The Young and the Restless:   Seeking a Wider Gaze at UN Headquarters, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Apr

It was a chaotic and, in some ways, historic week at the UN with major sessions on the threats of terrorism, data-related work by the Commission on Population and Development, special discussions on “drugs and the death penalty” and “the rule of law” (the latter with a focus on children and juveniles), the release of the UN World Water Development Report, assessment of the peace and governance implications of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, and of course unprecedented “interviews” of eight candidates for the position of UN secretary-general moderated by current General Assembly president Lykketoft.  (For background on the interviews, including candidate “vision statements,” visit

Amidst all these high level events were a few more “intimate” discussions that raised issues significant for us and other non-governmental organizations. For instance, this past Tuesday, Ambassador Laura Elena Flores Herrera of Panama headlined a breakfast discussion on “Rethinking the Role of Civil Society in an Evolving UN System,” The breakfast was co-sponsored by the Baha’i international community (probably the most generous of the NGOs around UN headquarters) and the International Movement ATD Fourth World (one of the more “grounded” groups around these parts).

Ambassador Flores Herrera has been a breath of fresh air since assuming her current post in late 2014 and she had some important things to share about the ever-shifting role of NGOs in the UN system.  While (rightly) praising NGOs for their contributions to cementing the 2030 development agenda, she also urged a “widening of our optics” when it comes to partnership building within and beyond our common policy community.  Many of our existing partnerships, she noted, have been disappointing at best, leading some to now distrust the whole notion of partnership building altogether.

Of course none of us can solve global problems alone, not even the largest government or the most well- funded and heavily-branded non-governmental entity.   The question isn’t whether we will have partnerships, but who will they be with and on what terms?   Will they be defined more by generosity and respect or competition and predation? Will they open space for others or shut down helpful alternatives to our often narrow agendas?  Will we as NGOs continue to answer the call when governments (often cavalierly) request more civil society involvement, or will we yield the floor to those many groups worldwide who have important things to share and little opportunity to do so, in part because we in New York so often take up more than our share of policy space?  Is our commitment to a diverse and thoughtful engagement with our system of global governance sufficient to overcome our “duty” to impress our funders and imprint our brand names in every possible conference room?

In sorting through these and related questions, the Ambassador’s notion of “widening optics” was most helpful.   It calls to mind our collective attention deficits, our apparent need to share our own “positions” when we could be serving as the eyes and ears of a vast, rich policy community that, for no particularly good reason, will never be invited to sit in the places we do. It calls to mind our emotional limitations, the deficits of transparency and clarity that we tolerate in ourselves all while critiquing this in our institutions and those who run them.   It calls to mind cognitive dysfunctions that manifest themselves as hyper vigilance around mission statements and policy preferences while willfully ignoring other policy urgencies attached to those preferences, not to mention the many communities worldwide still desperately seeking policy relief.

And it calls to mind our collective discomfort with having our assumptions challenged by new and perhaps even “naïve” voices, persons young and old who perhaps do not represent UN policy interests but, in their own way, are perfectly fine representatives of human interests, interests that as most of us recognize are now facing considerable strain.   These are the voices that can at least begin to reboot some of our acquired UN habits, reminding us that a deeper engagement with these strains on the world generally lies beyond the limits of our organizational preoccupations.

Two stories this week illustrated this “reboot” for me:

The first involved a New York City middle school girl whose class, thanks to a colleague of ours, came to visit us this week, ostensibly to hear about issues in Asia.   The group wasn’t particularly interested in Asia as it turns out.  They were kids – mostly distracted, peer and smart-phone preoccupied, and seemingly so anxious about their lives.  At the end of our session, the girl came up to me and asked if she could make a YouTube video with Global Action.  About what, I asked?  “I want to teach people how to love,” she replied.   When I mentioned to her that it is perhaps less important to teach about love than to practice it in the world, she agreed but said, “I want to do this anyway. I think it matters.”

The second story came about during the question and answer portion of the Secretary-General candidate-interview with UNESCO’s Irina Bokova.   After fielding many, mostly predictable questions from diplomats, a boy (perhaps 16) from Brazil appeared on the video screen behind the dignitaries and asked, “If you aren’t selected for the job, how will you continue to help change the world? Will you still care about us?”

At that point, delegates sitting in that UN chamber let out a collective but muted chuckle.  The diplomats, as it turns out, are pretty anxious about the world as well, and they have all lived through their share of disappointment. But most of them, I gather, continue to believe that a “position of prominence” is needed in order to make change.  You must become the head of a mission, or UN office, or large NGO in order to make a difference.  The boy apparently didn’t care much about that. Indeed, he was suggesting something else:  that what we really need to make change, even more than fancy “positions,” are big hearts, flexible minds, and a passion to leave the world in better shape than we found it, no matter what obstacles – self-inflicted and not — lie in our path.

Teaching others to practice love better.  Persevering through inevitable failure and disappointment to help heal the world.  These reminders from sometimes restless youth are surely outcomes we would associate with a widening optics, reminders that point to the true, core metrics by which we govern and assess the value of our work in the world, even more than large funders or professional recognition.

Doing more and better than we can ever be compensated for or even recognized for, keeping our eyes open, our brains engaged and our hearts generous – this is perhaps more than anyone could ask of us. But it is also less than we will need if we are to contribute – fully and successfully — to a world that a girl from Manhattan and a boy from Brazil can truly believe in.

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