Budget Busters:  The UN Leverages Peace and Development in Leaner Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 May

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If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.  John Lennon

Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.  Gloria Steinem

Problems do not go away. They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit.  M. Scott Peck

Among the many memorable things that happened at the UN this week, the highlight for me came courtesy of the Uruguayan Foreign Minister during an important Security Council debate on protection of health care facilities in conflict.   Calling the UN to invest more in inspiration to better honor the trust for a peaceful and sustainable world that others have placed in it, he noted that Martin Luther King was never once known to utter “I have a strategic plan today…”

The Minister’s comment, which evoked considerable applause in the Security Council chamber, was not intended to denigrate planning nor the difficult logistical and financial decisions that must be made every day in order to sustain this complex institution and its expanding agendas.   But it was good for participants in this Council meeting to be reminded that some of the “slog” of this place – its excessive statement making and consensus building, its endless discussions on finances and working methods – is tied to a larger vision, a higher purpose, a dream if you will of a cleaner, fairer, more peaceful, more prosperous planet where people spend more time sharing than scheming, more time listening than condemning, more time facing and addressing problems than pushing them off on others.

Disconnected from the larger dream that connects its three “pillars” and animates with urgency the numerous studies and resolutions that emanate from this place, the UN risks becoming just another multilateral bureaucracy, just another talk shop for states looking for change mostly on their own terms, just another institution yielding tepid and largely predictable responses to the unique crises (mostly of our own making) currently lapping at our shores.

For many of us, as we have noted on other occasions, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 targets represent this sort of dream: a world where agriculture is sustainable, governance is trustworthy, education is accessible, oceans and forests are healthy, migrants and refugees are respected, women speak their own policy voices, climate is stable, weapons are restricted and poverty is relegated to the history books.   We are a long way from this dream; indeed we may well need to raise trillions of dollars to meet the goals we have set out for ourselves, an overwhelming figure exceeded only by the trillions more we would need to spend in a last-ditch effort to save our species if we fail our current sustainable development responsibilities.

This week in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), delegates and experts to the Forum on Financing for Development wrestled with the logistics of raising such vast sums in an uncertain climate.   In plenary sessions and numerous side events, Forum participants hit many important notes, including:

  • Mobilizing (and retaining) domestic resources, including through more equitable tax policies, better data disaggregation, and an end to government corruption
  • Creating investment partnerships with for-profit entities that encourage “triple bottom line” policies and reaffirm the applicability of human and labor rights frameworks
  • Reaffirming the importance of “remittances” to many developing countries and urging stabilization and even reduction in “remittance costs”
  • Increasing access to banking and other financial services, especially for too-often excluded women and the rural poor
  • Noting the risks to fragile economies of excessive debt and urging review of existing debt sustainability frameworks
  • Urging the growth of “south-south” cooperative frameworks to complement north-south funding and capacity support

Despite these and other hopeful measures, the Forum’s Outcome Document also took note of a series of challenging contexts – climate change, armed conflict, humanitarian crises, natural disasters and environmental degradation – whose remedial costs could easily overwhelm our most creative and constructive, development-related fiscal policies.  Such challenges are both urgent and vast in scope; each in their own way calls into question that elusive, “predictable” social and fiscal environment which makes fulfillment of the SDGs much more likely.

Indeed, current funding needs in settings from Yemen to Somalia — much of it tied to armed conflicts that we probably did not do enough to prevent in the first place – have created conundrums for global assistance.   In my time at the UN, I have never seen so many “pledging conferences,” so many requests for states to support efforts to ease misery borne of armed violence and terror; of climate-related drought and flooding; of forced migration and the human trafficking that too often follows in its wake.

While the human misery of our age often seems inexhaustible, the remedial funding is not.  In many instances, it is politically and fiscally taxing for states to address immediate crises while keeping funds in reserve to support their longer-term development responsibilities.   Something has to give.

Added to this, of course, is a US administration that has signaled its willingness to cut back on virtually all of its diplomatic commitments, including to the UN.  While it is unlikely that president Trump’s budget priorities will survive Congressional scrutiny as submitted, the threat of cuts has many in the UN on their heels.  And while we are skeptical of the publicly-articulated notion that the UN simply can’t function unless the US keeps writing large checks, any substantial US cutbacks will certainly complicate funding thresholds for each and every one of our sustainable development promises.

At the UN this week, there were at least two side events that offered some cross-cutting encouragement.  At a small Forum-related side event hosted by Norway and Indonesia, representatives of the UN’s development and peacebuilding sectors came together to stress the need for better use of existing resources to “catalyze” innovative responses and actions, as well as to clarify our responsibilities as a community in light of shifting conflict, climate and development threats.  All were in agreement that the development and peacebuilding communities need to “root harder” for each other and prioritize their interlinked mandates.  There was also broad recognition of the futility of development assistance in situations of active conflict as well as the irony of the UN’s essential but “under-resourced” peacebuilding architecture when so much funding is currently being poured into often unsuccessful “crisis response,” such as in the Central African Republic.

Also this week, Croatia led a “GA 4th Committee” discussion focused on the preventive value of Special Political Missions (SPMs), “special” in the sense that they are “upstream” responses that are carefully adjusted to context.   One delegation after another lauded the potential and cost-effectiveness of SPMs, “good offices” and other political and diplomatic tools designed to minimize prospects for larger conflict.  While offering his own validation, Ambassador Kamau of Kenya underlined the vast disparities between UN peacekeeping funding (which is largely oriented to conflict response) and the still-limited support available for full-spectrum peacebuilding and other conflict-prevention measures.

The UN prides itself (rightly so) on its many efforts to help states cope with a variety of shocks – including those related to climate change and threats of terror.  The test for this system now is whether it can swallow its own medicine, whether we can successfully prepare to meet our growing responsibilities in a time of fiscal shocks, to do all we can with what we have at our disposal.  While the Financing for Development community searches for its “trillions,” reducing conflict threats through effective peacebuilding and related tools would constitute an important, cost-effective contribution to the dream of peaceful, fair, inclusive and healthy societies underlying practical implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

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