag, people risk their own lives daily to protect and provide provisions to civilians in horrific conflict zones.   Under the UN flag, people doggedly pursue elusive political agreements and even more elusive justice.  Under the UN flag, people rally stakeholders to stave off the grave consequences associated with a warming planet, staggering levels of armament and vast populations on the move, risking much in the search for safer havens. Under the UN flag (and with excellent leadership from the current President of the General Assembly, Fiji’s Peter Thomson), dozens of small island nations have banded together in common cause, gathering allies powerful and humble from other parts of the world and then lodging urgent, science-based appeals for ocean health.

There has never been any doubt in our minds about the value of this policy space.  While the UN might never live up to the standards established by its often-incessant self-branding, there is little reason to believe that any of the (more and less) existential messes we have inflicted on ourselves are more likely to be resolved in its absence.

But while the UN is (to our view) very much necessary to global healing, it is also, equally clearly, not sufficient.  Those of us who walk these policy corridors many hours each day quickly become familiar with this system’s limitations:  the restrictive power imbalances among states; the conflict-related messes we struggle to clean up that didn’t need to be messed up in the first place; the promises on development, armaments and more that we so often make to the world and that we know, at face value at least, we are unlikely to keep; the amount of time we spend “condemning” state conduct without any prospect of meaningful follow-through; the often competitive and non-transparent manner in which we engage with other stakeholders, certainly including within and towards the “community” of NGOs.

As with its many successes, there is more to the UN’s “insufficiency” of course, more reasons for people to question if UN and government officials truly grasp the implications of the precarious moment we find ourselves in. Are our levels of attentiveness, dedication and urgency appropriate to the challenges of our times?   Are we doing all that we can with the opportunities presented here, including doing enough to inspire others to fill in our gaps and raise expectations for our collective performance? Do we have both the courage to keep our own candle of inspiration alive and (perhaps more important) the humility to learn from and properly reflect forward the light of inspiration offered by so many others?

This week we in the office (and far beyond) mourned the death of Tony De Brum, the former Foreign Minister of Marshall Islands and a formidable voice for sanity on many issues, but especially on the threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change.  As BBC and other media tributes this week (along with a few personal stories told by our close colleague, John Burroughs) made clear to all, De Brum was heavily and persistently motivated by his life experiences – including witnessing the “Bravo” nuclear test in 1954 while fishing with family – to become a “legendary” advocate for his people and the small islands that still conceal poisons from the early nuclear era and are now threatened by seemingly relentless sea level rises.  The “coalition of high ambition” that De Brum helped to create was instrumental in bringing about the unprecedented Paris Climate Agreement.  As he would no doubt recognize, such a coalition is now needed in many other policy areas where the greed and carelessness of all of us have placed the future of our children (and so many other life forms) in considerable peril.

As with current PGA President Thomson, De Brum demonstrated in full measure that it is not necessary to be a major player from a powerful state to have meaningful impact.  Nor are big-ticket contributions from the most powerful institutions necessarily what are now needed most.  Around the world, from Harlem to the Marshall Islands, there are gardens to tend, children to teach, conflicts to mediate, coastlines to clean, rights to defend, refugees to shelter, poverty to eradicate.  And today, as on too many climate-affected days, flood victims to rescue from the rooftops.

We all should pledge to do more in these times, including providing reassurance and inspiration for all who seek to help “overwhelm” our common, stubborn challenges.  But lest we forget:  many are already doing deeds to promote sustainable peace and justice, often beyond the spotlight of national media and the recognition of international organizations. And as much as we might like it otherwise, it is through reflecting those many deeds, rather than through promotiong our own actions, that inspiration and hope for meaningful, sustainable change can have its greatest impact.  To magnify the light for these murky times, the mirror is likely more potent than the candle.

Oxygen Tank: Finding the Fuel to Stay on Mission, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Aug

Oxygen

Basic human contact – the meeting of eyes, the exchanging of words – is to the psyche what oxygen is to the brain.  Martha Beck

Even the laziest person will fight for oxygen when drowning.  J.R. Rim

No one can find the rewind button, boys, so cradle your head in your hands. And breathe, just breathe.  Anna Nalick.

It is coming on late August in New York and the light of summer is beginning to wane, certainly more quickly than either the humidity or the bus fumes.  Along with the tourist-clogged sidewalks, endless construction (including outside my home windows) and mass transit that elevates sweat glands and blood pressure more effectively than it honors its public service obligations, it is hard to truly breathe here now, even harder than is usually the case.

In its corner of this breath-challenged city, the UN has been a bit quiet again this week. However, World Humanitarian Day was aptly commemorated on Friday both to honor those who have died in the service of those enduring armed violence, catastrophe or abuse, and to reaffirm in the strongest terms that civilians (and those who assist them) are not and must not become “targets.”

In the Security Council this interplay of armed violence and humanitarian risk was also in focus.  On Thursday, an otherwise predictable discussion on civilian protection and election preparations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was enriched by a report by Egypt on its “resource trafficking” initiative as well as by the participation in chambers of family members of two UN Experts — Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp – brutally murdered in the DRC.  The promise of justice extended to these families is one that we should all do our part to ensure it is kept.

On Friday, the discussion on the grave humanitarian emergency that is Yemen seemed a bit more typical of the tenor of recent Security Council meetings.   Outgoing OCHA head Stephen O’Brien described a “maelstrom of death and destruction” in Yemen that does not seem to be improving despite his belief (shared by some around the oval) that this conflict is “deliberate” and well within our power to prevent. Outrage by the Council has had “little impact” on the misery of Yemen’s civilians as both O’Brien and Bolivia’s Ambassador Llorenti duly noted.   Outrage in and of itself rarely does.

This particular Council session was attended by Yemen’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who ignored Uruguay’s call for UN monitoring of entities deliberately endangering Yemen’s women and children, seeking instead to expose only the abuses committed by the Houthi “coup masters” who have “brought war to Yemen” and seek to spread Iranian-inspired “ethnic division” throughout the country. The occasional conciliatory tones expressed by the MFA were directed towards the Council and its resolutions rather than towards political opponents or the growing legion of victims in Yemen in need of healing and reconciliation.

As the meeting was gaveled to a close, a couple of my younger colleagues were taken aback. Is that it?  Is that all?   No firm commitments of human or material resources?  No concrete resolve to end the bombing and sustain a political process? No confession of the failed political maneuverings and reckless arms sales that have directly contributed to human carnage on a scale that relativizes even the sieges of Syria and famine-like conditions in Somalia and the Sahel?

There are times when UN meetings inside and out of the Security Council leave us literally gasping for air, wondering how diplomats and NGOs like us can sublimate so much of what we know about the precariousness of our world within statements and responses that are at times clever but not particularly compelling, insightful but not particularly urgent. In these UN buildings, in the city that surrounds, there is simply too much gasping, too much agitation and distraction, in part because we are not, literally not, “in our right minds.” We are running on fumes too much of the time, fumes which metaphorically represent the dregs of our remaining oxygen supply, the desperate need for which our ubiquitous challenges and frenetic paces have largely obscured.

Here at the UN we have our well-appointed buildings and conference rooms.  We have the respect of many based in part on the carefully-negotiated and heavily-scrutinized normative frameworks needed to stave off at least some of the catastrophes that verily threaten human possibility.  But something essential is missing here; its almost as though we have wilfully misplaced the advice of airlines stewards to, more often than is our habit, place on our own oxygen masks before assisting others.

At a small weekend retreat in New Jersey this weekend hosted by Adora and Levi Bautista, a small group of persons in various “caring contexts” took our own first steps towards oxygen replenishment, not only to enhance our own clarity and well-being, but to help refresh the people alongside whom we identify and address challenges both local and global.  As we slowly felt able to take deeper breaths, some truths hopeful and uncomfortable revealed themselves.  We became a thoughtful and engaged group who recognized that we, too, have not invested sufficiently in “eye contact,” attentiveness and other manifestations of human connection that can create the oxygen we need to clarify, to solve, to thrive.   We have neither “honored” nor shared sufficiently as our partial antidote to the cautiousness and competitiveness that ultimately rob us all of air.

On Monday, the moon will slide between our home planet and our sun in a once-in-our-lifetime occurrence, an anticipation that has people reaching out who might otherwise keep each other at a distance.   With any luck, this burst of eclipse-inspired human connection will also create a bit more oxygen, even in this city, even in these policy halls, allowing us to breathe a little easier for a little longer.

As I found out in the months before my heart surgery, it is hard to think clearly or fully appreciate our assets and blessings when we are habitually oxygen deprived.  Clarity and gratitude will be needed as never before as we seek to fulfill our global responsibilities and reassure the young and vulnerable that the current turbulence that shakes their confidence will eventually subside.

As the wonderful song by Anna Nalick reminds, we simply cannot hit the “reset button” on either our personal lives or our policy choices. But we can ensure that we learn what we can from both our mistakes and successes, that we seek to integrate more human kindness and connection into our policy work, and that we magnify opportunities for ourselves and others to connect the world to which we aspire to the people we aspire to become.

Just breathe.

Hunger Pangs:  Local Pathways to Famine Reduction, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Aug

There is no humiliation more abusive than hunger. Pranab Mukherjee

I find by my calculations, which are according to revealed inspiration, that the sword of death is now approaching us, in the shape of pestilence, war more horrible than has been known in three lifetimes, and famine. Nostradamus

These past two weeks, under Egypt’s presidency, the UN Security Council has issued presidential statements (non-binding urgings) on various matters pertaining to international peace and security, including last Wednesday’s statement on the threat of famine now looming in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria. The statement follows an Arria-Formula meeting in June on the same subject hosted by the three, current African Security Council members – Senegal, Ethiopia and Egypt.

In this week’s statement, the Council noted from the outset the “devastating impact on civilians of ongoing armed conflict and violence,” famine as a direct consequence of both the armed conflict itself and of the barriers imposed by state and non-state actors to “an effective humanitarian response in the short, medium and long term.”  The Council’s statement underscores that bombs and military barricades do, in fact, lead to famine and risks of famine, a term recently invoked by the UN in the context of South Sudan to describe conditions far beyond “food insecurity,” in this instance the very real threat of starvation by as many as 100,000 South Sudanese.

The Security Council ostensibly focused on these four geographic areas – and not others that could have easily been included – due to the frequency with which they appear on the Council’s agenda on top of the utter gravity of their current humanitarian situations.   And yet, however one assesses the degree to which any Council statement is actually binding in practice, this presidential statement bears no legal implication for states.  In this instance, the Council seemed to be reaching out with some urgency to the Secretary-General to use his good offices and other tools at his disposal to help bring an end to these four conflicts and open reliable humanitarian corridors.  The Council also, as it has done in the past, urged states with “influence” to help resolve the seemingly endless emergencies rendered by armed conflict and related impediments to humanitarian response.

While this statement was neither read out by Egypt’s Ambassador nor discussed in chambers, you could almost hear Russia and a few other Council members grousing about its content. Despite its own uneven (at best) performance in promoting peace and security, Russia has long lamented the expansion of the Council’s work into areas that it deems inconsistent with its mandate and for which there are relevant UN agencies already heavily vested with responsibilities for analysis and response.  That the statement made no mention of the UN’s FAO or WFP reinforced the concern of a Council moving on issues beyond its core mandate without several key UN partners.

All Council members can agree that famine properly understood is among the most devastating conditions that can befall human beings, especially children.   Given its thoroughly immobilizing impacts on families and communities, famine in and of itself is not a threat to international peace and security but rather the horrific aggregate of other threats: discriminatory political decisions and weak structures of governance; states that simultaneously lament human misery but double-down on its complicity through their copious weapons production and arms shipments; climate change about which some states are in denial while others have made tepid responses akin to denial in other garb, responses that neither address the threat directly nor promote resilient local communities to do so in their stead.

In these unsettled times, we would be wise to seek out (or perhaps merely be reminded of) other solutions, other directions, other visions.

Of all the writers within my own intellectual orbit, perhaps no one has been as sensitive to the multiple benefits of local knowledge of land and related environmental processes as Wendell Berry.  A poet and Kentucky farmer who just celebrated his 83rd birthday, Berry has written eloquently about our modernist inclinations to bureaucratic inertia, to media distractions public and private, to our apparent tolerance of, and even preference for “broken” economics such that many of us now “would prefer to own a neighbors farm than to have a neighbor.”

Berry has warned that, in more and more contexts worldwide, every natural landscape, every remaining parcel of arable land, now cries out metaphorically, “When?”   When will the speculators come?  When will the bulldozers appear over our horizons?  How long before the monoculturists with their heavy handed technologies and geo-engineering erode yet another functioning ecosystem under the false pretext of sustainable abundance?

And when will those who know and love those natural areas best, who can respond kindly and with discipline to their rhythms and seasons; those with the skills to “(re) build the earth under the dead leaves;” where will those people go who have learned to feed and nurture communities in the places to which bombs and landmines and climate-related drought have now so violently denied them access? And what happens to their communities once those with all of this local knowledge of natural rhythms and processes have no choice but to abandon the land they know intimately and love practically for land that is likely owned, managed and even exploited by others?

Addressing famine in our time has largely become a technical challenge; getting food from the places it is produced to the places where it used to be produced.  Such responses are largely in keeping with our heavily bureaucratic systems through which we attempt to address the vast devastation from famine but without being able to ensure its non-recurrence. Such a system makes honorable use of copious amounts of human planning, courage and decency; but it too often heaps dependency on top of misery, too often keeps people alive to behold the wreckage of once-vibrant communities that can now only be “saved” by some version of the technology that often encouraged the wreckage in the first instance.

The dimensions of “local life aware of itself” that have been so appealing to Berry have found their share of (perhaps unwitting) sympathizers.  Even those mega-environmental organizations that have been traditionally hostile to place-based learning and action have gotten religion on “local eco-awareness” in recent times.  And at the UN last week, it was comforting to hear “nerdy” statisticians under the guise of ECOSOC speak of the importance of land tenure and land rights to which many of those participants hoped their statistical work could contribute.

But if this hopeful movement is to restore the roots on which our future sustenance depends, we must simply and resolutely stop the bombing; we must take our climate responsibilities more seriously; and we must recover a real (not assumed) solidarity with the rhythms of life beyond our bureaucracies and arbitrary national barriers.  These are the duties of leadership for our times. Communities simply cannot cope, let alone thrive, given the impacts of armed violence, of abstracted social and economic policies, of agriculture graded on its volume not its quality or relevance to those who prepare and consume its bounty.  Such communities require a “truce” from the more toxic aspects of modernity and our leadership should do more to make that available.

But while addressing these demands, we must also pay closer attention to the connection between our livelihoods and those of succeeding generations, practicing skills that offer a more hopeful path to sustainability even as our planet bakes and explodes and fills with plastic waste.   One example of this concern, as Berry once noted with little changing since, is that we in the “developed” world have simultaneously dissociated eating from agriculture while solidifying the ties between eating and economics. How many of us any longer know how to grow edible things, let alone healthy edible things?  How many know (or care) about the origins (or impacts) of what we so eagerly stuff into our mouths?

Unless we can more effectively preserve access to the land by those who know and love it best; unless we can get some distance from the mindset that knows the price of everything but the value of little; unless we can create social policy that enhances rather than undermines the capacity of local communities to feed (and largely fend for) themselves, we will surely confront the desperation and humiliation of famine over and over again.

One key here is to jar our memories every day that eating matters much more than bombing; and that in a world with both populations and inequalities still on the rise, the land we have destroyed will somehow, some way, need to return to productive uses.   Only the hands of those who know a land, who know its needs, potentials and cycles, can make that happen.  Despite forces turning them into a bit of an endangered species, these planters and harvesters of local life probably represent our best hope for a sustainable future.