Only the Lonely:  A Call to Revitalize Tactics and Connections, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Aug

(With gratitude once again to Goodreads which, week in and week out, provides me with both content and helpful leads to insightful quotations from thoughtful people.)

Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager.  Susan Sontag

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.  Brene Brown

Whatever is rejected from the self appears in the world as an event. C. G. Jung

We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep. William James

This was another relatively slow week at the UN, punctuate by a Security Council review of counter-terror collaborations, a Working Group of the General Assembly devoted to preparations for the 2nd Global Ocean Assessment, and a two-day event focused on the work of the many non-governmental organizations (such as our own) that made their way to UN Headquarters this week in larger than usual numbers. And of course the tributes kept coming in for the late Kofi Annan as well as remembrances for the UN staff in Iraq killed in a 2003 truck bombing.

Both ocean health and counter-terror measures are regular “covers” for us, both with major peace and security implications and both with obligations (sufficient urgency of action on the one hand, sufficient regard for human rights protections on the other) that need scrutiny, including some of it from ourselves. But the NGO event, coupled with other conversations that we have had around UN Headquarters about the state of civil society in UN settings, make this a topic of significant, if not urgent concern.

The theme for this event, organized by the UN’s Department of Public Information, was Together Finding Global Solutions for Global Problems. Numerous side events complemented what were occasional bursts of insight and enthusiasm by plenary speakers, including UN officials. In addition to attending a bit of the plenary and a few side events (the ones on poverty reduction were of particular interest to us), we spent quite a bit of time in the UN cafes this week talking to folks we knew and listening to those we didn’t, taking in (albeit often at some distance) the mostly friendly banter and determined NGO sales pitches.

There was nothing wrong with the event, but also little new.  Many sessions seemed to be sparsely attended and yet still often cleaved to the UN format of choice – podium driven presentations that made some time for questions (and rants) from the audience, but little in the way of what we would characterize as genuine dialogue leading to commitments more likely to survive this event once the demands of home and office take over.

Amidst all the valid concern expressed this week for our sustainable development goals obligations – from smart cities and universal educational opportunity to poverty reduction and good governance – the one item that continues to cry out for sustained attention is related to our collective working methods.   We and others have spent much (hopefully productive) time exploring how our sector can adjust its methods and temperament to conform to a new generation of challenges, including the challenge of ensuring that the widest range of civil society voices – often more isolated than we might realize in their difficult and even “lonely” work –finds viable pathways to policy influence.

But beyond the voices is the need for attention to how we seek to make change in the first instance, how we utilize increasingly scarce assets and more formalized “work relationships” in an attempt to influence some admittedly weighty trends, from economic inequalities and declining oceans to rampant xenophobia and a new generation of weapons-related threats.

In our own investigations into some (for us) obvious limitations and deficiencies in our sector, we have relied heavily on others, including Lester Ruiz and Paul Okumu.  Both do their own important work in the world and, apropos to this discussion, both are generous in sharing a critical and inspirational eye with our communities of practice, posing hard questions to both our tactics and our character. Okumu has chimed in more recently in response to the quite-legitimate concern over the recent apprehension of South Sudanese activist Peter Biar, noting that his is merely a high-profile tip of the proverbial iceberg as activists, religious leaders, journalists and others face abuse and “legal” charges that are often anything but.

Okumu goes on to question whether our tactics of choice are actually relevant to the power dynamics that characterize the modern world – one characterized by massive, often unaccountable fiscal flows and states more and more willing to turn their backs on the normative arrangements which their own delegations have painstakingly negotiated. Is there evidence to suggest that what Okumu refers to as “our online campaigns or the mobilization of solidarity groups” is actually able to shift anything?  Is there any reason to believe that those of us who remain attentive to these global “arrangements” are able to provide anything more than familiar patterns of resistance?

The major political and economic powers that influence our multi-lateral institutions have, as Okumu suggests, largely stopped listening to us, largely stopped worrying about any power that we might once have had to reign in their excesses; in part because they don’t need to, and in part because they more or less know what we are going to say and how we will go about doing our “business.” They have come to understand that we are no threat to their ambitions and narratives; that we can scream about “what we’re doing” from the sidelines of conversations that are increasingly cut off from our scrutiny; that the gaps separating their seemingly-supportive rhetoric from effective civil society engagement are growing, not shrinking.

We are not their adversaries; indeed there are diplomats, civil servants and social investors here in New York who represent some of the kindest and most genuinely committed people I know anywhere in the world. But diplomats, secretariat officials and their growing array of high-end “partnerships” here in New York have to navigate their own limitations of bureaucracy, competition and authority, and thus we cannot in good faith accept the notion that they are the definers of our work, nor do we accept that our value lies solely in our willingness to promote what they have handed out for us to promote, as though only “cheerleaders” are now worthy of a place in this multi-lateral game, and not also the referees, analysts and commentators.

And yet the things we choose to promote must be defined by more than a habituated defiance, more than snarky retorts to diplomats, UN officials or “business leaders” who surely already recognize that they are sometimes misrepresenting the story that lies behind the text they are reading, misrepresenting somewhat through what they say but (mostly) through those things about which they have chosen to remain eerily silent.

Indeed, we have work to do here in filling out the unfinished sentences, in providing a fuller accounting of policy progress than those which are routinely authorized to be spoken in this place.  But as Okumu suggests we also need to fix our own working methods, to address the heavily-worn tactics that have too-little impact on journalists who still can’t escape unjust prison sentences, refugees still treated as political fodder rather than as sisters and brothers, sustainable development goals that are still too slow on the uptake, peace and security policies that still serve too many political interests and too few human ones. And, of course, there are the activists like Peter Biar who join with so many others in suffering beyond the reach of well-meaning responses that are often more appropriate to power structures gone-bye.

We sometimes damaged and lonely people who are drawn to this work for reasons known best to our mothers and therapists; we retain an obligation to ensure that this work makes more durable connections, takes more risks, sees beyond the horizons of our own limitations, commits to the eagerness born of attention, and takes the time to analyze what we, sometimes thoughtlessly, project into the world as a substitute for the healing with is our primary charge.

So long as we continue to occupy places of privilege and influence, no matter how modest they might seem to us, we have a clear responsibility to global constituencies beyond the words in our mission statements, beyond our tactical habits of choice and our often-shallow “networks” and “partners.” There is an attentiveness that is also required, a willingness to discern the times and align our tactics and energies with both our deepest values and the world’s deepest needs, to correct “the record” but also interrogate the ways in which our own invitation to healing is compromised both by the things we failed to correct in our societies, and by those things we are insufficiently “eager” to fix in ourselves.

Our values and tactics must be aligned in the world – the world that exists in real time and not simply in our institutional memories – such that injuries inflicted (including on ourselves) are “acknowledged, healed and rare.”

One Response to “Only the Lonely:  A Call to Revitalize Tactics and Connections, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. MARTA BENAVIDES August 27, 2018 at 1:01 am #

    a must to discern , a must to discern.. and the time is now for the ways of the world have it that 2030 is here and is much much worse than 2018 .. best .. marta
    Only the Lonely: A Call 2 RevitalizeTactics &Connections, Dr. Robert Zuber via @GlobalActionPW from where I stand all gets corrupted in order 2 keep 10 men of global north own what 3 1/2 billion own @robertovalentun @adamrogers2030 @pontifex @women_rio20

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