Bad Optics at the UN, by Rex Collins

19 Apr

Editors note:  For the past couple of months, New Orleans native Rex Collins has provided attentive commentary on a range of UN processes largely through his twitter feed:  .  Rex came to us, as have many excellent interns over the years, through the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program.   It’s been valuable for us to “see” the UN through his eyes, as the following post attests. 

In January I attended my first UN event as a Global Action intern: a Peacebuilding Commission meeting to elect new chairs and outline the 2019 work plan. As PBC members presented their aspirations for the new year, I carefully took notes; I was shadowing my new supervisor, Dr. Robert Zuber, and I wanted to make a good impression. But a few hours into the meeting, Dr. Zuber caught me off guard with a simple question: what’s missing? I had no idea, so I was relieved but embarrassed when he quickly revealed the now-obvious answer. Women, said Dr. Zuber. He was right. Almost two hours had passed, and not a single woman had presented a statement. The newly-elected PBC chair eventually recognized the first female presenters of the meeting–the EU representative followed by the Irish ambassador–but only after more than a dozen men had shared. Pardon the expression, but the optics were not great. After witnessing this unfortunate display in the PBC on my first day, it has been surprisingly easy to spot similar scenarios at the UN–scenarios that the outside viewer would perceive as awkward or contradictory to core UN values. In fact during my last two months at the UN, this concept of ‘bad optics’ has emerged as an inescapable, recurring theme.

The next time I observed ‘bad optics’ at the UN was just a week after the PBC meeting. I was sitting across from Dr. Zuber in the Vienna Cafe, checking my emails and enjoying a banana. When I finished my snack, Dr. Zuber asked for the peel so that he could bring it to a composting facility later that evening. This request puzzled me; surely the eco-conscious UN provided compost bins in its dining areas. But when I surveyed the cafe, there were none to be found. This was a surprising revelation, considering the UN recognizes composting as a viable tool for climate action and sustainable development. The UN SDGs website even encourages “average” people to compost in a subsection labeled “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World.” The UN advocates for composting and evidently thinks it requires minimal effort, so it would only make sense for the headquarters building to enable staff and guests to responsibly dispose of their compostable waste. But instead, the options are: 1) stuff briefcase with food scraps to be composted later, or 2) dump food waste in super convenient trash bin. Sure, it’s possible that many of the diplomats, security guards and interns opt for the former, but my guess would be that a good majority take the easy way out. I mean, I know where my banana peels would end up if Dr. Zuber didn’t take them off my hands every day. It’s embarrassing that in the same building where member states affirm their national commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the hallways and dining areas are filled with misplaced banana peels and apple cores, just waiting to burn in landfills and release more harmful gasses into the atmosphere. Not a good look.

A more consistent example of ‘bad optics’ that I have encountered at the UN is low attendance at events that should definitely have high attendance. In February, for example, the General Assembly kicked off the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The event was an opportunity to celebrate indigenous populations and the new 2019 Year Theme, but several delegations apparently had better things to do. Dozens of empty chairs and unclaimed placards lined the floor of the GA Hall. I was clearly not the only one who noticed, because the president of Ecuador began his own statement by criticizing the member states that skipped the meeting.

Other events at the UN have suffered from an embarrassing lack of participation by diplomats and other UN stakeholders. This was the case for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed last month. You would think a General Assembly meeting to honor victims of intolerance and prevent future discrimination would draw a sizeable crowd, but I was literally the only audience member in the balcony for a good portion of the event. To be fair, the GA Hall is a difficult room to fill, but the scale of the venue made the weak turnouts all the more visible and embarrassing in both cases. Besides, these events did not end up on the UN’s biggest stage by accident. They embodied themes that the UN prioritizes, at least on paper, so it looked pretty bad when so few people bothered to show up.

So why do optics at the UN matter? Sure, these instances can simply be awkward (e.g., the Russian ambassador highlighting the “femininity” of female colleagues in front of the predominantly male Security Council on International Women’s Day), but they can also have real consequences. For example, the cases I’ve observed reflect what some would see as a pattern of UN hypocrisy that can turn off onlookers. Students, civil society and other observant guests will likely take note of missteps like the gender imbalance in the PBC or the missing compost bins, potentially leading them to question the UN’s commitment to its own principles, including on the 2030 Development Agenda. Furthermore, ‘bad optics’ can be discouraging –for the indigenous guest speaker addressing a half-empty General Assembly, or the young woman and aspiring diplomat waiting too long to hear another woman’s voice. Such displays leave UN stakeholders feeling neglected rather than included or empowered. Finally, these instances normalize bad habits. Employees are more likely to disregard composting altogether when they witness coworkers trashing food waste on a regular basis, and delegations may become inclined to skip events when they see others doing the same.

Sometimes, whether we like to admit it or not, appearances do matter; when the UN appears to take shortcuts or break its own rules, it can lose credibility, alienate its audience and reinforce damaging practices. Optics aren’t everything, but the community of the United Nations would do well to take them more seriously.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: