Treasure Hunt:  the UN seeks the means to honor the expectations it raises, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Aug

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” comes at the end of a passage in the Christian Bible that appears to be denigrating wealth but is actually warning about our over-identification with the things we own and control.  It is also a reminder that how we invest our energies and our riches says much about who we are – individually and collectively — and what we actually care about, beyond the rhetoric of our own self-definition.

This week there were other “treasure” lessons to be learned at the UN. As we know, the “need for funding” is a ubiquitous feature of virtually every UN discussion. The “world we want,” a common slogan to inspire interest in the (still awaiting adoption) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is very much related to the “world we wish to pay for.”  In one UN conference room after another, and to a degree that is unprecedented in UN history, issues from innovative peacekeeping to heart-breaking humanitarian disasters seek out willing investors.  While most of this “seeking” takes the form of overtures to wealthier governments, it is becoming more and more apparent that such investors are pulling back on at least some of their commitments.  Pledges are less and less likely to be fully honored.   And, as Global Policy Forum has recently made plain in a new report, “Fit for Whose Purpose?”, more and more UN-related funding is being diverted from core functions to earmarked projects more directly consistent with national interest.

The fiscal dilemma for the UN mirrors a potentially troubling credibility gap.  Our diverse, frenetic and largely hopeful activities at the UN are collectively raising expectations throughout the global community.  Fueled in large measure by UN-generated branding, people have come to expect that the SDGs will eliminate poverty and save our oceans and forests from devastation.   People have come to expect that the Arms Trade Treaty will dramatically reduce weapons-related violence, that peacekeeping operations will protect civilians threatened by rape and rebuild violence ravaged states, that wildlife trafficking will be eliminated and threats of extinctions averted.  Within limitations, many of these worthy goals are enhanced by UN activity, of course, but people far from UN negotiating rooms can’t always navigate the distance between text-based commitments and active, binding promises.  They can’t always distinguish between the “world we want” and the world with which we might well have to eventually make our peace.  The expectations we project from the UN are often grandiose and almost always underfunded.  And the disappointments they sometimes generate are felt widely and return to this institution the bewilderment of much of the global public.

As one means to bring expectations and resources into some balance and as a supplement to (real or rhetorical) state funding limitations, the UN is increasingly looking to “public-private sector partnerships.”  While some consideration is given to small business interests, it is the large corporations and foundations that are increasingly looked to fill funding gaps and help the UN fulfill more of its promises.   And there is reason not to dismiss the benefits of these arrangements out of hand.  However, as noted by Global Policy Forum, whether it is Coca Cola with UN Women or The Gates Foundation with the WHO, the hegemony of large entities “partnering” with an institution with whose core values and assumptions they might not be fully aligned should give pause to the many groups and their millions of constituents who will never receive an invitation to any “partner” seminars or receptions.  The UN may well be open for business, but the terms and potential benefits (and risks) of those negotiations remain among the least transparent in the entire UN system.

Are there other sources to fund ambitious SDGs that we are overlooking? Development funding from the major state donors has to compete with domestic concerns of course, but also in many cases with rapacious military appetites.   The “guns and butter” arguments that used to punctuate UN budget discussions, at least as introduced by NGOs, have largely been silenced. Weapons development and use remain major impediments to social development and environmental health, but these linkages now seem to have fallen off the policy table, swept aside by dysfunctional disarmament machinery and arms-friendly documents such as the Arms Trade Treaty and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Moreover, many advocates have invested heavily in a “peace” SDG goal 16 that barely notes the consequences of illicit weapons and doesn’t mention at all the more devastating impacts of “licit” weapons or the discouraging budgetary impacts of still-out-of-control military spending.

Instead of focusing on the most obvious (if perhaps also most taboo) source of development funding, the UN has chosen to invest its brand in these “partnerships” linking state, corporate and charitable stakeholders.  As is now being recognized, much more oversight of these ‘partnerships’ will be needed, many of which involve formidable players whose financial leverage literally dwarfs that of the countries they seek to “help.”  While we don’t anticipate signs outside the UN proclaiming “Disarmament Affairs brought to you by Bechtel” or “UNDP brought to you by Nestle” there is clearly danger that the intense product branding and generalized disinterest in those at the bottom of the consumer scale characteristic of too many large corporate entities will jeopardize more than enhance implementation of the final, adopted set of post-2015 development goals and targets.

More than ever, it seems, responsible NGOs will be characterized in part by their willingness to “follow the treasure,” and then carefully assess its implications for the UN system, even if that means temporarily reigning in some of their own branded program priorities.  Again as noted by Global Policy Forum this week, we are at a critical moment at the UN (as we are in the US and other large states) regarding the growing ability of “big money” to buy significant policy clout.  If NGOs don’t respond to the challenge of lifting this veil and keeping it open, it is not at all clear where this urgent scrutiny is to come from.

But this moment requires even more — taking a look at our own complicated relationship to money, the policy compromises and rationalizations that can occur when we willingly accept funding from states or other stakeholders, even the unwarranted branding that comes when donor states or corporations seek to promote their own grantees at the expense of other worthy (and often more diverse) stakeholders.   Moreover, as was apparent earlier this week during the Sovereign Debt Restructuring working session of the General Assembly, we are working now within an economic system characterized by shocking levels of abstraction in financial decisionmaking, rampant consumer excess, and governments content to enable economic predators as much as regulate them. Treasure, as it turns out, bears high potential for self-delusion by all “partners” – those holding the purse strings and those beholden to them.   And this delusion will have every bit as much to bear on the potential success of post-2015 development goals as the quality of the SDG outcome document.

The implications of our search for “treasure” are far reaching and not always as self-validating as we might think.   Many people, diplomats and NGOs alike, have poured their hearts into an SDG blueprint to end inequality and preserve the planet. As we move together from “the world we want” to the “world we make,” we would do well also to keep close track of the ways in which we obtain, budget and allocate whatever treasure for sustainable development is to be entrusted to us.

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One Response to “Treasure Hunt:  the UN seeks the means to honor the expectations it raises, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. Marta Benavides August 2, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    salud.. discerning is always needed to see light, even if it is a tunnel. what the blog describes needs to be discerned intentionally so we, soc mov and csos go about the creation not of THE WORLD WE WANT, NOR THE WORLD “WE CAN PAY FOR”, BUT THE WORLD NEEDED TO CARE FOR PLANET AND PEOPLES.. THIS WITH INTENTIONALITY. GRACIAS..MARTA – EL SALVADOR

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