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Green Acres: Diverse and Rural Voices for Sustainable Security, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Mar


Distrust and caution are the parents of security. Benjamin Franklin

You cannot achieve environmental security and human development without addressing the basic issues of health and nutrition. Gro Harlem Brundtland

We spend our time searching for security and hate it when we get it. John Steinbeck

Only in growth, reform, and change, paradoxically enough, is true security to be found. Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The UN building has been almost completely given over these days due to the thousands of women who have come to the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).  Given our substandard March weather this year, the main UN buildings have seen especially long lines for food and other essentials as well as overflow crowds for most of the side events held inside (and in some cases outside) UN buildings.

The focus for this CSW has been “rural women,” an important topic for us and some of our core partners, but also a bit of a conundrum given the largely urban origins of most stakeholders at UN Headquarters.   With some exceptions, we don’t come to this policy community from the farms, or the hilltops, or the swamps.  We tend not to deal with rural matters much unless there are tragedies to be addressed, humanitarian aid to be delivered or protection to be organized.  The rhythms of rural life are largely not our business, nor our interest.   We rarely see rural communities as opportunities for learning, places that can help us recover a more personal and place-based antidote to the anxieties, distractions and disconnects of urban living.

The problems noted by this CSW are real enough as people in too many parts of the world face violence and discrimination, abuse and displacement, drought and inattentive governance.   In other (non-CSW) discussions this week,  we were privy to Security Council struggles to enact a sustainable cease fire across Syria,  General Assembly efforts to negotiate a “global compact” on safe, orderly migration, and commitments by the Economic and Social Council to navigate the extraordinary financial obligations that our commitments to the Sustainable Development goals have incurred.  And the Peacebuilding Commission laid out a plan for long-terms security – health, economic, physical and developmental – as the peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL) prepares to draw down at month’s end.

All of these discussions have implications for at least some of the rural women who were ostensibly the focus of this CSW but who were largely confined to “their own” events without getting a broader sense of the capacity of the UN or, indeed, the amount of time and energy that is already invested here on issues of importance to women, including and beyond the women who occupy this policy space.  This CSW was not a “prophetic moment” for those of us who spend our long days in the UN, though it might have been otherwise if there was more attention paid to the full scope of rural women’s aspirations and experiences beyond the heartache, beyond the very-real victimization, even beyond the narratives of those fortunate enough to be in New York to “represent” rural interests.

Rural life itself is not a problem; it has its unique vulnerabilities and challenges, it sometimes suffers patterns of discrimination that are off the radar of media and their elite constituents, but neither does it seek to conform to many of the political and cognitive biases of our urban centers.  Nor is it without plenty to teach the rest us about the changes we need to make and the risks we need to take in our own contexts.

As frustrated as my all-female, non-white cohort has sometimes been with what they see as the redundancies and risk-averse solidarities of this CSW, there were some notable exceptions among the copious side events devoted to trafficking, #metoo and the general problematizing of rural contexts.  Among these was an excellent event focused on the role of women in building a sustainable peace for Libya, a country that has barely and only fitfully recovered from the 2011 security fiasco that removed Gaddafi but left a middle-income country in virtual ruin.  That a higher profile on Libya peacebuilding should be accorded the women who presented at this event (and their peers back home) would not be challenged by any who were in their immediate audience.

Another hopeful, security-related event was held a bit off-campus, but was not at all off-point.   Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, a longtime friend of our office, has founded a new organization, Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) dedicated to expanding both the dimensions of national security and the people who have impact on security definitions and priorities.  The CSW event that WCAPS hosted, “Redefining National Security,” brought together a diverse group of women of color with a range of experiences and views on how notions of national security are evolving (or not) to embrace a range of new and largely cross-border concerns, many of which (as is well-known to CSW delegates) impact women’s lives disproportionately.

This was a room of skilled women of who were determined, passionate and thoughtful; determined to have a say in the security-related definitions and policies that impact all our lives, passionate about “changing the global community landscape,” and thoughtful about their “takes” on security and the need to constantly listen, constantly invest our ideas with the people for whom security is not primarily equated with our bloated military apparatus, but rather spans a range of worries related to climate change and pandemics, cyber-crime and food security.  Despite the lofty positions held by some of the speakers and their obvious respect for one another, there was a refreshing absence of “like mindedness” in the room.  The levels of participation they seek for themselves and others regarding the most pressing security issues of the day require more than gender solidarity; they require a commitment to personal growth and risk as well.

We don’t know where all of these growth-oriented conversations are to be found, but we know that they exist and are deserving of our thoughtful support. There appears to be as yet no #metoo to encourage such growth, nor are there sufficiently reliable pathways yet proposed to locate and sustain the fully inclusive policy platforms that have eluded so many rural women, so many women of color, for so very long.   But they are coming.

As several minister-level panelists noted during a CSW side event on rural women in the Arab region, their region’s rapid urban growth is causing many problems for rural women seeking to maintain attention on their needs and aspirations, including increasing the “distance” between themselves and the (mostly urban) centers of policy influence.  Where can we find rural women, Arab and otherwise, in the midst of regional and international discussions on women’s rights and women, peace and security issues? Indeed, where are the openings for rural voices, male and female alike, to provide guidance on what “security” really means, in all its dimensions, through all of its challenges?  How can women who, in the words of panelists, are often neither recognized nor appreciated for all their burdens and responsibilities enter into spaces where their legitimate grievances are merely the opening gambit for a larger discussion about the minority who apparently “belong” in the club and the many millions (male and female) who are still forced to wait beyond the ropes?

If women of color can help us all to embrace and grow a larger and more inclusive security framework, and if rural women of all backgrounds and their communities can have greater impact on the personal and social dimensions of that framework, we will be well on our way towards the sustainable peace and security that we and (soon) our children long for.


Vaccination Nations:  Elevating Health Care Access for Peaceful, Inclusive Societies, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Mar


Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory. Albert Schweitzer

If Patents are for Patients then Patients will be for Patents. Kalyan Kankanala

Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity. Hippocrates

It is the first morning of daylight savings time in New York which has caused some to miss Sunday appointments but many to hope that spring weather will soon make a lasting appearance.

The winter in the northern hemisphere, here and in many other parts of the planet, has been characterized by a range of health-related problems.  Severe flu outbreaks here have brought tragic death to some children and thrown many millions off their game.  I know personally of several people – most at least enjoying sufficient access to medical care – who have had to stay in bed for many days, with weeks of only semi-functional, partial recovery to follow.   You see such people in half-recovery every morning on the subways of New York, avoiding the many coughers, refusing to hold on to the poles in crowded cars with bare hands, trying to figure out in their heads how they are going to make up for lost work time when they are still only half-whole.

As has been stated so often by so many, health is something we take too much for granted until we lose it.  Then, and sometimes only then, do we recognize how much of our lives – including fulfilling our responsibilities to our jobs, families and communities – is predicated on “feeling up to it.”   And even when we don’t, there are times when we must “soldier on” perhaps because of the non-negotiable responsibilities to work and family that beckon, perhaps because of access-to-healthcare issues, including the seemingly ever-increasing costs.

These impediments of time, opportunity and expense are far more than annoyances, but undermine well-being in ways that impact our ability to participate fully in the affairs of the world and help others to participate also.

At the UN, health care quality and access are thankfully occupying a more prominent place on our collective agenda, in part because far too many people in this world lack sufficient opportunity and access to health resources that can improve the quality of their own lives and their productive service to others; also in part because of a growing understanding of how important personal and community health are to the often-challenging promotion and achievement of “peaceful and inclusive societies.”

In the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), target 3.8 directs us to “achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.”  This represents a noble aspiration and, as with other SDG goals and targets, naming it is only the first step to full and fair implementation.

It is hoped that the Commission on the Status of Women, convening this Monday on the theme “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls,” can also make substantive contributions to greater health care access and awareness.  In areas of the world in which Global Action has cultivated program partnerships, including in Cameroon and El Salvador, access barriers to vaccinations and other health care often drag down women simultaneously discharging family and community responsibilities while seeking pathways  to greater levels of economic and political participation for themselves and others.  It is exhausting just to witness the multiple tasks that many rural women juggle, even more so considering how many of these women must juggle while battling illnesses and injuries that often go untreated and which, in some instances, are a consequence of diseases that have received too-little attention from the scientists and pharmaceutical companies that drive so many medical innovations (and the patents to protect them).   The CSW can hopefully focus some of its formidable policy attention and recommendations on improving health access for rural women (and their families) that can help them achieve both access to markets and increased levels of political and social participation.

Thankfully, health issues seem to be getting tracton across the UN agenda – specifically in terms of preventing and responding to pandemics, addressing antibiotic resistance (and the current lack of pharmaceutical interest in creating viable alternatives), and encouraging shifts in diet and lifestyles that can lower thresholds for non-communicable diseases (from cigarette smoking, opioid addictions, etc.) .  All of these (and related) interventions, as noted, have important implications for peaceful and inclusive societies, as well as for elevating levels of health-related access.

Last Tuesday, the World Health Organization and other UN partners convened a session devoted to “Promoting Innovation and Access to Health Technologies,” which was intended in part as a follow up to the 2016 report by the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines.  Despite acknowledged limitations in its mandate, the report deftly outlines impediments to access and suggests trade and finance reforms to ease obstacles.  The report acknowledges the need to fund more research on diseases and related health needs endemic to developing countries — including more resistance-free antibiotics – while ensuring fair protection and compensation for those whose investment risks made new medicines and medical technologies possible.  The report highlights most of the often-systemic, critical barriers to access that must be addressed by the international community, including “inequalities within and between countries,” poor health education, a lack of trained medical personnel, health-related stigmas, lack of access to health insurance, and what it calls “exclusive marketing rights.”  And of course it cites the matter of health-related costs which in some instances (including for insulin, as noted by the WHO on Tuesday) are still rising.

What the report did not take up are the health and human rights implications of “bio-piracy,” research that exploits potential remedies from fields and forests to produce medicines which are then patented and marketed in ways that render them often well beyond the reach of the very people who inhabit the environments of origin.

Nor did the report take up the health access barriers that are created and exacerbated by armed violence, the refugees struggling with severe physical constraints on their long and treacherous journeys, the families under siege who find their clinics and hospitals reduced to rubble.  The nefarious “stripping” of long-awaited relief convoys containing medical supplies headed for besieged areas of Syria (even after a Security Council-authorized cessation of hostilities) is a special case but sadly not a unique one. We can’t seem to stop the bombing — perhaps our primary UN responsibility– but beyond that we can’t even guarantee minimal access by victims to the medicines and equipment that could give them a “punchers chance” for survival and renewal.  Apparently even the most abusive state and non-state actors understand that healthier and more able people are better able to contribute to stabilizing damaged local communities; but on a larger level are also better able to resist the intimidation of bombs and sieges, to more effectively demand cleaner water, lower levels of state corruption, less discrimination and abuse, fairer access to education for their children and energy for their dwellings.  Even abusers recognize that health care access is not a side-show on the path to more peaceful and inclusive societies, but is elemental to their ultimate success.

As one recent TV advertisement in the US seeks to remind us, moms and dads “don’t take sick days.”  But as the Dutch Ambassador to the US intimated during her statement at Tuesday’s event, the world is full of too many people for whom a “sick day” is an indulgence that threatens the basic well-being of families and communities.  It is the obligation of all of us, as the Thailand Ambassador and others noted – health professionals, scientists, parents, the private sector and the global policy community — to ensure a “better balance” of interests between those who develop vaccines, other medicines and medical equipment and those for whom access to context-appropriate health care is literally a lifeline.  We cannot meaningfully propose strategies for the full inclusion and participation of persons who can barely lift their heads to attend to their daily responsibilities in domiciles, fields and markets.

State of Play: Controlling Access and Discourse at UN Headquarters, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Mar


Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. Albert Einstein

Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.   Hector Berlioz

Every act should be performed as though all eternity depended on it.  Robert Grudin

As I’ve written previously, Global Action is in the midst of a temporary office move that is massively inconvenient on the one hand but quite enlightening on the other.

Sifting through a lifetime of commitments and mis-steps, both from the 19 years of Global Action’s existence and from the many other projects that I together with some extraordinary people have spawned over the years is a daunting process under any circumstance; but certainly in an instance such as this where mounds of books and paper lie begging for new habits of storage and access.

But the learning represented in the midst of this chaos is so very rich, perhaps not enough to justify the killing of God-knows how many trees, but certainly enough to help set the table for a new iteration of policy assessment, reflection and service.  And a core part of that learning is coming to terms with why we took on this task in the first place, why we placed ourselves in a position to tilt at windmills of violence, discrimination and poverty with little more than a blunt sword and a countenance often more stubborn than strategic?

As the documents lining the walls of my apartment are slowly reminding, I (with many others) joined this push during the Cold War, when global policy was dominated by two major powers to the degree that most other states, even at the United Nations of that time, could do little more – risk little more – than to align themselves behind their “block of choice.”  Despite being barely 30 years removed from the toxic nationalism that plunged much of the world into violence, we were still struggling with how to place “we the peoples” at the center of a genuinely multipolar policy community, a community that was both genuinely inclusive and fully responsive to emerging global challenges.   We wanted to see about making a world where everyone who wanted a voice had one; where everyone with a skill to contribute to a more just and sustainable world could find their place of practice.

Windmills indeed.    After all this time, all this expenditure of life energy, all this tilting, where are we now?

If one spends any time at all in the presence of our (much maligned and not entirely without cause) media – and I know many folks who now simply refuse to watch or listen – you are well aware that nationalism has made a remarkable comeback as a public policy force.  Walls are rising and patience is shortening; politicians are openly expressing interest in extending their “reigns” beyond constitutional limits; acts of violence perpetrated against those “not our people” are on the rise; speech that incites both fear and loathing has been let out of the closets where people like me naively believed we had safely locked it away.

At the UN, the current wave of nationalism takes a different tack.  The politics of the UN are both more progressive and more protocol-driven than is often the case in national capitals, certainly on many street corners across the nations.  Diplomats at the UN, albeit with significant variations, still understand the need for consensus, even if that often produces resolutions more facile than effective.   Diplomats still understand the many problems – including counter-extremism, migration governance and ocean health – that simply cannot be solved at national level no matter how powerful the government or patriotic the citizenry, even if UN effectiveness on such matters remains open for debate.   Diplomats still understand the pivotal role they can play in addressing global problems, though the working methods of the UN and the rapidly rotating doors of diplomatic missions tend to rob the system of institutional memory – and often of appropriate levels urgency as well.

And diplomats still largely understand the value of diverse voices in policy, though this aspiration often ends up in dialogues with large-budget NGOs that can take off some of the implementation pressure off of states; or NGOs funded by states to provide “guidance” on core branded issues such as peacekeeping, financing for development and the arms trade; or civil society reps that come from diverse settings to provide “one off” testimony about violence and abuse that the UN has failed to satisfactorily address.

The current situation is very much punctuated by what Barbara Adams noted this week during ECOSOC’s Operational Activities for Development segment wherein she described the trend at the UN towards “preferred partners,” mostly from the private sector, but with implications across the system of access for the smaller (and most numerous) NGOs.  These “preferred” partners are virtually guaranteed a seat on the plane, usually with upgrades.  And they always seem to be invited to the party, even when they come (though don’t always leave) empty-handed.

For the rest of us, the UN seems increasingly hostile to its own rhetoric on transparency and accountability.  There are days at the UN when there are virtually no “open” meetings for ECOSOC-accredited NGOs and those meeting that are open often take the metaphorical form of a large picture window through which we are able to see the feast that we are not invited to join, a feast seemingly always in preparation and where our own culinary skills are simply not requested.

These “closed” meetings have at times included General Assembly efforts to revitalize the UN Charter, a matter of urgency for virtually all global citizens, certainly well beyond the concern of government representatives alone. These discussions have many potential “fit for purpose” virtues, but certainly one of the benefits would be to remind the UN community – not just the states – of why we’re here, why we’ve gathered, why we persist in a building that is slow on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) uptake, cannot properly enforce its urgent human rights norms, and stumbles over many of its peace and security obligations despite reminders this week from France and others in the Security Council that “every minute we delay (on implementation of the recent Syria resolution) means the loss of more lives.”

Across UN conference rooms, SG Guterres is constantly reminding diplomats that “global problems require global solutions.” This shouldn’t need repeating.  We should be openly embracing the opportunity — as a policy community but also as a learning community – to make contributions to the resolution of global challenges commensurate with what we know about the many strains of “measles” affecting the planet and the relative ineffectiveness of some of our current strategies to affect proper healing. States, quite clearly, don’t have all the answers here no matter how much some of them try to manage and control discussions and outcomes.  Indeed, if we are to find the answers we seek, we will need a more expansive, urgent and humble engagement with both the questions and the skilfullness of our responses.   The “leave no one behind” mantra of the SDGs should be at least as much about agency as it is about assistance.

On Friday, we at the UN were treated to a side event organized by the Statistical Commission to discuss a “federated” approach to data collection and management for sustainable development.   This nerdy sounding event placed on display representatives of some of the leading “preferred partners for the UN.   But there was no arrogance here, no sense of institutional entitlement.   The speakers were often full of humor and just as often full of humility.  They lost their places in the presentations.  The slides didn’t always work.   They laughed at themselves. And they recognized that they were speaking about a topic of fundamental importance to our planetary future that makes many people feel disenfranchised and some others leap to outlandish claims about the power of data to “save us from ourselves.”

My own favorite was Haishan Yu from the World Bank who spoke personally and passionately about her “simple ideas” of making data more credible while making it “more convenient” for users.   But she also pointed to “the multiple strands of new technology” that are coming at us so rapidly, making it “arrogant to predict the future too boldly.”  She called for global data tied closely to national and local data and that can, within its own realm, help to improve our now-lagging prospects for full SDG implementation.

This was “open” conversation at its UN best, an invitation to participation that even someone like me who wouldn’t know the difference between Instagram and Instant Oatmeal, could appreciate and feel excited about.  I only wished that more state representatives could have been in that room to see how some of their “preferred partners” were doing their part to remind us of the value of our agency towards more preferred futures.

Dodging a Bullet:  The Security Council Saves Itself from Itself, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Feb

Lincoln on Bullets

We aren’t minded or able to do anything. But where would you like us to send the flowers? Nick Paton Walsh (about Syria)

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month. Theodore Roosevelt

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. Norman Vincent Peale

It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world. Nellie Bly

Most readers of this post are familiar with the notion of “being in trouble” – more often than we wish to admit at our own hands – and of getting out of trouble, often through some stroke of luck or intervention that  seems to come out of nowhere.  We all – me certainly included – are constantly being saved from ourselves by friends and loved ones, even by people who we know less well but who have decided, often based on some legitimate critique, that they have simply had enough of our nonsense.

In the nomenclature of the culture of which I am part, some use the term “dodge a bullet” to describe these moments when the world’s disapproval manages merely to fire warning shots above our mostly distracted heads.  None of us are actually nimble enough to get out of the way of a bullet fired in our precise direction as the horrific school shootings in Florida and too many other places testify.  The metaphor does however imply an awareness of trouble that can lead to different outcomes; perhaps to stay out of the line of fire altogether, or perhaps better, to make the choice to risk getting in the kind of trouble that a number of Stoneman Douglas students have seemingly embraced, trouble in the form of critique that can point the way towards a kinder, saner, less agitated people as well as help to increase the effectiveness of the institutions that are pledged to serve them.

Despite the often-discouraging feeds from our news sources, we have still managed – for now — to escape much of the trouble we might otherwise have found, glancing blows that haven’t inflicted fatal wounds but which can encourage us to step away from the line of fire and commit to a more hopeful course.  The remarkable energy put into the world by the surviving Stoneman Douglas students, and the responses to their pleas to reassess “the invitation to violence” represented by gun proliferation directed towards rightfully embarrassed politicians and corporate leaders, creates a bit of an opening  such that we in the US might start to pull back from a brink of division, distrust and enmity that have for some time threatened to undermine what remains of the best of our values.  There is a glimmer of hope now for a more stable and nuanced approach to weapons and an effort to minimize the suspicion (some of which is not at all irrational) that lies behind their now-obsessive purchase and use.

And, as you might expect, the UN is hardly immune to this need to create new openings for change.  This week, as the latest iteration of Syria horrors hit home, the Security Council tried again to craft a resolution that would both pass muster with delegations and offer hope to residents of Eastern Ghouta and other parts of Syria who have faced unimaginable horror for far too long.

Under the able leadership of Sweden and Kuwait (current Council president), language was put forth in a draft resolution to authorize a 30 day cessation of hostilities that would allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations for persons in besieged areas throughout Syria.  The draft also encouraged de-mining across the country –an essential condition for the safe return of displaced persons to their homes — and it reiterates its demand that all sieges be lifted and all medical facilities be “demilitarized.”

The draft also retained the now-familiar (and still-controversial) caveat that cessation of hostilities does not apply to “military operations” against ISIL and other terror groups “as designated by the Security Council.”  Such caveats have been troublesome in the past as justifications for bombs directed at erstwhile terror groups that may or may not kill terrorists, but which have surely killed and maimed thousands of civilians and destroyed their infrastructure.

We were anticipating action on this draft as early as Thursday, but the delays were both numerous and troubling given that the bombing of E. Ghouta seemed to be intensifying as a resolution authorizing a cessation drew near.   Such delays represented yet another layer of challenge to the considerable diplomatic skills of the sponsors of the draft resolution, Sweden and Kuwait.   We had assumed that the “hold up” was due to an insistence (by Russia most likely) that areas of Syria beyond Ghouta be covered under the resolution’s provisions, and perhaps even reflected some suspicion that humanitarian access would also open pathways for investigations of violations of international law, violations which are both unimaginable and, in our world at this time, not at all confined to Syria.

Finally on Saturday afternoon after another series of false starts, resolution 2401 was adopted.   Sighs of relief were evident, both from the delegations who put in many hours to achieve this agreement and from those who looked on from the Council chamber or shared the experience via twitter (@globalactionpw) or UNTV.   All seemed to understand the implications of another diplomatic failure on Syria.  All felt the pressure to finally, belatedly respond to the misery of Syrians and give often-skeptical observers some reason to believe that the Security Council remains relevant to the prevention of 21st century conflict.  All recognized the bullet that was dodged in this chamber – preserving some modicum of credibility for the UN’s security functions and raising the prospect that desperate persons will finally have some hope of relief.

But the bombs are still falling in E. Ghouta and elsewhere as of this morning, and France has already gone on twitter today to remind us that “full mobilization to implement the resolution” is urgent and essential.   Such implementation is also, as Ethiopia commented on Saturday, a considerable challenge given the “increasingly complex security contexts” that Syria now represents.   And so beyond the categorical defense of its position offered yesterday by Russia and the excessively-moralistic tones uttered in response by the US and UK representatives, the urgent obligation (as noted by the Netherlands and others) is to immediate “action on the ground.”  We will be judged by future generations, France shared in the Council Chamber, and we must fully seize the fragile “glimmer of hope” which this resolution represents.

Indeed, this “glimmer” must somehow guide us on a new and expanded path, offering hope to besieged Syrians but also to people in Yemen (the subject of Council deliberations on Monday), Libya and elsewhere looking to this chamber to demonstrate that resolution 2401 is no outlier, that a cessation of hostilities can become the norm, that we can do much more in every setting wracked by mass conflict than just playing at geo-politics or “sending flowers” to the besieged.

We are living in times where many have concluded that the ”law of the jungle” is the only viable alternative to the failing laws of nations and the international community, that self-protection is the only protection that one can reasonably rely upon, that elections and political dialogue are less effective than weaponry.  In such a world, as the remarkable Nellie Bly noted long ago, sympathy and kindness are likely to be in precious short supply or, at the very most, confined to our increasingly shrinking circles of trust.

These circles cannot be allowed to shrink further, nor thicken in their outer perimeters.  We must urgently, as Sweden’s Ambassador Skoog intimated on several occasions this past week, reimagine our common humanity.  As hard as it is – as hard as we have made it on ourselves – we must also commit fully to implementing our resolutions, to practicing our values, and to seizing every “glimmer” to press our adversaries and ourselves to become the people that can rise above the current constellation of (sometimes self-inflicted) distressing obstacles to peace and tranquility.

If not, the next bullet speeding in our general direction is one we might not be fortunate enough to dodge.

Office Depot:  Sorting Lives and Impacts in Challenging Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Feb


The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone. Harriet Beecher Stowe

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. Albert Einstein

Time is a circus, always packing up and moving away. Ben Hecht

It’s in the act of having to do things that you don’t want to that you learn something about moving past the self. bell hooks

Like so many Sundays before this one, I made the early journey from apartment to office to write, of course, but also to sort the essential and discard the non-essential fruits of what has been, with the support of many who will read this piece, a very long, multi-phased and hopefully useful program of work.

It is time for us to move our office of longstanding, to close a chapter (though not our project) that has been filled with doing and undoing, of caring too much and too little, of an only incomplete ability to practice in our inner spaces the values we advocate externally for others, of opportunities for service missed because, as hard as we might have tried, we just couldn’t move far enough “past the self.”

We, of course, are the lucky ones, with lives more stable and abundant than most.  Unlike many whose living spaces are threatened routinely — especially the migrants and refugees who are the subject of new and hopeful Compacts crafted by some of our finest UN diplomats — we have places to go, places that are safer, warmer and more predictable than is the case for many — if not most — of our erstwhile “constituents.”

These places are also more likely to be full of “stuff.”  Like many people in this housing and space-starved city, moving is more complicated than simply tossing all of your worldly belongings in boxes to be hauled to the next destination by “professionals.”  There is simply too much “stuff” clogging up our life spaces for most of us to bear, let alone to properly house.  We at GAPW have simply saved too much, perhaps assuming a level of importance for the contents of our files and closets that belies any and all evidence and that has inadvertently prevented us from adopting a careful and timely triage. The sins of this failure are now being visited on back and arm muscles as we attempt to carry hundreds of pounds of books and papers to their new locations through the winter chill and then on to subways that don’t know the definition of timely.

The GAPW office will soon relocate to my home, at least for now. This requires a second sorting so that room can be made to accommodate the history of our collective engagement over almost 20 years, work that was at times visionary and at times impertinent; at times hospitable and at times hard-hearted; at times hyper-active and at other times timid about embracing the larger tasks that still remain undone.

And there remain tasks undone indeed, especially evident from this space. In one week of UN discussions, we have been reminded of the massive funds for sustainable development still to be raised; the “hard sell” (for some states) implementation of voluntary compacts on migration and refugees; the oppressive violence (and apparent use of forbidden weapons) in Syria that still impede stable cease fire arrangements and life-saving humanitarian access; the weapons-grade fissile materials that remain unregulated; the civilian infrastructure that is still not sufficiently protected from terror threats; the peacekeepers sent ever-more-frequently into conflict zones which challenge their ability to protect themselves, let alone the civilians they are mandated to protect.

We have collectively done much, less than our opportunities and access to make change might perhaps suggest, but more than we are generally given credit for.  But either way, the work undone remains vast.  Our plates remain full long past the point that our heads and hearts have begun to feel stuffed.

So what does all of this have to do with losing a small office and the project partners who we have enjoyed for many years?  For us, a couple of lessons, ones that might be valuable to you as well.

First, the “sorting” that is now taking place in my office under considerable duress should have been a more constant feature of our work.  We need more regular reminders of where we’ve come from and where we haven’t; what has worked and what hasn’t; how we have enabled good work by others and, at times, sabotaged our own.  There are important, life and organization-changing lessons in those file drawers and book shelves that we would do well to consult more often.

Second, we need to be mindful routinely of just how much we accumulate.  Every Sunday morning on the way to this office, I connect to an “E” train that often has dozens of homeless sleeping on what are warm but surely uncomfortable benches.  Some of these people have brought along – often in shopping carts procured from local merchants – their entire lot of worldly possessions.  By comparison, I of the modest salary and even more modest surroundings have enough clutter in my life to easily fill an entire subway car.  This is shameful, really, a testament to hedging my material bets as in “I might just need this someday,” hoarding more than I think and sharing less than I imagine.

Third and last has to do with what an office for a small cohort of non-profit projects is for.  Why have we collectively sunk so many resources for so many years into a space we now can’t keep?  There are many reasons, of course, one having to do with access to diplomats and UN agencies; another related to the “brand” of a UN Plaza address; one having to do with the five minute walk being all that is required to go back and fetch something we’ve forgotten to bring to a General Assembly meeting; another related to the fact that, at the end of the day, we managed to secure cost-effective space in a ridiculously pricey neighborhood.

But I think that, for Global Action at least, the greatest benefit of this space relates to what has been perhaps our singular contribution to UN practice; the “hospitality” that we have been humbled to offer people and projects from around the world, including those seeking a voice in global policy that they probably should have found long ago.  To be able to offer a place to sit and confer, to share coffee and dream of ways to promote a more just social order, to find resources and access passes for people of diverse backgrounds who feel “cut out” of discussions that are directly relevant to their communities, this is the most important part of our practice and the part we are most grieved to lose.

In the moral teachings of the church in which I was raised and later seminary educated, a close connection is maintained between the “things we have done” and the “things we have left undone.”  The implication here, rightly I have come to believe, is that “things undone” constitute our greatest moral failing, the things we refuse to see or be moved by, the questions we ignore because of their implications for our prior commitments, the doors we walk through and fail to hold open for others.

We will soon have to adjust to life without an office, and this transition will not be an easy one, neither for us nor those who have found a bit of solace and hope in our space. There have been tears over this and there will likely be more to come. But the lives we have long-ago pledged to impact, lives with too many guns and too few hugs, with too many challenges and too few options, these lives will keep us engaged.  We’ve had a good run in this “depot” and could not be more grateful for your friendship and support over many years.  But the longer run remains unfinished; we must get packed and then get moving again, find our better balance, redouble efforts towards the “things largely undone” of equity, security and inclusiveness.

Einstein’s bicycle still beckons.

An emotional journey through a lifetime of “popular music,” by Bob Zuber

14 Feb


A bit over a year ago, while listening to the radio in my office, I heard a song that immediately evoked a flood of emotions in me, emotions that were neither unfamiliar nor particularly limited to that one song.  But it got me to thinking – as a devotee of what is known as “pop music” – about the many songs over many years that made me sing and, more importantly, kept me sane.   There were times in my life – too many probably – when a pop music station and its sometimes bouncy, sometimes mournful, sometimes profound, sometimes light tunes and lyrics that was all that stood between me and prolonged bouts of despair: getting through childhood, profound relationship disappointments, medical issues and, most often, coping with the human condition and the propensity of so many of us for self- and other-destructive behavior.

Through lean and lonely times, through many personal passions and professional investments that often amounted to little in the end, through threats to life and integrity – some self-imposed —  the following list of tunes had as much to contribute to my well-being and determination to persevere than any academic degree or intimate investment.   With all due admiration for the many people with whom I have shared – and continue to share – an emotional bond, these songs allowed (mostly healthy) emotions to flow that would have likely stayed dammed up if left to their own devices.

I’ve been working on this for months.  Valentine’s Day seems like a good time to launch.

In preparing this “100 list,” there were a few ground rules that I followed:

  • Over many weeks, I listened to hundreds of pop songs on radio stations and You Tube which were both important reminders of beloved music and suggestive of other songs that I had “forgotten about” for a variety of reasons, including at times because of the conflicted memories that were evoked. This forgetting was particularly evident with regard to artists who were relative “flashes in the pan,” putting out one or two songs that resonated, but without a consistent body of work.  Indeed a couple of those “one hit wonders” made my final list.
  • I gathered together an initial list of about 280 songs, all of which had cause to make my final grouping, and then started to whittle them down. This was enormously difficult, at times frustrating. While the final list covers my entire sentient life span, songs are bunched during the eras where the need (even more than the desire) for them was greatest – in childhood, after a major breakup, before and after heart surgery, at the closing of an inspirational project, a familiar office, my beloved Harlem parish church.
  • I made a tactical decision to include no more than 2 songs from any one artist. This was necessary to help me finally consolidate the list, but also raised problems.   What, for instance, do you do about the Beatles?  While there is probably no Beatles song that would make my emotional top 20, it would be possible to fill virtually half the “100” list by pilfering songs from Revolver or the White Album.  Other artists – Chicago, Michael Jackson, Genesis, Pink, Carole King just to name a few – created for me their own numerical challenges.
  • The other “rule” was that I would focus on songs that had demonstrable public access and popularity. In other words, there were no “meaningful” tunes pulled from the last soundtrack of relatively obscure albums.  In this current age of You Tube and ITunes, it is more possible than ever to create highly “personal” lists of music which one can then self-reference, over and over.   I wanted to be sure that all of these “100” songs, if at all possible, were more likely than not to have affected a good number of other people as well, that the emotional impact of these tunes is in some sense a shared venture.
  • There is absolutely no implication here regarding quality. This is not a “critics” list, but a list of the songs that acted for me as a kind of “emotional stint,” keeping the life blood flowing at times when the arteries feeding that life were unusually clogged.   If I spent more time with the list it would surely modify in some aspects, perhaps because I would “rediscover” more one-hit wonders or perhaps because I would change my mind (for the hundredth time) regarding which 12 songs were “last in” and which songs were “last out.”  As noted, I was struggling over a list much larger than “100,” a list that, in full, would have perhaps provided a better overview of my often-complex and occasionally dysfunctional emotional web, probably along the lines of “more information than you would ever need.”   But choices had to be made, and this list represents a reasonable, non-hierarchical reflection of my interaction with a life of “popular” tunes.

I’m sharing this now rather than working on it further (which might have included hyperlinking all the songs or even trying to “order” them by their importance) because I mostly just want to commend this as an activity, surely for anyone over 40 with a long relationship with the pop music world.  The truth about us, even those who have achieved fame and fortune, even those who have learned extraordinary coping mechanisms to adjust to life’s challenges, is that we will forever be that person who uses the music of the times – the music of your times – to maintain their bearings in the world.

There is much gratitude for me to pass around over the course of my life to people who brought out things in me I never could have brought out in myself, those who are the real heroes of my own modest contributions.  In some significant way, these songs are also heroic as they “hit a nerve” at times in my life when I could not see clear to hit my own.   Thanks to all of you and to these artists as we celebrate – or perhaps just cope with — yet another Valentine’s Day.

100 Songs for the (my) Ages

A Thousand Years, Christina Perri

Abraham, Martin and John, Dion

Africa, Toto

Against All Odds, Phil Collins

Alejandro, Lady Gaga

Along Comes Mary, the Association

Always a Woman, Billy Joel

America, Simon and Garfunkle

Angie, Rolling Stones

Aud Lang Syne, Dan Fogelberg

Beautiful Day, U2

Behind Blue Eyes, The Who

Bette Davis Eyes, Kim Carnes

Black Water, Doobie Brothers

Breakaway, Kelly Clarkson

Candle in the Wind, Elton John

Carry On, Crosby Stills Nash

Cat’s in the Cradle, Harry Chapin

Daydream Believer, Monkeys

Drops of Jupiter, Train

Easy to be Hard, Three Dog Night

Fire to the Rain, Adele

First Cut is the Deepest, Rod Stewart

Fool on the Hill, Beatles

Forever Young, Rod Stewart

Get Together, Youngbloods

Give Me a Reason, Pink

Giving You the Best That I Got, Anita Baker

Good Vibrations, Beach Boys

Hard to Say I’m Sorry, Chicago

He Ain’t Heavy, Hollies

Hello, Lionel Richie

Here Comes the Sun, Beatles

Here He goes Again, Dolly Parton

Human Nature, Michael Jackson

I Can’t Stop Loving You, Ray Charles

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, U2

I Will Always Love You, Whitney Houston

I’m Going Home, Daughtry

I’m into Something Good, Herman’s Hermits

In the Ghetto, Elvis Presley

In Your Eyes, Peter Gabriel

Isn’t She Lovely? Stevie Wonder

It Ain’t Me Babe, Bob Dylan

It’s Too Late, Carole King

Jump, Van Halen

Just Breathe – Anna Nalick

Killing Me Softly, Roberta Flack

Landslide, Stevie Nix

Let’s Hear it for the Boy, Deniece Williams

Lion Sleeps Tonight, Tokens

Live to Tell, Madonna

Living in the Past, Jethro Tull

Lola, The Kinks

Love Me Two Times, Doors

MacArthur Park, Richard Harris

Maneater, Hall & Oates

Midnight Train to Georgia, Gladys Knight & the Pips

Missing You, John Waite

Oh Very Young, Cat Stevens

Old Man, Neil Young

Operator, Jim Croce

Paradise, Cold Play

Payphone, Maroon 5

PYT, Michael Jackson

Rich Girl, Hall & Oates

Ruby, Kenny Rodgers

Sailing, Christopher Cross

Save the Best for Last, Vanesa Williams

Schools Out, Alice Cooper

Send in the Clowns, Judy Collins

Sherrie, Steve Perry

So Far Away, Carole King

Some Nights, Fun

Somebody that I Used to Know, Gotye

Something in the Way She Moves, James Taylor

Stay, Rhianna

Straight Up, Paula Abdul

That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be, Carly Simon

The Boxer, Simon and Garfunkle

These Dreams, Heart

Throwing it all Away, Genesis

Time after Time, Cyndi Lauper

Titanium, Sia and David Guetta

Touch Me in the Morning, Diana Ross

Trouble, Taylor Swift

Vincent, Don MacLean

Walk of Life, Dire Straights

Walking in Memphis, Marc Cohn

Want it that Way, Backstreet Boys

We Don’t Need Another Hero, Tina Turner

We’ve Only Just Begun, Carpenters

What a Feeling, Irene Cara

What a Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong

What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye

White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane

Wichita Lineman, Glenn Campbell

Wide Awake, Katy Perry

Words of Love, Mamas and Papas

You’re the Inspiration, Chicago

Treasure Chest: UN Members Raise the Lid on Council Methods, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Feb

An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.  Mahatma Gandhi

If you’re making a tremendous amount of mistakes, all you’re doing is deeply ingraining the same mistakes.  Jillian Michaels

You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage. Maya Angelou

Today is the 7th anniversary of our foray into the world of social media through Twitter (@globalactionpw).  We’ve tried our best over these years to use what can at times be a mean-spirited and shallow medium to increase transparency in UN conference rooms while linking issues and concerns across hallways and oceans.  Thank you for the opportunity you give us to share both what we see and what we see as most important for people and the planet.

Within the religious realm, I’ve spent a good bit of my life having people I know “get in my face” to tell me what they believe, what they value.  My response to this, at least in recent years, is to inform such “believers” that, in essence, I don’t need you to tell me what you value.  I already see what you do, how you spend your time, how you invest the talents and energies bestowed by your creator.  In the end, that’s all I need to know.

In an age as heavily branded as this one, an age content to look at the masks we wear with little interest in what lies behind them, it seems almost heresy to remind people that we are not who we say we are, but we are what we practice.  In essence, to paraphrase a famous coach of US football, we are what our investments of self and their outcomes say we are.  It is important to have values of course, values in the form of aspirations to do better and strive higher. But it is also important to be clear about the gaps that exist between aspirations and practices — between the claims and facts of our performance — the spaces between the values we posit for our lives and our “working methods” that forever need to be examined and filled.

And, yes, this is going to relate to the ways in which we describe and conduct our business here at the UN.  As Kuwait assumed the presidency of the Security Council this past week, it launched an ambitious “programme of work” for February, especially so for an elected member with only one month of recent Council service under its belt.

The highlight for us is two sessions scheduled for early in the month, one on “working methods” last week and the other focused on the UN Charter (which the General Assembly will also examine) later this month.  Not surprisingly, we see these two events as directly connected, and we applaud Kuwait both for guiding these discussions and for what we believe to be their proper sequencing.

Inside and outside the Security Council, there are frequent references to the Charter values that must guide decisions on peace and security (especially), but also on a range of other issues related to sustainable development, rule of law, humanitarian response and environmental care.  The Charter (a copy of which former DSG Eliasson claimed to always carry around in his pocket) serves for this community as both a guide and an inspiration, helping us to define what we can and can’t do, what we should and should not try to do, and in some key instances, what we must try to do better.

All of this relates to “working methods,” the means by which we seek to organize and carry out the mandates that have been entrusted to us.   Such methods are, in their best sense, the tendons and vessels which connect vital organs, helping them (hopefully) function with greater synergy, but also with greater reliability.   Such methods — operating within our homes or in global institutions such as the UN — are what helps others to believe in our values, or at least believe that there is more to those values than merely our articulated claims about them.

Sound working methods can make the difference between lamenting a child’s sickness and taking her/him to the doctor; between dreaming about dinner and bringing home groceries; between claiming an institutional mandate and honoring an institutional promise.

In the Council this past Tuesday, a variety of lenses on working methods reform were on display, ranging from which Council members get to “hold the pen” regarding development of resolutions, to weightier matters of how the Council collaborates with the rest of the UN system (including the Peacebuilding Commission as highlighted by South Africa) and (as noted by Mexico) how the Council exercises its responsibility to scrutinize claims by states (including Council members themselves) alleging the legitimacy of “self-defense” as a justification for recourse to armed violence.

Though this day-long debate was unlikely to satisfy states and NGOs that have long lost patience with what they see as the hypocrisy of the UN’s most politicized space, we heard many interesting proposals for reform of working methods as well as important reminders about unresolved disconnects between mandates and performance.  Among the highlights for us was the insistence by Ukraine and Pakistan that preventive diplomacy become more of a “staple” of the Council’s functional priorities; Chile’s call for more transparency regarding what India dubbed the “subterranean universe” of Council subsidiary bodies; Lebanon’s urging of the entire UN system to ask “harder questions” about how the Council can remain relevant to contemporary security circumstances; and current Council member Bolivia’s call for an end to the “provisional rules of procedure” that mostly benefit only the “permanent five members.”

And then there was Belgium’s strong reminder that Council decisions do not occur in a vacuum, nor we might add do the consequences of Council (in) decisions that sometimes undermine or even betray Charter values. Indeed, what was not sufficiently discussed during this debate, in our view, is the degree to which the time, treasure and talent of the UN system are routinely being depleted in an effort to overcome Council shortcomings in its primary security “maintenance” role – the endless pledging conferences that must be organized with commitments that then must be held to account; even the lives of humanitarian workers that are placed in what seems to be perpetual jeopardy; all to bring (as best we can) assistance to people gravely damaged by armed conflict that we should have been able to do more to prevent in the first instance.

In the end, as noted by New Zealand (as they did often while a member of this Council in 2015-2016), perhaps the most pressing institutional need is momentum to help to shift Council “culture” in ways that empower collective UN decsionmaking.  In this vein, current Council member Sweden chimed in that we “can’t do our job” unless we do it together, and that we must therefore prioritize “talking with countries instead of about them.” Japan, which just left the Council at the end of December, moved this culture theme even further along, calling on the Council to do more of the “simple things, like listening to each other,” and serving up a reminder that its “optimal working method” involves a commitment to “effective response at the earliest possible time.”

This seemingly simplistic “culture talk,” to our mind, represents the path of greatest potential, inspiring more institution-wide dialogue and collaboration and calling states to account that willfully impede such progress. We hope that the upcoming discussions on the UN Charter will further serve to tighten the connections linking the values we espouse as an institution, the methods that define our institutional practice, and how that ultimately translates into performance standards for our most critical, mandated tasks.