Archive | December, 2017

Structural Adjustments:  The UN Anticipates an Unsettled New Year, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Dec

The P-5 make every effort to avoid legal constraints on their actions, and they have been almost entirely successful in doing so. James Paul

If the United Nations is to survive, those who represent it must bolster it; those who advocate it must submit to it; and those who believe in it must fight for it. Norman Cousins

Laziness is nothing more than the habit of resting before you get tired. Jules Renard

Another year has come and gone, and we are about to be inundated with declarations of intent to change our ways: to lose weight, be kinder to strangers, cut back on alcohol, or any number of other “resolutions” designed to fix whatever we have concluded has been “wrong with us.”

Much like the resolutions that proliferate in the multilateral policy space that we inhabit, most of our personal declarations are likely to change little in real time and space, as they seriously misrepresent the degree to which habits can be altered by intention alone.  Rarely can we “talk our way” into change.  The habits which largely define our lives – for good and for ill – are thick and persistent.   They help organize our place in the world and at times even bring us comfort.  But they also divert energies from pursuing the summits that we might otherwise attain, from re-imagining our direction when the current one has lost its vitality, from staring our challenges in the face instead of giving in to the material and technological distractions of the moment.

Habit is not a prison, but we make it seem like one when we stop asking hard questions, when we stop “wrestling with our demons,” when we settle for what is good enough “for us” alone, when we give in to the urge to “relax” before our tasks are complete, indeed even before we feel tired.

This formula applies to institutions as much as individuals.   The UN is one institution that is thick with habit largely in the form of protocol, a place that can barely tolerate those who dare to ask the next hard question, voices for whom the UN in its current form is “necessary but not sufficient” to address looming threats from ever-more-powerful weapons, climate-related shocks and growing economic inequalities. Laziness is generally not an issue for the UN – diplomats and other stakeholders often work long hours and face many deadlines – but so much of the work is directed towards generating statements that are eerily similar to the largely ineffectual statements which preceded them.  Given the nature of the UN and its often-squabbling member states, the tendency here is to “double down” on consensus language rather than ensure that this language – and the tangible commitments which it implicates – are appropriate to the levels of threat we now actually face.

As we enter this New Year, there are significant differences in evidence regarding the direction that this institution should go.   For instance, under significant pressure from the US, the UN’s Fifth Committee recently agreed on a 2018 budget that included $285 million in spending cuts.  The assumption underlying this decision is that the UN is in some respects a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy that needs to better live within its means despite a host of growing global challenges – especially in the realm of peace and security — to which the UN is now expected to respond effectively.

For others, the problem to be addressed is related to the degree to which the UN Secretariat is able to exhort for change, but not to insist upon it, and certainly not to boldly organize the resources of the UN system to address current threats in a timely and effective manner.   The more time we spend inside the UN, and we have spent thousands of hours in its conference rooms and chambers over the past 12 years, the clearer it becomes that the secretariat is still largely beholden to large state interests.   The “leadership” which the global community needs and anticipates from UN officials is  — sadly so – both subject to and compromised by the demands (and even whims) of the states that pay its bills and issue its visas.

For us, it is the power imbalances of the UN system – mostly beyond public scrutiny – that define the UN’s “habit” and limit its potential for the internal changes that can better address external threats.   And nowhere are those imbalances more pervasive – and perhaps hazardous to the overall health of the UN system – than in the Security Council.

As noted in a fine study recently released by James Paul, Of Foxes and Chickens, changes in the dynamics of power characteristic of the Permanent 5 members (and especially of the US and UK) have largely been cosmetic in nature – changes as likely to reinforce existing dynamics as set them on a more hopeful course.  Paul rightly gives the Council credit for (among other things) recognizing climate threats, committing to the full integration of women in peace processes, and engaging in meaningful relationships with regional organizations to address security threats throughout Africa. But he also (like many of his contemporaries) chides the P-5 for their failures to work effectively with other UN agencies and offices; to respond to threats before they erupt into full-scale conflict; turning a “blind eye” to some conflicts currently in motion (such as at the moment in Cameroon, Venezuela and even Yemen); positing humanitarian access as a substitute for hard-nosed conflict resolution which is its primary, Charter-mandated task.

And then there is the “bullying” that Paul identifies – of the elected members of the Council, of other UN states and agencies, of the Secretary-General and (his for now) cabinet.   Moreover, Paul chronicles well the archaic protocols that marginalize all but the P-3 (US, UK, France) and allow politics to stain the language of Council resolutions, the processes that brings such resolutions to a formal vote, even the determination of Council members to ensure that so-called “binding” resolutions are fully implemented.  He also understands better than most that the veto power which is the sole domain of the permanent members is exercised mostly behind closed doors – as yet another means for demanding concessions from elected members without a club of their own to wield.

Perhaps most discouraging is the tendency identified by Paul for the permanent members to hold themselves beyond the reach of the international law that they forcefully proscribe for others. This “do as I say, not as I do” mentality undermines confidence in Council decisions and reinforces the belief that power – not law – is still the guiding premise of global affairs.  As bad a guide to parenting as this mentality is, it has even more serious consequences for international peace and security, as we are likely to experience throughout the coming years.

Finally, Paul recognizes that all this comes at a high cost that dwarfs any budgetary concessions won by the Trump administration or other states.  This “habit” of power imbalances and accompanying bullying discourages bold ideas and initiatives by smaller-states and secretariat officials alike.  It also dampens what gusto remains in the global public to believe that the UN is truly the place to identify and address the wolves baying at the door.  There is truly a high price to be paid – beyond the fiscal ruminations of the Fifth Committee — once global constituents conclude that the “thickness” of the UN’s habits have largely rendered its peace and security promises moot.

It is probably too much, as many commentators have argued, to expect any meaningful Council reform, certainly not in the short term.   But as one small contribution to (hopefully) smoothing out some of what promises to be “rough edges” in the year to come, I offer the following:

In counseling one essential element in shifting habitual behaviors that have long outlived their usefulness is to ascertain levels of personal commitment.  In effect, how badly does the client want this change to happen?   In many such instances, the depth of commitment foretells levels of grit and determination needed to identify and ultimately divert “bad habits.”

Such (important and largely missing) information gleaned from the P-5 and other large states would be helpful for the entire UN community and beyond.   How badly do the major UN “players” want this system to function as an effective means to collaboratively assess and address global threats?  What changes are they sincerely willing to entertain in order for the UN to become what we spend too much energy now trying to convince others that it already is?

As the calendar flips over to 2018, an anxious global public needs to know if our erstwhile guardians of multilateral institutions are playing for keeps or playing largely for themselves.  For unless the powerful states resolve to make the UN more effective and less habituated, to generate healthier balances between global and state interests, the years to come are likely to be rockier and more frustrating for all of us than they need to be.

Baby Face: A Christmas Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Dec


I don’t need a holiday or a feast to feel grateful for my children, the sun, the moon, the roof over my head, music, and laughter, but I like to take this time to take the path of thanks less traveled. Paula Poundstone

I have accepted a seat in the House of Representatives, and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and to the ruin of our children. I give you this warning that you may prepare your mind for your fate.  John Adams

If we had paid no more attention to our plants than we have to our children, we would now be living in a jungle of weed.  Luther Burbank

Christmas represents an outlier moment for many persons, including those who work on “peace and security.”  After months of pondering solutions to some of the existential threats that we have manufactured for ourselves –the clever ways we have concocted to subjugate and humiliate each other – the attention of many of us turns to a baby in a barn, a baby in whom some invest mountains of hope, but a baby nonetheless; a baby as shocked and bewildered by the profound implications of the short voyage from womb to world as the rest of us were; a baby experiencing its first chills in the evening air, its first experiences of “distance,” its first uncomfortable naps in some seasonally dry hay, its first hiatus between desire and accommodation.

Yes, that baby: a miracle at one level; a life form struggling to cope with unfamiliar “rules” and surroundings at another.

In the Christian tradition, we tend to sentimentalize this singular newborn.   We just assume that this baby can manage the frosty air filling its lungs; we just assume that this baby has no genetic predispositions to childhood disease, is not allergic to his mother’s milk, is invulnerable to the many germs hovering around the barn to which he has not had nearly enough time to develop a resistance.

This baby apparently is the beneficiary of some divinely-procured pathogen defiance, apparently exhibits some innate ability to tolerate changes of 20 degrees C or more from the womb where it lay snugly only hours before; this baby –with blanket protections but no proper blanket — has taken on sacred significance in ways that have captured the imagination of persons from all monotheistic faiths and a fair number of others besides.

A baby so much like other babies of his time; so much like other babies of our time; yet underscored by such a hopeful and enticing narrative, such a different set of expectations.

This hope is not so different from the hopes we have for the babies born in settings from modern hospitals to tents in refugee camps.  When a child is born, there is a real sense in which the world begins anew.  It begins “anew” because of all the potential locked up in that squirming ball of humanity that has survived perhaps the most dramatic and difficult transition it will ever face over the course of its life, potential that too-often neglected and even traumatized parents must find some way to unlock.

It is this potential that we continue to squander, at times neglectfully at other times intentionally and even murderously.   We cut off health care to children at their most critical developmental moments. We bomb hospital and schools creating mass trauma while eliminating the institutions that might help children recover some measure of their emotional bearings.  We lie to our progeny (and to ourselves) about the future these babies are destined to inherit; a melting, more militarized, more divided world that is virtually guaranteed by the reckless, self-interested decisions that we (and our erstwhile leadership) make each and every day.

With all due respect to the UNICEF team here in New York, it still amazes me after all these years that the human community needs some large multilateral agency (and its numerous national counterparts) to guarantee a modicum of respect and care for children, a modicum which, by the way, we are a long way from ensuring.   What is the matter with us?   How can we pour so much sentimental significance into a long-ago baby in a makeshift manger and then so little into the babies – in Yemen, in Honduras, in rural areas of Central Africa, in urban favelas around the world, even in our own neighborhoods – whose life-enhancing potential is being undermined the second their umbilical cords are severed?

I don’t get this.  It remains for me a Christmas mystery matched only by the star that functions like a GPS device and parents gathering around a manger in rapt attention despite what might well be their own hunger, fatigue, nausea and chills.

In trying to get through this mystery, I have benefited greatly from contributions from two friends of mine (and this office), two of the many women of great substance and thoughtfulness who have helped me (and many others) interpret the times and navigate a way forward in both personal and institutional aspects.

Marta Benavides reminds us frequently from El Salvador about the degree to which “greed and ambition are clouding vision and action,” blinding us to the inequalities we create and the human potential we rob in the name of power and “progress.”  In a similar vein, Lisa Berkley has noted that “If there is one thing the #metoo movement is showing us, it is just how wounded we all are.”

There is, of course, much beyond greed and ambition that clouds our vision, much beyond #metoo that exposes the wounds to which we give so little attention and which are thereby likely to become a most unwelcome slice of our babies’ inheritance.  The greed and personal ambition that we won’t curtail results in decisions that barely benefit the present but surely undermine our prospects.  In the same way, the wounds we will neither confront nor heal in ourselves will surely morph into infections for which no metaphorical antibiotics will ever be sufficient.

Being a baby in this world – not to mention caring for them – is simply too challenging now.  We are as a species, indeed, too damaged, too greedy, too smug; we are too ambitious for our own interests and too little concerned with the general interest.  These deformations of character are things we can address.  Indeed we must, as the consequences of our folly will consume the elders as readily as they will our youngest.

This year, my Christmas prayer for our “lands of confusion” is that our reverence for the manger child becomes not a substitute for, but an enabler of our active reverence for all the babies who enter this world, most entering not under a star but a cloud.

Pick Six:  The Security Council Bids Adieu to some Stellar Elected Colleagues, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Dec

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. Thomas Edison

When we create hope and opportunity in the lives of others, we allow love, decency and promise to triumph over cowardice and hate. Kirsten Gillibrand

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. Milton Berle

I’m sitting in the office on a Sunday with my pulled-from-the-dumpster Christmas tree glistening in the background.   The tree is enticing me to pen a Christmas message today, but given that next Sunday is Christmas Eve, that message can wait just a bit.

There are many other messages emanating from the UN community this week that seem a bit more urgent, including new (and heated) discussions on responses to DPRK missile launches, preparatory discussions in Puerto Vallarta on issues affecting global migration governance, a Security Council warning to South Sudan’s leadership to take the renewed “Revitalisation Forum” convened by the InterGovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) with upmost seriousness, the decision by the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to activate jurisdiction over the”crime of aggresssion,” and an “Arria Formula” UNSC session devoted to the urgent linkages between climate change and global security.   Moreover, in keeping with a bevy of recent discussions and articles chronicling abuses committed against women, including the arbitrary withholding of otherwise well-deserved opportunity, a significant gathering in Lima sought “windows of opportunity” to integrate Latin American women into regional peace and security sectors.

But the end of 2017 also signifies the end-of-service for six elected (non-permanent) Security Council members:  Egypt, Italy (which is “sharing” a 2-year seat with the Netherlands), Japan, Senegal, Ukraine and Uruguay.  This has been an engaged and often thoughtful group in the midst of many difficult obligations and challenges.  Egypt, for its part, took leadership on many aspects related to the UN’s counter-terror response, including sanctions committees and educational events on related UN member responsibilities often undertaken in conjunction with the UN Counterterrorism Executive Directorate (CTED).  In addition, its public role with regard to stubbornly unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, now including unilateral declarations related to Jerusalem’s status, has been appropriately simmering and measured.

Due in part to its international prestige and excellent mission leadership, Italy was able to make its mark on the Council despite having only one year in this current configuration to do so, applying a steady hand to the urgent matters of preserving the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) and maintaining fair and effective sanctions, as well as drawing careful attention to the peace and security implications of climate change, food insecurity and forced migration. Italy also highlighted a problem it previously identified (with Jordan) regarding the discouraging destruction of cultural property and its resale by terrorists groups to fund their recruitment and resulting abuses.

Japan has been a particularly generous (and under-the-radar) contributor so to many dimensions of UN security and humanitarian relief efforts, and those contributions at times spoke with a more convincing voice than its routine Council statements or even its leadership of the sub-committee reviewing Council working methods.  However, steadily escalating tests and tensions in the Korean Peninsula, including DPRK missile launches provocatively sailing over Japanese air space, forced Japan into the spotlight as a major participant in DPRK-related discussions and, as current Security Council president, into a robust organizing and facilitating role for such discussions.

Senegal handled its Council responsibilities with understated dignity and grace.  Indeed, as so much of the Council’s agenda is focused on sub-Saharan states as well as on solidifying trustworthy arrangements with the African Union, IGAD and other regional players, Senegal’s importance to Council deliberations belied its size.  Indeed, on the many issues negatively affecting the peoples of the Sahel region and Lake Chad Basin, Senegal’s enabling logistics and wise counsel was indispensable, underscoring for us and for others the importance of protecting and enhancing active Council involvement by committed African states.

The quality of Ukraine’s Council participation also grew steadily over their two-year term.   At first, it seemed as though Ukraine’s election was largely a political response to Russia-sponsored military activity first in Crimea and then in Donbas and other areas of Eastern Ukraine.   And Ukraine rarely refrained from referencing “Russian aggression” and the human rights violations that have been (slowly) documented in and around Donbas.  But over these two years, Ukraine’s mission and growing appreciation for, investment in and leadership on a wide range of global security concerns far beyond the Crimea has been noted and appreciated by many.

And then there is Uruguay, one of those Council members to entirely eschew the use of twitter, which has made it a bit more difficult for us to tell them how much we have appreciated their efforts.   Uruguay has been a champion both of Council transparency and of the need to link Council actions to the concerns, interests and skills of the wider UN membership.   Ambassador Rosselli and his colleagues have often requested the floor in “public” session to clarify the stake of non-Council members in Council decisions, to rebuke permanent members for their political maneuvering and manipulation of Council working methods, to compliment and expand on presentations by secretariat briefers, even to debunk the alleged value of the more “secret” informal discussions in the “consultations room” to which Council members often retire.

While not all of their statements hit the mark, this small state took on tough positions in a visible way that, for us, helped to clarify the role we believe elected members can and must play in making the Security Council more effective and accountable.   While there are risks associated with this, risks which some delegations would never be authorized from capital to take, it is important that at least some elected members are able and willing to remind their colleagues that the Council is part of a larger system of states and agencies with which it must work more collaboratively; that statements of national position which fail to reference the testimony of briefers or the concerns of colleagues are little more than time-consuming show and tell; that too many conflicts finding their way to the Council’s agenda (not to mention situations like Venezuela or Cameroon that have trouble getting any traction) are the result of a failure-to-prevent that often predicts long and arduous episodes of violence and recovery; that we must address the unwillingness of states (especially permanent members) to thoughtfully assess decisions that large states have largely pushed for, including confessions of regret and lessons learned when situations (as they have certainly done) go horribly wrong.

To paraphrase an old American Express commercial, “membership does indeed have its privileges.”  But being on the Council is highly demanding work, especially for the smaller states, and most of those “privileges” as we know accrue to the larger, permanent members.   Where windows of privilege are opened for the others, allowing them to shed some light on violence that could have been but was not prevented; peacekeeping that could have protected more civilians but was not properly equipped to do so; tensions that could have been lowered if not for careless and inflammatory rhetoric; women who are often “subject matter” for Council meetings but whose voices around the oval are still woefully under-represented; then we must all do what we can to ensure such opportunities are properly utilized.

We honor these six elected members, as we have honored many of their predecessors over the past dozen years, because of the windows of opportunity they have seized, not only to improve the effectiveness of the Security Council, but to bring the UN closer to honoring its peace and security promises in an ever-more complex global landscape.  It may well be, as some commentators have alleged, that large-scale Security Council reform is mostly a pipe dream.  But it is our contention, born of a long and consistent engagement with the Council, that thoughtful, connected, committed, opportunity-minded elected members can still do much to push all Council colleagues to revisit and better honor the confidence that the UN Charter has placed in their work.

Thanks to all six of you for this important reminder.

Rocked Around the Clock:  The UN Struggles to Talk its Way out of Global Crises, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Dec

It is often a devastating question to ask oneself, but it is sometimes important to ask it– In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?  Robert K. Greenleaf

I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt. It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console.  Elie Wiesel

Today is Human Rights Day and, sadly, it is not a day to break out the celebratory champagne.  Indeed, this was a week characterized by gross violence and shoddy decisionmaking both somewhat unforeseen and symptomatic of a breakdown in confidence in multilateral authority, including on the human rights on which so much of our hope for a future of dignity and peace depends.

First there was the news that at least 15 peacekeepers assigned to MONUSCO were ambushed and killed by armed insurgents in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These deaths simply add to 2017 peacekeeping casualty figures that are in themselves staggering – as noted by the UN Times, 33 peacekeepers killed in Mali, 23 in Central African Republic, 16 in Darfur, and an additional 10 in DRCongo.

Such deaths have dealt another blow to a system of peace operations that is increasingly expected to work miracles – protecting civilians and UN country teams, paving the way for post-conflict peacebuilding, training national police and security contingents, and much more – all in settings of active conflict combined with frequent equipment shortages and threatened budget cuts.  And after all these valiant efforts and ultimate sacrifices, and given verbal commitments in many of these countries to fair elections and viable pathways towards inclusive political dialogue, we find that in so many settings there is still too much hostile shooting and too little honest talking.

Another event rocking the UN this week was precipitated by the decision by the US president to formally endorse Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.   This decision, which had been a campaign promise by Mr. Trump, had been rumored around Washington for some time.  It was nevertheless deemed as reckless in most parts of world not named Tel Aviv and has subsequently spawned street violence in the Palestinian territories, careful denunciations from allies such as the European Union (which has barely had time to recover from Trump’s rejection of the Iran nuclear agreement), and an emergency Security Council meeting on Friday morning called by 8 of the current SC members, including exasperated allies the UK and (especially) France.

At this meeting, Council members and UN Special Coordinator Mladenov outlined some of the discouraging consequences from a unilateral action that, whether the US embassy eventually moves or not, has spawned violence and, as noted by France, provided yet another recruiting tool for violent extremists.  Mladenov went even further, noting that all efforts to curb incitement and other provocations that impede serious dialogue — including as highlighted by Sweden and others on the “final status” of Jerusalem — have been severely imperiled.   Indeed, Mladenov warned of the possibility of a “new intifada” wherein ordinary Israelis and Palestinians will once again bear the brunt of violence stemming from a failure to resolve Jerusalem’s status through a negotiated agreement.

The danger of what Egypt called “unjustified chaos” resulting from this US decision constitutes yet another test for a UN system that struggles with budgetary threats and numerous (uncontained) “fires” now raging from Myanmar and Yemen to South Sudan and Cameroon.   As most readers of these posts are aware, there certainly exist tools across the UN system to address violence, including those regularly advocated by  SG Guterres in the service of early warning and conflict prevention.  But the tool invoked most often in UN settings, certainly in the Security Council, is that of “inclusive political dialogue.”

This seems sensible enough:  Sit conflicted parties down for a timely chat.  Urge parties to bring their grievances, but also to come as they are able without preconditions or “end game” agendas.   Ensure that all who need to be around the negotiating table are duly and sincerely invited into the conference room.

It all sounds helpful and relatively straightforward. Indeed, we are helping to promote just this sort of engagement as a contribution to resolving the increasingly volatile political and security situation in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon.  But as we are also reminded often, inside and outside the Security Council chamber, “dialogue” is a complex matter requiring skills sufficient to the intricacies of the peoples and parties invited to participate.  And in this respect, we don’t always have what we need.

This week, before heading down to Peru for a Women, Peace and Security event hosted by UNLiREC,  I was privileged to engage some law students at the University of Alberta, Canada who were making final presentations in a fascinating course entitled “Truth, Falsehood, Deception and Justice.”  Among the more interesting points (for me) to emerge from one 3 hour engagement was the notion of “truth fatigue,” the idea that “opinions” of people don’t often result in tangible actions in the world, the alleged virtue of maintaining “manners” in public speech, and the growing disconnect between politics and pedagogy.

There is no space here to do a thorough debrief on these and related insights from this experience, but a couple of their complex interactions with “dialogue” might be relevant to UN processes, processes which are too often given over to discursive caution beyond what is needed to keep the diplomatic winds blowing, or to the incessant branding of policies clearly in need of much greater examination.

For one thing, this was a group that is much more comfortable than I am with the idea that politics is largely void of any pedagogical obligation; that is, of a responsibility to use language in a way that clarifies context and responsibility, which is more than a tool to firm up political support and persuade others to join the cause.  These students have grown up in a “brand saturated” environment that is, by their own often resigned admission, seductive more than trustworthy, where what is “true” is largely a function of what you can convince others is true. People beholding such “dialogue” tend not to learn much apart from the positions held by the speakers.

The second core takeaway has to do with what John Kang referred to as the “case for insincerity.”  This “case” was introduced in the seminar room as a choice between hiding behind the “mask” of polite speech and the sharing of controversial, even toxic political and/or social preferences.   The (unspoken) assumption here is that in the absence of manners, what is likely to be “let out” will be venomous to ourselves and others, that politeness is the vehicle of preference for our attempts to keep our dysfunctions and discrimination carefully bottled up and out of sight.  This, of course, flies in the face of much psychology which affirms that a good portion of what we now work so hard to hide from others, much of what we stuff behind the masks of our own creation, is actually good for us, and most often for others as well.

These tendencies – “polite” speech that stretches diplomatic courtesy beyond its proper functions and which attempts to “sell” policy more than explain its origins and consequences – certainly have implications for UN practice, implications which we will continue to explore in the months to come.

During Friday’s session on Jerusalem, France bluntly questioned the degree to which the policy the US is attempting to “sell” on Jerusalem is in accordance with international law and reminded all members that  “there is no shortcut” to peace.“ The same can be said for the dialogue on which peace is dependent.  We still have so much to learn about how to engage, how to include, how to build trust with others, how to confess and then move beyond our own respective needs and contexts.  In both personal and political realms we need to recover and enhance skills for dialogue that can create meaningful and actionable collaborations rather than pushing parties further into their respective corners or creating incentives to hide deeper behind our many masks.

Our world is in crisis in part because our language is in crisis and in part because our views of ourselves have given over to an un-empirical pessimism.  If dialogue is to be our pathway out of crisis, we need to urgently revisit its manifold linguistic and personal requirements.

Treasure Hunt: An Advent Reflection on Pathways and Resources, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Dec

Advent Image

For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last. Frederick Buechner

Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other- things that are of no real consequence- the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer

To be human is nothing less than to be caught in the great congested pilgrimage of existence and to join ourselves freely to it in the face of the evidence of its never-ending troubles.  Eugene Kennedy

For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.   Matthew 6:21

I’m not usually asked to write things by others – more likely asked NOT to write things, actually.   But there was one recent exception – a valued colleague asked if I would comment on an important, recent NGO discussion on the “perils and challenges of a shrinking UN budget.”    Since it is also time for my annual Advent letter, I will attempt to conflate the two responsibilities.  (You might want to consider a stronger cup of coffee before proceeding further.)

At the UN, much of the constriction just alluded to is based on threats from the current US administration and some other donor governments, officials seeking a leaner system that can do “more with less.”  As we know, this often translates into “doing less with less,” a problem for an institution that is being pulled in a variety of challenging policy directions and is having more and more difficulty taking care of basic expectations to staff and constituents on top of evolving concerns related to issues as diverse as autonomous weapons, forced migration, mass climate incidents, ethnic and disability-based discrimination, species extinction and pandemic threats.  Our global community – even those parts that don’t much trust us here in New York – simply has no viable recommendation to offer for how we might, together, ever make it “home” to a world of peace and well-being without the UN’s occasionally clumsy – and now also funding-challenged — efforts to clear away some of the debris that inhibits our collective progress.

There are challenges as well for those of us who labor in UN confines, and not only for the institution itself.  Some of those have clearly “seasonal” references.

My profound admiration for the late Dr. Bonhoeffer notwithstanding, my own take on this season of Advent is less about “killing time” in a confined space waiting for some divine (or human) power to turn the lock, and more about discerning what we plan to do – and with whom we plan to do it – in order to bring this current, difficult and confining sojourn finally to an end.

Like many people with far better excuses for this neglect than I have, I don’t spend enough time in reflection or –if you prefer –prayer, in Advent or any other season.  I don’t spend enough time simply dwelling with myself – the good and uglier aspects of that – figuring out both where I want to go but, more importantly, where I want to invest my treasure and with what values?  Moreover, who do I wish to stand alongside, and for which causes and objectives shall we together stand?  How can we best point out the many structural and, at times, self-imposed obstacles that litter our path home without sounding shrill, or mean, or even self-righteous?

Beyond such self-analysis, the reflection time of Advent allows me to take at least partial stock of all the people in my life who matter, some of whom are facing their own trials of health or meaning,  others of whom now finding themselves killing time in mostly hopeless spaces with no obvious exit.  When I reflect — when I pray — I remember all the people I am usually too “preoccupied” to think about in the ways that they deserve. And in my best moments, I recall that capacity to care about people in practical ways commensurate with the genuine value they can and do add to my life (and my world).

Advent for me represents a time of longing, of the hope that the heavens will open revealing the way out of the tiny rooms in which we have, sometimes willfully, restricted ourselves.   But it is also a time for planning what we will do once our full release is secured, and with whom we will walk ahead on a path towards greater inclusiveness and equity.

For many of us, this planning and walking clearly has something to do with money.  In an expensive and economically skewed city such as New York, those of us who work in this UN vineyard have to pay attention more than we wish to the financial implications of our respective missions.   It is difficult at times to live with simplicity and generosity beneath a bevy of shining towers saturated with moneyed interests but with little or no concern for what we are attempting to accomplish with and for each other in the realm of global policy.  It is even more difficult to share this space in the way we should with the many stakeholders worldwide who can effectively “check” our elite realities but can’t foot most or all of the bills associated with their presence here.

The UN, as already noted, has many of its own fiscal laments, sometimes substituting slogans and scheming for thoughtful reflection on what are often utterly daunting program and funding tasks.   One of those slogans relates to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) tag line of “leaving no-one behind.”  I have written previously about this once game-changing but now tired and overused formula that now represents an aspiration likely to exhaust our collective energy, probably also our powers of attention, certainly our currently available (and perhaps even projected) resources.

UN budget challenges, including the preference by some states for greater austerity and “earmarked funding,” have indeed been complicated by the ambition of the SDGs but also by the global events that make fulfilling these goals so essential to our very survival.   More and more attention is now being paid to addressing the massive price tag associated with our sustainable development promises, including through commitments to end state corruption, solidify domestic revenue streams, and integrate the so-called “private sector” in what must become a fully transparent and rights-based manner.  Military spending, much to our chagrin, remains an obvious and largely “off limits” source of potential SDG revenue.

Along with SDG-related imperatives, there are now frequent, UN-sponsored “pledging conferences” focused on forcibly displaced persons facing deprivation and trauma, the victims of discrimination and armed violence that we have done less-than-enough to prevent, the stranded and water-logged residents of coastal areas battered by storms made worse through our collective climate negligence.  A shockingly high percentage of funds pledged for disaster and humanitarian relief are actually never honored while the humanitarian and environmental crises-of-our-making seem continually to evolve.

It would seem appropriate at this point to apply some iteration of the biblical reminder regarding the links between our treasure and our heart to UN policy contexts.  To paraphrase:  where our treasure is withheld or withdrawn, where it is beholden to institutional politics more than to people, thus might well our hearts be hardened.

And there are NGO dimensions associated with current budgetary challenges.  Every time I walk into the UN, a place where I spend an average of 9 hours each day, I cost the UN money.  The security officers whom I often greatly admire, who are the “face” of UN hospitality, and who are often not treated with sufficient respect by diplomats or NGOs, are paid to make sure that people like me and my interns/fellows don’t trespass on diplomatic prerogatives, don’t get off the elevators on the wrong floor or sneak into closed meetings.  Moreover, we don’t pay for the earplugs we use in UN conference rooms; we don’t pay for the electricity or the wireless that allows us to communicate UN deliberations to the outside world; we don’t pay for any of the access passes I and my colleagues liberally bestow upon others; we don’t pay for the literature we collect and then stack up throughout our office.

And so part of the discussion about UN budgets must focus on the benefits (sometimes begrudgingly) enjoyed by offices like my own but, even more, about the financial limitations that even now impact the ability of others to sit where I sit – those many “outlandish creatures” worldwide who have every reason to insist on their place in this policy space, on their ability to “add value” in ways that I can only pray we do as well.  In a time of abundant and mean-spirited austerity threats, including towards the UN, there is little reason to believe that important and hopeful voices will find their way out of the spaces where they have for too long been confined and into UN conference rooms where “what they know” can and must inform “what we do.”   Little reason, that is, unless we commit more of our treasure to making that happen, to insist that our (still-intact if shrinking) institutional privileges are available for them as well.

For unless we all make more time for reflection on both our commitments and our own privilege, unless we are fully prepared to use whatever treasure is at our disposal to reach as far as we can to connect with those in need of both justice and a voice – and then stretch a bit further still – we are more likely to remain as “toothless plaintiffs” towards a system already well into its embrace of what Global Policy Forum calls “selective multilateralism.”  Our road home to a place of inclusion and equity is littered with debris that we have often scattered ourselves – our self-preoccupations and excessive material interests, our numerous distractions and competitive suspicions.  Ours is indeed a “congested pilgrimage,” albeit one we maintain (at least for now) the power to de-clutter.

Some of this business about sustaining multilateral policy space is about funding, specifically about a fair, predictable, transparent and depoliticized balancing of resources and expectations. And some is about reminding governments and other international stakeholders that their often-furtive and restrained financial commitments in the face of global crises tell us much about the size and health of their collective heart. But some of it is about us as NGOs as well:  our willingness to use opportunities — including the reflection space of Advent — to interrogate the promises we keep, the value we contribute, the conflict we prevent, the voices we enable—commitments that we must “own” each and every day regardless of the current health of our organizational balance sheets.

As we lobby for a sane, sufficient and promise-oriented allocation of resources based on something akin to what NGOs often refer to as “full funding” of the UN, we would also do well to ensure that our own treasure is fully engaged — that the self-reflection encouraged in this season begets some newly-minted, heart-felt and tangible commitments to inclusive access and a sustainable peace for more of the world’s people.