Promises Made and Promises to Keep: A Small Policy Office Makes its 2016 Resolution, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Dec

Five years ago now, one of our longstanding advisory board members, Dr. Lester Ruiz, delivered an address to the 24th General Assembly of the Conference of Non Governmental Organizations.

“Defining the present, shaping the future: Making the present amenable to transformation,” was a highly thoughtful examination of what we in the non-governmental world think we are doing at the UN, and what we are actually doing.   Ruiz spoke uncomfortable words to an often too-comfortable community, reminding us of the need to sit in front of the “mirrors” that we are so keen to hold in front of governments and international organizations.   He also posed questions to help define the value of our work; more than money and status and branding, more than high-profile board members and multiple speaking engagements at UN side events.   Questions such as these can be suggested from Ruiz’s insightful work:

  • Do our actions build collegiality, diversity, and transformative leadership?
  • Are our offices and other work spaces genuinely hospitable?
  • Does our work create and nurture mindfulness and receptiveness to self, other, and world?
  • Are we doing our best to build networks of solidarity across the contested terrains of global civil society?
  • Do our actions promote the beautiful, the inclusive and the compassionate?
  • Are we using all of our access and assets to inspire a reasonable hope for a healthier, more peaceful world?

Based in part on conversations with GAPW staff and others in global civil society, Ruiz’s words continue to influence our own practice though probably not as much as they should.   As a small office, we are painfully aware of our limitations, some of them self-inflicted; but we are also aware that, despite those limitations, a goodly number of policy makers and advocates in all global regions listen to and depend on us.  They listen to our independent voice through books, blogs and twitter; they depend on us for linkages between global policy and community practice that are largely untainted by gate keeping and other manifestations of our mixed motives; they find a hospitable space in our office that helps them navigate the bewilderment occasioned by the UN and the often cold, inattentive and self-important city that surrounds it; they meet young interns and fellows from many regions who represent the future of this work, if indeed there is to be a future.

And they come because our interest in the UN is genuine and systemic, not opportunistic or sentimental.  We do not see the UN as a mere conduit for the fulfillment of our ‘mission.’ We are not “cheerleaders” for the UN, nor do we believe that the UN occupies a perch that exempts it from scrutiny.  We are attentive to the UN not because it is perfect (it isn’t), not because it brings us honor (it doesn’t), and not because we enjoy any ‘benefits’ of membership (those ‘benefits’ such as they are, seem to decline each and every year). We are attentive as an office because we know that as the UN improves its practice, embracing fairness and adhering to the norms that it inconsistently prescribes for its member states, prospects for a world at peace become more likely.

There is hopefulness here, but also adjustments still to be made.   Following Ruiz, we have been, and are likely to remain, concerned about much of what goes on in New York under the NGO banner.   Too many of us equate the good of our own organizations with what is good for the world.  Too many are disconnected from communities of practice, are more comfortable in elite settings such as the UN than in the places where, much to our discredit, we “leave people behind” with regularity.   Too many of us equate making UN side event presentations with having UN impact, or picking up reports as a substitute for helping those reports find their broadest audience; too many take funding from governments, including well-meaning ones, without properly factoring in the impact of money on our policy choices.

Our funding, our privileges, our branding all have an impact on our organizational priorities, personal motivations, and policy content.  Those claiming otherwise are strongly urged to take a second look.

In addition to this, we have been, and are likely to remain, concerned about how the UN deals with NGOs.  As a matter of course, member states in their public statements routinely cite the ‘need’ for more civil society involvement in UN affairs.  And there are some instances, as with the Open Working Group for the Sustainable Development Goals, where those rhetorical promises were largely kept.   But it is also the case that access for NGOs is increasingly problematic.   There are more and more ‘closed’ designations on the UN’s daily schedule, longer and longer lines as NGOs like GAPW endure screenings multiple times a day when other UN stakeholders experience no such impediments.  Indeed, some days it seems that the primary business of security guards (whom we genuinely appreciate deeply) is to keep NGOs out of more and more conference rooms.

In addition, there is a tendency of some states to lump all “civil society” together, assuming that we all see issues the same way, or that NGO “advocacy” is about “getting our way” rather than being thoughtful or discerning about the relationships linking policy norms, constituent needs and institutional capacity. Indeed, it appears, more and more, that access and visibility are less a function of the answers given to the important questions suggestion by Lester Ruiz and more about having branded expertise (or experience) on issues of state interest, or the ‘right’ government sponsors (which almost always involves funding).

Finally, we have been, and are likely to remain, critical of ourselves.   Our office has not yet opened enough doors for others.  We have not been generous enough with praise when our community does its proper job, such as was the case with the 2030 development goals.   We have avoided some of the conflict that it is, in part, our job to resolve.  We have given up on some people too quickly, and others perhaps not quickly enough. We have allowed our policy ‘notions’ to cloud our vision regarding some of the opportunities and challenges unfolding before us.  We have too often seen the “mirror” as a reflective tool but not so much a pedagogical one.  (Awareness and learning, after all, require very different types and levels of investment.)

Even so, thanks in large measure to our board, funders and affiliates, we have always found ways to play “larger” than our size would suggest.  This year we will commit to finding better ways to make and keep our organizational promises.  This involves more attention to our own institutional stability, a new investment in the ways that we can (and do) add value to the UN system, and most importantly a stronger commitment to represent the concerns of our global partners rather than being fixated on our own policy preferences.

In line with the wisdom of Dr. Ruiz, we know that a fragmented, inattentive world characterized by impunity, self-indulgence and exclusion has little chance to fully implement the astonishing range of global norms emanating this year from the UN.   We need a softer edge, a more attentive and cooperative disposition, a willingness to step back from our urgent business to make sure that our remedial intentions aren’t creating more grounds for urgency instead.

As terrorists threaten, the ice caps melt and greed yet again assaults social equity, we cannot abandon the task of discernment.  This is the task that helps us put to use all our available resources, but to use them in ways that are consistent with our best selves, the selves that – much like the world around us – we have not yet quite attained.

This is our resolution for this challenging, hopeful New Year.   We wish all the best for you and your important work in the world.

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One Response to “Promises Made and Promises to Keep: A Small Policy Office Makes its 2016 Resolution, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. Jerry Reisig January 12, 2016 at 12:35 pm #

    Zuber’s beautiful piece reminds me that truly moral action begins where we are and how we treat one another — and whom we consider to be the other. Global is local and local is global. As a Quaker, I hear Dr. Ruiz’s questions as queries to initiate contemplative discussion and behavior. It is often easier to work against global injustice than it is to confront local injustice in the workplace: contempt for the people who clean our offices;lack of welcoming into our own doors.

    We can be no more effective in the world than we are in our own conference rooms. If we are unwilling to hear one another where we work, why should we expect nation heads to sit down and listen to one another?

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