A System Wide Awake: Promoting an Ethical Culture for UN Policy and Development Practice, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Oct

Those who follow diplomacy in New York might have expected a bit of a lull inside the UN after two stressful weeks of presidents and other dignitaries.   But everyone involved with the UN from diplomats to cafeteria worker, had a very short turn around.  The General Assembly committees began their work and immediately became embroiled in issues from narcotics interdiction and space weapons to the status of Western Sahara.   In addition, some most helpful side events – on the dangers of current global finance and hopes for more sustainable cities and better criminal justice — helped to fill in gaps in what needs to become a comprehensive grasp of our post-adoption responsibilities to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

One of the most intriguing events for us was one on October 5 entitled the “Ethics for Development.”  In this event, chaired by the Kazakhstan Ambassador Abdrakhmanov and co-sponsored by Panama, Argentina and Palau, the UN took a closer look at how it does its development business beyond how it sets goals and targets and locates the broad data and stable funding to make implementation possible.  In the opening panel, Argentina’s Minister Tomada urged more attention to what he called the ethics of “decent work” noting wisely the multiple, SDG-related, beneficial consequences that accrue from increased employment opportunities: ending poverty, increasing social cohesion, strengthening democracy. Chef de Cabinet Susana Malcorra, specifically citing the recent UN visit of Pope Francis, noted “ethical shortfalls” leading to an unhealthy planet and persistent economic inequalities.  Several speakers noted that, given our heavy reliance on science and technology to solve development challenges, some consideration of the ethics of those domains – including unintended consequences — was clearly in order.

And the Kazakhstan Ambassador himself provided some helpful and ethical commentary, lamenting the cultures that choose to “throw away” or cast aside persons. Given the persistence of our tendency to “discard” much of what we should treasure, the Ambassador noted that we would do well to have a “watchdog” for all who seek to implement the SDGs, to do what we can to ensure that we do not repeat grievous errors of diminishing the needs and expectations of communities and their residents, in part by carelessly or intentionally promoting development for the few to the neglect of the many.

Despite the fact that the UN is primarily a norm driven institution – setting frameworks for action more than taking action itself – “ethics” is a category that gets little air time at UN headquarters, in part perhaps because of a misunderstanding of what “doing ethics” entails.   Ethics is less about the “values” we publicly espouse and promote, and more about our thoughtful engagement with our responsibilities, as well as with the structures and practical behaviors that support or contradict responsible conduct.

More than anything else, ethics is about mindfulness, in part about the mindfulness of our limitations — of the potentially negative consequences of our own best ideas; of the ways we “misplay” our power and influence; of our capacity to deliver on our sometimes excessive promises to others.   But ethics is also about ensuring that our words, deeds, structures and finances are, to the best we are able, “speaking” with a singular voice.  It is about resisting the urge to “offload” responsibility on to others that rightly resides within us. And it is about the sometimes arduous task of incarnating goals and objectives in a way that accommodates cultural contexts and expectations, building on them more than imposing on them.

Ethics is about having the courage to “mind the gaps” that exist in our norms and practices, to be willing to ask the next question rather than getting bogged down in the last one, to anticipate changes and challenges rather than waiting for them to frustrate or even overwhelm us, to confess both our privileges and our sometimes excessive needs for reassurance and “credit.”  We do all of this as ethical beings not to “beat ourselves up” but as an invitation to the many people outside our loops of influence who actually have much to contribute to the policy work left undone, the healing that remains.

Ethics for us at the UN means living and working as though our objective truly is what we are actually privileged to pursue every day – building human potential, eliminating economic and social inequalities, caring for the planet as though our grandchildren depended on it.

Ethics in our policy contexts also means explaining ourselves so that others can discern our intentions (not necessarily agree with them).  It means using language as the basis for connection, not salesmanship.  And it implies the willingness to “de-center,” to give more than token attention to the aspirations and values of others, especially persons in so many parts of the world where aspirations have been trampled over and over by flawed governance, excessive weapons, multiple discriminations, and soul numbing poverty.

Around the UN as in other policy environments, we can discern many instances of structures and practices that contradict our responsibilities.   We have instances of unresolved allegations of rape by peacekeepers; Security Council members that violate the laws they expect other states to uphold;  states bullying other states to get their way on policy; NGOs claiming to represent what they mostly try to control.  Even the recent indictment of a former President of the General Assembly this past week gave clear evidence of another ethical contradiction: the power of money to corrupt our best intentions and literally overwhelm our worst.  We don’t often speak with a clear voice on these and related matters.  We are not sufficiently forthright about what lies behind the curtain, which we know full well is often more important than what lies in front of it.

What the events above (and others that could have been added) have in common is that they threaten the reputation of the UN as an institution, something which the UN cannot afford if it is to secure global public confidence for the long struggles ahead to heal the planet, eliminate nuclear arsenals, fulfill development commitments, achieve gender balance and address the attractions and abuses of terrorism.   Every resolution or treaty drenched in political considerations; every failure to prevent mass violence in its earliest stages; every committee deliberation doomed to repetition or irrelevance; every voice stifled by another seeking funding and status more than equity – these are no mere annoyances to a cranky, ageing philosopher (who should probably start thinking about staying home and watching Wheel of Fortune), but represent genuine threats to the long-term viability of this system.   When our system’s credibility is challenged, so too are the policies emanating from it, no matter how hopeful the garb in which they appear.

Compared to naming and promoting “moral values,” the practice of ethics is indeed a challenging craft, a special responsibility and high calling for those of us fortunate enough to labor at the center of global governance.  Thankfully, my long experience at the UN has convinced me that this is not a craft beyond our capacity. Indeed, the discussion on Ethics for Development, the diplomatic reaction to the Papal visit and other recent events demonstrate clearly that we still have more than enough to amend our course when needed, communicate forthrightly as required, deepen our policy resolve to address problems before they become crises, and see all that we need to see and not only what we are willing to see. In other words, we have all that it takes to be a more engaged focal point for ethical discernment at the center of both multi-lateral policy and global expectation.

One Response to “A System Wide Awake: Promoting an Ethical Culture for UN Policy and Development Practice, Dr. Robert Zuber”


  1. Calling for Clarity and Constancy: The UN Doubles Back on Recent Commitments and Expectations, Dr. Robert Zuber | gapwblog - January 17, 2016

    […] commented at the time on both the format and substance of a discussion that we found to be notable at several […]

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