Cliff Dwelling: Keeping the International Community off the Ledge, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Feb

Men riding on motorbikes pass the trucks that carry belongings of displaced Syrians

We all make choices, but in the end our choices make us. Ken Levine

When you desire a consequence you had damned well better take the action that would create it. Lois McMaster Bujold

Perhaps we’d be better off training our youth to be highly observant.  Richelle Goodrich

Good and evil both increase at compound interest.   C.S. Lewis

And I felt a sudden whirl in my head, knowing this leap was inevitable, that I wasn’t just standing on the cliff, toes poking over, but already in mid-air.   Sarah Dessen

This was a whirlwind week inside UN headquarters, but also in regions beyond.  Delegates were simultaneously outlining what they hope will be a fruitful future for the UN system and assessing the consequences of policy decisions that in some instances should never have been allowed to happen.

Specifically, the situations in Northwest Syria and Eastern Ukraine took up much of the bandwidth of both the Security Council and the General Assembly this week, sesssions in which the Russian Federation took abundant heat from numerous other delegations – both for its enabling of separatists in the East of Ukraine and for its decision (with Syria) to double-down on violent “counter-terror operations” in and around Idlib. The horrific consequences of the Idlib violence, as most recognize, have largely been at the expense of civilian populations, hundreds of thousands of whom are now displaced and facing winter deprivations on an almost unimaginable scale with numerous reports of children dying of exposure and entire families trying to stay alive under plastic “blankets.”

This is not all about Russia, of course.  The Russians have made their policy choices, the consequences of which could easily have been (and often were) predicted, and for which they will likely continue to face considerable backlash if sadly little justice.  But let’s be clear:  the UN’s (still flawed) peace and security architecture also lends itself to pious responses that have limited practical impact on victims, statements that routinely blame others for the cliff on which we are all perilously perched but which fail to acknowledge failures more common, including  those related to our willingness to see mostly what conforms to our national policies and worldviews, or to settle for what seems “good enough” for others when we know that it would never be “good enough” for us.

This tendency to verbally-defer actions that might create the consequences we say we desire was manifest in diverse policy settings this week.  A Security Council Arria Formula discussion focused on the plight of persons (especially women) who agree to cooperate with the UN on promoting human rights advocated new focal points for the UN secretariat but little in the way of concrete state commitments to act more resolutely regarding the risks which such persons take to provide testimony to UN agencies, often with little to show for it afterwards beyond fresh threats of retribution back home.

And in another conference room this week, the full counter-terror apparatus of the United Nations was on display at a session devoted to a new initiative that links Central Asian states (the “Stans”) in a concerted effort to combat what was referred to at this meeting as “the terrorism-arms-crime nexus.”   The nexus, of course, is quite real as trafficking in small arms and light weapons continues to be a major contributing factor to both the violence inflicted by criminal and terror groups (often in harmony) and the financing that keeps these enterprises afloat.

What became clear from this meeting is that these diverse UN agencies and partner governments were clear and unified on the dire consequences of insufficiently checked terror and criminal elements enabled by porous national borders and trafficking in arms and other commodities. But what was also clear was the perpetuation of what in the UN is a routine lack of attentiveness to the production of armaments and ammunition, the staggering volume of manufactured weapons (supplemented by “craft” and restored weaponry) that continue to overwhelm efforts to control their movements and confine their use to erstwhile “licit” purposes as defined by governments themselves.

The failure to concretely address the consequences of “licit” weapons production with the same vigor that we address the consequences of the “illicit” trade remains, for us and others, a blot on our collective credibility.   Even in this state-driven system and despite the UN Charter’s endorsement of the right of states to defend themselves from threats, the massive volume of weapons produced and let loose on the world wrecks havoc on communities, soldiers and budgets beyond the illegal uses of terrorists and criminals.  Such linkages and their often-dire consequences should at least have been acknowledged during this otherwise helpful session.

And then there is the Peacebuilding Commission, now chaired by Canada, which is undergoing a review of its practices and procedures as requested by the Secretary-General and which convened a general meeting this past week to discuss the complex matter of “transitions,” especially those from conflict to what the UN refers to as “post-conflict” settings.   Transitions, as we know, are rarely easy in any context and the ones under discussion here are particularly complex as states confront often-grave damage to civilian infrastructure, the mistrust of opposition parties and cultural minorities, the past abuses in search of justice, the humanitarian needs of those who barely survived the conflict, and the youth and women clamoring for a place at the table to help ensure that states which have stepped back from the edge of the cliff do not subsequently fall off it.

The noteworthy “unity government” launched this week in South Sudan is simply the latest of a number of examples highlighting this transitional complexity.  As our South Sudanese colleague, Bol Aher, is now reminding us, welcome calls for “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” are insufficient unto themselves to undo a decade of political and military decisions largely divorced from any consideration of consequence.  As the guns begin to fall silent, Bol reminds us of the communities that now lie in ruins; the makeshift military units now confused about who and what it is their duty to protect; the limited state authority over many regions of the country including borders that remain inviting to traffickers in arms and other commodities; a new cabinet consisting of “familiar faces” who in some instances should be facing tribunals rather than making policy for others; children wondering if life is more than displacement and deprivation.

Here as elsewhere, the unforeseen or willfully neglected consequences of armed conflict create vast complexities that governments, no matter how enthusiastic they might be, are often ill-prepared to address.  It is indeed difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together again once that egg has been duly cracked.

Returning to the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), the title for this post was lifted from a recent presentation by Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed to the PBC, a statement in which she highlighted the financial “cliffs” facing states transitioning in post-conflict situations, the hard decisions about whether to invest scarce resources in repairing the consequences of conflict or in meeting the development needs of populations, in the rebuilding of infrastructure or in health and educational services, in dialogue for national reconciliation or resilience to the effects of climate change.

The “cliffs” to which the DSG referred are not news; despite the “composure” evidenced by diplomats and others in this UN space, we mostly realize how close we are now to the fiscal and political ledge, how any more of the careless steps we too often take can easily send us into a rapid descent and crash landing.  Along with NGOs and others, the Peacebuilding Commission could play a greater role in making sure that we ask all of the questions that complex transitions and security threats pose, the ones that need to be asked not just the ones we are comfortable asking.  The PBC could also do more to alert the rest of the UN system to the potential consequences of decisions taken and not taken, the messes we have “manufactured” and are obligated to clean up – made in considerable measure through our own inattentiveness to consequence — messes that largely didn’t need to happen in the first place.

The UN is taking the global lead on a host of important peacebuilding concerns from food security to transitional justice.  But we still have a way to go to ensure a fuller accounting of potential consequences of our policy decisions and, more importantly, to promote actions which ensure that the consequences we desire most have the best chance of coming to pass. This is the path, uncertain though it might sometimes seem, that can keep the world — and ourselves — off the fiscal and security cliffs that threaten our transitions and perhaps even our very existence.

Forwarding Address: Enabling Escape from Desolate Places, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Feb


Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die.   Charles Dickens

The things that currently keep us busy and occupy most of our time do not necessarily give us purpose or leave a legacy.  Terence Lester

A castaway in the sea was going down for the third time when he caught sight of a passing ship. Gathering his last strength, he waved frantically and called for help. Someone on board peered at him scornfully and shouted back, “Get a boat!”  Daniel Quinn

What we fail to realize is that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place. Mike Yankoski

One of the great blessings of this job is the openings it is constantly creating for us to connect with people making hopeful change in diverse community contexts, from sustainable agriculture to art that inspires peacemaking.   Indeed, it is a priority of ours to maintain such connections with projects that correspond to each of the many issues we monitor and weigh in on at the United Nations.  The point of this is simple – to foster engagements with people and issues as they play out beyond the policy bubble in which we spend most of our time.  This constitutes a “reality check” of sorts for us.  If the people doing good work in these diverse contexts don’t feel connected to this policy space, don’t feel inspired or challenged by what goes on here, don’t care much for what we and others attempt to do here, then this is a huge problem for us, a problem of basic connectivity that we have pledged to address and don’t always address well enough.

In this context, one of our most cherished connections is with the Institute for Leadership & Entrepreneurship at Georgia Tech University where, thanks to the encouragement of Dr. Robert Thomas, I am privileged to speak to students of business and engineering at least twice a year.  The Institute houses many interesting and inspirational initiatives including a favorite of mine – models of “servant leadership” that can re-calibrate the way businesses (and other institutions) are organized, helping them to become less bureaucratic and more “horizontal” in the ways in which employees and their ideas are regarded, supported, even cherished.

At some level, this would appear to be odd connection for Global Action — an NGO that can barely meet its basic expenses — addressing students who can easily be compensated more in their first year of employment than I have ever been compensated in any year of employment.  And yet there is synergy evident here, a welcome desire among many of the young people to make the skills they have developed serve more than a personal interest, to have a greater outcome on the state of the world and their own communities than the size of their homes and bank balances — to find a purpose as well as a career.

This is never an easy conversation for even the most issue-enthusiastic students, who often have their social aspirations tempered by parental expectations and ever-ubiquitous loan payments. Moreover, with regard to the UN buildings in which we attempt to do our own work, they exhibit both intrigue and skepticism.  They are often cautiously interested in what takes place at the center of global governance but they primarily seek connections with problems a bit closer to home, problems for which their skills and aptitudes are both needed and well suited, problems which present themselves in direct ways that can sustain the interest of students and their peers, raising the hope that they might actually — someday, somehow —  be resolved once and for all.

During these lecture sessions, I generally resist telling them too much about what goes on at the UN.  It would be too easy to dwell on global problems that we try in our own modest way to address every day – from climate change and human displacement to weapons of mass destruction and the Middle East – but about which the students can currently do little.  It might be interesting to unpack the situation in NE Syria, cyber-threats to peace and security, or the US “deal of the century” on Israel and Palestine that has generated far more skepticism than support inside the UN, but it might also be a distraction from what these skillful students seem to be looking for – pathways to their own participation that can result in meaningful, tangible change.

One possible pathway to making a more sustainable world has been a focus theme this week of the UN’s Commission for Social Development — Affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness.   As many of you already recognize, housing is an issue that is fundamental to meeting our responsibilities to the Sustainable Development Goals, especially to those left “furthest behind.” It is also an issue with both local and global implications that presents abundant opportunities for practical applications of kindness and justice. From the people lining the streets of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco to people relegated to tent cities and makeshift shelters from Tripoli to Cox’s Bazar, the vast (and growing) numbers of people who have been shut out of a resource that most of us cannot imagine ourselves without should surely be a matter of our most sustained concern.

That more of us cannot find in ourselves the stamina and kindness needed to engage these “shut out” persons and others who now find themselves in “desolate places” is in part an indictment of our compromised capacity for practical compassion. But it also reflects our diminished sense of confidence that we possess the emotional and worldly skills to make deep, meaningful connections and contribute to real relief for those who have literally been “uprooted” by conflict or climate change, by abuses of rights and threats of further abuse, by sudden changes to marital or employment status, or by other personal circumstances often beyond their control.  This is challenging work, plain and simple, and it is easy to delude ourselves regarding our fitness to engage it.

And impediments to competence are diverse.   While at the Institute earlier this month, I read one of the student groups a quote from the ever-thoughtful Alison Taylor.  Commenting on the current ethical lapses of the business community, she highlights the “disconnects” that exist as corporations brand and “manage their perimeters” as a way of keeping the core of their operations largely intact. Taylor highlights the sometimes-vast hypocrisy of policies that, for instance, tout environmental commitments “while funding trade associations that lobby against climate change efforts” or employing contractors who work without either healthcare coverage or a livable wage.

These nefarious gaps between “rhetoric and action,” these efforts to defend the perimeter as a strategy to keep from having to change our “core ways” are not news to Institute students nor are they confined to corporate interests.  Indeed, it is getting harder and harder for any of us to believe that there is substance underpinning the rhetorical flourishes we encounter, whether personal or institutional.  But we must find a way past this if we are to sustain the change that we need and that a new generation of students seeks to impact.  We must commit harder to establish our credibility at core level while we find pathways to compassion and kindness and the application of skills that can turn empathy for those hanging on amidst exposed and vulnerable conditions into housing (and related) needs solved.

The issue of housing and homelessness in all its dimensions is one that should surely motivate more of our concern and interest.  It is, thankfully, an issue that seems well-suited to the skills sets of many of the young people who cross our path.  However, like many issues of this sort, response to the of a growing legion of dispossessed is an affair of the heart as much as the head, a heart of compassion and attentiveness to the staggering, existential differences that separate the conditions and life options of those with a stable home and those without one.

For virtually all of my adult years, I have been blessed with a secure apartment, functional appliances, heat (more or less) in the winter, a hot water shower, and an address where people have been able to reach me (and my guest room) reliably over several decades.  The life that I live, the commitments we make, the sometimes dubious mental health that I enjoy, the people who honor the work we do with their words and contributions, all this would be virtually inconceivable lacking these basic assurances.

Around the corner, around the world, such assurances are, indeed, woefully lacking. For those in policy but also for younger voices seeking a greater, compassion-based purpose in an often-hurting world,  we invite you to invest more in securing the stable dwellings for others that we so utterly rely on for ourselves.

House Warming: Fixing the Thermostat on our Environmental Health, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Feb

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home. Gary Snyder

The sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself. Rachel Carson

Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part. Hermann Broch

The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes, roads, creatures, and people. Wendell Berry

Home is where my habits have a habitat. Fiona Apple

How foolish to believe we are more powerful than the sea or the sky. Ruta Sepetys

The themes which run through much of the work of the UN in these precarious times are many, but can actually be placed in a couple of large and inter-related bins – the things we need to do better for the people with whom we share this earthly home, and the things we need to change about our relationship to our home itself, changes that can address at least some of the damage that we have willfully inflicted on our climate, our oceans, our biodiversity, our agriculture.

The first of these bins is quite large indeed and contains tools and norms for stopping and resolving conflict, protecting human rights, guaranteeing political and cultural participation, rolling back the excess production of weapons, responding effectively to humanitarian emergencies, ensuring decent work for people, especially young people, improving access to health and education for all, but especially for children and persons with disabilities…

You get the idea. These and more are part of our collective effort – often enabled by the UN — to better “humanize” our human relations, to provide a context for overcoming at least some of the callousness and cruelty that too-often dominate our political and economic relations. UN events on hate speech, counter-terror and excess weapons production this past week are but three examples of multi-lateral efforts to enhance prospects for and conditions of security for global constituents.

And then there are those responsibilities in that other “bin” which are about protecting the quality of human life on a planetary home towards which our species has created incalculable disruption and about which we still mostly fail to make good faith efforts that clearly convey the origins and nature of the crisis facing these eco-“co-authors” of our very existence. Here we speak of the natural treasures we claim to revere but to not sufficiently protect; the soils and insects that make our sustenance feasible but to which we pay scant attention; the climate now altering our home in frightening ways and now on the cusp of permanence but which have inspired mostly half-hearted responses and half-fulfilled commitments.

The UN has a constructive role to play here as well, given its ability to convene diplomats, scientists, NGOs, youth and others to highlight major eco-challenges.   The preparatory meetings held this week in New York for a June conference on oceans in Lisbon brought the potential and limitations of such convening to light. Despite robust enthusiasm from diplomats and a full gallery of NGOs, and noting with appreciation fresh efforts to “green” the shipping industry and approach other of what UN Special Envoy Thomson called “positive tipping points,”’ we were fearful that, much like the recent climate summit in Madrid, this could well be yet another event as likely to disappoint as to inspire, and this despite the contention of some key speakers that Lisbon could indeed be a “game changing” moment.

The reasons for our concern are, to our mind at least, quite clear. There is, on the face of it, value to be had in bringing a diverse range of stakeholders together to discuss the current state of ocean health and explore the gaps that need to be filled (including on ocean science) if we are to seize our responsibility to protect a living entity that is more than a recreational destination, more than a source of protein and recreation, more than a “sink” for our carbon excesses.

But this begs the question: Is there reason to believe that massive UN conferences that are so costly in human energy, hospitality and carbon emissions are actually able to “change the game” on matters of fundamental importance to our survival? Is the Lisbon event really going to move the needle on the “equitable prosperity” called for this week by Kenya, the enhanced ocean governance called for by the UN Office for Legal Affairs? Will it be successful in convincing the global public, as advocated by Portugal’s Minister of Oceans, that our leadership will no longer be satisfied with “half measures” on oceans instead of genuine transformation “that is urgent and fair?”

Perhaps. But events alone will not get us to the sustainable future on which our children’s lives depend.

What is missing?   From our vantage point in the middle of these global discussions, we have not yet made the case to enough people that the situation is as perilous as it actually is, that the earth and its oceans which house our collective aspirations are as “sick” as Envoy Thomson claimed this past week.   Moreover, and perhaps more important, we have not convinced people that we as erstwhile leaders are willing to make the hard choices needed to divert this course, to change the way we do our own business and not merely externalize concern to what we have already concluded are the “bad actors.”

Why, for instance, do we insist on holding large events which waste resources, burn carbon, and create often-tepid outcomes for which few leaders are actually held accountable? Why have we not made better use of the technology now available to enable participation by a wider range of stakeholders who might otherwise and rightly be deterred by the eco-consequences of long-distance air travel and four-star hotels?

And why do people like me tend to hold on to issues at global level instead of enabling the localizing of environmental concerns, the people who best know their lands and waterways and understand their neighbors, the people who can make the case for loving a home enough to preserve and protect it, certainly more than any diplomat or global “expert” ever could? Over the past few days, thanks to the great generosity of two old friends, I was privileged to see local initiatives in rural Mississippi and Louisiana, young people of very modest means, together with the adults who teach and mentor them, working the land and producing crops for local sale that are raising community nutrition levels, bringing people together and restoring community pride – and all without poisoning community relations or the local environment.

Indeed, these young people were described by one of my friends as “smart, connected to each other, knowledgeable, hopeful, proud and going places.” Who better to vouch for the preciousness of their home places? Who better to call things by their proper, local names while bringing attention to these oft-forgotten places of cultural and agricultural abundance? Who better to restore the reverence of home places as the condition for helping such places to thrive?

Like the rest of our threatened biosphere, the care and restoration of our oceans must be led by the people who know them best, the people whose every thought seems to take the ocean into account.   If the UN is determined to keep holding grand events that, to some degree, threaten the decay of our environmental home in the name of preserving it, then such events must fundamentally change their face — ensuring every technological opportunity for “greener access,” allowing for more active listening to persons closer to our lands and seas, and fully acknowledging the search of diverse peoples for deep meanings and even a bit of romance for the home places that can inspire actions in all corners of our world for a cooler, healthier, more bio-diverse planet.

Together with our friends and colleagues, we will use whatever access and leverage we have to make the case for policy that reverences local initiatives as the beating heart of efforts to lower the global thermostat and allow for the restoration of the bio-abundance that once adorned our earthly home.

Our Time: Leveraging a More Sustainable Unknown, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Feb


The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life. Jane Addams

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the groundFrederick Douglass

Is it possible that a mass is improved by the improvement of only one part and the other part is ignored?  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Every human is fated to have one moment in their lives in which they can change their own destinyTakayuki Yamaguchi

I know that it is hard for one who has held the reins for so long to give up; it cuts like a knife. It will feel all the better when it closes up again.  Sojourner Truth

In principle, therefore, the more dizzyingly diverse the images that are propagated, the more empowered we will be as a societyPatricia J. Williams

As January in New York drew to a (blessed) close, and despite rumblings regarding the spread of the coronavirus, a massive Caribbean earthquake, and the launch of a Mideast “peace plan” more likely to cause than resolve regional violence, we had to acknowledge that this has been a good week for our tiny organization.  We welcomed new interns and re-welcomed older ones; we have fresh evidence that our writing and advocacy (even our media work) is helping people in various global settings find their footing; and we have celebrated the formation of new partnerships with persons and organizations earning newly-enhanced status at the UN and with a demonstrated ability to open doors to policy and service that we could never open on our own.

The week for us was bracketed by a long interview with Global Connections Television on Monday and a Friday evening reception for younger advocates in our small, shared 49th Street office.   In between, there were numerous UN meetings on issues from the unresolved security threats plaguing Libya and the Central African Republic to discussions on appropriate measure for countering terrorist threats as well as how best to integrate our collective commitments to sustainable development and peacebuilding.

As is typical for UN conversations of this sort, the discourse in most of these conference rooms was earnest but not particularly urgent, competent but not particularly determined. Those of us who have had some time at the policy controls have presided over a period of significant successes but have also not done enough to reverse the deficits of trust that continue to plague multilateralism.  We who speak with increasingly frequency (as do current Security Council members such as the Dominican Republic and St. Vincent and the Grenadines) about the need to incorporate more youth voices into global policy continue to experience discomfort when the hands of youth reach out to share the steering wheel, or when young people wave their metaphorical tickets impatiently (often anxiously) in the hope that we older folks will recognize that we’ve used our own privilege to stay on the ride longer than the rules permit, that it is time to make the seats available for a fresher set of “paying customers.”

I get the sense that we who have been in this “business” (perhaps too) long sometimes forget what it is like to face an uncertain future, to prepare to jump into an unknown that is one part scary, one part exhilarating, regarding which younger persons know (as we once knew) that at some level we are simply unprepared to manage (let alone control) what comes next.  Will we experience the start a new war whose outcomes and consequences we can’t handle?   Will we be able to adjust to what are now virtually irreversible climate threats?  Will we have the strength of character to welcome the increasing number of displaced who are likely to show up on our shifting shores?  Do we have what it takes to ensure that “the good we secure for ourselves” can be made available to others? Can we, as Mexico and Ireland suggested this week in different UN meeting rooms, create viable action plans on peace and sustainable development to supplement what is often mere “thinking and believing” on our part?

The young people standing in line waiting for us older folks to get off the ride can’t escape the dizzying heights and unsettling tremors that they are set to experience.   That so many of our younger colleagues are still prepared to have their tickets punched for this uncertain journey is both laudable and gratifying.  As we all shared together on Friday evening, I was reminded of a favorite song, “This is Our Time” by WILD, a tune about finding the light that shines somewhere up ahead in the “open wide,” about running straight into the unknown instead of holding back – or stepping out of line altogether.  If you’ve only heard snippets of this song as background for an automobile commercial on US television, I invite you to have a listen.  In its entirety, it is a lovely reminder of the courage that life requires, now more than ever, the courage to face an “open wide” that seems as likely to swallow young people whole as to set the table for their own great adventure, the courage that we older folks have largely domesticated in ourselves and too-often sought to domesticate in those who will follow.

But as we cautiously prepare to share the controls and ultimately relinquish them altogether, we still have work to do, work to make the “wilderness” of life a bit more predictable, a bit more fair; to open up more space for innovative thinking and determined action by a greater range of stakeholders; even to enable policy relationships that can refresh the whole of the created order and not merely one or more of its constituent parts; policy to help ensure that the unknown to which young people are destined can still yield forests instead of brownfields,  gardens instead of mine fields.

In that vein, earlier this week I was honored to help a friend prepare a talk to be given on Monday focused on the human rights dimensions of sustainable development.   This linkage might seem abstract to some, but as is recognized in policy discussions from counter-terror and peacebuilding to disaster risk reduction and food security, a human rights lens is essential to ensuring that the “promise” of sustainable development results in more — much more — than development alone.   Indeed, we recognize that the sustainability of any development is clearly threatened where social and economic inequalities remain rampant; where journalists and civil society leaders face harassment and arbitrary arrest for doing their jobs; where governments feel free to divert public resources from common to restrictive uses; where impunity for abuses fuels lasting trauma and deep despair; where weapons flow like tap water from erstwhile “licit” uses to instilling terror in local populations; where people of modest means in small island states continue to bear the brunt of lifestyle choices made in the richest nations; where children are denied an education — even a childhood — via the decisions of powerful (mostly) men and women in faraway places.

These and related problems are ones to which older folks can (and must) continue to make valuable, even life-saving contributions. And, yes, we can “agitate” for a healthier planet without “clinging to the reigns” or taking up seats on rides that have long needed to be vacated for others. Moreover, we can keep ourselves open to policy and other innovations that pave the way towards solutions to pressing global problems that have largely eluded us in our own time, solutions that demand greater policy integration together with a more “dizzyingly diverse” array of active contributors.

As the first draft of this post was being completed, the bells of nearby Riverside Church were pealing, calling some to put on their clothes and come to church services, but seemingly calling the rest of us within range to make a more hopeful and sustainable future come alive, to commit to “ploughing the ground” that is ours to cultivate such that we may continue to harvest a range of metaphorical”crops” with which to maintain our own lives and share with others.

Such sharing in all its dimensions must be sure touch the lives of our “younger others,” those whose breathless journeys into the “open wide” are only just beginning.

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

26 Jan


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


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.