Moneyball: Sustaining the UN’s Mission in a Funding Crunch, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Oct

Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Susan Sontag

Our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects. Herman Melville

Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another. Umberto Eco

When we know ourselves to be connected to all others, acting compassionately is simply the natural thing to doRachel Naomi Remen

That I can have my toe in the ocean off the coast of Maine, and a girl my age can have her toe in the ocean off the coast of Africa, and we would be touching. On opposite sides of the worldMegan Miranda

As many of you who read these posts are aware, October is a busy, stressful and sometimes inspirational month inside UN headquarters.  The heads of state have all gone home, leaving it to the UN-based diplomats and those who have their ear to formulate proposals, craft resolutions and release reports that keep the UN as on task as it can ever manage to be.

We have noted this before and likely will again, but the frenetic activity generated largely by the six General Assembly Committees is perhaps unique in its scope, if not in its connectivity to constituents or complementary issues.   Whatever else one might say about the UN, it has established processes to examine and address virtually every conceivable threat to human dignity and planetary health.  In the past week alone, delegations weighed in on issues from food security and the rights of migrant children to nuclear weapons modernization and the international law implications of counter-terror operations.  And there was plenty more where that came from.

Moreover, the Peacebuilding Commission and the GA’s Fourth Committee held separate sessions focused on an examination of (often controversial) prospects for self-governance for the islands of Guam (US), Gibraltar (UK), French Polynesia and in what promises to be a particular success story for the PBC, Bougainville (Papua New Guinea).  As it was in the early years of the UN, self-governance has become a bit of a lightning rod issue for the UN, necessitating the organization of referendums on independence but also on plans for post-independence economic and social transition.  Getting small, self-governing territories to be viable as well as independent is a challenge that the UN is increasingly skilled in navigating.

And it wasn’t all talking either.  Several important reports and policy statements from non-state actors (or consortia of state and non-state groups) were also released, including Guidelines on Investigating Violations of International Humanitarian Law from the ICRC and Geneva Academy, and a Global Study from Independent Expert Manfred Nowak and NGO partners on Children Deprived of Liberty.  These studies have filled important gaps in a timely manner as we confront both more frequent violations of the laws of war and still-high levels of public indifference regarding the long-term psychological and physical impacts for children tossed into caged area or other unsafe facilities as though they were somehow less than human.

The UN, indeed, is taking on its full portion of human suffering and aspirations for a healthier, safer, more prosperous planet.  But busyness does not always translate into productivity, as we know, and the building suffered several “shocks” that called into question the UN’s ability to turn attention into sustainable relief for beleaguered global constituents.

One of these “shocks” is a familiar foe – the inability of the UN (specifically the Security Council) to maintain international peace and security, most recently in Cameroon, in Burundi and in the northern areas of Syria currently being “cleansed” of Kurds.  The costs of conflict remain staggering and not just in military hardware and logistics.   The climate implications of military operations, the toll of human suffering and displacement, the damage to the reputation of UN and the rest of the international community, the setbacks to sustainable development and an end to any pretense that we might have “graduated” as a species from our predispositions to predation and short-termism – this and more requires self-scrutiny of the entire UN community

The other “shock” is less familiar but not unpredictable – the announcement this week by the Secretary-General that the UN is facing a major financial shortfall for the remainder of this year that will force a curtailing of all but the most essential operations and possibly jeopardize payroll for UN staff, including those trying to raise children in the serially-expensive sites of major UN operations in and beyond New York.   This “record level shortage of cash” will likely have impacts not only on the work of the UN in diverse settings and contexts but, perhaps ironically, on the reforms set in motion that show promise in terms of making UN operations more efficient and, yes, cost effective.

Meetings of the 5th Committee of the General Assembly this week were sober but, unlike the SG, proceeded to “name names.”  As it turns out, only 35 UN member states have paid all of their assessments in full.  Other states have failed to pay their general assessments; still others are in arrears for responsibilities such as peacekeeping or criminal tribunals.  For all the talk about “preserving multilateralism” this would appear to be a classic case of “not putting your money where your mouth is.”

In fairness, however, assessments are only part of the UN funding story.  As we have noted previously, states have many specific funding interests (earmarked projects) and existing responsibilities to the UN, from trust funds to emergency humanitarian appeals for conflict-affected populations.  And of course they face the massive burdens associated with the Sustainable Development Goals, including assistance to states that need help with matters from food security to preserving domestic revenue.   Add to this a global economy showing signs of strain and a “host state” that has fallen behind most severely on its own pledges and you have a recipe for high anxiety around UN headquarters.

In addition, the UN’s many pockets of planet-saving activity have been in a funding competition for some time.  Indeed, virtually every side event which the UN hosts is as much an appeal to potential funders than to thoughtful clarity of how these pieces of welcome policy support and complement the UN’s overall mission.   Moreover, calls for “private sector” involvement are becoming more numerous and more urgent, raising serious questions about the ways in which corporate interests are rapidly becoming, next to large states, the most influential (and equally opaque) factor in how the UN does its business.  As the need for funds to sustain salaries and operations becomes more acute, the attractiveness of corporate lifelines is sure to grow, for better or worse.

For small operations such as our own,  funding is always precarious, thereby necessitating a certain flexibility regarding what we are compelled to do and what we must (temporarily we trust) put aside.  When resources dwindle, we can compensate in part through some combination of attentiveness, collaboration, gratitude and connection, making sure that the steps we take are intentional and directional, and that our means for conducting triage on the priorities that our resources and energies can sustain remains fully operational.

As a massive, multi-pronged and mostly cost-efficient global institution, the UN can’t replicate our ‘sit around the table” triage.   But funding limitations can force helpful conversations about what is at the core of our mission, how to sustain our promises to constituents for whom our lifestyles are hardly a major concern, nor for that matter is the lofty resolution language that only rarely touches the ground.

The busyness of October at the UN is both energizing and distracting.  We are engaged with so much now, seemingly more than we can process, more than we can communicate and, for now, more than we can afford.  As armed conflict rages and sustainable development goals head in the wrong direction, we will need to set clearer priorities, privilege connection over competition, and reset our bearings such that the relationship between the ’causes and effects” of this grand place will remain ever in front of us.

We are reminded that this current financial shortfall is only in part about the sources and implications of our funding.  It is also a test of our collective character, our ability to share what we have, continue to eagerly do the work to which we have been entrusted, and even make visible displays of compassion towards those many persons all around the world whose lives are a constant struggle to do more with less.


One Response to “Moneyball: Sustaining the UN’s Mission in a Funding Crunch, Dr. Robert Zuber”

  1. marta benavides October 13, 2019 at 3:59 pm #

    Dear Bob Zuber, this reflection is timely and needed, important to realize the work that in spite and often because of it, the UN points and frames urgent concerns and continues to press for peace as the guide and route for humans to live at peace in a healthy planet. Gracias for taking the time to provide it, and still relate it also to many of us making ends meet to carry this work in our countries and communities, and keep in mind the billions of people who each day create the miracle to make do. Many, me, great full. marta benavides – Cushcatan ( today’s El Salvador)

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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: