Archive | December, 2018

Loose Change: Fortifying the Habits that Matter, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Dec

Leaves

I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me. Anaïs Nin

A resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible.  Thomas Hardy

Good resolutions are like babies crying in church. They should be carried out immediately. Charles M. Sheldon

I’m starting to think nothing goes away, no matter how deep you try to bury it.  Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

As the sun sets on this often-tumultuous, often-invigorating year, I return to a favorite subject — resolutions – those things we pledge, individually and collectively, based on an often-shallow view of the human condition that presumes that change comes, if at all, through careful articulations of intent rather than through painstaking reversal of the patterns that have contributed to our being less than what we could be.

In the worlds that I inhabit, the quest for change often embodies a schizophrenic character that ultimately undermines its potential.   The mantra of far too many – this is just how I am – shares the pot with an often deep and impatient demand for change in others, even in the systems that govern and otherwise impact the planet.   Essentially the formula goes, “impossible for me, essential for you.”

In an age of climate change and other existential threats, we can perhaps agree that change towards more sustainable futures is “essential.”  But we can perhaps also agree that such futures require more than summit declarations and resolutions from international institutions.   We have such things in tow now and they “should” make more of a difference in the world.  That they don’t is in part a function of our unwillingness to carefully track and then assess the impacts of previous resolutions and in part a function of our belief – perhaps more like a suspension of disbelief – that there is a tighter relationship than could possibly exist between the presentation of our intent and the diversion of practices that have impeded more significant progress up to the present time.

Some of this is a legacy courtesy of our religious dispositions.  In the Christian tradition, we recite (enthusiastically in my case) a Eucharistic prayer that ends “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  In a similar vein, clergy too-often believe that the word “they” pronounce convicts, that preaching at people provides them with the energy they need to resolve their problems, divert their course, or achieve healthier outcomes.

It might have that impact, at times, in the same way that a timely storm can release long-dormant desert toads from their drought-imposed slumber.  But for most of us, in most instances and contexts, change is less an event than a process, a process that is more about redirecting our life energy – step by step – than by episodic epiphanies which are surely exhilarating if largely unsustainable.

Alarmingly, more and more people I speak with seem suspicious of the notion of change at all, plying rhetoric about “human nature” that seems designed to provide comfort, somehow or other, that we are essentially cut from a self-interested and predatory cloth, about which we can actually, in the end, do little.  This worldview casts suspicion on efforts to seek the good and inspire hope while simultaneously accepting violence and economic predation with an undeserved resignation that simply deepens the habits we would do much better to change. Especially as our calendars flip over, we seem anxious to “turn the page.”  But the book and its plot remain largely the same, and we aren’t as committed as we might be to rewrite what has long become a tired script.

Earlier in what passes for my “career,” I was regularly in touch with a Boston-based group called Second Nature.  I appreciated the work they did but was even more enamored of what the title suggested – a striving for a lifestyle redirected towards more healthful, less violent, more sustainable outcomes, but in such a way that the outcomes became almost effortless – recycling and repurposing of the products we use, saying “yes” even at moments of inconvenience, pushing past the people we have grown comfortable being to the people we say we want to be, demonstrating that it is possible to make modesty of consumption, hospitality for strangers, even leadership for causes and issues close to home or across oceans as part of the “habit” of our lives, what we have “re-trained” ourselves to do, and do differently.   And of course more effective conflict prevention that stems the need for protracted conflict resolution.

Ironically, there is support for this “second nature” approach from diverse sources, certainly from within the religious community, parts of which have long stressed the need to “walk the path of righteousness” rather than wait for a divine lightning bolt. But even neuro-biologists have evidence to suggest that, health permitting, it is within our power to change the way our brains function.  We can, in effect, rewire ourselves to overcome our compulsive life investments – addictions if you will – that are impeding our progress and ensuring that even our resolutions to change and reform are mostly relegated to the waste bin.

But this rewiring isn’t easy and certainly doesn’t happen overnight.   It takes many steps in a new direction before our brains, let alone our hearts and souls, can adjust to a new set of demands and responses.   This is especially the case since we have too often rejected the call to mindfulness about ourselves and the distance that remains to be traveled such that we might contribute –as second nature — to the world that we say we want. This is true of ourselves; also of the United Nations and other institutions we rely on to direct a common response to current global challenges.   As in the personal realm, resolutions to reform are no substitute for concrete measures, day by day, to make our institutions more attentive, more accountable, kinder and more cooperative.

As this New Year unfolds, we find that there is little time to waste.  While we have some progress to celebrate, our unsustainable habits run deep, our tolerance of violence and its many distractions runs deep also.  The longer we continue to walk down the current path –one generally cheered on by advertisers, sports franchises and politicians in power, but also by our friends and neighbors who seem to need reassurance that we will not “rock the boat” on our current, often-rapacious course– the harder it will ever be to shift energies and priorities to better meet the demands of the times.

This shift is not about resolutions per se, not about the “loose change” that seems to be the best we can muster and which will result in little noticeable difference, little in our personal lives but also in the settings where global challenges predominate.  Rather its about the small and resolute steps, one by one, determined as we must make each of them, that will get us to the places envisioned by our personal resolutions and institutional promises; indeed that will help make our better selves “second nature.”

Let this latest calendar shift be the one where we take the consistent, determined steps towards lasting change that we have largely abandoned in resolutions past, stuck in domiciles filled to brimming with our stubborn habits and in houses of worship and other institutions filled with metaphorical “crying babies” that should be “carried out” with much greater urgency.  We can’t bury the mistakes of our past, but we can celebrate our still-formidable potential and those determined and sustainable achievements still to come – indeed that must come – but that surely won’t appear in a timely fashion without the gritty participation of an enhanced version of ourselves.

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Heavenly Rest:  The UN Pays a Holiday Health Visit, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Dec

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We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.  Kurt Vonnegut

Surgeons can cut out everything except cause.  Herbert M. Shelton

Extreme violence has a way of preventing us from seeing the interests it serves.  Naomi Klein

A sad soul can kill you quicker than a germ. John Steinbeck

If you would live long, open your heart.  Bulgarian saying

On the Sunday before Christmas I am staring at my worn and trusted crèche scene, a holy family “guarded” in this instance by replicas of cats and hippos and camels as well as by the more traditional barn animals.  For me, this scene represents a brief respite in a season that seems to have followed our cultures off a cliff of sorts – trading in the expectation of “heavenly rest” for the expectation that what “really matters” will magically appear at our front door or under a decorated tree.

Except that magic is at a premium.  I walked for over a mile yesterday down Broadway between rendezvous with good friends, past the high-end stores north of Canal Street before turning east towards the vegetable markets that line several of the streets of Chinatown.  The streets were packed.  The winds were howling. The car horns were blaring.  Children were in the midst of emotional meltdowns. The looks on the faces of most of the people I passed stretched beyond the usual wary impatience that characterizes so many in this city so much of the time.  This was stress of a different order, or so it seemed, the stress that accompanies the determination to make Christmas “matter” for someone at least, to make one last push through the crowded streets, through the racks of clothes and toy bins, through the long check-out lines, to satisfy an opaque longing that has everything to do with advertisers and virtually nothing to do with the message in the manger.

People in this city really do seem unhappy much of the time –and I would often add myself to their numbers– but especially so in this “joyous holiday season.”  It is though we have lifted a bandage covering the wounds of the year only to discover that the infection is worse than we imagined, that we are less healthy in mind, body and spirit than we ourselves, and our bartenders, therapists, pharmacists and yoga teachers, have allowed us to believe.

One verse of a well-known Christmas Carol ends with “sleep in heavenly peace.”  For too many of us, sleep in any form has become a virtual luxury, a deficit that directly and at times severely impacts the quality of our lives including the depth of our compassionate and active engagement with the world.  Our stressful societies have created for us a kind of double-whammy – distractions by day and restlessness by night.  We have become addicted to bombardment from outside ourselves and increasingly oblivious to the toll this is taking on our inner resources.

Regardless of our political affiliations or religious dispositions, we know that things are not right.  Too many of us work too hard to sustain lives that yield too few joys.  Too many of us cover our sorrows and anxieties with substances and diversions that are about as effective as painting a bathtub with watercolor. We fret about the “state of the world,” even lament the blood that occasionally appears on our collective hands, but soldier on as though the contents of the next smiley Amazon Box will heal what ails us, will restore our serially damaged relationship between longing and gratitude.

Institutions such as the United Nations have actually begun to take health issues a bit more seriously.   Here in New York, the UN has done important policy work on preparing for pandemic outbreaks as well as identifying remedial options for addressing the “non-communicable diseases” and even road hazards that continue to ravage communities and shorten life-spans.   Even the Security Council has gotten in on this act.   Just this past Friday, as one of its final contributions as an elected Council member, Sweden convened an excellent Arria Formula discussion focused on the most immediate implications of health for peace and security – issues of access to medical care in conflict zones as well as the growing danger to medical practitioners operating in such zones, persons and facilities increasingly targeted by state forces and non-state armed groups in fundamental violation of international law.

These are matters crucial to any and all efforts to preserve and promote the peace.  It’s bad enough that we aren’t more successful in preventing conflicts, in part through a clearer examination of the “interests they serve,” but to actively prevent persons already-devastated by armed violence from receiving the modicum of care available to them in conflict zones is beyond reprehensible.  Wars have rules, we are told, most of which are related to the treatment of non-combatants, but these rules are constantly in various states of violation.  As Swedish Ambassador Skoog put it, the gaps between “what is said and what is done” on health care access and the safety of health care workers continue to be large.  In this instance as in others, our “humane ideas” must come attached to more humane practices and, as France noted during the session, greater accountability for perpetrators of abuses.

Fulfilling this “sacred responsibility” to conflict-related casualties requires, as Peru’s Ambassador noted, a “homogenous approach to protection” with uniform standards that are both upheld and guaranteed by the Security Council and other UN member states.   Such guarantees are frustratingly hard to come by in this current phase of human existence.  As we were reminded by a panelist from South Sudan, the degree of difficult in field surgery is sent through the roof once the bombs resume falling.  Surgeons, it appears, “can cut out everything except the cause.”

We must, as many speakers noted, be more attentive to the needs and resources of those who make such sacrifices to bind together those who have been maimed by violence in its many facets.  But genuine healing is even more comprehensive than the bombs we prevent, the destruction averted, the injuries avoided, even by eliminating the trauma that impacts confidence in life, including the confidence to seek out treatment.  It is also a function of getting our institutions right, of making certain that we are doing what we can to optimize our performance in the world, in part by insisting on more healthfully engaged colleagues. The UN itself still has things to learn in this regard.

We must take our collective health more seriously, in all its dimensions.  Our “sad souls” and the things we do to cover that sadness are collectively doing us in, making us more “cranky” than we need to be, isolating us socially and spiritually, but also shutting down our practical empathy for others – the needy in our immediate midst, the migrants at our borders, the victims of our thoughtless policy choices, those whose bodies have been mangled and psyches traumatized courtesy of our overly politicized and militarized international engagements.  We don’t need to be this way; we don’t need to bury our own wounds while simultaneously inflicting wounds on others.  Whatever you understand “human nature” to be, this isn’t an example.  This isn’t inevitable.

The call to the deeper health advocated here is not satisfied by going to the gym or swallowing our meds.  And it is not satisfied through pious calls to “take care of ourselves,” as though most of us actually know what that means. The health we would do well to seek instead, that indeed this season calls for, is a collective and comprehensive endeavor – a commitment to maintain and share in what Wendell Berry once called “the feast of creation,” a feast fully open for a time only to the few while impeded for the many by the artifacts of our often thoughtless predation.

Whether particularly religious or not, I wish each of you a portion of “heavenly rest” this season, a time of uninterrupted sleep, inspirational dreams, successful self-reflection and ultimately a renewed commitment to the health and well-being of others.  Rest assured that we will all sleep more soundly in a world of greater hospitality for refugees, an end to threats against health and humanitarian workers, the cessation of bombing raids and all indiscriminate killing –especially in the places where children live and learn –and far fewer, less intrusive, external distractions of all kinds.

May this soon come to pass

Five of a Kind: The Security Council bids farewell to a thoughtful and determined class, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Dec

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No permanence is ours; we are a wave that flows to fit whatever form it finds.  Hermann Hesse

The eye that saw only the strife, the war, the decay, the ruin, or only the glory and the tragedy, saw not all the truth.  Zane Grey

What, indeed, if you look from a mountain-top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare.  Virginia Woolf

People tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.  Viktor Frankl

For many of us, this holiday season is a time for gifts, for restoring frayed connections, even for resolutions (most later to be broken).   For the Security Council it is also a time to turn over five of its elected members, replacing Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands and Sweden with Belgium, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa.

Turnover is in some ways the bane of the UN’s existence. Just as diplomats get a handle on this complex and often-frustrating system, they are called back to capital or reassigned to another diplomatic post.  The high rates of turnover ensure that institutional memory is not embedded deeply enough into policy – the work of predecessors taking on more of the character of “placeholder” than inspiration engine.   The UN’s culture – given its many habits and protocols – rarely changes enough to suit the times in part because so few have been around long enough to assess its past and direct its needed improvements.

Within the UN family of offices and agencies, the Security Council has its own distinct “culture,” one characterized by power imbalances, a failure to keep national and Charter interests distinct, and endless statements in national capacity that generally do little to define the Council’s direction or inspire confidence in its processes.   Among the permanent members, some questionable patterns have manifested themselves yet again over this past year – from the US’s preoccupation with “exposing” Iranian evil intent while at the same time seemingly arming the cosmos, to China’s insistence that dialogue and development are the singular antidotes to protracted conflict, or Russia’s rightful calling out some of the games that resolution pen-holders play while failing to own up to the gamesmanship in which it also excels.

The Council is a culture where, much like the current world at large, “everyone else” is wrong.   There are few admissions of responsibility, even fewer apologies for recent behavior that – from the arming of Saudi jets over Yemen to the impertinent (at the very least) blocking of Ukrainian sea vessels – have reminded those who follow the Council regularly, and even those who do so episodically, that this Chamber remains dominated by states much too willing to violate the so-called “rules based international order” to which they seek to hold their UN colleagues.

Our view has also long been that the key to Security Council reform lies in reorienting the culture of the Council as a constituent part of the UN system and not an exception to it, utilizing diverse UN capacities to overcome our almost generic inability to identify and resolve conflict at early stages, a failure that inevitably puts enormous funding and humanitarian pressure on the entire UN system.  And key to this more systemic approach to conflict prevention and resolution are the elected members joining the Council for 2 year terms in groups of five, groups exhibiting varying degrees of success in putting pressure on Council colleagues – especially permanent members – to do the full job entrusted to it, to spend less time protecting their own privilege and more time protecting those made vulnerable by festering armed conflict and its many insidious consequences.

The group that is leaving the Council at month’s end has been remarkable in many respects, beginning with the decision by Italy and the Netherlands in late 2016 to split one two-year term. While both had their distinct priorities, these two missions navigated a seamless transition that allowed them to show leadership both within the open Chamber and within the subsidiary bodies.   (Ambassador van Oosterom even introduced a habit picked up by others within and outside the Netherlands Mission of confining his statements to “three points” which lent clarity and focus to what are often drawn out and redundant proceedings.)  Also hopeful and noteworthy this year were press events by the “elected 10” calling for the permanent members to get beyond their politicized lenses and veto threats on situations such as Syria and Yemen; joint statements by the “A3” (Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire and Equatorial Guinea) calling for more dependable funding for African Peacekeeping Operations; Kazakhstan’s relentless pursuit of disarmament across all weapons categories; and leadership from Sweden and Kuwait on resolutions strengthening humanitarian access in conflict zones.

But what set apart this now-departing group of five elected for me was their collective concern to preserve the general health of multilateralism; their willingness to stand up to permanent members when they disrespected their colleagues or spun events to suit their political purposes; their ability to hold firm on matters of importance to the vast majority of UN members including women’s participation in peace processes and the relevance of human rights to conflict prevention; and their enthusiasm for security-related policy emanating from other UN entities, especially from the General Assembly and Peacebuilding Commission.

And their collective thoughtfulness about their own role on the Council and their deep sense of responsibility to the greater community of nations and peoples were also so very welcome.  While all five missions contributed much to this confluence of heart energy and sound policy, I must single out the delegations of Bolivia and Sweden, and especially their PRs Sacha Llorenti and Olaf Skoog respectively.  Over the past two years, both have given memorable presentations that have simultaneously clarified responsibilities, aired frustrations with the slow pace and inadequate oversight of much Council action, reminded permanent members of their role (such as in Libya) in creating some of the violence they now seek to end, and called the Council back from its often narrow and politically-charged rhetoric to a more comprehensive and person-centered view of peace and security, a view that maintains the potential to both heal Council divisions and restore the luster of a Chamber that doesn’t seem to fully recognize the creeping diminution of its own legitimacy.

I will miss this group, specifically their collective, daily reminder that this policy space can and must do better for the world.  They have felt both the misery and the urgency, gazed upon a larger portion of the truth, and played the cards they were dealt as skillfully as any.  They embraced their “impermanence” to take strong and principled stands and pave a more effective and powerful way for those who will come after.

They will be a tough act to follow.

Home Depot: Reliable Spaces to and From Familiar Places, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Dec

A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended. Ian McEwan

He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none. Madeline Miller

One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone. Shannon Alder

There can be few situations more fearful than breaking down in darkness on the highway leading to Casablanca. I have rarely felt quite so vulnerable or alone. Tahir Shah

The UN spent the week meeting in far-flung corners on issues that in some key ways would have fit nicely together.  In New York, a special event called to mind the special needs and special potentials of persons with disabilities.  Despite the fact that as many as 1 billion of our species has a recognized (if not always recognizable) disability, we continue to organize the world around those who can demonstrate more than a modicum of mobility, emotional restraint or sensory normalcy.   Even more insidious, we still look upon persons with disability through the lens of that disability, as though they could somehow be reduced to the “thing they don’t have,” as if “normal” was the objective to be aspired to rather than placing the unique set of skills one does possess – sometimes in abundance – into productive use in the world.

The failure to accommodate persons who don’t, through no fault of their own, conform to some arbitrary notion of “normalcy” has implications beyond access to education, employment or social services.   Indeed at two major events “off campus,” the reluctance to factor difference into our planning was on display, specifically our reticence to recognize that our current, severe and common vulnerabilities provide distinct opportunities and challenges for persons who perhaps “can’t keep up” in one sense but can contribute much in another.

These major events – one in Poland (on climate change) and the other in Morocco (on migration) could well have been organized in tandem as the failure to satisfactorily address one crisis directly exacerbates the other.  While there was some attempt to address issue linkages, especially in some of the Poland side events, it isn’t clear that the international community completely grasps the degree to which severe storms and unprecedented drought (not to mention bombs and landmines) drive often dangerous and chaotic migration flows of persons who can no longer make a go of it in the places they call home.  The Global Compact on Migration, which is scheduled to be signed by many high officials as this essay is being posted, is not completely silent on climate and disability challenges, but neither does it recognize the degree to which our planet has become a starting gate of sorts for all kinds of persons racing (if they can) towards borders and makeshift ports in the hope of escaping the effects of lakes turned to sand, schools and hospitals reduced to rubble.

If they can: There is no wheelchair access at the embarkation points.   There is no foam to brace the falls from clumsy ascents of border walls on legs that simply cannot hold the weight.   There is no security for those forced to run from border guards but who cannot see the flimsy trails to freedom or safety.  In every respect the desperate path to the possibility of a better life is made more difficult, more treacherous, more frustrating, more dangerous by “difference.”

And while the Global Compact’s concern is with establishing consensus principles of migration governance (which it does well by the way), it is less focused on persons for whom migration is essentially coerced, driven by circumstance at least as much as by voluntary will.   On one afternoon during an exposure in Marrakesh with Churches Witnessing With Migrants (CWWM), an event on the margins of the Global Compact signing, we sat with a courtyard full of (mostly men) who had fled from violence and economic uncertainty in several African countries, but primarily from the Anglophone regions of Cameroon where I have spent some good time in the past.  The circumstances in the courtyard were dire, but the people themselves were not.   While they waited for blankets and basic provisions with a stoicism that occasionally leaked anger and frustration we talked about the places they had come from, the places they hoped to go, the skills they sought to share, and the myriad of obstacles that seemed to block every point of potential access.

The mood in the courtyard, despite the remarkable efforts of the local church staff, was subdued, even resigned.  Were it not for the few children running around, making up their games, the life energy of these people would have suggested that they were at an impasse – unable to go further and yet unwilling for now to go back.  They all shared scars from violence endured and family support forfeited but the blind and the lame were not among their numbers.  This was not a journey for them to make.  They have little choice but to remain behind with hopefully enough of a safety net to keep them afloat until the political crises abate and the soils regain their fertility.

The people who made it to the courtyard were described as alternately angry and frustrated, in part because they were persons of some honor before their world caved in, persons who likely never imagined they would find themselves in an alleyway waiting for someone to distribute a few provisions so they could make it through another cold Marrakesh night. Even if these people had not been torn from their communities by a state and security establishment that couldn’t leave well enough alone, it is still disconcerting to discover that doors are more often closed than ajar – doors to basic necessities but also to the jobs and dignity they left behind many miles ago.

While some of us in Marrakesh tried to think through our responsibilities to a world increasingly pushed out of homes and livelihoods, the news coming from Poland was little short of grim.  We are not making our collective climate targets.  Indeed, due in part to influential climate skeptics and the millions who continue to live as though massive storms and mass extinctions are mere anomalies, this past year set a dubious and dangerous record for emissions.  Despite all the warnings, despite weather maps that resemble Hollywood-produced alien invasions, we mostly continue on our merry way, keeping our credit lines open and our borders closed.

Our CWWM event had moments of good policy insight though such were sometimes buried in the clear and present responsibility to meet the needs that manifested themselves (in this instance) at the church door, to feed and cover and comfort and refer, and even to make the stories of those on almost unimaginable journeys speak to the unconvinced or merely indifferent, journeys in this age of climate shocks, state-sanctioned violence and discrimination that are only likely to increase in number and dimensions of difficulty.

What most of these journeys have in common is that those making them exhibit limited trust levels, occasionally of the churches and other caregivers, certainly of governments and their multilateral Compacts.  To be fair, this Compact certainly has some wise referrals, including to fulfill our 2030 Development responsibilities so as to minimize the incentives for people to leave their homes as well as an injunction to do more to make a public case that, as with those in the Marrakesh courtyard, most migrants have skills that can contribute much to sustainable development whether in transit, at their intended destination, or back in their preferred communities.

But in this current matrix of mistrust, NGOs and churches are left to do what they so often try to do – fix the broken, bandage the wounded, satisfy some of the empty stomachs and even emptier souls, doing just enough to address the miseries and fill the voids such that government officials and their five-star entourages don’t have to feel too badly about migrant-related agreements that are largely government driven, government negotiated and –when it suits their purposes– government neglected.

Many at our CWWM event have often been in this difficult place, with needs staring us in the face while the responsibilities to make good policy that can impact the many beyond the courtyard also beckon.  We are not so callous that we can step over and around those facing acute need, even with the consequence of enabling governments to care less in the process. But neither can we leave policy entirely to the governments, the same governments who claim a sovereign right to keep internally displaced persons out of the Compact’s protections, the same governments that hesitated to meaningfully integrate special accountability for migrants with disabilities and others facing acute vulnerabilities, the same governments which relegate churches and NGOs to meeting the needs of those in their gaze while state officials grant themselves de facto permission to turn their own gaze towards other “pressing” matters.

The lessons for me this past week are clear:  We must provide care as best we can but not enable other persons and entities to withhold their own.  We must protect the right of movement but also do more to ensure that those wishing to stay in their homes can do so.  We who are able must contribute more to policies of protection and accompaniment for displaced persons remaining within national borders and not only people crossing over.  And we must ensure that persons with disabilities and others facing multiple vulnerabilities are given special attention, that their “right to migrate” is also honored.

We all have our scars; we have all faced metaphorical abandonments on dark and lonely roads.  Moreover all have contributed in some way to a violent, over-heated world where so many need “mending,” need accompaniment, need tangible reminders that they are more than the provisions periodically extended to them. These messes we’ve made; these vulnerabilities we’ve ignored; these will become the tests of our collective character, our collective attentiveness, our collective promise to heal as best we can the wounds of the legion of persons from many cultures and walks of life now on the move.

Graduation Day:  Alleviating the Anxiety of Transition, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Dec

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Aral Sea 2018

Graduation can be a day on which we turn back and trace our steps to see how we ended up where we are. Taylor Mali

A graduation ceremony is where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that “individuality” is the key to success. Robert Orben

Now is the time to make sure we have the strings of all the balloons we want to keep before they all float away.  Maggie Stiefvater

The world is waiting for us to graduate from ourselves.  Shannon L. Alder

Later this month, my sweet niece is graduating from college, a bit later than she might have wished but with a diploma that will help her develop further a life with already clear contours. I’m proud of her for many reasons, one of which is that she did not wait to graduate to set her life on what already seems to be a thoughtful and responsible course.

But as with other graduates, hers is not a simple course.  Higher eduction, for many of those fortunate enough to matriculate, has become a safe and predictable womb, where everyone is roughly the same age, seems to be on a similar track, and where the consequences of missed assignments and raunchy parties are mostly kept under wraps. Unlike the world at large, especially in this overly-intrusive, cell phone-obsessed social environment, what happens on campus largely stays on campus.

But even those longing to gain some distance from the social limitatons and passive learning of many schools understand that graduation itself poses hard questions and exposes serious risks. Can we make it in the world beyond classroom deadlines and “In loco parentis” oversight?  Can we cope in a world where both safety nets and government competence are often uneven at best and hostile at worst?  Can we make decisions we can live with about the “balloons” we let go and the ones we hold on to?

There is anxiety in graduation, anxiety connected to both how much we trust the world and how much we trust ourselves.  Do we trust the current caretakers of the planet to do right by us, by others beyond our “tribe,” or by those who will hopefully come after us?  Will we find meaningful life activity that can sustain our bodies and souls while helping to reverse trends that threaten oceans and coastal health, that embolden traffickers and insurgencies, that push millions from homes they would prefer to remain in?  Do we trust that our leadership can create enough stable spaces such that many millions of young people will one day be able and willing to look back with some satisfaction at how far their talents and character were able to take them?

And it is not only young people who face graduation-related anxieties.  Nations do also.

In a fine event on the margins of the South-South Cooperation EXPO which took over large swaths of UN conference rooms this week, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs launched the “Handbook on the Least Developed Country Category.”  The discussions within the UN and the Handbook itself are both remarkable in their comprehensiveness – metrics for both defining what “Least Developed” looks like but, more importantly, ensuring  “special support measures” for states set to “graduate” from Least Developed to Middle-Income status.  Such measures include what the report calls “last-mile finance,” as well as “preferred market access” and continued entrée to the “technology bank” established to move resources and best-practices between and among the Least Developed States.

The complementary goals of these discussions and metrics are, on the one hand, to reassure states that the support to which they have become accustomed will be adjusted in a rational and, as much as possible, contextual manner, that the negative consequences of transition will be managed as smoothly as possible. But the larger goal is to ensure that states that have “graduated” do not slip back into “Least Developed” status, that states are able to maximize and manage domestic revenue, protect their resources, engage in productive and reciprocal trade relations, continue to address what the UN once deemed their “severe structural impediments,” and ultimately fulfill their responsibilities to the 2030 Development Agenda.

During the report launch, there was a bit of legitimate grousing from a couple of member states worried about context, specifically the apparent inflexibility of the three-year timeline to complete “graduation requirements.”  But it would be hard to walk away from that meeting or after perusing the report and not conclude that the UN has done due diligence in preparing states to function effectively in the international community under a “graduated” economic status.

And yet the anxiety of states is not the only anxiety that needs to be addressed.   Residents of many states, and certainly within “Least Developed” contexts, also have need of assurance.  While the quality and trustworthiness of governance was not a major concern for the report, it is a concern for many who will be affected by graduation-related decisions made largely by governments in collaboration with donors and major policy partners.   And there are legitimate trust issues directed at many governments and international institutions which become, as with college students soon to graduate, particularly acute during times of transition.

Other UN events this week principally involving Burundi (Least Developed) and Uzbekistan (Middle Income) illustrate dimensions of trustworthiness that affect more than a few states.  For Burundi, which has been seeking to transition off the agenda of the UN Security Council while remaining tethered to the UN Peacebuilding Commission, their strategy seems focused on simultaneously seeking development assistance while keeping the UN and other international agencies at arms-length when it comes to fulfilling human rights obligations, ensuring safe return of displaced persons or managing corruption.  In this, Burundi is clearly not yet on the same page as many of its donors (nor the many Burundians who occasionally debate their future on our twitter page).  The government’s argument is a bit like the teenager who demands their allowance and then insists that parents “stay out of their business,” not the best formula for trustbuilding, in our view.

As for Uzbekistan, they presided over a fine meeting this week on the Aral Sea, what was once the largest lake in the world is now reduced over the course of a single generation into what the distributed report referred to as a “lifeless wasteland” with major implications for biodiversity and human well-being. While much of the session was focused on initiatives to “restore optimism,” stimulate livelihoods and push back desertification, some spoke openly of “moving populations” who had prospered in the Aral Sea region for many generations and who had little or nothing to do with the ecological carnage that now surrounds them.  Moreover, there were no apologies issued for the delays in response, no clear assessment of the “steps” that led the Aral region from water to dust, no convincing explanation of how the “environmental consequences” of what the SG referred to as one of the great “ecological catastrophes” of our time could have escaped our collective attention for so long.

Collectively, we were tardy and even negligent on the rescue of the Aral Sea just as we have been on Syria, on Yemen, on climate threats, on weapons proliferation and a host of other issues that have serious consequences for how much trust governments – especially governments in transition – can reasonably expect from their own people. And unless we are prepared to pay as much attention to the trust dimensions of graduation as to its metrics, unless we are willing to “trace our steps” while preparing to step out again, we will continue to struggle getting states to transition their contracts with UN and funding agencies into a broader and more fruitful contract with their own people.

Back to campus, we all remember graduation speeches filled with pious declarations about the future and sometimes-ironic advice about how to get there.  Here’s another, perhaps-also-pious suggestion for individuals and states alike:  If we want to ensure progress on development and conflict, on human rights and environmental decay; if we want to ensure that developing states stay “graduated” and can build stronger bonds of trust with their constituencies; then it is important that we elevate our commitment to start on time and remain thoughtful throughout. While most of us continue our struggle to “graduate from ourselves” so to more effectively embrace an uncertain future, we must also insist that our leaders do likewise.