Archive | 12:10 am

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.