Construction Zone:  The SG Report’s Overlooked Obstacles and Inspirations, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Aug

Under Construction

The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision. Helen Keller

Nothing is more imminent than the impossible . . . what we must always foresee is the unforeseen.  Victor Hugo

We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper. Isaac Bashevis Singer

The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope. Leonora Carrington

If you need a reason to get involved in world politics, all you need to do is watch a playground of children.  Laurance Kitts

This has been one of the slower weeks at the UN in recent memory.  Aside from an excellent, first-time event to honor victims of terrorism, the highlight of the week was probably the release of the Report of the Secretary-General on the work of the Organization, the latest in an annual exercise that gives those who take time to read it a sense of how the UN system – seen almost exclusively through the lens of UN secretariat leadership – is adjusting its processes and priorities in an attempt to address the too-frequent, darkening clouds which daily permeate our news feeds.

The report promises a “frank and realistic” appraisal of UN and global challenges. As is the case with many prior SG reports, I would exercise caution in using such terms to describe this document.   As I will allude to below, such an appraisal would require the SG to talk less about his own “launchings” and more about the efforts of the complex system of which he is a part – including work already done to lay the groundwork for his own tenure; the many stakeholders inside and outside the UN system that create complementary and essential frameworks for change; even the unsung heroes “in the field” who help restore faith in the “work” of the UN.  That faith, we fear, is routinely compromised by several un-named factors, including the political maneuvering of powerful states and officials inside UN Headquarters, certainly within in the Security Council, maneuverings currently as likely to maintain the “stasis” of deadly conflicts (and their many implications for the other UN “pillars”) as to resolve them.

Indeed, these reports increasingly are neither particularly generous of spirit nor “frank” in terms of naming political, fiscal and institutional impediments to achieving the “world we want,” the world as noted several times in this report is promised by the Sustainable Development Goals.  Indeed, at points, these “reports” reminded me a bit of funding proposals that small NGOs like mine might submit – long on “what we’re doing,” and reminders of “what more remains to be done” (with additional funding of course) and short on assessments of what barriers lie in the way of achieving our desired ends, including of course the sometimes unhelpful ways in which we, ourselves, conduct our own business.   Indeed, this SG report (as with others) seems deliberately “pitched” to funders, in this instance to the member states who must “sell” the value of the UN to national capitals; also to the many “partners” of the UN characterized increasingly by multilateral lenders, multi-national corporations and large NGOs who already exercise an outsized influence on current UN policies.  The world may seem to be quite a mess in the eyes of many constituents, but the message to funders and key partners is that we at the UN have the goods to clean it up or, at the very least, are developing the tools and protocols (at the direct urging of the SG and with proper support) to clean better.

In fairness to this report, its release could hardly have been timed more awkwardly – having to compete with the death of former SG Kofi Annan, a man much beloved and of great wisdom and stature who, increasingly over the course of his two terms, found his inspirational voice and helped the UN system increase its global credibility while recovering from a series of scandals and reckless policies related to abuses by UN personnel, “oil for food,” the invasion of Iraq and, surely the most significant failure of his era, the inability to prevent the Rwanda genocide. It is imprudent at best to compare SGs when one has reached the end of his life and the other is in the midst of adjusting to often-grave political and institutional challenges, but it is perhaps noteworthy that our widely-utilized Global Action twitter feed towards the end of this week was filled with hundreds of diplomatic and civil society tributes to Annan while the SG report was referenced less often than the number of fingers on one hand.

Again in fairness to the report, there is much of value in it to the UN and, hopefully, the global community, work that has already taken place “on the watches” of SG Guterres and DSG Mohammed (the latter of whom is noted only in a photo).  The report makes clear that there has been some UN-led progress on countering terrorism,  on improving the safety of peacekeepers, on promoting “free trade” among corruption-free African states, on ensuring participation and leadership by women and youth,  on reform of the UN development system (including the UN’s resident coordinators), on ending abuses perpetrated against women and children, on ocean health, on providing services for victims of terror, and on increasing the “footprint” of a revamped UN Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Fund, offices for which the SG is thankfully seeking a “quantum leap” in funding support in acknowledgement of the PBC’s growing role in promoting the SG’s desired linkage between “prevention and protection” on the road towards sustainable peace.

The SG also highlighted the more-looming existential threats of climate and nuclear weapons as well as the vast numbers of “people on the move,” in part driven by climate and conflict impacts. But again, there is little to be found regarding “what is in the way” of urgent progress on such matters, nor is there sufficient “frankness” regarding how another “climate summit” and a barely-functional disarmament architecture (including barely-binding treaty obligations) are likely to get us close to anything like the “promised land” as more scientists predict that we are likely to miss our climate targets and more observers note (with great regret) the degree to which weapons spending and production continue to expand despite our hard-fought resolutions and treaties. There is also little assessment regarding how (or if) the well-crafted, soon-to-be-endorsed and purely voluntary Global Compact on Migration can help counter the growing nationalism, xenophobia and intolerance that jeopardize the welfare of migrants and undermine the credibility of our rule-based system.  Again, and especially for an institution that sits at the very center of global governance, “what is in the way” of life-affirming progress is as important to communicate as “what we are now doing.”

One other item of note before closing pertains to the “mood” of the UN building,  Our own take on this after many years of watching and reflecting is that the “culture shift” inside the UN rightly advocated for by the SG must go beyond breaking up the “silos” of secretariat offices to enable and embrace a new appreciation for all UN stasff and stakeholders.   One manifestation of this “culture” would be the ability of the UN system and its leadership to honor the “whistleblowers” within its walls that this SG report seeks to honor outside of them.   Those who expose “shady dealings” are enablers of a healthier UN and not its enemies.  Those who report on the limitations of the UN system and not merely regurgitate its pre-prepared and highly-branded news releases are doing their part to make the UN truly “fit for purpose” in a world of frightening conflict and climate risks.  Those who commit themselves to pay close attention to the UN and member states – not only what they say but what they do – and who read lessons-learned back to its talented decisionmakers — are helping in their own small way to cleanse the system of its inconsistencies, its excesses, its occasional confusions regarding the difference between “construction and completion.”  It is thus with regret that this SG report paid so little attention to the health and welfare of civil society and journalists, those operating in the increasingly tightly-managed spaces within UN headquarters, but especially those who have “watched children on the playground,” and subsequently chosen to risk their lives in otherwise forgotten places to fortify the food-insecure, defend the defenseless, share stories and warning signs we would otherwise overlook, and uphold the values of the UN Charter to which we at headquarters too-often seem to give lip-service.

SG Guterres is correct to stress in his report the importance of multilateral engagement to “solve problems together than we cannot solve alone.”  He is also right to attempt to enhance the UN’s “capacity to operate as a convener of people, a proponent of ideas, a catalyst for action and a driver of solutions.”  But for this to continue, we need several things from our UN leadership, including more frequent demonstrations of inspiration and generosity of spirit, fresh levels of “frankness” regarding internal and external barriers to fulfilling our multilateral obligations, and increased attention to those on the margins of our increasingly high-end “partnerships” who need the UN to be better at anticipating the challenges of the future while addressing what the SG called “remaining gaps” and honoring the SDGs and our other, pending, policy promises.  We must together do a better job of “keeping one eye on the telescope and the other on the microscope.”

Long before the release of his next annual report, we encourage the SG and other senior staff to take some long walks through the building they ostensibly manage, to listen to those who fill up seats in UN conference rooms and cafes, or provide security and other assistance to the many UN visitors who still – justifiably I think – look to this institution to define a path out of collective despair.  Beyond the influences of powerful states, multilateral lenders and NGOs with the fiscal structure of small nations, beyond the many hopeful initiatives both honored and misplaced within this SG report, there is a growing sense – even within this UN building — that we are simply not doing enough to give life a chance.  Clearly, there is more to say, more to do, more to inspire than appears in these SG pages.  Let those missing dimensions permeate our words and actions leading up to the next report’s release.

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