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Deprivation Nations:  The UN Struggles to Measure a Sustainable Life, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Mar

species

An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language. Martin Buber

Your cravings as a human animal do not become a prayer just because it is God whom you ask to attend to them. Dag Hammarskjold

We’re simply not as different from the rest of the animal kingdom as we used to think. Jane Goodall

You have to steer a course between not appalling people, but at the same time not misleading them. David Attenborough

Today we stand with the brains of hunter-gatherers in our heads, looking out on a modern world made comfortable for some by the fruits of human inventiveness, and made miserable for others by the scandal of deprivation in the midst of plenty.  Richard Leakey

The UN completed yet another busy and, from the standpoint of effective policy, uneven week.   The Security Council held its collective breath as it contemplated a way forward for peace in South Sudan, but also warmly welcomed back H.E. Miroslav Lajčák, former president of the UN General Assembly, who is now responsible for, among other things, coordinating the work of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) with that of the UN more generally and the Security Council more specifically.  In addition, several Council members sponsored a side event on the protection of health workers and facilities in armed conflict, a core tenet of international humanitarian law literally under assault in recent times.

Earlier in the week, the Peacebuilding Commission struggled with what seems to be an endless dilemma over how to navigate the challenge that is Burundi, specifically how to balance development and human rights commitments within a political and security environment that clearly (as evidenced by the conversations taking place on our twitter feed) alarms many stakeholders in Burundi at much higher levels of urgency than those of us in the policy community here in New York.

The week also witnessed abundant (and mostly welcome) references to International Women’s Day.  Amidst a few awkward “tributes” and near-zero-sum attributions of “exclusion,” the events and testimonies this week served as prelude to this week’s high-profile Commission on the Status of Women and also perhaps a bit of a blueprint for how we might successfully navigate other pervasive exclusions in economics, politics and peace processes that are directly related to ethnicity, race and social class.

Even more than these other concerns, the UN was dominated in recent days by ECOSOC’s Statistical Commission. Commission discussions can appear dry and disconnected at times, but are essential if we are to accurately track our collective responsibilities under the Sustainable Development Goals.  Some Commission side events — specifically one on “Knowledge and Politics in Setting and Measuring the SDGs,” hosted by the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung and the UN Development Programme and another on “Measuring Child Poverty in Sierra Leone” hosted by UNICEF —  were noteworthy for their acknowledgement of the statistical burdens that accompany fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals, but also of some of the pitfalls that occur when we employ reductionist data modeling, allow our investigations to be tainted by political considerations or access limitations, or fail to innovate data collection to respond to evolving understandings of community needs and expectations.

In this regard, the Sierra Leone event was a special breath of fresh air.   Moving beyond poverty indexed almost exclusively to household income, the speakers in this event spoke instead of “deprivations” that collectively provide a more accurate lens on conditions of poverty than income figures alone.  By attempting to measure a wider range of factors associated with the “quality of life” of children and families – housing, nutrition, education, vaccination rates, clean water access, even “connectivity” to the wider world — statisticians and UN officials together can insist that the data they now collect is much better able to contribute to more comprehensive and sustainable reductions in poverty, especially for children.

The skilled presenters also seemed mindful of the fact that their expansive indexes don’t necessarily capture all of the “deprivations” from which children in diverse urban and rural settings need to be protected.  Indeed, one deprivation that largely eluded “capture” is related to the need for a healthy environment, certainly for clean air and water, but also for healthy forests and the biodiversity they support – from large mammals to the exponentially more numerous (and equally-threatened) insects — essential to maintaining environmental well-being for current and future generations.

While threats to climate and oceans rightly dominate UN conference rooms, “other” environmental issues too-rarely appear on our common agenda.  This changed a bit this week as meetings to examine the role of “corruption” in the illicit wildlife trade and to prepare for the upcoming UN Forum on Forests brought together a number of stakeholders concerned with shrinking biodiversity and the forests (among other ecosystems) that support such life.  The corruption discussion was more elaborate, citing examples of the profligate and illegal wildlife trade made more profitable by virtue of the ability of traffickers to purchase inattentive silence from officials ranging from park rangers to environmental ministers.  Moreover, efforts to arrest and prosecute wildlife trafficking are impeded by funding limitations, themselves a product of an often indifferent public sentiment willing to endorse protection for only the most visible and iconic species – as though such species can possibly thrive independent of numerous “non-iconic” life forms on which their survival ultimately depends.

The original title of this piece was to be “animal crackers,” a form of warning about that time when our relationship to even the most visible parts of the current natural order will be confined to flour-concocted replicas rather than to direct and nurturing experiences.  Our current efforts to “save wildlife,” noble at one level, fail to communicate adequately the degree to which we are only “saving” what we ourselves have brought to the brink of extinction; moreover that we are “saving” mostly the top end of food chains that are literally disintegrating at lower levels, victims of our pesticides, our deforestation, our addiction to plastics, but mostly our collective indifference.

As I look out from the kitchen window of my apartment of many years on to a street that has been gentrified and layered in concrete almost beyond recognition, I can see only a couple of tired-looking pigeons and one solitary tree, and then only if I strain my neck.  While my neighborhood probably has more accessible “green options” than most in this city, the view out my window surely reflects deprivation conditions of a too-common kind, our too-often-unrequited longing to connect with the “great language” of the natural world of which we have so-far proven to be a mostly predatory component.  Thankfully, this “comfortable for some, deprived for many” world we still conspire to create lies in the “cross-hairs” of the 2030 Development Agenda, an agenda which reminds us that we are now well past the point where our planet and the human communities it labors to support can be healed with half-hearted or single-lens measures. Such measures fail on data quality but also fail to promote a vision for a world capable of shifting the “green” that enables our “cravings” into the green that nourishes and sustains our children, indeed our collective soul.

The ability and willingness of these national statistical experts to name and count the world that can nourish and sustain, that can underwrite hopeful policy for children and other living things facing often-unique configurations of deprivation, was among the most encouraging and gratifying aspects of a packed policy week.

 

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