Archive | January, 2020

School Break: Learning Strategies Fit for our Future, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jan

Outdoor2

It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.  Albert Einstein

I am not a teacher, but an awakener.  Robert Frost

When the roots are deep, there’s no reason to fear the wind. African Proverb

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.  Socrates

The holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete. Paula Hawkins

I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room. Barbara Kingsolver

There is no school equal to a decent home and no teacher equal to a virtuous parent.  Gandhi

The UN had a relatively quiet week but not one without its disappointments.   A General Assembly preparatory meeting for the 2020 Oceans Conference exhibited little energy despite the urgency of ocean health in an age of melting ice caps and our self-inflicted “plastics Armageddon.”  In the Security Council a debate on the Middle East during which the US and Israel attempted to divert attention away from Palestine and towards Iran was accompanied by an Arria Formula discussion chaired by Russia and devoted to undermining the conclusions of investigators probing the use of chemical weapons in Douma, Syria.  As is so often the case, what could well have been an opportunity for “staying with the questions” of chemical weapons use became just one more political football as most members had made up their minds long before this Arria commenced and the Russians seemed determined (and largely failed) to use Douma report inconsistencies to call other chemical weapons allegations into question.

We have said this many times previously, and we say it again each semester to our new (and returning) cohort of interns – the UN represents an extraordinary learning opportunity but is not in any sense an extraordinary learning community.   We politicize questions and reporting with regularity. We rarely if ever ask the “next question” or stay with the questions on the table long enough to exhaust more than a portion of their significance. We generally fail to link the questions in one room with those taking place in others, nor do we ever examine the pedagogical limitations of the conference rooms in which our wilfull neglect of curiosity takes place, rooms that are much better suited to predictable political discourse than to kindling the flames we must light if our own and our children’s futures are to be secured.

Such pedagogical limitations within this UN space have implications for our efforts to promote SDG 5 and thus insure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” This goal is a particular priority for the current General Assembly President, HE Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, and he incarnated this priority in an all-day, High-Level, International Day of Education event this past Friday to promote SDG 5 implementation.  In his opening remarks, the PGA made reference to the gap between current levels of school enrollment (especially for girls) and the “skills” we will need to tap if we are to successfully pursue our sustainable development responsibilities.  Enrollment gaps matter, to be sure, and the PGA made a special plea to the international community to consider how to better serve (and finance) the educational needs of all children, particularly those “trapped” within zones of conflict.

In that same vein, Japan (speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends) noted that even improvements in “basic reading skills” can have positive implications for goals such as poverty reduction ane the promotion of “sustainable peace.”   And always-thoughtful Ireland highlighted the importance of “empowerment through learning,” and its “opportunity schools” that intentionally “break down cycles of disadvantage.”

Though I probably would never have said so when I was a teenager, classrooms clearly do have a role to play in securitng a more peaceful and sustainable future.  There are skills — including those related to “literacy” in all its forms — that classrooms are well suited to develop.  And in many parts of the world, classrooms represent a welcome escape for young people, escape from the problems in their communities but also an escape from the limitations endemic to those communities.   Classrooms managed by gifted teachers (of which there are thankfully millions around the world) can help young people work around “the holes in their lives” and kindle flames that will serve youth (and the rest of us) in ways that they can sustain for much of the rest of their lives.

But as much as we might value classrooms and advocate for more and better funded schools, there are also significant caveats, some of which were raised during the opening segments of this High Level event.  Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed herself noted the prevalence of classrooms in which “children don’t learn much of anything.”  She called for a “transformation in the way we interpret and value knowledge,” noting specifically the importance of learning which addresses hate speech and extremism and that can do much to narrow technology gaps.  The DSG understood that alongside the need to place underserved children in classrooms is the larger responsibility of schools and communities together to “prepare children for the world they are set to inherit,” including those aspects of the world that they may not be so keen to embrace.

As many of Friday’s morning speakers intimated, this preparatory task is one much easier said than done.   Once we shift our focus from merely expanding school enrollment numbers to addressing those millions of other children in danger of being left behind in this “decade of action,” the complexities of our educational task become apparent.   Schooling has positive implications for literacy and poverty reduction and can help narrow some technology access gaps.  Moreover, classrooms can provide stability — a comforting routine — where it is safe for some to open their minds and even their dreams in the presence of skilled and trustworthy educators.

But classrooms have several downsides which those committed to sustainable development must interrogate.   They can be places of competition rather than collaboration where the “winners” are able to escape the confines of their communities and build their own brands in far-away places.   Moreover, classrooms are only one of the places where children can learn what those on Friday agreed are worthy pedagogical objectives. Indeed, some of the most engaging educational encounters I have experienced — in most cases through the sheer brilliance of friends and colleagues — took place not in classrooms but in prisons, around campfires, in church basements, in art museums and cultural sites, around family breakfast tables.  Indeed, if we want children to build their base of knowledge and curiosity, we have to engage more of the places (and the “teachers” who occupy them) where children seeking to learn can learn best.

As we pursue the goals and targets of SDG 4, we need to ask more questions and sit longer with the questions we pose.  Are our classrooms well-suited, for instance, to teach empathy for those in need or those with less?  Are they places that can properly promote “place-based” learning — deeping the familiarity of young people with home environments and cultures — and then encourage youth to make local changes?  Can they help young people develop “deep roots” such that they no longer need to fear the winds which they will surely encounter over what we hope are long and fruitful lives? Are they places where young people can successfully overcome their limitations and practice the curiosity that will keep them learning long after their time in classrooms has ended?

Perhaps they can, but this is unclear.  Whhat is clearer, to us at least, is that education for sustainable development requires more from each of us and will likely require even more going forward. Indeeed much of what it requires is in our hearts and minds beyond our policy matrices and spread sheets.  We  must find a way to inspire caring in an increasingly indifferent world; to promote civic engagement and conflict resolution at a time when our politics seem so degraded; to encourage doing the right thing even when no one is watching; to help others to learn and succeed rather than incessantly calling attention to our own “accomplishments;” to see more clearly the links between how and what we consume and the fate of persons escaping flood waters from our denuded forests and melting icecaps or from the toxic remnants of our polluted waterways; to prepare people for the community responsibilities and employment opportunities to come and not simply those of the present.

The “future” that we ask schools, families and other educational influences to help prepare young people for is uncertain at best and, at the very least, such uncertainty is not to be laid at their doorstep.  If it is to be truly transformational, part of this “preparation” must involve a deeper commitment to modeling by the rest of us: modeling the civic and environmental engagement that we seek to inspire in the young; modeling mindfulness regarding the implications of how we live and what we share with others; modeling an “awakening” in ourselves of empathy and solidarity that we hope to arouse in our students; modeling a commitment to solving the problems on our watch rather than running out the clock and shuffling the game along to the next generation.

If truth be told, we’re not doing particularly well in this regard.  Friday’s sesssion embraced some elements of the “transformation” called for by DSG Mohammed, but largely without an examination of the “educators” in homes and communities that have been marginalized amidst our school-focused policy obsessions as well as the diverse contexts for successful learning that we have yet to fully embrace. Such contexts can change what young people know and how young people learn, making space for those who will never be able to grasp in classrooms more than a portion of what they will need to know and experience, feel and share, if their contributions to a more inclusive, just and sustainable world are to be fully experienced and duly recorded.

A flame not a bucket.  This is the educational agenda that the SDGs call for and that will take more than classrooms and their teachers to achieve.  If indeed we are committed to providing “inclusive and equitable” education for youth (as we must), then we need also to promote the duty of older folks beyond school walls (including at the UN) to help awaken youths’ best selves.

Power Strip: Opening Spaces for Accountable Governance, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Jan
They joined hands.  So the world ended.  And the next one began. Sarah J. Maas
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Martin Luther King, Jr.
If people get hungry they will eat their rulers. Protest Banner on the Streets of Beirut.
Take the power to love what you want in life and love it honestly. Susan Polis Schutz
Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.  John Steinbeck
Power changes everything till it is difficult to say who are the heroes and who the villains.  Libba Bray
On a snowy afternoon in New York, I tried to find an appropriate image for the heading of today’s post, an image of power that was not linked to destruction or subjugation or any of the other dystopia/rescue fantasy images that we so often link power with now.
I failed. Image after image I consulted was devoted to superheroes vanquishing one thing or another, skyscrapers under construction that block the sun, weapons firing and smokestacks smoking, all symbolizing conquest or “progress” that seemed predictive in their own way of a world hurdling towards its own reckoning.
I could hardly find any image that close to signified what our little Global Action tree tries to convey — the preservation and abundance of life, a bit of shady respite from the numerous coercive elements, a place of wisdom and reflection to help sort out the chaos of our inner and outer lives.  And so, this tree that many have found confusing or misleading, an image that has perhaps strayed a bit far from the hard security origins and purposes of this now middle-aged non-profit, our “tree” is the best symbol I could find to discuss a dynamic that has become vexing to some and hopeful for many.
I speak here about the slow, inexorable, sometimes painful shifts in global power, a dynamic that is hardly linear and is replete with its own inconsistencies and hypocrisy; a movement which we find encouraging at several levels but which is also generating significant, even violent resistance in many quarters of the globe.
In setting after setting, people are taking to the streets and demanding a voice on governance, on women’s rights, on climate; resisting in many instances the slide into authoritarianism and its style of leadership which insists that the restraints which they advocate for their political adversaries simply do not apply to themselves.  These power grabs are often encouraged and enabled by much of the populace, especially people who have long felt disrespected and neglected by their erstwhile “democratic” leadership and who believe, though probably without cause, that association with power harboring a pretension to absolutism will convey absolute benefits for themselves and their “tribe.”
This form of association with power seems more closely aligned with fear than any other single emotion.  And to be sure there are plenty of reasons to be fearful given the range of future-compromising global threats that we at the UN seek to mitigate on a daily basis.
But there is more for us to consider, beyond the polar melting, terror attacks and doomsday fortresses. Egged on by numerous forms of media that understand well our almost genetic attentiveness to car wrecks — metaphorical and actual — we are being fed a steady diet of images that drive larger wedges between already distant community interests.  We who already live too often in bubbles beyond the direct impact from what offends us or makes us uncomfortable are increasingly convinced that people are “coming for us,” coming for our families, coming to compromise our dignity yet one more time, coming to corrupt our children and immobilize their breadwinners, coming to impose their will on us in ways that merely patronizes our faith and values, that offers only a path back to an “old normal” and then discriminates (sometimes fiercely) against any who seek to fashion new social options.
And yet in the midst of this externally-motivated fear, in the midst of all the mistrust currently masquerading as enlightenment, the anger that only pretends to have a larger social purpose, there are signs of movement that can make the world more sustainable, more inclusive, even more democratic.
Just on our twitter feel this week, we have been regaled often by the determination of people to shift global circumstances without waiting for official permission.  Perhaps the best example came courtesy of Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze, a young person from Burundi who has been organizing tree planting (#GreeningBurundiProject) with other young Burundians as a practical contribution to climate change.   But more than that, he is enabling participation by young people in the future of his country, a country compromised in recent times by governance issues and human rights abuses, by electoral-related violence and the related exclusion of ethnic groups not aligned with the interests of the dominant political party.  The trees now being planted in Burundi thus herald a country that is slowly, inexorably becoming greener, but also we must anticipate, more inclusive and accountable to diverse citizen interests.
Another example spoke directly to this age now dripping with anti-Semitic venom. A touching video was re-circulated this week of Sir Nicholas Winton being honored by the many (now-adult) children he once rescued during the Holocaust, a remarkable process of rescue about which he remained silent for almost 50 years of his life.  For me the video was a moving reminder that the people who defend the defenseless and protect the innocent — from Auschwitz to Haiti and South Sudan — may not be “perfect” in any conventional sense, but they are incarnating the capacities that we possess in greater abundance than we have recently shown, capacities to re-weave our “garment of destiny” and also re-fashion human relations (including on power) in ways that can inspire rather than compromise our collective survival.
In its own cautious manner, the UN is also feeling some of the pressure to invest more in democratic accountability and move away from “consensus” structures that still freeze patterns of committee memberships and leadership in ways both gender-restrictive and Euro-centric.  Aside from the pervasive and well-documented (by us and others) determination to reform the Security Council, there were several events this week that underscored still-subtle but visible shifts in UN power dynamics.  For instance, the leadership handover of the Group of 77 and China from Palestine to Guyana was a chance for the UN to demonstrate the value of what Azerbaijan referred to as the “unity” of developing states, countries that represent the majority of UN membership but have yet to create a base of power that can ensure viable, inclusive, sustainable human security for more of the world’s peoples.
But they’re trying.  Earlier in the week the General Assembly took up a resolution opposed by the US and most European states, to expand what is known as the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ).  The resolution sponsored by the G77 sought to redress geographic imbalances in the Committee which have remained stubbornly in place for many years.  Despite budgetary implications in a time of fiscal limitations, G77 members affirmed in this resolution that inclusiveness long-deferred simply must be addressed, that the struggle to re-imagine and then incarnate power at the UN was worth the temporary fiscal inconvenience.
Closer to home for us, we continually honor the young people who grace us with their presence and who are ready and willing to share their skills and talents in ways that are neither competitive nor sentimental, that are not about grasping power but about shifting how we understand it’s functions and limitations, about ensuring that policy discussions more actively seek out the direct involvement of the people most likely to be impacted by policy decisions too often taken “on their behalf.”
These are relatively small windows towards broader participation, but (like our tree) they are symbolic of changes that seem to be pushing up through what are still relatively narrow openings.  At the briefing this week on preparations for the next G20 Summit convened by the president of the General Assembly, Germany and others noted the almost unimaginable concentrations of financial and political power in the hands of a few countries that control 90% of global wealth while being responsible for 80% of global emissions. This prompted fresh calls by member states for eliminating gross inequalities as well as fears from Japan and others regarding the potential of our under-scrutinized and rapidly “digitalizing economy” to increase inequalities even further.
The current march of political and economic power consolidation that many now largely accept as inevitable or even take for granted is now showing welcome cracks. But we will need plenty of courage and wisdom to widen those openings further and insist that the power structure that emerges is more inclusive of diverse aspirations, more enabling of mutual interest, more transparent and trustworthy, more devoted to planting trees than producing arms, more prone to joining hands and setting in motion a world in which we can all contribute, all participate, all survive (and perhaps even thrive).
This is neither a “soft” nor sentimental plea, but rather a realistic one.  If we have learned anything from this age of unaccountable governance and hegemonic economics, it is that where legitimate demands are repeatedly ignored, illegitimate demands are soon to follow.

Empty Shell:  The UN Seeks to Renew the Life of its Charter, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Jan

Globe

Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.  Rollo May

The master of the garden is the one who waters it, trims the branches, plants the seeds, and pulls the weeds. Vera Nazarian

One person with commitment accomplishes more than a thousand with an opinion.  Orrin Woodward

In dreams begin responsibilities.  William Butler Yeats

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.  Stanislaw Jerzy Lec

Late Friday afternoon at the UN, past the time when delegates, security officers and interpreters are expected to be at their posts, the Security Council barely averted a disaster to its own reputation as well as to the welfare of millions of Syrians who continue to face grave need in a long conflict that the Council has failed to end.

The disaster was averted through the positive energies of Belgium and Germany, co-penholders of the Council’s humanitarian resolutions who eventually accepted the compromise terms (dictated primarily by Russia) to restrict cross-border humanitarian access (by reducing the number of authorized crossing points) in exchange for the promise not to veto the extension of the cross-border mandate for Syria which would have otherwise expired at midnight Friday.

Sitting in the Council chamber, it was difficult to know how to react as the Council once again pushed the welfare of millions to the political brink.   That some cross-border access will continue to function beyond the bureaucratic impediments imposed by Damascus is a good thing; but that access was cut back when displacement and food insecurity threaten millions and when progress on ending the conflict is modest at best raises more questions than it answers about the long-term viability of a Council where partisan politics so often trumps responsible authority.

This is, of course, a time characterized by other unsettling events within and beyond the UN, including an assassination of an Iranian military leader, the unintentional downing of a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran and, perhaps most ironically, the decision by the US (as host country) to deny a visa to the Iranian Foreign Minister seeking to attend a Vietnam-sponsored discussion in the Council on “Upholding the UN Charter.”

In a time when most states and civil society organizations agree that multilateralism is under considerable strain, this Charter discussion generated unprecedented attention from the UN membership; indeed to such a degree that additional sessions had to be scheduled to handle the demand for speaking slots. Some states (such as Cuba and Georgia) used the occasion to highlight the hypocrisy of permanent Council members that seek to regulate the conduct of other states in accordance with the Charter while largely exempting themselves from such scrutiny. Others urged these permanent members (as did Singapore and Cyprus) to “set a better example” for the rest of the UN membership.   Uruguay and other states called attention to what it called “weak compliance” regarding the Charter obligation of states to uphold Council resolutions, in part due to the obvious (as on Friday) political compromises that lead to watered-down resolutions with limited will to see them implemented.  It was in this context that Ecuador referred to the “empty shell” that the Council is in danger of becoming, a chamber where resolutions inspire less and less confidence by global constituents and less and less compulsion to compliance by their governments.

While not all the statements uttered during these multiple sessions had to do directly with peace and security, the discourse rarely strayed far.   Peru noted that given “uneven progress” on issues such as climate change, nuclear disarmament and transnational organized crime, “the rumblings of war must be rejected.”  The Elders Chair HE Mary Robinson was a most welcome briefer at the opening session, making clear that our disregard of our disarmament obligations and our manifest unwillingness to amend our ways (including our multilateral ways) in the time remaining for us to address climate change are gravely endangering the world for our children in ways that the Charter could surely not countenance.

Indeed, it seems clear to me at least, that there are already several ways in which multilateral processes have evolved and devolved in ways not directly countenanced by the designers of the Charter.  The framers were apparently less concerned about universal membership than universal valuation, seeking states that were committed to the “pacific resolution of disputes” and including measures for suspending or even expelling states that gravely violated this pacific premise.  Moreover, while the word “peacekeeping” does not appear in the Charter, there is a clear recognition that maintaining security must be a task common to all member states. While the Council exercises its primary responsibility, other states have the duty to contribute in their own ways and to limits of their own capacities, at the very least to pledge not to undermine or impede the maintenance and/or restoration of international peace and security once the Council is seized of a conflict threat.  This pledge is one that is disregarded on a more regular basis than many publicly acknowledge.

The Charter also demands more attention to security at the “least possible levels of armament” than is now the case; more regular communication between the Council and the General Assembly (and other UN bodies) than is now the case; more attentiveness to the values that bind the international community than is currently the case. And while clarifying duties to development and self-governance, its primary concern is to “harmonize the actions of states” without recognition of the roles – positive and otherwise – played increasingly by non-state actors in creating and resolving global threats.  Indeed, the growth of the non-government sector, even small initiatives like ours, provides us with an opportunity that the Charter framers could scarcely have envisioned – to help “pull the weeds” that impede healthy global growth; to insist that UN working methods are fair and transparent; to hold up for review instances where states offer support with their lips but degrade Charter values and duties in their practice; to remind members of the urgency of the moment, an urgency not always apparent inside our UN bubble; to promote a system (as the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and Grenadines noted this week) in which the responsibility to uphold the Charter is not allowed to dissolve into mere “political expediency.”

We and others in our orbit take the opportunity offered to us very seriously.   We know well some of the many ways in which the UN needs to become more relevant to circumstance, its need to dive more deeply into the ways in which sustainable peace is dependent on health oceans and food security as much as international courts and weapons treaties.  And we know that many of the efforts to “reform” the UN run the risk of replacing what some this week referred to as its “delegitimized structures” with revised versions which, given the rapid pace of global change, are likely to also find themselves going quickly out of date.   When Germany wondered aloud this week about the shape of the world 75 years into the future it was more than idle chatter, but a reminder that the legitimacy of our current actions and preferred structures will be tested and assessed in some future realm, at a time when others now much younger than ourselves will have no choice but to answer for our wisdom – or our folly.

We will have suggestions for reforms in this 75th year of the UN, suggestions that will seek to embrace what is necessary and universal about the Charter but in ways that help us address the current “avalanche” of threats as well as serve to predict and avert future crises. In this, we will be guided by a statement from Poland, recently “retired” as an elected Council member, whose Ambassador reminded the chamber that the upholding and fulfilling of international humanitarian and human rights law is not an option but rather a “sacred commitment” that is fully consistent with UN membership and its Charter-based obligations.

As we grapple together with ways to make the UN more agile and transparent, more thoughtful and less political, more accountable and less aloof, we should all pledge not to lose sight of the sacred commitments and responsibilities that the Charter continues to represent – norms and tools for enacting the dream of a world where nations and peoples can live in harmony with each other and with the entire created order on which our sustainable prosperity is based.

In an age characterized by deep divisions, armed to the teeth and melting before our eyes, such harmony remains the goal of greatest treasure.  Despite the inadequacies of so much of our current policy and practice, despite the doubts that so many now have about our relevance and fidelity to promises, the Charter stands resolute as an essential guidepost towards a more peaceful future.

Curiosity Call: Stretching Policy and Personal Assumptions, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jan

Kid Questions

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.  Bertrand Russell

Curiosity takes ignorance seriously, and is confident enough to admit when it does not know. It is aware of not knowing, and it sets out to do something about it.  Alain de Botton

Ask yourself three questions and you will know who you are.  What do you believe in? What do you hope for? But most important – What do you love?  Paulina Simons

Don’t question if the world is real; question if your thoughts are. Marty Rubin

As the UN prepares for its 75th anniversary and its decade of action on sustainable development, many are likely in this time of massive fires and human displacement to question both the pace of UN reform and the robustness of the UN’s commitment to implement all of the promises embedded in the 2030 Development Agenda.  And, as we creep ever-closer to a reckless Middle East military confrontation (check out the crowds at Suleimani’s funeral earlier today), many are also questioning the ability of the international community (especially the UN Security Council) to serve as an effective mechanism of conflict prevention rather than as a mere channel for acknowledging newly-escalating tensions.

Such questioning in our view is well within bounds.   It is important that the UN Is held to account for its promises as with other institutions including small NGOs such as our own.   We have all taken on important commitments to enhancing food security, mitigating the devastation from climate change, ensuring peace and security, and much more.  Such commitments were willingly embraced and it is right and sensible to question the resolve of our erstwhile leadership at times when goals get bogged down or otherwise fall woefully behind schedule. A case could surely be made that we are now living through such a time.

That said, the quality of our questions also leaves much to be desired, to our leadership for sure, but also to persons closer to home.

We tend to know just enough about the people whose lives and work we encounter to label them and stick them in boxes of our own making.  We know what they “do” for a living.  We know something about their relationship status and political biases along with a few characteristic habits – often the ones that mostly annoy us.   In such a social environment, we increasingly tend to interpret questions as intrusions on what remains of our privacy, or as judgments on our lack of physical or professional perfection, in part because the questions we are asked, when others even bother to ask them, seem intended to expose rather than explore, to satisfy some prurient interest rather than enhance connection, to promote and amplify an-often limited knowledge base rather than offer invitation to build a base together broader than we could ever build alone.

When was the last time that any of us were asked the kinds of questions that made it more possible for us to explore rather than define, to connect rather than defend?   When was the last time we were asked questions that created safe-enough spaces for curiosity and vulnerability, that allowed us to seek together what we don’t know rather than recite what we already know (or rush to consult our phones as some ultimate authority, thereby abandoning the questions altogether that phones alone can’t process)?  And when was the last time we asked questions ourselves that didn’t house a distinct (and unspoken) agenda and that embodied a commitment to listen to the answers no matter how difficult or challenging those answers might be?

I thought so.  Of the attributes of a rich and connected life that we refuse to practice, asking good questions has become, for too many of us, the top rung in an increasingly lengthy chain.   Our collective curiosity increasingly extends little beyond the fact-checking that can be spewed out by Siri.  Our collective questioning increasingly extends little beyond information that we can “use,” including use against each other.

And yes there is a UN angle on all of this.   Our statement-rich policy environment is shockingly void of questions, certainly of the open-ended variety and mostly (where they exist at all) deeply embedded in our policy accusations.  We read statements and then consult our cell phones to see if we get any tweaks on our twitter feed.  We’re not interested much in what others have to say, in part because we’re heard it all before, and in part because nothing we hear is likely to change what we have to say going forward– or more precisely what our governments or organizations allow us to say.

In the absence of authorization to the contrary,  our questioning in this policy space is infrequent and confined to filling gaps in policy briefings.  It is much less about enabling the curiosity to explore and examine the consequences of our policy choices, to look more closely at our mandates and mission statements and ask ourselves, “if we get what we say we want, how will people be affected?”  Who will be helped or hurt?  And what adjustments need to be made in how we do our business (including a reality-based examination of current and future threats) such that the helping is maximized and the hurting minimized?

A reader might be tempted to assume that such curiosity-based questioning is deeply affirmed and encouraged within the policy community.   But this assumption also needs to be interrogated.  It is easy enough to believe that those pulling the policy levers have your best interests at heart.  It is harder to believe that there are problems and challenges, sometimes most easily perceivable at local level, that are mostly (and sometimes intentionally) invisible to decision-makers.  Those of us who are blessed to sit in these discussions on a daily basis know how impenetrable policy bubbles can be, how dismissive they can be of the evidence and testimony that can complicate the job of policy but can also enrich and extend its products.

Clearly we need to ask better questions of our leadership but also of others in our more immediate orbit, questioning not only the “what” but the ‘why.”  We need to know more about how people do their work in the world, how they overcome challenges and limitations, how they arrive at the opinions that drive their decisions; but even more how they believe, hope and love and what all of that means for the “reality” of their practical decision-making.  And others need to know these things about us.

This past week, a medical practitioner I frequent (and like a lot) said something to me along the lines that “I have known you for years and I don’t really know what you do.”  He assumed that the problem was all about my failure to disclose. That’s surely part of it.  But the other part was about his unwillingness to raise his own level of curiosity, to embed that curiosity in the form of questions, and then allow me the space to respond.

This allowance is something we simply don’t do enough for each other.  We need to make more time to move beyond what people “do” to the larger questions of why they do it and what it takes for them to do what they do.  We need to take our own “ignorance” more seriously,  even our ignorance about the people in our more immediate environments whom we claim to “know well.” In that light, we would do well to “hang more question marks” on all the things we take for granted or that we imagine we already know, the things that we accept because we are too busy or distracted, or because we convince ourselves that we can’t do anything about them anyway. We need to make more space that would allow others in and around our lives to reflect on and share more of their nuances and multiple dimensions.

Here’s to a more curiosity-filled 2020.  In this difficult time for the world, we need every heart and brain engaged beyond the immediate and apparent.