Archive | March, 2018

Storm Front:  The UN Stakes a Claim on Fresh Water Access, Dr. Robert Zuber 

25 Mar


Image By Daan Roosegaarde

The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water. Sigmund Freud

The tree that is beside the running water is fresher and gives more fruit. Saint Teresa of Avila

Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind. Leonardo da Vinci

All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Toni Morrison

There were several events of considerable potential consequence for the well-being of the world at the UN over this past week.

The General Assembly continued its own process of revitalization with suggestions for eliminating lengthy statements and redundant resolutions as well as doing more to ensure that resolutions once passed actually alter circumstances on the ground consistent with the promises embedded in our resolution language.

In another room, delegations prepared for the upcoming review conference on the UN mechanism (UNPoA) intended to help states and other stakeholders halt the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. The sessions featured some spirited reflections on the importance of cooperative activities to control the diversion of and illegal access to weapons (and the ammunition which renders them lethal) by unauthorized actors.

And in the Security Council, the current president (Netherlands) convened a series of important briefings on violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the still-dire humanitarian challenges in the Lake Chad Basin of Africa, and on the many linkages between food insecurity and conflict, including the millions forced to flee the “fire” of violence into the “frying pan” of deprivation and anxiety.

But for us the week’s highlight was back in the General Assembly, the launch by the presidents of the GA and Tajikistan of the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development, complemented by a World Water Day demonstration of the extraordinary Waterlicht by Daan Roosegaarde. This hopeful sequence of policy and artistic events nevertheless called out a series of difficult realities:  the huge number of children and others for whom sipping water is an invitation to immobilizing disease; the vast quantities of water that are utilized by industries whose products we also take for granted, such as meat and automobile production; the high percentage of rainwater that flows into gutters or remains untreated for other productive or even essential uses; the growing number of natural disasters, including sea rise, that are related to water melted and then churned up by an angry climate.

None of this is news to people who are paying attention.  We have been warned about drought and sea level rise, but sometimes simply forget how little safe drinking water remains and how much of what does remain is located in rapidly-melting polar regions.   We have collectively “soiled our own waterbeds,” polluting essential waterways through sub-standard sanitation or in the name of “progress” and then ignoring the petitions of those left to cope with the significant health and well-being consequences of our collective neglect.  And we in the policy community sometimes bury awareness of our own blessing, in this case (as noted by the GA president) the blessing of working in a building with abundant drinking fountains and even toilets using water of higher quality than much of the “developed” world, let alone the billions who take their lives in their hands to fetch water for families or quench an intolerable thirst at the nearest open pipe.

In thinking about this post for much of the week, I recalled some of the petty inconveniences of my life that have been associated with water – the times on a sports field when I claimed to be “dying of thirst;” the times when my “precious” schedule was thwarted by late-winter snow and ice; the times when fishing expeditions or other leisure were postponed by churnings seas; the times when my “need” for bottled water on long overseas trips resulted in spare suitcases full of plastic to recycle back home.

But beyond my pettiness are echoes of the profound:  the access needs of so many, of course, but also the degree to which water dominates our conscious metaphors and unconscious longings, in part because our water connectivity resonates so deeply.  Our art, our poetry, our religion all invoke images of water that can bring us together as a people, help us to explore our human condition and its limitations, certainly to cleanse our bodies and even purify our souls.   It is remarkable to consider how our common human journey has been impacted, inspired, humbled and challenged by what water is and represents. As India noted during the launch of the decade, water access has often been more important than armaments “in the rise and fall of kingdoms.”

And yet in this and so many other areas of life, we have learned not to ask too many questions; we aren’t curious enough about the impacts and consequences of our water and other resource choices, in part because curiosity so often beats a path to responsibility.  When we refuse to inquire, we might have fewer worries at least in the short term; we might not feel so compelled to divert our course, to veer around the barely visible iceberg.  Moreover, the incurious often (quite curiously) claim to have more answers than they have any right to profess, a claim secured in large measure through their stoic determination to deny the relevant questions.

But if water is to become that place, as delegates from Vietnam, Ghana and elsewhere suggested this week, where competition must come to yield to cooperation; then hard questions and relevant actions must stay fixed in our minds and prominent in our monthly planners.  For as our damaged climate is shifting locations of water scarcity and relative abundance; as the toxicity of our waterways sickens children and shortens the lifespans of the rural poor; as this archetypal resource become more scarce with greater numbers of hands and mouths reaching out to secure some portion, then impediments to water-related cooperation may well become fierce.  We are in for a potentially rough ride and, as with so many other current challenges, a ride of our own choosing.

Many years ago I wrote a poem called The Skater, about a man who glided blithely across the frozen water without a care about the dangers to his own well-being that lurked just below the surface, ice that seemed firm but was actually punctuated by thin spots to which he was resolutely inattentive and that threated to engulf his arrogance.

After all these years, we continue to skate on thin ice.  But we don’t need to fall through.

As this water decade unfolds, and as some of the initial enthusiasm from the launch threatens to dissipate, we must resolve to keep our focus on saving and enhancing the fresh water that is left: planting more trees along waterways, finding new uses for recycled water, constructing catchments that can prevent urban rainfall from being washed away to sea, using fewer of the industrial and agricultural products that over-utilize and/or pollute so much of our dwindling fresh water supplies.  As more than one activist noted during this week’s sessions, water health and access are compelling tasks for now, not yet another responsibility to be passed along to the young.

All available evidence here at the UN suggests that our human journey is now impeded by unprecedented levels of aquatic peril. If we fail to heed this call, if we refuse to share our best cooperative energies and ask the hard questions, if we don’t do more to help our precious water “get back to where it was,” the last memory of our collective sojourn on this planet might well be a deep and agonizing thirst.


Green Acres: Diverse and Rural Voices for Sustainable Security, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Mar


Distrust and caution are the parents of security. Benjamin Franklin

You cannot achieve environmental security and human development without addressing the basic issues of health and nutrition. Gro Harlem Brundtland

We spend our time searching for security and hate it when we get it. John Steinbeck

Only in growth, reform, and change, paradoxically enough, is true security to be found. Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The UN building has been almost completely given over these days due to the thousands of women who have come to the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).  Given our substandard March weather this year, the main UN buildings have seen especially long lines for food and other essentials as well as overflow crowds for most of the side events held inside (and in some cases outside) UN buildings.

The focus for this CSW has been “rural women,” an important topic for us and some of our core partners, but also a bit of a conundrum given the largely urban origins of most stakeholders at UN Headquarters.   With some exceptions, we don’t come to this policy community from the farms, or the hilltops, or the swamps.  We tend not to deal with rural matters much unless there are tragedies to be addressed, humanitarian aid to be delivered or protection to be organized.  The rhythms of rural life are largely not our business, nor our interest.   We rarely see rural communities as opportunities for learning, places that can help us recover a more personal and place-based antidote to the anxieties, distractions and disconnects of urban living.

The problems noted by this CSW are real enough as people in too many parts of the world face violence and discrimination, abuse and displacement, drought and inattentive governance.   In other (non-CSW) discussions this week,  we were privy to Security Council struggles to enact a sustainable cease fire across Syria,  General Assembly efforts to negotiate a “global compact” on safe, orderly migration, and commitments by the Economic and Social Council to navigate the extraordinary financial obligations that our commitments to the Sustainable Development goals have incurred.  And the Peacebuilding Commission laid out a plan for long-terms security – health, economic, physical and developmental – as the peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL) prepares to draw down at month’s end.

All of these discussions have implications for at least some of the rural women who were ostensibly the focus of this CSW but who were largely confined to “their own” events without getting a broader sense of the capacity of the UN or, indeed, the amount of time and energy that is already invested here on issues of importance to women, including and beyond the women who occupy this policy space.  This CSW was not a “prophetic moment” for those of us who spend our long days in the UN, though it might have been otherwise if there was more attention paid to the full scope of rural women’s aspirations and experiences beyond the heartache, beyond the very-real victimization, even beyond the narratives of those fortunate enough to be in New York to “represent” rural interests.

Rural life itself is not a problem; it has its unique vulnerabilities and challenges, it sometimes suffers patterns of discrimination that are off the radar of media and their elite constituents, but neither does it seek to conform to many of the political and cognitive biases of our urban centers.  Nor is it without plenty to teach the rest us about the changes we need to make and the risks we need to take in our own contexts.

As frustrated as my all-female, non-white cohort has sometimes been with what they see as the redundancies and risk-averse solidarities of this CSW, there were some notable exceptions among the copious side events devoted to trafficking, #metoo and the general problematizing of rural contexts.  Among these was an excellent event focused on the role of women in building a sustainable peace for Libya, a country that has barely and only fitfully recovered from the 2011 security fiasco that removed Gaddafi but left a middle-income country in virtual ruin.  That a higher profile on Libya peacebuilding should be accorded the women who presented at this event (and their peers back home) would not be challenged by any who were in their immediate audience.

Another hopeful, security-related event was held a bit off-campus, but was not at all off-point.   Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, a longtime friend of our office, has founded a new organization, Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) dedicated to expanding both the dimensions of national security and the people who have impact on security definitions and priorities.  The CSW event that WCAPS hosted, “Redefining National Security,” brought together a diverse group of women of color with a range of experiences and views on how notions of national security are evolving (or not) to embrace a range of new and largely cross-border concerns, many of which (as is well-known to CSW delegates) impact women’s lives disproportionately.

This was a room of skilled women of who were determined, passionate and thoughtful; determined to have a say in the security-related definitions and policies that impact all our lives, passionate about “changing the global community landscape,” and thoughtful about their “takes” on security and the need to constantly listen, constantly invest our ideas with the people for whom security is not primarily equated with our bloated military apparatus, but rather spans a range of worries related to climate change and pandemics, cyber-crime and food security.  Despite the lofty positions held by some of the speakers and their obvious respect for one another, there was a refreshing absence of “like mindedness” in the room.  The levels of participation they seek for themselves and others regarding the most pressing security issues of the day require more than gender solidarity; they require a commitment to personal growth and risk as well.

We don’t know where all of these growth-oriented conversations are to be found, but we know that they exist and are deserving of our thoughtful support. There appears to be as yet no #metoo to encourage such growth, nor are there sufficiently reliable pathways yet proposed to locate and sustain the fully inclusive policy platforms that have eluded so many rural women, so many women of color, for so very long.   But they are coming.

As several minister-level panelists noted during a CSW side event on rural women in the Arab region, their region’s rapid urban growth is causing many problems for rural women seeking to maintain attention on their needs and aspirations, including increasing the “distance” between themselves and the (mostly urban) centers of policy influence.  Where can we find rural women, Arab and otherwise, in the midst of regional and international discussions on women’s rights and women, peace and security issues? Indeed, where are the openings for rural voices, male and female alike, to provide guidance on what “security” really means, in all its dimensions, through all of its challenges?  How can women who, in the words of panelists, are often neither recognized nor appreciated for all their burdens and responsibilities enter into spaces where their legitimate grievances are merely the opening gambit for a larger discussion about the minority who apparently “belong” in the club and the many millions (male and female) who are still forced to wait beyond the ropes?

If women of color can help us all to embrace and grow a larger and more inclusive security framework, and if rural women of all backgrounds and their communities can have greater impact on the personal and social dimensions of that framework, we will be well on our way towards the sustainable peace and security that we and (soon) our children long for.

Vaccination Nations:  Elevating Health Care Access for Peaceful, Inclusive Societies, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Mar


Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory. Albert Schweitzer

If Patents are for Patients then Patients will be for Patents. Kalyan Kankanala

Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity. Hippocrates

It is the first morning of daylight savings time in New York which has caused some to miss Sunday appointments but many to hope that spring weather will soon make a lasting appearance.

The winter in the northern hemisphere, here and in many other parts of the planet, has been characterized by a range of health-related problems.  Severe flu outbreaks here have brought tragic death to some children and thrown many millions off their game.  I know personally of several people – most at least enjoying sufficient access to medical care – who have had to stay in bed for many days, with weeks of only semi-functional, partial recovery to follow.   You see such people in half-recovery every morning on the subways of New York, avoiding the many coughers, refusing to hold on to the poles in crowded cars with bare hands, trying to figure out in their heads how they are going to make up for lost work time when they are still only half-whole.

As has been stated so often by so many, health is something we take too much for granted until we lose it.  Then, and sometimes only then, do we recognize how much of our lives – including fulfilling our responsibilities to our jobs, families and communities – is predicated on “feeling up to it.”   And even when we don’t, there are times when we must “soldier on” perhaps because of the non-negotiable responsibilities to work and family that beckon, perhaps because of access-to-healthcare issues, including the seemingly ever-increasing costs.

These impediments of time, opportunity and expense are far more than annoyances, but undermine well-being in ways that impact our ability to participate fully in the affairs of the world and help others to participate also.

At the UN, health care quality and access are thankfully occupying a more prominent place on our collective agenda, in part because far too many people in this world lack sufficient opportunity and access to health resources that can improve the quality of their own lives and their productive service to others; also in part because of a growing understanding of how important personal and community health are to the often-challenging promotion and achievement of “peaceful and inclusive societies.”

In the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), target 3.8 directs us to “achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.”  This represents a noble aspiration and, as with other SDG goals and targets, naming it is only the first step to full and fair implementation.

It is hoped that the Commission on the Status of Women, convening this Monday on the theme “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls,” can also make substantive contributions to greater health care access and awareness.  In areas of the world in which Global Action has cultivated program partnerships, including in Cameroon and El Salvador, access barriers to vaccinations and other health care often drag down women simultaneously discharging family and community responsibilities while seeking pathways  to greater levels of economic and political participation for themselves and others.  It is exhausting just to witness the multiple tasks that many rural women juggle, even more so considering how many of these women must juggle while battling illnesses and injuries that often go untreated and which, in some instances, are a consequence of diseases that have received too-little attention from the scientists and pharmaceutical companies that drive so many medical innovations (and the patents to protect them).   The CSW can hopefully focus some of its formidable policy attention and recommendations on improving health access for rural women (and their families) that can help them achieve both access to markets and increased levels of political and social participation.

Thankfully, health issues seem to be getting tracton across the UN agenda – specifically in terms of preventing and responding to pandemics, addressing antibiotic resistance (and the current lack of pharmaceutical interest in creating viable alternatives), and encouraging shifts in diet and lifestyles that can lower thresholds for non-communicable diseases (from cigarette smoking, opioid addictions, etc.) .  All of these (and related) interventions, as noted, have important implications for peaceful and inclusive societies, as well as for elevating levels of health-related access.

Last Tuesday, the World Health Organization and other UN partners convened a session devoted to “Promoting Innovation and Access to Health Technologies,” which was intended in part as a follow up to the 2016 report by the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines.  Despite acknowledged limitations in its mandate, the report deftly outlines impediments to access and suggests trade and finance reforms to ease obstacles.  The report acknowledges the need to fund more research on diseases and related health needs endemic to developing countries — including more resistance-free antibiotics – while ensuring fair protection and compensation for those whose investment risks made new medicines and medical technologies possible.  The report highlights most of the often-systemic, critical barriers to access that must be addressed by the international community, including “inequalities within and between countries,” poor health education, a lack of trained medical personnel, health-related stigmas, lack of access to health insurance, and what it calls “exclusive marketing rights.”  And of course it cites the matter of health-related costs which in some instances (including for insulin, as noted by the WHO on Tuesday) are still rising.

What the report did not take up are the health and human rights implications of “bio-piracy,” research that exploits potential remedies from fields and forests to produce medicines which are then patented and marketed in ways that render them often well beyond the reach of the very people who inhabit the environments of origin.

Nor did the report take up the health access barriers that are created and exacerbated by armed violence, the refugees struggling with severe physical constraints on their long and treacherous journeys, the families under siege who find their clinics and hospitals reduced to rubble.  The nefarious “stripping” of long-awaited relief convoys containing medical supplies headed for besieged areas of Syria (even after a Security Council-authorized cessation of hostilities) is a special case but sadly not a unique one. We can’t seem to stop the bombing — perhaps our primary UN responsibility– but beyond that we can’t even guarantee minimal access by victims to the medicines and equipment that could give them a “punchers chance” for survival and renewal.  Apparently even the most abusive state and non-state actors understand that healthier and more able people are better able to contribute to stabilizing damaged local communities; but on a larger level are also better able to resist the intimidation of bombs and sieges, to more effectively demand cleaner water, lower levels of state corruption, less discrimination and abuse, fairer access to education for their children and energy for their dwellings.  Even abusers recognize that health care access is not a side-show on the path to more peaceful and inclusive societies, but is elemental to their ultimate success.

As one recent TV advertisement in the US seeks to remind us, moms and dads “don’t take sick days.”  But as the Dutch Ambassador to the US intimated during her statement at Tuesday’s event, the world is full of too many people for whom a “sick day” is an indulgence that threatens the basic well-being of families and communities.  It is the obligation of all of us, as the Thailand Ambassador and others noted – health professionals, scientists, parents, the private sector and the global policy community — to ensure a “better balance” of interests between those who develop vaccines, other medicines and medical equipment and those for whom access to context-appropriate health care is literally a lifeline.  We cannot meaningfully propose strategies for the full inclusion and participation of persons who can barely lift their heads to attend to their daily responsibilities in domiciles, fields and markets.

State of Play: Controlling Access and Discourse at UN Headquarters, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Mar


Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. Albert Einstein

Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.   Hector Berlioz

Every act should be performed as though all eternity depended on it.  Robert Grudin

As I’ve written previously, Global Action is in the midst of a temporary office move that is massively inconvenient on the one hand but quite enlightening on the other.

Sifting through a lifetime of commitments and mis-steps, both from the 19 years of Global Action’s existence and from the many other projects that I together with some extraordinary people have spawned over the years is a daunting process under any circumstance; but certainly in an instance such as this where mounds of books and paper lie begging for new habits of storage and access.

But the learning represented in the midst of this chaos is so very rich, perhaps not enough to justify the killing of God-knows how many trees, but certainly enough to help set the table for a new iteration of policy assessment, reflection and service.  And a core part of that learning is coming to terms with why we took on this task in the first place, why we placed ourselves in a position to tilt at windmills of violence, discrimination and poverty with little more than a blunt sword and a countenance often more stubborn than strategic?

As the documents lining the walls of my apartment are slowly reminding, I (with many others) joined this push during the Cold War, when global policy was dominated by two major powers to the degree that most other states, even at the United Nations of that time, could do little more – risk little more – than to align themselves behind their “block of choice.”  Despite being barely 30 years removed from the toxic nationalism that plunged much of the world into violence, we were still struggling with how to place “we the peoples” at the center of a genuinely multipolar policy community, a community that was both genuinely inclusive and fully responsive to emerging global challenges.   We wanted to see about making a world where everyone who wanted a voice had one; where everyone with a skill to contribute to a more just and sustainable world could find their place of practice.

Windmills indeed.    After all this time, all this expenditure of life energy, all this tilting, where are we now?

If one spends any time at all in the presence of our (much maligned and not entirely without cause) media – and I know many folks who now simply refuse to watch or listen – you are well aware that nationalism has made a remarkable comeback as a public policy force.  Walls are rising and patience is shortening; politicians are openly expressing interest in extending their “reigns” beyond constitutional limits; acts of violence perpetrated against those “not our people” are on the rise; speech that incites both fear and loathing has been let out of the closets where people like me naively believed we had safely locked it away.

At the UN, the current wave of nationalism takes a different tack.  The politics of the UN are both more progressive and more protocol-driven than is often the case in national capitals, certainly on many street corners across the nations.  Diplomats at the UN, albeit with significant variations, still understand the need for consensus, even if that often produces resolutions more facile than effective.   Diplomats still understand the many problems – including counter-extremism, migration governance and ocean health – that simply cannot be solved at national level no matter how powerful the government or patriotic the citizenry, even if UN effectiveness on such matters remains open for debate.   Diplomats still understand the pivotal role they can play in addressing global problems, though the working methods of the UN and the rapidly rotating doors of diplomatic missions tend to rob the system of institutional memory – and often of appropriate levels urgency as well.

And diplomats still largely understand the value of diverse voices in policy, though this aspiration often ends up in dialogues with large-budget NGOs that can take off some of the implementation pressure off of states; or NGOs funded by states to provide “guidance” on core branded issues such as peacekeeping, financing for development and the arms trade; or civil society reps that come from diverse settings to provide “one off” testimony about violence and abuse that the UN has failed to satisfactorily address.

The current situation is very much punctuated by what Barbara Adams noted this week during ECOSOC’s Operational Activities for Development segment wherein she described the trend at the UN towards “preferred partners,” mostly from the private sector, but with implications across the system of access for the smaller (and most numerous) NGOs.  These “preferred” partners are virtually guaranteed a seat on the plane, usually with upgrades.  And they always seem to be invited to the party, even when they come (though don’t always leave) empty-handed.

For the rest of us, the UN seems increasingly hostile to its own rhetoric on transparency and accountability.  There are days at the UN when there are virtually no “open” meetings for ECOSOC-accredited NGOs and those meeting that are open often take the metaphorical form of a large picture window through which we are able to see the feast that we are not invited to join, a feast seemingly always in preparation and where our own culinary skills are simply not requested.

These “closed” meetings have at times included General Assembly efforts to revitalize the UN Charter, a matter of urgency for virtually all global citizens, certainly well beyond the concern of government representatives alone. These discussions have many potential “fit for purpose” virtues, but certainly one of the benefits would be to remind the UN community – not just the states – of why we’re here, why we’ve gathered, why we persist in a building that is slow on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) uptake, cannot properly enforce its urgent human rights norms, and stumbles over many of its peace and security obligations despite reminders this week from France and others in the Security Council that “every minute we delay (on implementation of the recent Syria resolution) means the loss of more lives.”

Across UN conference rooms, SG Guterres is constantly reminding diplomats that “global problems require global solutions.” This shouldn’t need repeating.  We should be openly embracing the opportunity — as a policy community but also as a learning community – to make contributions to the resolution of global challenges commensurate with what we know about the many strains of “measles” affecting the planet and the relative ineffectiveness of some of our current strategies to affect proper healing. States, quite clearly, don’t have all the answers here no matter how much some of them try to manage and control discussions and outcomes.  Indeed, if we are to find the answers we seek, we will need a more expansive, urgent and humble engagement with both the questions and the skilfullness of our responses.   The “leave no one behind” mantra of the SDGs should be at least as much about agency as it is about assistance.

On Friday, we at the UN were treated to a side event organized by the Statistical Commission to discuss a “federated” approach to data collection and management for sustainable development.   This nerdy sounding event placed on display representatives of some of the leading “preferred partners for the UN.   But there was no arrogance here, no sense of institutional entitlement.   The speakers were often full of humor and just as often full of humility.  They lost their places in the presentations.  The slides didn’t always work.   They laughed at themselves. And they recognized that they were speaking about a topic of fundamental importance to our planetary future that makes many people feel disenfranchised and some others leap to outlandish claims about the power of data to “save us from ourselves.”

My own favorite was Haishan Yu from the World Bank who spoke personally and passionately about her “simple ideas” of making data more credible while making it “more convenient” for users.   But she also pointed to “the multiple strands of new technology” that are coming at us so rapidly, making it “arrogant to predict the future too boldly.”  She called for global data tied closely to national and local data and that can, within its own realm, help to improve our now-lagging prospects for full SDG implementation.

This was “open” conversation at its UN best, an invitation to participation that even someone like me who wouldn’t know the difference between Instagram and Instant Oatmeal, could appreciate and feel excited about.  I only wished that more state representatives could have been in that room to see how some of their “preferred partners” were doing their part to remind us of the value of our agency towards more preferred futures.