Archive | 2:56 pm

Inquiring Minds:  Questions at the Heart of the UN’s 2018 Priorities, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jan

Questions

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’  Martin Luther King, Jr.

Questions are the breath of life for a conversation. James Nathan Miller

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.  Albert Einstein

It’s another frigid Sunday at the UN, a day when (typically) the trains are not running close to properly and the most important news items of the day included a (thankfully) false missile warning for Hawaii, the dangers to youth from swallowing pods of detergent and the possibility that one of those leftover pods might be needed to “wash out” the insensitive mouth of the US president.

At the UN, it was a slow but important week – slow because of most of the missions are still catching up from the burdensome workloads of late 2017, but important because this is the time when senior UN officials reveal their plans and priorities for the year.   SG Guterres will take the floor on Tuesday to lay out the 2018 priorities of the Secretariat, though he provided an important preview this past week during the launch of his Making Migration Work for All report.  During this well-attended session, Guterres rightly called for “canons of international cooperation” that can increase opportunities for legal migration and eliminate unrealistic restrictions.  Migration is “inevitable,” the SG noted, and if something is inevitable it makes sense to attempt to “properly manage it;” this as part of a call for all delegations to negotiate “constructively” a Global Compact on Migration before the end of this year.

On Friday, the President of the General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, took his turn to outline priorities for 2018 within the UN’s most democratic chamber, underscoring the SG’s emphasis on protecting rights and maximizing benefits of migrants, those who migrate voluntarily and those many migrants pushed out of their homes by drought and other climate impacts, discrimination and human rights abuses, and of course armed conflict.

The PGA had other things on his mind as well that his office will hope to impact before turning over the gavel in September 2018:   He is seeking to focus attention on Sustainable Development Goal 6, overcoming the “indignities” that so often accompany a lack of access to safe drinking water.  He is seeking to broaden stakeholder involvement in 2030 Development Agenda implementation.  He is seeking ways for the UN to “keep up with a changing world,” including through stronger linkages between the UN’s human rights and development communities.  He is seeking to continue the process of General Assembly reforms, including institutionalizing participation by indigenous communities and raising levels of transparency regarding the process for choosing his successor.  He made a special appeal for a dramatic increase in delegate attention to the health of our oceans, the challenges of global terrorism and the threat of new pandemics.

And he seeks to elevate the SG’s “sustaining peace” initiative, including pathways to greater participation in peacebuilding by women and youth.   Lajčák affirmed, as he has done in the past, the value of a prevention-oriented peace agenda, urging the UN to act sooner on conflict threats while there is still a “peace to keep.”  Towards the end of his remarks, he also acknowledged (as well he should) threats to our multilateral system that risk “overburdening” the UN system, “drowning out” the voices of smaller states, and undermining progress towards previously agreed peace and development goals. To address challenges such as these, he urged delegations to “talk more and learn more.”

And perhaps even to ask better questions.

Despite his expressed desire to focus on the quality of goals, not their quantity, Lajčák understands that the clock is ticking, both for our planet and, more locally, for his tenure as PGA.  We are already now 1/3 of the way through that tenure, one which has successfully promoted the priorities of his predecessor, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, while seeking to inject some new urgency into a building that sometimes seems content with development and security measures that (while often impressive in their own right) offer insufficient relief for a world staring at a future that could well be characterized by wider social unrest, more missile alerts (false and otherwise), accelerated polar melting, growing insurgencies, an increasingly degraded biodiversity, and perhaps even greater erosion in the confidence that the global public places in governments and multilateral institutions.

PGA Lajčák seems to grasp this multi-faceted urgency.  He knows that the office he now holds has a limited tenure and many burdens, some related to internal UN drama and others related to the positioning of the UN’s considerable successes as a trustworthy antidote to the existential threats which daily assault the PGA and his staff.   Even in his sometimes understated way, Lajčák seemed proficient at communicating the UN’s core responsibilities in this sometimes treacherous period.  Was it enough on Friday?

We weren’t able to tell, frankly, because as quickly as it began the session was over.  By my calculation, delegations were in their seats perhaps 30 minutes for a session which had been allotted three hours.  There were (thankfully) no pre-prepared statements from delegations, no attempts to “comment” on what they heard before they heard it.  But neither were there any questions from the floor: Not a single one.

We had plenty of questions, though protocol prohibits us from asking them in these sessions.  We wanted to probe further the PGAs assertion about “quality commitments,” including how he will use the final 8 months of his tenure to press delegations to “talk more and learn more” about the global challenges for which they have tacitly accepted remedial responsibility?  We wanted to know more about how a “voluntary” compact on migration can successfully overcome nationalist resistances?  We wanted to know how a UN system can effectively prevent conflict when peace and security are often addressed in such a politicized fashion and sovereignty reigns supreme until the fires of internal conflict have burned too many innocents?   We wanted to know how a more “transparent” selection process for the next PGA would actually impact the means by which the new president would eventually be selected?   We wanted to know how the office of the PGA can be better fortified to provide system-wide leadership to address a bursting roster of global expectations?

We had questions for virtually every phrase in the PGA’s presentation, questions that sought clarification and offered opportunities for the PGA to share more of his personal concerns and commitments, to lift a portion of the policy veil for a community that recognizes the value of strong leadership from the PGA despite the impediments from an often-underfunded, one-year tenure.  But from the heads of delegations, there was only a bit of mild applause and a reach for coats and brief cases.  Questions, if at all, were left for another time.

For us, this event was a reminder that the key to “learning more” is not primarily through statements and presentations but through questions – not primarily the kind that seek to “catch” people in their errors and hypocrisies — though there is certainly a place for those — but the kind that illuminates personal and institutional commitments, and that binds questions and answers in a common inquiry to find viable solutions to the problems that plague us.   This is not about letting others (or ourselves) “off the hook,” but acknowledging that, in some real sense, we are all now dangling from the same one.

We are collectively not in that place of recognition.  For too many of us, questions are a threat rather than a blessing, a challenge to our branded narratives rather than an ocassion to examine the truths we hold, and sometimes hold in common.  More and more, we don’t ask good questions, in part because we haven’t practiced asking them in the first place.  And even when we have practiced, we don’t ask good questions because we don’t want to risk having to deal with the answers we receive.  We don’t question because we recognize the degree to which, in our sometimes aloof and self-referential policy world, questions are occasions much more for defensiveness than for exploration. We don’t ask questions at times because we don’t care enough to know and at times because we don’t want to appear in a “public” setting not to already know what a question might imply that we don’t.

But then there are those of us yearning to hear good questions, ones which are neither self-referential nor blatantly accusative but attentive invitations to explore, to collaborate, to support, to learn.  Many of us recognize the potential benefits of such questions, but we hear them too seldom and offer them too sparingly.   Thus, GAPW has made a commitment this year to practice asking better questions — more open-ended, utilizing kinder language, and based on higher levels of attentiveness to process and context.  Our hope is that such questions – from us and from others– can lead to better prospects for community learning, more honest disclosures, and even a lowering of our collective emotional guard.  Such outcomes might even pave the way for global constituents to more fully endorse UN proposals to address the many challenges that keep too many people around the world awake, night after night.