Archive | February, 2018

Dodging a Bullet:  The Security Council Saves Itself from Itself, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Feb

Lincoln on Bullets

We aren’t minded or able to do anything. But where would you like us to send the flowers? Nick Paton Walsh (about Syria)

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month. Theodore Roosevelt

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. Norman Vincent Peale

It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world. Nellie Bly

Most readers of this post are familiar with the notion of “being in trouble” – more often than we wish to admit at our own hands – and of getting out of trouble, often through some stroke of luck or intervention that  seems to come out of nowhere.  We all – me certainly included – are constantly being saved from ourselves by friends and loved ones, even by people who we know less well but who have decided, often based on some legitimate critique, that they have simply had enough of our nonsense.

In the nomenclature of the culture of which I am part, some use the term “dodge a bullet” to describe these moments when the world’s disapproval manages merely to fire warning shots above our mostly distracted heads.  None of us are actually nimble enough to get out of the way of a bullet fired in our precise direction as the horrific school shootings in Florida and too many other places testify.  The metaphor does however imply an awareness of trouble that can lead to different outcomes; perhaps to stay out of the line of fire altogether, or perhaps better, to make the choice to risk getting in the kind of trouble that a number of Stoneman Douglas students have seemingly embraced, trouble in the form of critique that can point the way towards a kinder, saner, less agitated people as well as help to increase the effectiveness of the institutions that are pledged to serve them.

Despite the often-discouraging feeds from our news sources, we have still managed – for now — to escape much of the trouble we might otherwise have found, glancing blows that haven’t inflicted fatal wounds but which can encourage us to step away from the line of fire and commit to a more hopeful course.  The remarkable energy put into the world by the surviving Stoneman Douglas students, and the responses to their pleas to reassess “the invitation to violence” represented by gun proliferation directed towards rightfully embarrassed politicians and corporate leaders, creates a bit of an opening  such that we in the US might start to pull back from a brink of division, distrust and enmity that have for some time threatened to undermine what remains of the best of our values.  There is a glimmer of hope now for a more stable and nuanced approach to weapons and an effort to minimize the suspicion (some of which is not at all irrational) that lies behind their now-obsessive purchase and use.

And, as you might expect, the UN is hardly immune to this need to create new openings for change.  This week, as the latest iteration of Syria horrors hit home, the Security Council tried again to craft a resolution that would both pass muster with delegations and offer hope to residents of Eastern Ghouta and other parts of Syria who have faced unimaginable horror for far too long.

Under the able leadership of Sweden and Kuwait (current Council president), language was put forth in a draft resolution to authorize a 30 day cessation of hostilities that would allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations for persons in besieged areas throughout Syria.  The draft also encouraged de-mining across the country –an essential condition for the safe return of displaced persons to their homes — and it reiterates its demand that all sieges be lifted and all medical facilities be “demilitarized.”

The draft also retained the now-familiar (and still-controversial) caveat that cessation of hostilities does not apply to “military operations” against ISIL and other terror groups “as designated by the Security Council.”  Such caveats have been troublesome in the past as justifications for bombs directed at erstwhile terror groups that may or may not kill terrorists, but which have surely killed and maimed thousands of civilians and destroyed their infrastructure.

We were anticipating action on this draft as early as Thursday, but the delays were both numerous and troubling given that the bombing of E. Ghouta seemed to be intensifying as a resolution authorizing a cessation drew near.   Such delays represented yet another layer of challenge to the considerable diplomatic skills of the sponsors of the draft resolution, Sweden and Kuwait.   We had assumed that the “hold up” was due to an insistence (by Russia most likely) that areas of Syria beyond Ghouta be covered under the resolution’s provisions, and perhaps even reflected some suspicion that humanitarian access would also open pathways for investigations of violations of international law, violations which are both unimaginable and, in our world at this time, not at all confined to Syria.

Finally on Saturday afternoon after another series of false starts, resolution 2401 was adopted.   Sighs of relief were evident, both from the delegations who put in many hours to achieve this agreement and from those who looked on from the Council chamber or shared the experience via twitter (@globalactionpw) or UNTV.   All seemed to understand the implications of another diplomatic failure on Syria.  All felt the pressure to finally, belatedly respond to the misery of Syrians and give often-skeptical observers some reason to believe that the Security Council remains relevant to the prevention of 21st century conflict.  All recognized the bullet that was dodged in this chamber – preserving some modicum of credibility for the UN’s security functions and raising the prospect that desperate persons will finally have some hope of relief.

But the bombs are still falling in E. Ghouta and elsewhere as of this morning, and France has already gone on twitter today to remind us that “full mobilization to implement the resolution” is urgent and essential.   Such implementation is also, as Ethiopia commented on Saturday, a considerable challenge given the “increasingly complex security contexts” that Syria now represents.   And so beyond the categorical defense of its position offered yesterday by Russia and the excessively-moralistic tones uttered in response by the US and UK representatives, the urgent obligation (as noted by the Netherlands and others) is to immediate “action on the ground.”  We will be judged by future generations, France shared in the Council Chamber, and we must fully seize the fragile “glimmer of hope” which this resolution represents.

Indeed, this “glimmer” must somehow guide us on a new and expanded path, offering hope to besieged Syrians but also to people in Yemen (the subject of Council deliberations on Monday), Libya and elsewhere looking to this chamber to demonstrate that resolution 2401 is no outlier, that a cessation of hostilities can become the norm, that we can do much more in every setting wracked by mass conflict than just playing at geo-politics or “sending flowers” to the besieged.

We are living in times where many have concluded that the ”law of the jungle” is the only viable alternative to the failing laws of nations and the international community, that self-protection is the only protection that one can reasonably rely upon, that elections and political dialogue are less effective than weaponry.  In such a world, as the remarkable Nellie Bly noted long ago, sympathy and kindness are likely to be in precious short supply or, at the very most, confined to our increasingly shrinking circles of trust.

These circles cannot be allowed to shrink further, nor thicken in their outer perimeters.  We must urgently, as Sweden’s Ambassador Skoog intimated on several occasions this past week, reimagine our common humanity.  As hard as it is – as hard as we have made it on ourselves – we must also commit fully to implementing our resolutions, to practicing our values, and to seizing every “glimmer” to press our adversaries and ourselves to become the people that can rise above the current constellation of (sometimes self-inflicted) distressing obstacles to peace and tranquility.

If not, the next bullet speeding in our general direction is one we might not be fortunate enough to dodge.

Office Depot:  Sorting Lives and Impacts in Challenging Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Feb


The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone. Harriet Beecher Stowe

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. Albert Einstein

Time is a circus, always packing up and moving away. Ben Hecht

It’s in the act of having to do things that you don’t want to that you learn something about moving past the self. bell hooks

Like so many Sundays before this one, I made the early journey from apartment to office to write, of course, but also to sort the essential and discard the non-essential fruits of what has been, with the support of many who will read this piece, a very long, multi-phased and hopefully useful program of work.

It is time for us to move our office of longstanding, to close a chapter (though not our project) that has been filled with doing and undoing, of caring too much and too little, of an only incomplete ability to practice in our inner spaces the values we advocate externally for others, of opportunities for service missed because, as hard as we might have tried, we just couldn’t move far enough “past the self.”

We, of course, are the lucky ones, with lives more stable and abundant than most.  Unlike many whose living spaces are threatened routinely — especially the migrants and refugees who are the subject of new and hopeful Compacts crafted by some of our finest UN diplomats — we have places to go, places that are safer, warmer and more predictable than is the case for many — if not most — of our erstwhile “constituents.”

These places are also more likely to be full of “stuff.”  Like many people in this housing and space-starved city, moving is more complicated than simply tossing all of your worldly belongings in boxes to be hauled to the next destination by “professionals.”  There is simply too much “stuff” clogging up our life spaces for most of us to bear, let alone to properly house.  We at GAPW have simply saved too much, perhaps assuming a level of importance for the contents of our files and closets that belies any and all evidence and that has inadvertently prevented us from adopting a careful and timely triage. The sins of this failure are now being visited on back and arm muscles as we attempt to carry hundreds of pounds of books and papers to their new locations through the winter chill and then on to subways that don’t know the definition of timely.

The GAPW office will soon relocate to my home, at least for now. This requires a second sorting so that room can be made to accommodate the history of our collective engagement over almost 20 years, work that was at times visionary and at times impertinent; at times hospitable and at times hard-hearted; at times hyper-active and at other times timid about embracing the larger tasks that still remain undone.

And there remain tasks undone indeed, especially evident from this space. In one week of UN discussions, we have been reminded of the massive funds for sustainable development still to be raised; the “hard sell” (for some states) implementation of voluntary compacts on migration and refugees; the oppressive violence (and apparent use of forbidden weapons) in Syria that still impede stable cease fire arrangements and life-saving humanitarian access; the weapons-grade fissile materials that remain unregulated; the civilian infrastructure that is still not sufficiently protected from terror threats; the peacekeepers sent ever-more-frequently into conflict zones which challenge their ability to protect themselves, let alone the civilians they are mandated to protect.

We have collectively done much, less than our opportunities and access to make change might perhaps suggest, but more than we are generally given credit for.  But either way, the work undone remains vast.  Our plates remain full long past the point that our heads and hearts have begun to feel stuffed.

So what does all of this have to do with losing a small office and the project partners who we have enjoyed for many years?  For us, a couple of lessons, ones that might be valuable to you as well.

First, the “sorting” that is now taking place in my office under considerable duress should have been a more constant feature of our work.  We need more regular reminders of where we’ve come from and where we haven’t; what has worked and what hasn’t; how we have enabled good work by others and, at times, sabotaged our own.  There are important, life and organization-changing lessons in those file drawers and book shelves that we would do well to consult more often.

Second, we need to be mindful routinely of just how much we accumulate.  Every Sunday morning on the way to this office, I connect to an “E” train that often has dozens of homeless sleeping on what are warm but surely uncomfortable benches.  Some of these people have brought along – often in shopping carts procured from local merchants – their entire lot of worldly possessions.  By comparison, I of the modest salary and even more modest surroundings have enough clutter in my life to easily fill an entire subway car.  This is shameful, really, a testament to hedging my material bets as in “I might just need this someday,” hoarding more than I think and sharing less than I imagine.

Third and last has to do with what an office for a small cohort of non-profit projects is for.  Why have we collectively sunk so many resources for so many years into a space we now can’t keep?  There are many reasons, of course, one having to do with access to diplomats and UN agencies; another related to the “brand” of a UN Plaza address; one having to do with the five minute walk being all that is required to go back and fetch something we’ve forgotten to bring to a General Assembly meeting; another related to the fact that, at the end of the day, we managed to secure cost-effective space in a ridiculously pricey neighborhood.

But I think that, for Global Action at least, the greatest benefit of this space relates to what has been perhaps our singular contribution to UN practice; the “hospitality” that we have been humbled to offer people and projects from around the world, including those seeking a voice in global policy that they probably should have found long ago.  To be able to offer a place to sit and confer, to share coffee and dream of ways to promote a more just social order, to find resources and access passes for people of diverse backgrounds who feel “cut out” of discussions that are directly relevant to their communities, this is the most important part of our practice and the part we are most grieved to lose.

In the moral teachings of the church in which I was raised and later seminary educated, a close connection is maintained between the “things we have done” and the “things we have left undone.”  The implication here, rightly I have come to believe, is that “things undone” constitute our greatest moral failing, the things we refuse to see or be moved by, the questions we ignore because of their implications for our prior commitments, the doors we walk through and fail to hold open for others.

We will soon have to adjust to life without an office, and this transition will not be an easy one, neither for us nor those who have found a bit of solace and hope in our space. There have been tears over this and there will likely be more to come. But the lives we have long-ago pledged to impact, lives with too many guns and too few hugs, with too many challenges and too few options, these lives will keep us engaged.  We’ve had a good run in this “depot” and could not be more grateful for your friendship and support over many years.  But the longer run remains unfinished; we must get packed and then get moving again, find our better balance, redouble efforts towards the “things largely undone” of equity, security and inclusiveness.

Einstein’s bicycle still beckons.

An emotional journey through a lifetime of “popular music,” by Bob Zuber

14 Feb


A bit over a year ago, while listening to the radio in my office, I heard a song that immediately evoked a flood of emotions in me, emotions that were neither unfamiliar nor particularly limited to that one song.  But it got me to thinking – as a devotee of what is known as “pop music” – about the many songs over many years that made me sing and, more importantly, kept me sane.   There were times in my life – too many probably – when a pop music station and its sometimes bouncy, sometimes mournful, sometimes profound, sometimes light tunes and lyrics that was all that stood between me and prolonged bouts of despair: getting through childhood, profound relationship disappointments, medical issues and, most often, coping with the human condition and the propensity of so many of us for self- and other-destructive behavior.

Through lean and lonely times, through many personal passions and professional investments that often amounted to little in the end, through threats to life and integrity – some self-imposed —  the following list of tunes had as much to contribute to my well-being and determination to persevere than any academic degree or intimate investment.   With all due admiration for the many people with whom I have shared – and continue to share – an emotional bond, these songs allowed (mostly healthy) emotions to flow that would have likely stayed dammed up if left to their own devices.

I’ve been working on this for months.  Valentine’s Day seems like a good time to launch.

In preparing this “100 list,” there were a few ground rules that I followed:

  • Over many weeks, I listened to hundreds of pop songs on radio stations and You Tube which were both important reminders of beloved music and suggestive of other songs that I had “forgotten about” for a variety of reasons, including at times because of the conflicted memories that were evoked. This forgetting was particularly evident with regard to artists who were relative “flashes in the pan,” putting out one or two songs that resonated, but without a consistent body of work.  Indeed a couple of those “one hit wonders” made my final list.
  • I gathered together an initial list of about 280 songs, all of which had cause to make my final grouping, and then started to whittle them down. This was enormously difficult, at times frustrating. While the final list covers my entire sentient life span, songs are bunched during the eras where the need (even more than the desire) for them was greatest – in childhood, after a major breakup, before and after heart surgery, at the closing of an inspirational project, a familiar office, my beloved Harlem parish church.
  • I made a tactical decision to include no more than 2 songs from any one artist. This was necessary to help me finally consolidate the list, but also raised problems.   What, for instance, do you do about the Beatles?  While there is probably no Beatles song that would make my emotional top 20, it would be possible to fill virtually half the “100” list by pilfering songs from Revolver or the White Album.  Other artists – Chicago, Michael Jackson, Genesis, Pink, Carole King just to name a few – created for me their own numerical challenges.
  • The other “rule” was that I would focus on songs that had demonstrable public access and popularity. In other words, there were no “meaningful” tunes pulled from the last soundtrack of relatively obscure albums.  In this current age of You Tube and ITunes, it is more possible than ever to create highly “personal” lists of music which one can then self-reference, over and over.   I wanted to be sure that all of these “100” songs, if at all possible, were more likely than not to have affected a good number of other people as well, that the emotional impact of these tunes is in some sense a shared venture.
  • There is absolutely no implication here regarding quality. This is not a “critics” list, but a list of the songs that acted for me as a kind of “emotional stint,” keeping the life blood flowing at times when the arteries feeding that life were unusually clogged.   If I spent more time with the list it would surely modify in some aspects, perhaps because I would “rediscover” more one-hit wonders or perhaps because I would change my mind (for the hundredth time) regarding which 12 songs were “last in” and which songs were “last out.”  As noted, I was struggling over a list much larger than “100,” a list that, in full, would have perhaps provided a better overview of my often-complex and occasionally dysfunctional emotional web, probably along the lines of “more information than you would ever need.”   But choices had to be made, and this list represents a reasonable, non-hierarchical reflection of my interaction with a life of “popular” tunes.

I’m sharing this now rather than working on it further (which might have included hyperlinking all the songs or even trying to “order” them by their importance) because I mostly just want to commend this as an activity, surely for anyone over 40 with a long relationship with the pop music world.  The truth about us, even those who have achieved fame and fortune, even those who have learned extraordinary coping mechanisms to adjust to life’s challenges, is that we will forever be that person who uses the music of the times – the music of your times – to maintain their bearings in the world.

There is much gratitude for me to pass around over the course of my life to people who brought out things in me I never could have brought out in myself, those who are the real heroes of my own modest contributions.  In some significant way, these songs are also heroic as they “hit a nerve” at times in my life when I could not see clear to hit my own.   Thanks to all of you and to these artists as we celebrate – or perhaps just cope with — yet another Valentine’s Day.

100 Songs for the (my) Ages

A Thousand Years, Christina Perri

Abraham, Martin and John, Dion

Africa, Toto

Against All Odds, Phil Collins

Alejandro, Lady Gaga

Along Comes Mary, the Association

Always a Woman, Billy Joel

America, Simon and Garfunkle

Angie, Rolling Stones

Aud Lang Syne, Dan Fogelberg

Beautiful Day, U2

Behind Blue Eyes, The Who

Bette Davis Eyes, Kim Carnes

Black Water, Doobie Brothers

Breakaway, Kelly Clarkson

Candle in the Wind, Elton John

Carry On, Crosby Stills Nash

Cat’s in the Cradle, Harry Chapin

Daydream Believer, Monkeys

Drops of Jupiter, Train

Easy to be Hard, Three Dog Night

Fire to the Rain, Adele

First Cut is the Deepest, Rod Stewart

Fool on the Hill, Beatles

Forever Young, Rod Stewart

Get Together, Youngbloods

Give Me a Reason, Pink

Giving You the Best That I Got, Anita Baker

Good Vibrations, Beach Boys

Hard to Say I’m Sorry, Chicago

He Ain’t Heavy, Hollies

Hello, Lionel Richie

Here Comes the Sun, Beatles

Here He goes Again, Dolly Parton

Human Nature, Michael Jackson

I Can’t Stop Loving You, Ray Charles

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, U2

I Will Always Love You, Whitney Houston

I’m Going Home, Daughtry

I’m into Something Good, Herman’s Hermits

In the Ghetto, Elvis Presley

In Your Eyes, Peter Gabriel

Isn’t She Lovely? Stevie Wonder

It Ain’t Me Babe, Bob Dylan

It’s Too Late, Carole King

Jump, Van Halen

Just Breathe – Anna Nalick

Killing Me Softly, Roberta Flack

Landslide, Stevie Nix

Let’s Hear it for the Boy, Deniece Williams

Lion Sleeps Tonight, Tokens

Live to Tell, Madonna

Living in the Past, Jethro Tull

Lola, The Kinks

Love Me Two Times, Doors

MacArthur Park, Richard Harris

Maneater, Hall & Oates

Midnight Train to Georgia, Gladys Knight & the Pips

Missing You, John Waite

Oh Very Young, Cat Stevens

Old Man, Neil Young

Operator, Jim Croce

Paradise, Cold Play

Payphone, Maroon 5

PYT, Michael Jackson

Rich Girl, Hall & Oates

Ruby, Kenny Rodgers

Sailing, Christopher Cross

Save the Best for Last, Vanesa Williams

Schools Out, Alice Cooper

Send in the Clowns, Judy Collins

Sherrie, Steve Perry

So Far Away, Carole King

Some Nights, Fun

Somebody that I Used to Know, Gotye

Something in the Way She Moves, James Taylor

Stay, Rhianna

Straight Up, Paula Abdul

That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be, Carly Simon

The Boxer, Simon and Garfunkle

These Dreams, Heart

Throwing it all Away, Genesis

Time after Time, Cyndi Lauper

Titanium, Sia and David Guetta

Touch Me in the Morning, Diana Ross

Trouble, Taylor Swift

Vincent, Don MacLean

Walk of Life, Dire Straights

Walking in Memphis, Marc Cohn

Want it that Way, Backstreet Boys

We Don’t Need Another Hero, Tina Turner

We’ve Only Just Begun, Carpenters

What a Feeling, Irene Cara

What a Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong

What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye

White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane

Wichita Lineman, Glenn Campbell

Wide Awake, Katy Perry

Words of Love, Mamas and Papas

You’re the Inspiration, Chicago

Treasure Chest: UN Members Raise the Lid on Council Methods, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Feb

An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.  Mahatma Gandhi

If you’re making a tremendous amount of mistakes, all you’re doing is deeply ingraining the same mistakes.  Jillian Michaels

You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage. Maya Angelou

Today is the 7th anniversary of our foray into the world of social media through Twitter (@globalactionpw).  We’ve tried our best over these years to use what can at times be a mean-spirited and shallow medium to increase transparency in UN conference rooms while linking issues and concerns across hallways and oceans.  Thank you for the opportunity you give us to share both what we see and what we see as most important for people and the planet.

Within the religious realm, I’ve spent a good bit of my life having people I know “get in my face” to tell me what they believe, what they value.  My response to this, at least in recent years, is to inform such “believers” that, in essence, I don’t need you to tell me what you value.  I already see what you do, how you spend your time, how you invest the talents and energies bestowed by your creator.  In the end, that’s all I need to know.

In an age as heavily branded as this one, an age content to look at the masks we wear with little interest in what lies behind them, it seems almost heresy to remind people that we are not who we say we are, but we are what we practice.  In essence, to paraphrase a famous coach of US football, we are what our investments of self and their outcomes say we are.  It is important to have values of course, values in the form of aspirations to do better and strive higher. But it is also important to be clear about the gaps that exist between aspirations and practices — between the claims and facts of our performance — the spaces between the values we posit for our lives and our “working methods” that forever need to be examined and filled.

And, yes, this is going to relate to the ways in which we describe and conduct our business here at the UN.  As Kuwait assumed the presidency of the Security Council this past week, it launched an ambitious “programme of work” for February, especially so for an elected member with only one month of recent Council service under its belt.

The highlight for us is two sessions scheduled for early in the month, one on “working methods” last week and the other focused on the UN Charter (which the General Assembly will also examine) later this month.  Not surprisingly, we see these two events as directly connected, and we applaud Kuwait both for guiding these discussions and for what we believe to be their proper sequencing.

Inside and outside the Security Council, there are frequent references to the Charter values that must guide decisions on peace and security (especially), but also on a range of other issues related to sustainable development, rule of law, humanitarian response and environmental care.  The Charter (a copy of which former DSG Eliasson claimed to always carry around in his pocket) serves for this community as both a guide and an inspiration, helping us to define what we can and can’t do, what we should and should not try to do, and in some key instances, what we must try to do better.

All of this relates to “working methods,” the means by which we seek to organize and carry out the mandates that have been entrusted to us.   Such methods are, in their best sense, the tendons and vessels which connect vital organs, helping them (hopefully) function with greater synergy, but also with greater reliability.   Such methods — operating within our homes or in global institutions such as the UN — are what helps others to believe in our values, or at least believe that there is more to those values than merely our articulated claims about them.

Sound working methods can make the difference between lamenting a child’s sickness and taking her/him to the doctor; between dreaming about dinner and bringing home groceries; between claiming an institutional mandate and honoring an institutional promise.

In the Council this past Tuesday, a variety of lenses on working methods reform were on display, ranging from which Council members get to “hold the pen” regarding development of resolutions, to weightier matters of how the Council collaborates with the rest of the UN system (including the Peacebuilding Commission as highlighted by South Africa) and (as noted by Mexico) how the Council exercises its responsibility to scrutinize claims by states (including Council members themselves) alleging the legitimacy of “self-defense” as a justification for recourse to armed violence.

Though this day-long debate was unlikely to satisfy states and NGOs that have long lost patience with what they see as the hypocrisy of the UN’s most politicized space, we heard many interesting proposals for reform of working methods as well as important reminders about unresolved disconnects between mandates and performance.  Among the highlights for us was the insistence by Ukraine and Pakistan that preventive diplomacy become more of a “staple” of the Council’s functional priorities; Chile’s call for more transparency regarding what India dubbed the “subterranean universe” of Council subsidiary bodies; Lebanon’s urging of the entire UN system to ask “harder questions” about how the Council can remain relevant to contemporary security circumstances; and current Council member Bolivia’s call for an end to the “provisional rules of procedure” that mostly benefit only the “permanent five members.”

And then there was Belgium’s strong reminder that Council decisions do not occur in a vacuum, nor we might add do the consequences of Council (in) decisions that sometimes undermine or even betray Charter values. Indeed, what was not sufficiently discussed during this debate, in our view, is the degree to which the time, treasure and talent of the UN system are routinely being depleted in an effort to overcome Council shortcomings in its primary security “maintenance” role – the endless pledging conferences that must be organized with commitments that then must be held to account; even the lives of humanitarian workers that are placed in what seems to be perpetual jeopardy; all to bring (as best we can) assistance to people gravely damaged by armed conflict that we should have been able to do more to prevent in the first instance.

In the end, as noted by New Zealand (as they did often while a member of this Council in 2015-2016), perhaps the most pressing institutional need is momentum to help to shift Council “culture” in ways that empower collective UN decsionmaking.  In this vein, current Council member Sweden chimed in that we “can’t do our job” unless we do it together, and that we must therefore prioritize “talking with countries instead of about them.” Japan, which just left the Council at the end of December, moved this culture theme even further along, calling on the Council to do more of the “simple things, like listening to each other,” and serving up a reminder that its “optimal working method” involves a commitment to “effective response at the earliest possible time.”

This seemingly simplistic “culture talk,” to our mind, represents the path of greatest potential, inspiring more institution-wide dialogue and collaboration and calling states to account that willfully impede such progress. We hope that the upcoming discussions on the UN Charter will further serve to tighten the connections linking the values we espouse as an institution, the methods that define our institutional practice, and how that ultimately translates into performance standards for our most critical, mandated tasks.

Home Alone: Making Space for Human-Scale Sustainable Development, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Feb

Home is where my habits have a habitat. Fiona Apple

I think what you notice most when you haven’t been home in a while is how much the trees have grown around your memories. Mitch Albom

Home isn’t where you’re from; it’s where you find light when all grows dark. Pierce Brown

The Commission for Social Development has taken up its annual presence at the UN.  It is an outlier body in some ways that seeks to take a more holistic (and welcome) view of human well-being, beyond the metrics of consumption and production, beyond the reach of military might and trade balances. The Commission is a place within the UN where really smart people can talk about human respect and “happiness” as freely as they discuss big data and digital access.

Social development is to some degree about how people organize themselves and how certain attributes – poverty, aging and disability among them – impact social cohesion, that is the ability of people to find meaning, identity and fulfillment in the places where they live: and in the best of circumstances, to master how to thrive in each other’s presence without conflict or discrimination.

There are some delegations that seem to take this Commission very seriously including a number of the European states as well as some from the Arab region.  But others express unease with some of the agenda items for the Commission, which include a focus on poverty eradication in Africa that already has “home bases” elsewhere in the UN system. In some instances, there seems to be a concern that the “softer” tones of the Commission lead to value commitments that are perhaps not as inclusive as they seem and that some states have trouble accepting, let alone controlling.

Although it represents a bit of a departure from the hard security and even harder development concerns that preoccupy our office –including this past week ongoing sieges in parts of Syria and peacebuilding in Burundi that suffers from a lack of consensus on what is happening on the ground — I have a soft spot in my heart for this Commission.  I am especially heartened by its attempts to promote human well-being through a wider lens than the “big ticket” items of global security and climate health, though our uneven successes in these domains certainly impact prospects for each and every aspect of social development.

This lens is wide indeed. Family life seeks a home in this Commission.   So do people with disabilities.  So do people facing chronic poverty and homelessness.   So do those facing “old age” without sufficient means to sustain their remaining lifespans. So do people seeking dependable levels of social protection for their children.   So do those seeking to overcome their various addictions.  So do those seeking to open small businesses or secure micro-loans.  So do people – especially youth — seeking employment opportunities in a sometimes unforgiving market.

And so do those recognizing the growing problem of economic and social “inequality.” Indeed, at a side event prior to the opening of the Commission, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Iceland (current Commission Chair) raised the possibility of this Commission becoming the “home base” for this critical and oft-cited concern as we together gear up to meet our sustainable development responsibilities.

In speaking later in the week with a few of the NGOs around UN headquarters, it seems that there is divided opinion on how (or even whether) our expanding inequalities can find a proper seat at the Commission table. Inequalities are, to many of us, critically important obstacles to overcome if the sustainable development goals are to be achieved in anything like a timely manner. So long as wealth and power continue to consolidate, so long as people continue to concentrate on their status rather than their contributions, so long as inequity becomes the price we are willing to pay for consumer access and digital convenience, this problem will remain a most difficult nut to crack.

In such circumstances, for such a “home” within the UN system to matter it must create and then sustain that elusive balance between habit and competence.  It must cultivate the capacity to seize attention within a UN community that is largely distracted by humanitarian emergencies, ocean degradation, nuclear weapons and terrorism.   And it must have the bandwidth to address this singular, complex challenge without losing sight of the many other issues and dimensions of social development to which diplomats and NGOs attached to the Commission are rightly demanding focus.

A home, we must be reminded, can surely be a place of comfort and familiarity, but it is also a focal point of meaning and adaptability to circumstances.  Home is the place where we become who we are, creatures of habit but also creatures of competence and, hopefully, of reliability, honesty and other aspects of character as essential to healthy communities as technological access and the metrics of economic development.  Home often represents a sentimentalized attachment, but one that is tied to real human capacity, to the relationships and contexts that makes it possible for us to get through our hardest days, to push our lives to matter, and then perhaps to matter even more.

Maybe the UN doesn’t have the bandwidth for concentrated attention on concerns such as these.  Maybe the Commission is simply not robust enough to put things like inequalities on the international agenda and then ensure that these issues continue to find the spotlight they deserve. Maybe it is not yet equipped to fully assert the human dimensions of the sustainable development agenda which is now our hallowed task. Maybe the Commission will never be able of itself to generate sufficient light to crowd out the darkness of poverty, discrimination and listlessness that infect too many corners of our world and for which people are increasingly demanding relief.

The ability for any UN agency to meet the demands of a proper home – security and engagement, habit and challenge – is essential. It is important that our work here does not succumb, as duly warned by a former Chilean colleague Juan Somavia in a quote provided by our friends at Global Policy Forum, to the easy virtue of “mechanized” policies that fail to respect “the dignity and value of the human being.” Such elements are absolutely essential both to a life worth living and to the goals of sustainable development that can, once fully implemented, provide a sturdier and more inclusive platform for human well-being.   These are the elements that we would do well to pursue and that this Commission might in some near future be best suited to lead.

If the Commission can find the tools and the narratives to help us all humanize our policy tasks; if it can offer a “home base” for all aspects of social development, including the formidable challenges related to eliminating inequalities; if it can ensure that its core issues are never confined behind locked doors or, as was intimated during this week’s ECOSOC Youth Forum, used as a pretext to keep women and youth in habituated spaces rather than inspiring their full participation in the sometimes uncomfortable world beyond; then its value to the full and timely implementation of the sustainable development goals will be beyond all reproach.

Moreover, if this Commission could somehow manage to rally the full UN system to eschew an overly-“mechanized” policy dynamic, efforts beyond holding aloft – at times virtually alone — the mantle of human dignity and community well-being, then its status as a proper “home” to help all of us holistically identify and address threats to social development will be assured.

And then we will then have that much a better chance of taming the inequalities beast that now threatens to disenfranchise and de-value us all.