Archive | 11:45 am

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

14 Jul

Law

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.

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