Lens Crafters:  The Vision Deficits that Cloud our Global Policy Choices, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Feb

I am sitting in my New York office having earlier braved a record cold morning, wearing more clothing than I ever knew was in my closet.  Time now to reflect on a line from a speech given in Munich yesterday by Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, who reportedly wondered:  “Can we unite in order to stand up against the challenges we face? Yes, I am absolutely sure that we can.”

The “challenges” in this case refer mostly to those related to Syria – ending the war, “degrading” ISIL, addressing almost unprecedented violations of international human rights law, providing access for humanitarian relief to those trapped in zones of despair or sitting in camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

Any alleged “certainty” about Syria’s future is heartwarming I suppose, but also mostly problematic.  The bombs of several countries (including far too many of Russia’s) continue to fall.  The Saudis are set to send in ground troops.   Turkey continues to keep an eye open for opportunities to vanquish the Kurds.  A full spectrum of abuses committed against civilians continues to unfold.  NATO ships are set to interdict and return refugees to places characterized by empty markets and violent unrest.  Arms continue to flow in all directions.  Pledges of assistance are more numerous than pledges honored.

Prime Minister Medvedev is right at one level.  We can address these and other global challenges.   They are not beyond our collective skills set; not even beyond our politics.  They might, however, remain out of reach given the self-inflicted “degrading” of our collective vision, seeing what we need to see, what we need for others to see, rather than all that lies in front of us.

 Self-distraction and self-delusion stealing the stage from clarity and honesty

The default for sub-standard policy these days seems to be some form of “we didn’t see this coming.”  At the same time, we gush over all of the technology – both earth-bound and in space — that allows us to probe and peek, to prod and predict.  The weather system rattling my leaky apartment windows last evening was forecast well over a week before it arrived.   Indeed, our forecasting in so many areas relevant to policy has reached breathtaking proportions.   We might not have been able to predict with full confidence the extent of the current Zika outbreak, but we certainly know enough to stay vigilant regarding potential pandemics, the “when” exhibiting a stronger probability than the “if.”

Unfortunately, our policy vision these days is too often saturated with a blend of enthusiasm and desire.  And there is no impediment to clear and honest assessment quite like that of desire.  When we want it to be so; when we need it to be so; we find ways to convince ourselves that it is so.

More and more, our claims “not to have known” are undermined by the very technology on which already we over-rely.   When we fail to see all that is in front of us, when our enthusiasm blocks our willingness to assess all obstacles that threaten our cherished policy assumptions and conclusions, we run the risk of doing damage to the very constituents we otherwise seek to assist.  But this is less about our technological “eyes” than it is about the personal lenses we have allowed to become foggy and dusty.

In the case of Prime Minister Medvedev, it would appear that his enthusiasm for a resolution to Syria consistent with Russia’s national interest has created its own thick blinders.  Russia’s conduct in Syria is hardly the only conduct beyond reprehension, but it is staggeringly reprehensible in its own right.  Indeed, it is hard to see how peace can be sustained given such levels of myopic leadership.

This problem of vision affects more hopeful policies as well.  The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a remarkable achievement in their own right, have been subject to a series of urgent discussions in the early days of 2016. Much to its credit, the UN has not waited for the dust to settle but is making strong connections to important stakeholders (youth, women, indigenous, persons with disabilities) and urging member states to quickly identify areas of priority activity and relevant needs for capacity assistance.

In addition, good work is being done in two key areas – the indicators that will drive assessments and the financing that will sustain progress.   But there also seems to be a largely unspoken assumption of predictability in the “enabling environment,” one which is likely related more to our enthusiasm for the goals than to a sober assessment of current security, fiscal and climate prospects.

As noted in a recent UNCTAD briefing in New York to launch the report, “Rethinking Development Strategies after the Financial Crisis,” any assumptions about an “enabling environment” are fraught with peril.   UNCTAD officials noted two major impediments which have to date received insufficient attention and which have the power to short-circuit the most enthusiastic applications of the 2030 development agenda.  The first of these is the prospect of another major financial downturn, most likely initiated by some of the very same institutions that we failed to hold accountable for the last one.  In such a scenario, equity markets will shrink and states will feel forced to preserve stasis rather than reaching out to help lift the fortunes of those hitherto marginal.  Another financial collapse will likely ensure that our best development efforts will still “leave plenty behind.”

Second, there is a noteworthy shrinking of policy space in many countries, a shrinking that damages prospects for full participation, but also for policy innovation and assessment of “official” priorities.  We must explore the participation and assessment implications of all the SDGs, perhaps especially Goal 16, but we must do so based on clear analysis of the current threats posed to journalists, human rights advocates, indeed most anyone who dares to expose an emperor’s nakedness.  In many parts of the world, there is currently no “enabling environment” to count on here either.  Not yet anyway.

For many young people rightly frustrated by their elders and our global legacies, there are occasional bursts of concern for our collective future.  Are we going to make it?  Do we have what it takes as a species to get over ourselves and address the full implications of all the challenges that face us, not just the ones we are willing to see?

It would be foolish to sell us short.  We can still make good on our promises and bring some healing to the planet in the process.  We can end violent conflict, bring international finance under control and wedge new policy space in otherwise recalcitrant states. But it would also be foolish to believe that we can make any sustainable change merely by tinkering with policy resolutions and other international instruments.   Those instruments, while not perfect, are mostly already sufficient to their purposes.   The “wild card” here is us, what we see and what we refuse to see.

In the Christian bible, there is a line in which Jesus of Nazareth warns those looking for specks in the eyes of their neighbors to first take the “logs” out of their own.  Such excavations are encouraged as they can do much to restore the clarity of vision and firmness of purpose we will need to get over both our “enthusiasms” and our current, bulging “humps” of security, development and climate challenges.

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One Response to “Lens Crafters:  The Vision Deficits that Cloud our Global Policy Choices, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. Arman Yahoo February 14, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

    Thanks for sending out these pieces and your continued work.

    -Arman (Spring 2011 intern)

    >

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