Archive | July, 2019

The Race to Nowhere: A Summer Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Jul

Not Welcome II

Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.  Amelia Earhart

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,  I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.  Wendell Berry

Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. Maya Angelou

For a day, just for one day, Talk about that which disturbs no one. And bring some peace into your Beautiful eyes.  Mohammad Hafez

Rest and be thankful.  William Wordsworth

On Thursday, the UN’s General Assembly passed a resolution (A/RES/73/328) without a recorded vote that seeks to eliminate intolerance and otherwise increase its footprint towards a “culture of peace.”  In this resolution, the GA “condemned any advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, whether it involves the use of print, audiovisual or electronic media, social media or any other means.”  It also called upon Member States “to engage with all relevant stakeholders to promote the virtues of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, respect and acceptance of differences, tolerance, peaceful coexistence and cohabitation, and respect for human rights, and to reject the spread of hate speech, that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence.”

There is certainly much to be resolved about.  Children stuck in horrific limbo at the US border; LGBT persons facing new waves of open contempt in states from Poland to Brazil; anti-fascist groups being labeled as “terrorists” by authoritarian regimes; fresh threats to journalists and civil society as “space” to confront xenophobia and other social ills constricts; harsh responses to demonstrations on the streets of Moscow and Hong Kong; an internet flooded by images of violence and hatred that serve to recruit as much as to repel; and, in neighborhood after neighborhood around the world, “welcome mats” being pulled up altogether or replaced by messaging that deters and distances, that rejects and self-protects.

In sitting in the GA Hall as this resolution was adopted (without a vote and with little apparent energy), the question crossed our minds:  Who is this for?  Who precisely is the audience that this resolution is directed towards and to what end?  We of course appreciate the need for this GA reminder of our failures of human communion, our temptation to yank up the welcome mat at the first sign of discomfort, but just how many were listening?   And how many actually believe that this text represents a firm commitment by states to amend their ways, to cease the current wave of enabling discourse and discriminatory policies that have released more xenophobic genies from more bottles than we remembered we had stored?

Today in the Washington Post appeared a column entitled “This Week in Racism and Xenophobia.”  Given the power and intrusiveness of contemporary social media, we could surely publish a column like this every day,  full of officials and more ordinary people now-enabled to share sentiments that turn previously-passive xenophobia into a much more active aversion to the other.  But let’s be clear:  as much as we might feel entitled to hurl invectives at those “racist” others, as much as we might like to believe that we are the “children of light” saving the rest of the social order from itself, that light is quite possibly dimmer within each of us than we might otherwise imagine.

For in the end, we ourselves are the object of our own resolutions, we stand at the end of our own accusations of racist intent, we are the ones also needing healing and not just the ideological adversaries for whom we have, more often than we probably acknowledge, laid out our own “not welcome” mats.

This is not some “can’t we just get along” rant, but a call to greater portions of courage and self-reflection, a call to take a stand for the sanity and sanctity of the human race in ways that eschews self-righteousness and that embraces the understanding that neighbor regard is the only viable basis for a sustainable planetary regard.   If we can’t do the first, we will never be credible on the second no matter how much we have convinced ourselves (and our inner circles) otherwise.

Needless to say, as vacation season cranks up in earnest in our baked-to-a-crisp northern countries, we still have a bit of work to do, not the kind that never seems to “withdraw from us,” but the kind that reconnects and restores, that might even bring us back in touch with the “peace of wild things.” And may we allow some of that reconnection to refresh the state of our own being, a being that also secretly longs to “consciously separate the past from the future,” to find a peaceful and grateful place where we can get some distance from the ever-enveloping distractions that permit us to maintain the illusion that we have somehow graduated from schools that others are failing in.

As our northern days grow shorter and (for now) hotter, please pledge to take a day to “talk about that which disturbs no one,” to make some space without “forethought of grief” where we might learn what we must about ourselves, learning that will make us more effective back in the world of resolutions and policies that many of us claim to cherish, learning for a world that simply cannot manage any more rejection, any more enmity, any more negative stereotyping, any more humiliation.

Rest and be thankful.



Petty-Coat Junction: Deepening our Survival Focus, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Jul


Mankind accepts good fortune as his due, but when bad occurs, he thinks it was aimed at him, done to him, a hex, a curse, a punishment by his deity for some transgression, as though his god were a petty storekeeper, counting up the day’s receipts. Sheri Tepper

We dislike feeling inferior to an ideal. So away with ideals, with essences. The only ideals allowed are healthy ones — those everyone may aspire to, or comfortably imagine oneself possessing. Susan Sontag

But like infection is the petty thought: it creeps and hides, and wants to be nowhere–until the whole body is decayed and withered by the petty infection. Friedrich Nietzsche

More than jealousy or possessiveness pettiness kills love.  Marty Rubin

In a week characterized by considerable ugliness on the political front in the US and elsewhere as well as new threats of armed confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz, there was another story that penetrated our news cycle, a story that once upon a time united old and young in a gaze of genuine if temporary wonder, towards a story of courage, ingenuity and attentiveness that managed to put humans on the surface of the moon and (perhaps more miraculously) return them safely to the mother planet.

The genuinely glorious story being shared at that time wasn’t entirely as it was told.   We know now that US President Nixon was preparing a speech in the event that the astronauts ended up marooned on the lunar surface or failed to connect back with their orbiting ship.  We also know that, amidst a sea of men in shirts and narrow ties sitting in front of what for us would be oldest-school computer screens, there were remarkable (unknown) women performing essential calculations and making other contributions that kept the mission on track.

There are always so many more involved in our great human endeavors than make the headlines, people who can pay close attention to detail while keeping their gaze focused on the grand achievements we have chosen — or been forced — to pursue. We need more of these people. Too many of us allow ourselves to drown in minutiae, fussing about many things that have little connection to a narrative any larger than our own comfort and convenience. Too many others of us have somehow been convinced that “caring for the world” absolves us of the responsibility to contribute to the practical success and well-being of our neighbors and communities.

We must recognize that, despite a stunning array of human accomplishments since those days 50 years ago — in engineering and medicine, in agriculture and communications — few could only approximate the consummate wonder of that “one small step,” a step that signaled a mingling of technical competence, human determination, a grand and compelling vision, fidelity to detail, community-care and a bit of good fortune that might serve as a template for the next iterations of our sometimes great and sometimes greatly-flawed human adventure.

Leaving the conspiracy theorists aside (as we should always do), some people I know actually did feel as though space travel had robbed the moon of some of its romance, that having astronauts in thick suits leaving their footprints on lunar soil took a bit of the mystery out of a ball that in its full splendor has helped inspire and navigate harvests, explorations and innumerable human relationships.

But astronauts on lunar soil was not, as I recall it, the most powerful image from this quest.  That honor was bestowed on the image at the head of this piece, an “earthrise” that had first captured our imagination in an earlier Apollo mission, but which communicated a paradox that still haunts and inspires me – a remarkable human endeavor emanating from what appears to be a fragile blue ball, a ball that for most of our history (and from our narrow vantage points) has seemed endless, impervious to destruction; a ball that we believe could absorb our seemingly-boundless greed and overly-narrow ambitions, and continue to deliver enough bounty to sustain the needs of at least most of us, and some quite a bit beyond that.

This ball that we have so taken for granted for so long looks modest even from the standpoint of our nearest terrestrial neighbor, so vulnerable and isolated rotating in the dark void of space, appearing as though it could literally break apart through acts of violence or willful neglect.  The predictability on which our lives depend belies a blue globe seemingly now in perpetual motion, shaking and storming with a force for which we are only rarely prepared.   This “third rock from the sun” on which we have built our ambitions – both epic and petty – is less a rock in the end than an organism under great stress, one needing more care than we have yet demonstrated our capacity to provide.

Even as a youth I had  large expectations for that first “earth rise,” expectations that we could collectively temper and even cast aside our excess consumptive habits and personalized ambitions, our petty grievances and social hierarchies,  and allow it sink in just how close we are now to a “junction” where our cleverness is simply insufficient to get us past our current extinctive threats.  There is a resolute narrow-mindedness that permeates so many of our cultures now, some of which leads to overt defensiveness and hostility, other of which speaks of indifference or even of a willful disregard of both the carrying capacity of our planet and of our own creative and practical generosity.

Thus, the expectations of my youth have remained largely expectant. At the UN we just completed the Ministerial Segment of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.  As mentioned last week, the HLPF serves as a significant forum for the review of progress on several sustainable development goals, including those goals related to climate, to inequalities, to partnership, to our children.  But as the HLPF wound to a close, some of us were left with the impression that we still share too many powerpoint graphs and too few stories of human imagination.  We still place too much emphasis on what our political and economic leaders are doing (and sometimes only claiming to be doing) and not enough on the extraordinary local initiatives, nurtured and sustained by diverse communities, that are ripe for replication in these discouraging times.  There was a bit too much bureaucracy-speak, even among NGOs, and not enough on humanizing our threat responses in ways that could motivate us all to move beyond our too-small comfort zones and embrace a grander vision of a planet at peace.

Regardless of levels of inspiration towards a more sustainable world, regardless of the magnitude of our current, compelling human quest, we can of course still choose to turn our backs, cover our ears and simply walk away.  But let’s be clear:  much like with the side-view mirrors on our automobiles, the disturbing images we seek to leave behind are quite a bit closer than they might otherwise appear.


Summer Sale: The UN Shares its High Level Merchandise, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jul


Sharing your knowledge and experience without trying to sell yourself sends a greater message of engagement and authenticity.  Create Wealth Communities

The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway. Michael Pollan

Don’t burn your bridges until you build better ones.  Matshona Dhliwayo

The weeds keep multiplying in our garden, which is our mind ruled by fear.  Sylvia Browne

On a week that witnessed more bombing of civilian targets in Syria and Yemen, migration-related callousness in the Americas, and an early start to what promises to be a formidable hurricane season, the UN community gathered in large numbers to assess progress (or its lack) on fulfilling our collective obligations to the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The High Level Political Forum (HLPF), convened under the auspices of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is (for now at least) the place where development progress is assessed at global levels (this year with a focus on goals on children, climate change, peaceful and inclusive societies, partnerships and ending inequalities) but also at national level through a process of Voluntary National Reviews.   In the plenary sessions this week (and next) governments have largely proffered narratives that highlighted actions (allegedly or actually) designed to make their societies – and those others to which they contribute — more equitable, just and resilient to climate impacts.  In some instances having young people deliver those highlights added a dimension of urgency to the proceedings as these are the people who will benefit – or suffer – depending on our collective fidelity to our development promises.

The plenary sessions have been both supplemented and often even inspired by a full schedule of “side events,” most often taking the form of collaborations between (mostly larger) civil society organizations and government missions.  In these settings the deliberations were more focused and sometimes even more thoughtful, often referencing the release of reports from groups seeking both to influence the larger conversation and (at least as important to many groups) put them in position to win new or renewed funding from member states.

Some of these reports added good value, including the annual Spotlight Report assembled annually by the Global Policy Forum, a report by WaterAid that examines deficits in global sanitation (including neglect of sanitation workers), and a report authored by Kavitha Suthanthiraraj, our former international coordinator now with Save the Children Australia, looking at the underinvestment in ending violence against children in the Pacific region.  A fourth report launched this week by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime examined statistics on homicide.  While not officially a side event to the HLPF, this was one of a number of discussions held elsewhere at the UN this week (including a Peacebuilding Commission event on Chad and a Security Council review of communications with peacekeeping stakeholders) that are contributing in their own way to the general pursuit of peaceful and inclusive societies.

The blurring of important development content and salesmanship is something we’ve grown accustomed to in UN headquarters.  NGOs and UN Secretariat offices are constantly on the prowl for funds and not without cause.  Taking care of people can be expensive business and, as with the SDGs as a whole, it is important that promises to constituents made are promises kept.

On the other hand, it is also important that we don’t lose sight of the differences between selling and discerning, the ways in which we accommodate donors (especially government donors) in side events by engaging in a version of what speakers most often do in plenary – sharing the attractive parts of our stories while overlooking the warts and gaps that might create a less-enthusiastic environment for states looking to build their own brands with “bricks” supplied by the groups they choose to fund.

Unsurprisingly, it is precisely the warts and gaps we don’t acknowledge that stand in the way of fulfilling our sustainable development promises.  During the HLPF, but really year round, if you raise a policy issue with a secretariat official or civil society representative, what you will get back most often is a recitation of “what we’re doing about it,” which is fair enough at one level.   But selling and branding aside, what we really need to know is what they’re NOT doing, what they are unable to do, the gaps and deficits that require more than funding, but also require the skills and ideas, the presence and voices of persons worldwide who don’t have a say, who can’t afford to be present in sessions like the HLPF, who must accommodate policy decisions made in places like New York by people who often could often not find their communities on a map, let alone understand their specific circumstances.

As the first week of the HLPF draws to a close, these are our other, albeit-modest insights about the current process and prospects for ensuring sustainable development.

First, we want to acknowledge an insight by Barbara Adams of Global Policy Forum (GPF) at their fine event on “voluntary national reviews,” that what we need to know from states in their voluntary reviews is not only what they are pledged to do more of, but what they must stop doing altogether.   Barbara rightly took issue with the language of “acceleration,” not because we don’t need to move faster on our SDG commitments (we do) but because such acceleration implies that more activity is, in and of itself, the only path to progress.

It isn’t.  As we noted in that same session, if individuals are having problems in their lives, part of the solution is doing things differently, perhaps shifting energy to making life more fruitful for others.  But part of problem solving is putting a stop to destructive patterns, to pull the weeds as it were that impede more healthy growth.  And whether it is ending an addiction to fossil fuels, cutting back on weapons manufacturing, refusing to pawn off our  toxic waste on cash-strapped countries, or transitioning away from unsustainable agriculture, some of what we definitely need to hear from states and other stakeholders are the things they are prepared to stop doing, and stop doing now.

Second, there is a tendency at this HLPF to couple poverty reduction, the promotion of social protection floors, etc. with efforts to end inequalities.   As we also noted at the GPF side event, as critically important as poverty reduction measures are, you can’t build a bridge (including to greater equality) from only one end of a divide.  Such structures will inevitably collapse somewhere near the middle.  The point here is that if we are truly committed to ending inequalities, a high bar to be sure, we must be willing to talk more openly about wealth and its concentrations that increasingly make more and more of us subject to the whims of the super wealthy, virtually ensuring that the circumstances of those living in poverty will improve at a snail’s pace relative to the wealth accumulation of those at the highest ends of the current, vast, economic divide.

Finally, we have noted an uncritical attraction from many HLPF participants to the notion of “partnership,” based in part on the quite-right notion that our pursuit of the SDGs, including those such as hunger and climate on which our performance is far from satisfactory, requires us to do more together.  As Switzerland noted this week during one HLPF plenary session,  we need to “decentralize” efforts on all the SDGs but especially on Goal 16, allowing communities to take more of the lead on implementation. But how do we give pay more than lip service to the many voices seeking to contribute to SDG fulfillment but without the resources to get any sustained attention from delegations, let alone from some of the large NGOs whose gatekeeping around the UN has become legendary?  And do “partnerships” mean anything more than the powerful stroking the interests of others in power?  Can we find a way to affirm the basic equality which we insist upon in the “partners” that support and enrich our personal lives?

We must.   Beyond the rhetoric of this HLPF, beyond all the good reports and welcome efforts on development system reform,  we are still largely in “selling mode,” telling the part of the truth about our current efforts that will win the support of those with support to provide but in a manner that is as likely to discourage global constitutents as inspire them.  They know the ways in which conditions are threatened.   They need practical confirmation on a more regular basis that we know this as well.

Some of the HLPF side events have, indeed, offered inspiration.  In addition to the GPF event on “voluntary national reviews” and other events mentioned here, there was an event this week on “Human Rights and the 2030 Development Agenda,” an event noteworthy for both its important cross-cutting perspectives and its commitment to truth-telling.  In addition to a fine address by the president of ECOSOC Inga Rhonda King, a key intervention took the form of reflections on presentations by Craig Mokhiber, director of the New York office of UN Human Rights.  Mokhiber has earned the reputation as a “straight-shooter,” and he didn’t disappoint at this event, urging us to get beyond our limited “technocratic sauce” and embrace this current (and perhaps final) generational opportunity to “get development right.”

Mokhiber and his colleagues have much to contend with within their own spheres as threats to human rights multiply from the bombing of civilian targets to attacks on journalists and the shrinking of civil society space.  But he was still able to recognize and articulate what he called the “development scars” from a misguided paradign which for too long turned a blind eye to elite-only decisionmaking, corrupt governance, grossly unequal access to justice and widespread rights abuses, virtually ensuring that the resulting development will be anything but sustainable. Such “scars” threaten again and again to undermine both trust and skills at community level and an honest and sustained policy enthusiasm at multilateral level.

If there is a preferred outcome to this HLPF, it is that we can turn a blind eye no longer, neither to the many threats remaining to sustainable development nor to the ways in which the half-truths of our development discourse undermine both trust and progress.  In this critical moment for sustainable development progress, we must recover the “engagement and authenticity” that comes from sharing with each other and across sectors the best of our knowledge and expertise more than from selling ourselves.

Risky Business:   Finding the Right Button to Push on Climate Change, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jul

Monkey on Ice

The second they stopped caring for each other is when they sealed their fate.  Courtney Praski

Anger, confusion, and a willingness to engage in bullying to get one’s way; these are all results of the current hot house climate we find ourselves in.  Diane Kalen-Sukra

Chad could put a solar panel on every roof in the country and yet become a barren desert due to the irresponsible environmental policies of distant foreigners.  Yuval Noah Harari

To save all we must risk all.  Friedrich von Schiller

All choices are fraught with peril, but inaction is the most perilous of all.  Frewin Jones

I’m spending much of this long holiday weekend sitting in front of both a computer and a fan running at full speed.  Though the most severe heat promised over the next two months has not yet come here, this current, muggy iteration is energy-sapping enough.

A quick indulgence of my Weather Channel obsession gives some indication of where we in New York might soon be headed.  From Japan to Western Europe and from India to Australia, devastating heat waves have brought much of life to a standstill.   In Anchorage, Alaska temperatures this week climbed to record levels evoking images of far-away Florida more than of the nearby Arctic.  And in Greenland, so much ice has melted that residents are now assessing the economic opportunities of selling sand to fortify the coastlines of other climate-impacted communities.

And it is not only the heat, but the storms that inevitably follow in its wake.  Already in this summer season we have followed Hurricane Barbara off the Pacific coast of Mexico. And while the Atlantic is relatively quiet so far, forecasters have predicted at least a dozen “named” storms for late summer and fall, with perhaps as many as four of these causing significant damage to places like Haiti and Puerto Rico which have only barely recovered from the destruction of last year’s hurricane season.

As temperatures and sea levels rise, as storms form more frequently and violently, the external risks to “communities of life,” human and other, become more apparent.   What is less obvious, perhaps, is the internal dimensions of risk, finding and acting on the fortitude and courage to match the severity of a deteriorating physical environment with what could only be called a fierce response, a fierceness that is not unlike how parents respond to a gravely sick child, or how neighbors respond to a catastrophic fire or flood.

This is not quite the same as the “panic” recently called for by youth activist Greta Thunberg.  Panic short-circuits a healthy and engaged relationship between our cognitive and emotional faculties.  Panic tends to freeze attention on threats in ways that undermine helpful responses.  It is an emotion well-suited to Hollywood horror films, but not as much to mobilizing the broad and determined public actions – from mass plastics removal and tree planting to ending our fossil fuel addictions – which the current “extinction rebellion” in which Greta is so prominent rightly demands of us.

Like most large institutions, the UN exists largely as a “panic-free zone.”  There is little hand-wringing here, few fiery speeches or raw emotions that might endanger diplomatic relations or resolution negotiations.   Indeed, one piece of consistent feed-back from the many young people with whom we have shared UN space over the years is the surprising lack of emotional content of most UN messaging.  What we collectively seem to be communicating, or hoping to communicate in any event, is that “we’ve got this,” that our strategies and assessments are at levels appropriate to the threats we now face.

Such messaging is not without its truth.  This past week alone, two events highlighted the strengths of UN policy response to the gravest of our current threats.   One of these was a dialogue on “special political missions” convened by Liberia as chair of the General Assembly’s Fourth Committee.  As budgets for UN peacekeeping are being slashed, SPMs are touted as the “one of the most effective tools…to advance preventive diplomacy, conflict prevention and peacebuilding” in partnership with national governments and regional organizations.   For us and for many in the room, the hope is that field-based SPMs can both help keep the peace and provide another pipeline of local knowledge and perspectives on how, as one example, threats from climate change are affecting local residents in real time – the storms and flooding, the droughts and related water emergencies – threats provoking local misery and forcing displacement on a vast scale.

In a smaller UN conference room, Switzerland and the UN’s office for Disaster Risk Reduction held a session focused on a review of the 2019 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction.  With remarks from UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, the event underscored the need for broader, more inclusive risk assessments that utilize the best available science and promote institutional and community resilience in the places most likely to be directly affected by climate-related threats.  Most important to us was the expressed view that “risk is complex and systemic, and can no longer be addressed hazard-by-hazard.”  Such systemic risk, as underscored by Swiss Ambassador Lauber, can best (and perhaps only) be managed within multi-lateral frameworks.

But management strategies on climate alone, no matter how clever and science-based they might be, are unlikely to stem this toxic and urgent tide.  Unless we are prepared to explain to our children why “adaptation” is the best our fragile societies are now capable of, we must keep our focus on climate change mitigation, on raising both our level of urgency (not panic) and the fierceness of our individual and collective responses.   We must change more behavior (beginning with our own), fix our broken politics, plant more trees, diversify our agriculture, create opportunities for greater citizen engagement, and tell more of the truth about the distances our clever, modern societies have fallen, and how we keep contributing to the decline.

And we must insist that our leadership embraces in its pronouncements and policies more clear-eyed and action-oriented assessments of the messes we have collectively gotten ourselves into.

This coming week, as many as 2000 academics, journalists and civil society representatives will descend on the UN for the 2019 High Level Political Forum (HLPF), a time to assess levels of progress (and deficiencies) related to our 2030 Development Agenda commitments at both national and international level.  Notwithstanding the deep ecological footprint associated with conducting this assessment, it is critical that we make the best effort we can to move beyond funding requests and organizational mandates, to remind diplomats of the virtual absurdity of sustainable development in a world where seemingly-intractable conflict rages, human rights are gleefully trampled upon, and more and more societies bake to a golden brown under a relentless sun.

Put simply, we need to risk more, to care more, if we are to restore more.   Inaction, or even action that is simply not commensurate with our current challenges, will not get us to a better world by 2030, a world where guns are silent, storms are milder, the displaced have recovered their homes, and panic is no longer an option.  We have a decade left to demonstrate the fierce commitments that can forge a genuinely sustainable path linking the management of climate crisis and its (for now) still-possible mitigation.

Of all the buttons on our policy console, this is the one that now needs to be pushed.