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Creating Spaces for Creative Participation:  Practicing Fairness, Heeding Evidence: Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Jan

One of the tangibly hopeful things around UN headquarters is the degree to which participation concerns have been legitimized in policy.   The skills and perspectives of people across gender, race, age, culture, social class, nationality, (dis) ability and more receive at least rhetorical confirmation somewhere or other within the UN’s increasingly busy schedule of policy deliberations.

From the vantage point of the still-excluded voices, gender gets the most attention these days around the UN, with strong agency leadership and NGO support from those running a gamut of gender-specific issue concerns – from ensuring more women’s voices at UN functions to the complete dismantling of patriarchy in all its forms.

And certainly there is plenty to atone for where women’s rights are concerned.

Nevertheless, despite all this legitimate, multi-layered attention, there remain structural and political limitations to enacting our participation concerns.   At the UN, as in much of the rest of the world, we have ample evidence for a tenuous relationship between the things we discuss and the things we actually change.   Sometimes conversation serves as a springboard for personal or institutional reform; other times it serves as their substitute.

In the case of gender, our participation-related limitations take multiple forms.  For instance, despite all of the current institutional focus on gender equity, we still have too many single-gender panels at UN Headquarters.   We still put excellent diplomats such as Luxembourg’s Ambassador Lucas in the awkward position of having to remind her peers, as she did during Friday’s 70th Anniversary celebration of ECOSOC, of the pervasive male dominance of much UN agency leadership.  Despite our generally supportive gender rhetoric, we still have not fully grasped the degree to which national economic policies, peace and mediation processes, poverty reduction efforts and much more remain exclusive domains, including exclusive of too many women.

As Denmark noted during Thursday’s “Implementing the 2030 Agenda to Accelerate Realization of Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls” event, we must do more than we are now doing to ensure that we bring the “marginal into the center.”  This has implications beyond gender, but certainly many implications for how women – including working class women, women with disabilities, and indigenous women – find space to pursue their policy skills and interests. As Regions Refocus’ Anita Nayar stated, the 2030 development agenda gives us another opportunity – one we would do well not to squander – to claim the space needed to “democratize and feminize” implementation of the new development goals.

Indeed, at Thursday’s “gender and development” event, there were many important statements that fit under the heading of “not squandered,” including several shared by men.  For instance, Latvia highlighted the need for more attention to the “gender digital divide” and better indicators to monitor gender-specific compliance. UNCTAD’s Carpentier raised the concern that the current preoccupation with “public-private partnerships” is not delivering the goods on women’s employment. Cuba went so far as to criticize diplomatic training, noting that if such training is gender-biased, future diplomatic placements are likely to remain biased as well.  And Canada noted “evidence” that gender equity signals many important social benefits, and urged all to listen more carefully to that growing body of evidence.

But the event also highlighted an even broader, more systemic concern.

There is a pervasive flaw, in our view, in events around the UN that are “given over” to issue interests:  Gender advocates talking about gender.   Indigenous advocates talking about indigenous issues.  Youth advocates (however you define “youth” these days) talking about youth concerns.   Disabled persons talking about the unmet needs of persons with disabilities.

These mostly branded conversations rarely add as much as we imagine to the evidence base of the largely knowledgeable audiences around the UN. They certainly don’t help build capacity across issue interests.  They do tend to consolidate domains rather than create linkages across domains.  They do not, as advocated by Ireland’s Ambassador Donoghue on Thursday, effectively promote “whole government” and whole systems commitment to full and effective constituent participation.

In response to this trend, we have long advocated events characterized by persons deliberately advocating for “space” for other groupings, not only for their own issues.    With full respect for the incredible talent that the UN routinely seconds into its meeting rooms, we see relatively little value in organizing events wherein the same voices advocate for the same things in the same way.   Such events tend mostly to ritualize policy concern rather than explore its next frontiers.  People come to these events in the hope of new insights or creative policy formulations, only to leave – more often than not – disappointed rather than reassured.

For us, it is always more inspirational to hear about the “stakes” people acknowledge in the unresolved concerns of others.  Why should advocates for genocide prevention care about efforts to eliminate arms trafficking?   Why should youth advocates care about elder rights?   Why should women’s rights advocates, as highlighted by GPF’s Barbara Adams at Thursday’s event, care about illegal financial flows?  Why should Security Council reform advocates care about the accelerated pace of melting ice caps?

And why should those tasked with implementation of the 2030 development agenda care about the full integration of gender perspectives?  On Thursday, we got a hopeful glimpse of what those answers might look like, as well as some insight into all the many other “cross cutting,” (or as Nayar proposed) “co-constructed” discussions that need to take place in and around our multilateral policy centers.  The clarity of our priorities, the quality of our resolutions, the depth of our commitments, can all be enhanced through our willingness to walk a pace in each other’s policy shoes.

At the UN, who speaks at events is largely (and too often) a function of who has been authorized to have a voice.  However, we have sufficient band-width as a policy community such that we can enable voices beyond the usual, and at the same time demonstrate broader policy discernment beyond our organizational mandates and diplomatic portfolios.  The participation space that we increasingly seek to open in the world must be opened wider at the UN as well; on gender yes, but also with respect to other, too-often “marginal” stakeholders seeking their policy moment.