Archive | May, 2019

An Urban Revolution in Medellin, by Claudia Lamberty

30 May

Editor’s Note:  Claudia has been with us now for a full year.  For the past three months, she explored ecological and design transformations across post-conflict Colombia.  And like many who have recently visited the country, she was particularly moved by the nature, culture and urban design that characterize modern Medellin.  

Within the city limits of Medellin natural jungle sprawl and urban materiality share a graceful coexistence. Mystic trails and luscious parks drape over concrete and comfort the wanderers. While simply strolling about the city you’re encouraged to submit to the sanctity of the natural world. There’s a certain ingenuity in the way Medellin’s ecology can both charm and overpower the pedestrian.

The mystique of urban space built atop a tropical jungle does not stop simply at buildings and trees. Wondrous bronze and wooden sculptures punctuate the city’s tropical gardens and sidewalk landscapes. It would appear that Medellin is attempting to master the integration of urban landscape design with the careful and sensitive adornment of representative and semi- abstract forms. Commissions serve to empower local artists as they become the illustrators of their country’s speckled and increasingly hopeful narrative.

Built within a valley of steamy rolling foothills, the generous fertility of the land has long contributed to the region’s narcotic-related violence. The city of Medellin is Colombia’s second most populous city and was once considered ground zero for a raging civil war. For over fifty years bloodshed has plagued both the reality and reputation of the city and country.

Notably, the Colombian Government’s implementation of the 2016 Peace Deal with FARC rebels has created an opportunity to fully embrace social revolution and innovation together. The city’s emergence into a post-conflict reality has encouraged locals of all disciplines and backgrounds to thrive amidst the prospect of a tranquil Colombia. Most admirably, Medellin’s nuanced canon vows to keep its promise regarding the protection and empowerment of its citizens.

A celebration of reclaimed agency translates into the material redesign of Medellin. Through the experimental technique “Social Urbanism” Medellin’s municipal government channels development efforts through deliberate and carefully curated environmental design. Colombian architects, engineers, and artists strive to apply their creative prowess towards opportunities for peace and security. Conscientious integration of open-air public space, public art, installations, manicured trails, playgrounds, and elaborate transport systems, together with the development of once unlivable neighborhoods all demonstrate the city’s commitment to rebuilding.

Discrepancies in material, style, and design vary. However, intentions to amuse and enchant the spectator remain consistent. The subconscious is stimulated when confronted by material design amid this tropical playground. An alluring combination of natural whimsy distracts from the ”weight” of political-economic ideologies and potent senses of self-absorption that plague modern societies. In Medellin, tactful landscape design and public art are integral to socially positive development. The integration of art and landscape design in public space has the capacity to reinforce collective consciousness and conceptions of what it means to be human.

It would be naive to assume that civil strife has vanished completely. Corruption, inequality, land disputes, and drug production continue to fester. While influxes of Venezuelan refugees pour into Colombian border towns and urban centers, climate-related threats beckon uncertainty in agricultural output and the arrival of more frequent natural disasters.

Implementation of the peace deal is only the beginning of a reconfigured Colombia, and a strengthened culture of urban design and landscape architecture will surely not solve these deep- rooted issues. However, the country’s urban centers are finding the courage to display their renewed identities and there is considerable power in this. Colombia, and Medellin specifically, are now demonstrating to the rest of the world how ecologically conscious urban design can serve as a catalyst for maintaining peace and evoking a revolution of the spirit.


Cooking School:  The UN Primes for Community-Driven Peacebuilding, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 May

Clean Cooking

It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan. Eleanor Roosevelt

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.  Calvin Trillin

For a moment, or a second, the pinched expressions of the cynical, world-weary, throat-cutting, miserable bastards we’ve all had to become disappears, when we’re confronted with something as simple as a plate of food.  Anthony Bourdain

Cooking is a kind of everyday magic.  Juliet Blackwell

When the leg does not walk, the stomach does not eat.  African Proverb

This was another diverse and busy week at the UN, literally overflowing with potential policy significance as well as more than the usual number of government and UN Secretariat interventions reminding us that this state-centric institution is rightly judged less by what we have to say about global policy and more by how we impact the lives of people on the ground.

One key to this impact for the UN is its peacekeeping operations, an increasingly complex and multi-faceted undertaking that seeks to blend nationally-seconded contingents (often with “caveats”) and then engage them in what are often a staggering array of tasks – from the physical protection of civilians and UN personnel to community outreach, support for elections and peace processes, and even the projection of force in areas where insurgencies threaten.

This week, UN corridors were filled with women and men in uniform, in part to participate in moving ceremonies to honor the fallen and in part to help address what the Republic of Korea referred to as our “reality gap” that places insufficient attention on what it called “holistic” and “prevention-oriented” responses to conflict.  The USG for peacekeeping LaCroix made a complementary point during the peacekeeper honoring ceremony when he noted that the safety and effectiveness of peacekeepers requires, among other things, that peace operations be tied closely to a political process that “can advance lasting solutions” to conflict.

To the UN’s credit, despite the limitations inherent in our collective policy bubble, there has been in recent years much more of an effort to ascertain the multiple dynamics and expectations of peacekeeping missions beyond ceremonies honoring the service and sacrifices of peacekeepers. To our mind, this is more important than it might appear.  In the US but surely elsewhere, people across the board seem to know less – and in many instances care less than they profess – about what military personnel do “in our name” than at any point in my lifetime.   We have written about this before and won’t repeat it here, but the substitution of what a recent Washington Post article calls our “sanitized way of remembering our troops” for a deeper attentiveness to the complexities of security threat and response, is both demeaning to the troops and dangerous for the rest of us.  We need to know more and care more about military matters regardless of our stances on the use of armed violence; this in part to guarantee that troops are not needlessly sent into harm’s way, but also to help ensure that those so sent (and the weapons that accompany them) are not doing significantly more harm than good.

Thankfully, the UN continues to wrestle sincerely with the many challenges of peacekeeper safety and effectiveness.  Moreover, led by several current UN Security Council members, notably Peru, Poland, Belgium and Indonesia (May’s Council president), we have witnessed a more robust, if still subtle shift in peacekeeping discussions; combining concerns for force generation and legal accountability mechanisms for abuses committed with an interest in communities – not only their concerns and impediments, but also their capacities to build and keep the peace.

Just this week alone, the aforementioned states and other stakeholders reinforced the importance of enabling greater community resourcefulness in the service of peace.  In Friday’s helpful Arria  Formula discussion on the relationship between peacekeeping and peacebuilding, Peru reminded colleagues that guaranteeing access to services and resources people need to improve their family and community circumstances is critical to peacebuilding success, especially to what the Ambassador referred to as the “recovery of the social fabric” after conflict.  Belgium was even more pointed, noting that at the end of the day, “states don’t make lasting peace so much as people do.”  This echoed Belgium’s excellent intervention during this week’s Security Council debate on protection of civilians in which it urged peacekeepers to “master the skills of community engagement” and remain attentive to the ways that “communities remain essential to peace.”

As Thailand rightly noted during that same debate, a durable peace is much less possible “when civilians and communities feel themselves under threat.” And as I was reminded this week by one of our remarkable former interns, not all of that threat is attributable to matters such as terrorism and corrupt governance.  Indeed, much is related to circumstances affecting families and communities, circumstances that the UN has pledged to address in other conference rooms, in part by exploring how best to help people access public services and ratchet up the contributions they are capable of making to the building of more peaceful societies.

One of those human security-related “circumstances” raised this week was on our collective progress on Goal 7 of the 2030 Development agenda related to “affordable and clean energy.”   One speaker after another conveyed the news that while some strides have been made on issues such as “greening” our energy sources and the electrification of rural areas, we are now (as a recent set of policy briefs makes clear) “playing catch-up on almost all of our energy goals and targets. For instance, we are still widely subsidizing fossil fuels and using available energy resources in inefficient and uneven ways.  And despite growing public interest in sustainable energy options, we remain reluctant to finance the full (if socially complex) shift to renewable energy resources despite the many climate and employment benefits that would thus accrue.

But perhaps more germane to this post, as explained by UN Energy co-chair Rachel Kyte, we also remain reluctant to “think about the people behind the numbers,” the children without power in their schools, the persons displaced by conflict who lack even the most basic access to energy for lighting and communications, the mothers (and fathers) for whom “clean cooking” is still a pipe-dream.

This issue of clean cooking touched me deeply.   My own cooking skills are barely sufficient to keep me upright, but I have many friends and acquaintances –including married folks living in a St. Louis (US) suburb — for whom cooking is a major form of self-expression, a joyful bonding exercise that contributes to their general well-being well beyond mere nourishment, providing a respite from our “world weary” selves.

Thus it is sobering to consider the many millions of people worldwide who must cook but who cannot cook cleanly, those who may well face gendered food insecurity and related struggles to provide family sustenance, and yet whose cooking may inadvertently become a death sentence for themselves and others.  Indeed, well over 3 million people each year die as a consequence of cooking without access to the (often simple) equipment and ingredients that could make it safer. Even during a week filled with testimonies to fallen peacekeepers and conflict victims, this narrative saddened me.

It may seem like a long distance from peacekeeping missions to the “everyday magic” of clean cooking, but it isn’t really.   If Brazil was right this week – if effective and robust community skills and resources provide the formula best able to fill our “protection and accountability gaps”– then we have a responsibility to ensure as best we can the general well-being of those community members, to listen more and impose less, to recommit to access to the health, food, energy and other basic needs that will allow citizens, peacekeepers and diplomats to build (and sustain) a durable peace together.

In the Security Council this week, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister insisted that, above all, “We must not let the people down.”  To get there, we have much still to learn about both the abundant skills and often-simple needs that remain resident in our communities. Much like with military matters, our attentiveness to the complex expectations, needs and assets of diverse populations will help us monitor, plan and collaborate for building peace with greater effectiveness.

Editor’s Desk: Moving the UN Closer To its Masterpiece, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 May

The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason. T. S. Eliot

Growing a culture requires a good storyteller. Changing a culture requires a persuasive editor.  Ryan Lilly

Focus on making yourself better, not on thinking that you are better.  Bohdi Sanders

Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece after all.  Nathan W. Morris

One of the satisfactions of being inside the UN each day is to see the multilateral system generating effective outcomes:  elevating the formal status of indigenous people and persons with disabilities; calling practical attention to our (so far) too-tepid responses to threats from our plastic-filled oceans, our rapidly warming climate and our shrinking biodiversity; dodging bombs and bullets to reach literally millions from Yemen to the Central African Republic with humanitarian aid; helping states like the Gambia transition to more inclusive governance, Burkina Faso hold the line on a fresh wave of terror attacks, or Bangladesh manage its Myanmar-responsible refugee crisis.

But we also recognize that world remains messy with so divergent policy goals, so many values and expectations, so many vested (and often unacknowledged) interests.  It is also “messy” in the sense that the institutions which have been in the forefront of efforts to navigate and even “referee” the mess, including the UN of course, have been and remain intensely political in nature, not only in terms of the “politics” of negotiating some version of consensus, but “political” in the sense of telling less than the truth we know, the truth that serves the interests of our national policy hierarchies but not necessarily the needs of the global commons we allege to represent.

We have made this point before, but it bears repeating here:   we have enabled formation of a “culture” within our multilateral settings where “straight talk” is too-often at a premium, where norms and resolutions are not expected to be implemented, and where articulated policy preferences and recommendations mask as many dimensions of our sometimes existential problems as they clarify.

This past week at the UN was in part an exercise in why the system where we spend our days could use an editor of sorts for organizational culture.   The General Assembly discussion this past Wednesday on “inequalities within and between nations,” especially in the introductory session, outlined  a growing crisis that many at the UN believe rivals climate and weapons of mass destruction as existential threats to our future.  As often this year, GA president María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés set a tone that was part restating the UN’s commitment to fulfilling SDG 10 and part potentially culture-shifting storytelling, noting that we live in a world where some children are fortunate to eat once a day while others eat “whatever and how often they wish.”  She also quoted an African proverb that “injustice is like a snake that only strikes those who are barefoot.”

But what gave this session its “legs,” moving the room beyond mere outrage at the growing gaps between the rich and the rest, were the specifics provided by other speakers to address in practical terms the Egyptian Minister’s call for the rapid, intentional “removal of obstacles” to the reduction of poverty and inequalities.  States and other stakeholders shared diverse practices designed to improve domestic revenue streams, eliminate corruption, improve access to education and other public services, and even consider income floors for citizens.  With due regard for national context, what the session lacked was someone to clarify and distill common priorities and help build specific lines of support for hopeful and replicable initiatives by states and other stakeholders.  As the “operational activities” segment of the UN’s Economic and Social Council opens this week, we hope that more persuasive “editing” of the activities that can incarnate our development goals is on the near horizon.

But of course inequalities are not confined to the vast spaces separating barrios from corporate board rooms.  There are also inequalities – sometimes vast – when it comes to how states are able to manipulate the levers of power and influence the narrative in multilateral settings.  The Security Council is often “ground zero” for the display of such inequalities — permanent members who cast blame but rarely accept it; members who make statements that share a portion of the global truth, but mostly the portion that serves more parochial interests; members who adopt resolutions for others but are all-too-willing to bend international obligations to suit themselves and their allies; members who resist efforts at significant reform that could alter the very fabric of the Council’s  culture and working methods, including how it engages with the rest of the UN system.  The culture of the Council is not even remotely “edited frequently and ruthlessly” nor is there now any candidate for the task who would be trusted by more than a handful of members currently serving.

To find examples of the varying levels of policy effectiveness in a largely “unedited” Council, one would only have to consult last week’s meetings:  a largely successful review of the G5 Sahel Force with the Foreign Minister of Burkina Faso; an urgent session seeking to preserve what remains of the cease fire in Idlib, Syria in the hopes of preventing the renewed bombing that would signal a humanitarian disaster beyond what the UN and other agencies could possibly handle; a session on Yemen which celebrated the demilitarization of the Hodeidah ports while continuing to blame only Iran and Houthi rebels by name for the still-considerable violence across Yemen, mentioning Saudi Arabia only in praise for their generous donations to ease the suffering of the many thousands of Yemenis put at deadly risk by Saudi bombers (with weapons from the US, UK and others) in the first place.

And then there was the discussion on Cameroon, held outside the formal chamber in an Arria Formula format, but which nevertheless represented a breakthrough of sorts regarding a conflict with many victims that has directly impacted our office and that we and others have been warning about for many months.  Convened by the US, the session was noteworthy for the sometimes-gruesome truth-telling of USG Lowcock and two Cameroon briefers, especially the director of Reach Out Cameroon who was known to us from previous trips to the country and who gave what she called a “human face” to the vulnerabilities of so many living in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon – including those who have “lost it all” and are now “trapped in the bushes” or “living in petrol stations.”

We have sat with many of these images already; no doubt some of the diplomats have also. However, despite the concerns of the UK that the Council is now at risk of having to “discuss Cameroon more often,” there seemed to be little other interest in taking this matter on to the formal SC agenda.   There was no plan floated (let alone agreed upon) to confront Cameroon whose representative remained defiant throughout.  Some states were concerned about jeopardizing Cameroon support for counter-terror operations around Lake Chad and for the care of refugees from the Central African Republic.  Others were concerned about putting Cameroon on the formal Council agenda when risks to International Peace and Security were not yet persuasive.  Still others expressed concern about placing yet another African state on the Council’s agenda without clear strategies for entry and exit.

We were dismayed to note that despite the compelling testimony, especially from the Cameroon briefers, not a single other speaker directly referenced any segment of their stories.   Not one.  Caveats to a deeper involvement by this Council appeared to win the day.  “Partnership” with Cameroon commanded a higher priority than rescuing women and children from the bushes.

Beyond the Cameroon briefers, there were certainly truth-tellers in the Council this week – including ASG Keita on fresh threats from terrorist violence in the Sahel, USG Lowcock on the incontrovertible links between violence, deprivation and displacement in Cameroon and NW Syria, Special Envoy Griffiths on the “corrosive nature of extended war” and the still-perilous, still-fragile security and political context in Yemen. Added to that has been the constant and welcome refrain from May president Indonesia that the primary purpose of this Security Council is “to save lives.”

But if this SC as to achieve this “masterpiece” of a purpose going forward it must focus more energy on “making this better,” to  embark towards what could represent a profound cultural shift, one in which states are expected to take responsibility more often than they cast blame; a shift that encourages the “right deeds for the right reasons,” that confesses more often the “mixed” that constitutes motive, that not only consults the truth on the ground but allows such truth to fully infuse its policy decisions, that honors security alliances which don’t require women and children to hide out in petrol stations.

In our current, hyper-active and crisis-defined system, one that is driven by state interests and large state interests above all, I don’t know from whence that fully “persuasive editor” of our institutional culture is most likely to emerge. But for the rest of this year and perhaps beyond, our small team of interns and fellows will remain on the lookout.



Mother Load: Easing the Burdens of Clinging and Mourning, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 May


It’s the one job where, the better you are the more surely you won’t be needed in the long run. Barbara Kingsolver

Children are knives, my mother once said. They don’t mean to, but they cut. And yet we cling to them, don’t we, we clasp them until the blood flows.  Joanne Harris

No one is ever quite ready; everyone is always caught off guard. Parenthood chooses you. And you open your eyes, look at what you’ve got, say “Oh my gosh,” and recognize that of all the balls there ever were, this is the one you should not drop.  Marisa de los Santos

I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, Mother, what was war?  Eve Merriam

There is a part of her mind that is a part of mine. But when she was born she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore. Amy Tan

As virtually everyone recognizes here in the US and in much of the rest of the world, today is the “designated day” to honor mothers in ways both concrete and, at times, overly sentimental.

It’s been a while since I had a mother around to fuss over, but I am mindful this week of those in my life for whom the pain of mother-loss is still fresh, persons now immersed in a bit of holiday-inspired wondering if they did enough, said enough, honored enough while mother was still with us to ease and enrich her transition from this life to whatever might come next.

And then there are those new to mothering, including persons close to me, mothers who understand the challenges of the moment, who wince at the ubiquitous news stories about some of the issues on the UN agenda this week:  weapons of mass destruction and mass deforestation, climate-related displacements and the violence and lawlessness that seems to be engulfing places like Libya.  And yet, despite the possibility of bringing into the world a life filled more with challenges than satisfactions, these mothers have decided to bet on a human future in the most tangible manner possible – a life to which a mother will surely and steadfastly cling, even when it cuts.

Amidst the flowers and Hallmark cards, the birth notices and family brunches, there is yet another dimension of truth to Mother’s Day – the times when mothers must say a final and mournful good-bye to those “slippery fish” of children later felled by disease or armed violence, by circumstance or service.  This past Monday, the UN held its annual event honoring some of those “children,” those serving under the UN flag who perished while pursuing with often great courage what we all fervently strive to ensure even if we’re not always sure how:  a world at peace.

As one might expect, many of those honored fallen were serving as UN peacekeepers, including in some of the most dangerous conflict zones on earth – in Mali and South Sudan, in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.   The list of the fallen was painfully long again this year, a point also taken up in earnest the following day in the Security Council under Indonesia’s leadership, during which delegations explored the means – especially through better training and equipment – to more effectively ensure the safety of the women and men mandated within peace operations to protect others under circumstances that are uncomfortable at best. Delegations on Tuesday clearly reaffirmed their full support and respect for those who serve in peacekeeping operations or in related assignments such as in Hodeidah port (Yemen). Such support was aptly summarized by Ireland whose Ambassador proclaimed that “we are as proud of the blue helmet as we are of the Shamrock.”

Not only peacekeepers were honored at this solemn Monday event but also fallen humanitarian workers and food security experts; people providing shelter and provisions for refugees and other victims of violence and natural disaster; people facing “unfriendly fire” during the course of their service or simply reserving a seat on a malfunctioning airplane. Indeed, people who for various reasons were now being saluted and mourned at the UN by mothers and other family members, not because they were perfect but because they were loved; and because they willingly put themselves in harm’s way, at least we believe, not so much for the sake of the UN or other institution, but so that a world could be birthed in which armed conflict and its consequences are more a childhood curiosity than the pervasive threat we now experience in far too many places on this planet.

During this annual honoring, I often find myself wondering what it would be like to sit in a UN conference room and mourn the loss of a child, even a child who long-since “swam away” and might only have acknowledged episodically the place from which their life first arose. I can wonder but simply can’t imagine what it must be like to have the ball “you should not drop,” being dropped instead by a too-often violent and indifferent world.   What do you say in response to that?  Indeed what can anyone else say to narrow this chasm of “missing?”

The UN surely does not honor enough and often not appropriately.   As a community, we are too focused on protocol and position to recognize in the way we should the many who actually uphold the large and small promises that still take up residence in this place. But this Monday ceremony conveyed genuine dignity as well as the insistence that we will collectively, somehow or other, continue to “answer the call” until our yearning for peace, our dream of a war-free world, have finally been realized.

In this age of digital scheduling, I carry around (and actually use) a small paper calendar courtesy of a modest donation I made recently to the remarkable St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Inside that now-scribbled calendar are pictures of children in some cases stricken by cancer even before experiencing the diseases we more commonly associate with childhood. In some of those pictures are the parents, mostly mothers who, like so many others, must find within themselves the means to bear this deep wound, to remain strong and resolute amidst this existential threat to children who, much too often, have not yet learned how to ride a bicycle or tie their shoes.

The reason that we do what we do, despite the ever-apparent absurdity associated with limited resources and even-more-limited wisdom, is because we know that for every mother whose child is given a ray of hope by places like St. Jude’s, millions of others must watch – often helplessly –as violence and disease, hunger and displacement exact their horrible toll.  At the Monday ceremony, several speakers expressed “pride” that so many are still willing to take risks for the sake of global peace. Indeed, more risks will be required of all of us if we are to emerge only semi-scathed from this difficult period in our collective history. But for many of the mothers in the room, I suspect, pride was less in play than wishing for that day when no mother would ever again be required to sit and mourn the loss of her own flesh, the loss of one to whom she once clung tight.

For us and for many others around the world, the possibility of that day makes what we do every day worth our best effort. Blessings to all whom we honor and all who mourn on this Mother’s Day.

Endgame:  Enhancing Trust in the UN’s Complex Strands of Truth, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 May


At the least, we should leave flowers; at the least we should leave songs. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

The Dreaming is now. The Dreaming is always; forever.  Kate Constable

The purpose of any ceremony is to build stronger relationship or bridge the distance between our cosmos and us.  Shawn Wilson

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.  Philip Pullman

We live in a fragmented civilization with fragmented indoctrinations.  Talismanist Giebra

This was another breathtaking week at the UN.  From nuclear weapons and Syrian reconciliation to depleted fish stocks and the “re-deployment” of the UN development system, seemingly every available conference room was tied up with one policy urgency or another.

There were three other events this week that might seem disparate on the surface, but which are related to questions about means and ends regarding how the UN both communicates its own messages and also allows those who communicate differently to “have their say” in an appropriate and respectful manner.

These events were the plenary of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Committee on Information and the annual event promoting safety and protection for what has become (at least beyond the celebrity journalists who now fill our airwaves) a largely besieged journalistic community.

The Indigenous Forum took up a number of issues that have dominated prior events and that still resist resolution, including inclusion of indigenous languages at national level, modalities for full participation in the work of UN entities, land and water rights (including protection for those who defend those rights), health care (including attention to youth suicide rates) and respect for what many referred to as “indigenous knowledge.” Such knowledge highlights a way of relating to our decreasingly-biodiverse natural order that is more intimate and more interactive than our data-driven and abstracted policymaking. Our UN policy spaces have conferred on us the option of simultaneously “branding” our urgency regarding theis current “extinction moment” while turning at least a partial blind eye to the “business as usual” that props up our own lifestyles but endangers all that deign to come after us.

In the Committee on Information, the issue of languages was again front-and-center.   There has been a movement afoot for some time to within the UN to ensure both the full use of all six “official languages” and to increase sensitivity to those forced to learn one of these languages (primarily English) in order to be able to communicate in a wide range of diplomatic functions and participate fully in UN deliberations.

We fully support this movement.  An English-obsessive environment such as exists at UN Headquarters places undue pressure on UN interpreters but also opens undeserved pathways to participation for essentially monolingual persons such as myself who can barely order meals in another language let alone function without interpretive earphones in the complex policy environment of the UN.  And the commitment to function in all of the official languages of the UN is more than a matter of national or regional pride, more even than upholding the UN Charter.  It is about making space for different ways of knowing the world, the nuances of reality that are largely couched (and sometimes obscured) in the English that dominates this policy space; nuances which bear potential in all languages (certainly including indigenous ones) to cut through our measured bureaucracy-speak and give people stories and metaphors that are suggestive rather than definitive, that enable dialogue rather than merely instruct or even coerce.

This brings us to another core agenda of the Committee related to how the UN “sells itself” and its activities to governments and global constituencies.  While not all delegations are comfortable with what often seems like nothing more than a sophisticated UN branding exercise, few are willing to make the case for truth-telling, for communicating not only what the UN does (which is considerable to be sure), but also what it does not do, what it fails to do and, perhaps most importantly, what it is not well equipped to do.  Here we advocate again contextualizing our narrow “truth zones” to identify the promises made and not kept, but also to highlight the (too many) times we have willfully raised expectations beyond what the system is prepared to fulfill.

A cursory review of US (and now most other cultures) reveals that our current  obsession with branding ourselves, our products and our corporate and career interests has abandoned a more balanced and context-responsible outreach to a veritable feeding frenzy of (at best) half-truths designed to win followers and cultivate “rooting interests.”  What is true, as we have said before, is essentially what you can convince others to be true, obsessing on “facts” at one level but mostly only the “facts” that help make our cases.  And we cleverly avoid context, including the “context” that implicates us in the illusions that have given rise to our current crises.  Indeed, our many hours each week in UN conference rooms indicates that a failure to acknowledge the “contributions” we make to the very ills we are mandated to resolve constitutes a major impediment to the fulfillment of globally-essential tasks that no amount of positive branding can erase.

Collectively, we mostly now assume that we are being manipulated in the public sector to such a degree that it no longer piques our interest, at least on the surface.   We trust less and less of what we are told, but the implications of a so-called “information environment” that at its best now “informs” with willful selectivity remains largely unexamined.  Information, more and more, is a subset of our addiction to entertainment, often celebrating individual and corporate self-promotion, certainly enabling the epidemic need to have our biases and limitations confirmed rather than challenged.  To the extent that any of this is part of what the call for better UN “branding” implies, we need to study the implications for trust and truth more carefully.

And finally, we were present (as in years past) in the annual commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, a time to recall the many journalists worldwide who face harassment, prison, even death for sticking their noses (and their cameras) in the middle of illicit activity that people in power are all-too-willing to punish in order to keep private.  While the president of the General Assembly rightly lauded journalists for “holding up the mirror” to society, for telling the stories that no one else will tell, and for confounding the rumors that proliferate in this world, Lebanon’s Ambassador also lamented the “hyper-partisan” environment that we have created for ourselves, an environment that turns mirror-holding into a potential capital offense and provides cover for agendas that only barely (if at all) reference the “public interest.”

Perhaps the best address at this event came from the African Union’s Ambassador Mohammed, who advocated for “conflict-sensitive” journalism supported by international efforts to pursue the truth that can keep our policies on a steady and humane path.  The key here for me is the “pursue the truth” aspect, which I understand as the best available information set in the broadest possible human and policy contexts.  If we at the UN cannot achieve this level of truth-telling, if we cannot find the means to issue statements and tell stories that seek to enhance and inspire rather than recruit and isolate, we will in the end only strike more blows to our own credibility. As Warren Hoge noted at the same event, part of our essential (and courageous) task in this time of threat from authorities of all stripes remains to “debunk falsehoods.”  A good place to start, for we in the media and policy communities alike, would be with our own.

As many of you know, Avengers: Endgame (which I likely won’t see) has been breaking the internet for weeks complete with its staggering box office success in the US and in other countries.   For those who chalk this up to our endless search for the next big distraction, you might be missing half the point. It is also, I suspect, part of a deep and largely unfulfilled yearning for stories, stories that compel attention and invite people to dream, stories that connect people to larger realities than their ordinary lives ordinarily permit, stories that bridge the ever-widening gap between “our cosmos and us.”

I would prefer to have more of those stories coming from places like the UN.  But do we know how to tell them? And do we have the courage to ensure that the UN plays its part as an antidote to the “fragmented indoctrination” that defines our times?