Archive | 4:00 pm

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

4 Mar

Flags

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.