Tag Archives: civil society

Only the Lonely:  A Call to Revitalize Tactics and Connections, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Aug

(With gratitude once again to Goodreads which, week in and week out, provides me with both content and helpful leads to insightful quotations from thoughtful people.)

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

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.  Brene Brown

Whatever is rejected from the self appears in the world as an event. C. G. Jung

We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep. William James

This was another relatively slow week at the UN, punctuate by a Security Council review of counter-terror collaborations, a Working Group of the General Assembly devoted to preparations for the 2nd Global Ocean Assessment, and a two-day event focused on the work of the many non-governmental organizations (such as our own) that made their way to UN Headquarters this week in larger than usual numbers. And of course the tributes kept coming in for the late Kofi Annan as well as remembrances for the UN staff in Iraq killed in a 2003 truck bombing.

Both ocean health and counter-terror measures are regular “covers” for us, both with major peace and security implications and both with obligations (sufficient urgency of action on the one hand, sufficient regard for human rights protections on the other) that need scrutiny, including some of it from ourselves. But the NGO event, coupled with other conversations that we have had around UN Headquarters about the state of civil society in UN settings, make this a topic of significant, if not urgent concern.

The theme for this event, organized by the UN’s Department of Public Information, was Together Finding Global Solutions for Global Problems. Numerous side events complemented what were occasional bursts of insight and enthusiasm by plenary speakers, including UN officials. In addition to attending a bit of the plenary and a few side events (the ones on poverty reduction were of particular interest to us), we spent quite a bit of time in the UN cafes this week talking to folks we knew and listening to those we didn’t, taking in (albeit often at some distance) the mostly friendly banter and determined NGO sales pitches.

There was nothing wrong with the event, but also little new.  Many sessions seemed to be sparsely attended and yet still often cleaved to the UN format of choice – podium driven presentations that made some time for questions (and rants) from the audience, but little in the way of what we would characterize as genuine dialogue leading to commitments more likely to survive this event once the demands of home and office take over.

Amidst all the valid concern expressed this week for our sustainable development goals obligations – from smart cities and universal educational opportunity to poverty reduction and good governance – the one item that continues to cry out for sustained attention is related to our collective working methods.   We and others have spent much (hopefully productive) time exploring how our sector can adjust its methods and temperament to conform to a new generation of challenges, including the challenge of ensuring that the widest range of civil society voices – often more isolated than we might realize in their difficult and even “lonely” work –finds viable pathways to policy influence.

But beyond the voices is the need for attention to how we seek to make change in the first instance, how we utilize increasingly scarce assets and more formalized “work relationships” in an attempt to influence some admittedly weighty trends, from economic inequalities and declining oceans to rampant xenophobia and a new generation of weapons-related threats.

In our own investigations into some (for us) obvious limitations and deficiencies in our sector, we have relied heavily on others, including Lester Ruiz and Paul Okumu.  Both do their own important work in the world and, apropos to this discussion, both are generous in sharing a critical and inspirational eye with our communities of practice, posing hard questions to both our tactics and our character. Okumu has chimed in more recently in response to the quite-legitimate concern over the recent apprehension of South Sudanese activist Peter Biar, noting that his is merely a high-profile tip of the proverbial iceberg as activists, religious leaders, journalists and others face abuse and “legal” charges that are often anything but.

Okumu goes on to question whether our tactics of choice are actually relevant to the power dynamics that characterize the modern world – one characterized by massive, often unaccountable fiscal flows and states more and more willing to turn their backs on the normative arrangements which their own delegations have painstakingly negotiated. Is there evidence to suggest that what Okumu refers to as “our online campaigns or the mobilization of solidarity groups” is actually able to shift anything?  Is there any reason to believe that those of us who remain attentive to these global “arrangements” are able to provide anything more than familiar patterns of resistance?

The major political and economic powers that influence our multi-lateral institutions have, as Okumu suggests, largely stopped listening to us, largely stopped worrying about any power that we might once have had to reign in their excesses; in part because they don’t need to, and in part because they more or less know what we are going to say and how we will go about doing our “business.” They have come to understand that we are no threat to their ambitions and narratives; that we can scream about “what we’re doing” from the sidelines of conversations that are increasingly cut off from our scrutiny; that the gaps separating their seemingly-supportive rhetoric from effective civil society engagement are growing, not shrinking.

We are not their adversaries; indeed there are diplomats, civil servants and social investors here in New York who represent some of the kindest and most genuinely committed people I know anywhere in the world. But diplomats, secretariat officials and their growing array of high-end “partnerships” here in New York have to navigate their own limitations of bureaucracy, competition and authority, and thus we cannot in good faith accept the notion that they are the definers of our work, nor do we accept that our value lies solely in our willingness to promote what they have handed out for us to promote, as though only “cheerleaders” are now worthy of a place in this multi-lateral game, and not also the referees, analysts and commentators.

And yet the things we choose to promote must be defined by more than a habituated defiance, more than snarky retorts to diplomats, UN officials or “business leaders” who surely already recognize that they are sometimes misrepresenting the story that lies behind the text they are reading, misrepresenting somewhat through what they say but (mostly) through those things about which they have chosen to remain eerily silent.

Indeed, we have work to do here in filling out the unfinished sentences, in providing a fuller accounting of policy progress than those which are routinely authorized to be spoken in this place.  But as Okumu suggests we also need to fix our own working methods, to address the heavily-worn tactics that have too-little impact on journalists who still can’t escape unjust prison sentences, refugees still treated as political fodder rather than as sisters and brothers, sustainable development goals that are still too slow on the uptake, peace and security policies that still serve too many political interests and too few human ones. And, of course, there are the activists like Peter Biar who join with so many others in suffering beyond the reach of well-meaning responses that are often more appropriate to power structures gone-bye.

We sometimes damaged and lonely people who are drawn to this work for reasons known best to our mothers and therapists; we retain an obligation to ensure that this work makes more durable connections, takes more risks, sees beyond the horizons of our own limitations, commits to the eagerness born of attention, and takes the time to analyze what we, sometimes thoughtlessly, project into the world as a substitute for the healing with is our primary charge.

So long as we continue to occupy places of privilege and influence, no matter how modest they might seem to us, we have a clear responsibility to global constituencies beyond the words in our mission statements, beyond our tactical habits of choice and our often-shallow “networks” and “partners.” There is an attentiveness that is also required, a willingness to discern the times and align our tactics and energies with both our deepest values and the world’s deepest needs, to correct “the record” but also interrogate the ways in which our own invitation to healing is compromised both by the things we failed to correct in our societies, and by those things we are insufficiently “eager” to fix in ourselves.

Our values and tactics must be aligned in the world – the world that exists in real time and not simply in our institutional memories – such that injuries inflicted (including on ourselves) are “acknowledged, healed and rare.”

Oceans 14: Making Peace with Life Below Water, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Jun


Global warming is the foreboding thunder in the distance. Ocean acidification is the lightning strike in our front yard. David Horsey

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.   Ansel Adams

If you’re out someplace like the ocean on a capsized boat, it doesn’t matter if you have academic degrees, or if you’re a martial-arts ninja. Nature is a bigger force than you. Rachael Taylor

Monday, the UN is poised to welcome delegates from around the world, including many heads of state and foreign ministers from Small Island Developing States (SIDS). These leaders have come to profess their deep commitment to the vast and unique resource represented by our oceans.  They have come to share threats of desalination and sea water rise, of acidification, fisheries depletion, mass “islands” of plastic waste and growing species loss.  They have come to ask for justice and assistance to preserve their island homes and ways of life.

For months now, under the guidance of the president of the General Assembly, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, and with enthusiastic support from much of the UN system, our UN conference rooms been the scene of intense scrutiny of the consequences of our frivolous and longstanding misuses of our oceans, a resource that our western mythology has long cast as infinite and fearsome, but which we now recognize is showing grave strains that jeopardize the livelihoods, safety and well-being of all who live on its shores, all the families and communities who depend on its bounty.

The culmination of efforts by President Thompson and many other UN leaders is what is known as “The Ocean Conference,” or in its longer version, the United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

The larger policy backdrop for this meeting is a series of climate-related warning signs with implications for and from our oceans, including mass ice cap fissures, record high global temperatures, and increasing levels of food insecurity exacerbated by climate-related drought, flooding and damage from massive ocean storms.  And then there is the decision by the UN’s “host state” to pull out of the Paris Climate agreement, only one of a series of steps taken by the current US administration to roll back virtually all environmental protections for which the federal government has previously taken responsibility.

This isn’t the setting to undertake a thorough critique of the US president’s decisions on environmental protection, ocean health and climate change. From a multi-lateral perspective, though, we are inclined to reject the lens promoted by many in the media that US leadership is utterly indispensable to the urgent pursuit of ocean and climate health.   We have, in fact, both seen and welcomed the determination of many states around the world to step up their environmental commitments in partial recognition of the fact that the Paris agreement, for all of its hopeful policy urgency, establishes a still-shaky floor for climate health.  Many scientists believe that the targets established by Paris are probably not robust enough (a point also made by Nicaragua which has thus far refused to support the agreement); some scientists believe that we have already crossed a dangerous threshold and that much more will be needed from many corners of the globe if a permanent crisis is still to be averted. A bit of formal US government hostility towards environmental health may increase the shaking a bit, but thankfully others are doing more and pledging even more than that.  And the tide in the waters of US state concern can always turn again.

In this context, we should recall that a lack of formal US commitment to UN agreements has rarely, on its face, indicated an unwillingness to work with relevant UN mechanisms.   The US has long been a serial offender when it comes to ratifying UN treaties but not always a serial offender when it comes to honoring their spirit.  The US may never ratify the Rome Statute, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that the US won’t work with the International Criminal Court prosecutors to promote justice for mass atrocities.  There is wiggle room here to negotiate cooperative, if not binding arrangements on oceans and other climate-impacting resources, even with members of this fact-challenged administration.

Nevertheless, given recent threats to state support (at least for now in the US) for climate-healthy, environmentally-friendly policies, the onus must shift (and has shifted in many instances) to cities and communities, activists and academics, designers and farmers, people from all walks of life and their supporting organizations who have both skills and contexts to contribute to our urgent environmental tasks.  Indeed, one key feature of this week’s Ocean Conference is its focus on voluntary commitments from state and non-state actors, commitments ranging widely from efforts to rid the oceans of discarded fishing gear and micro-plastics to establishing new or larger ocean sanctuaries.  We will need to solicit and network many thousands more of these commitments by government and non-government actors, especially from within the major oceans-abusing and even climate-denying states.

One “commitment” that we value greatly is Green Map, which is now in the process of aligning its global iconography (170 core images) with the Sustainable Development Goals.   The point of this exercise is not to promote the icons themselves, but rather what the icons themselves promote – hopeful local sustainability initiatives taking place in communities worldwide.    There are many such initiatives underway and many more soon to take root.   We need them all, and then some.

If some states begin to lose their grip on the urgency of our ocean and climate risks, the rest of us must tighten our collective resolve.  We cannot survive as a species without our oceans.  We surely cannot meet our diverse obligations to the SDGs without healthy oceans. We cannot eliminate poverty, educate our children, resolve our governance-related issues, end discrimination and even solve climate change without oceans that can sustain its complex and still-undiscovered life forms while continuing to host our livelihoods and absorb our carbon excesses.

Many of us have had the experience of standing on an ocean shore staring at darkening clouds kissed by a setting sun.   Alarmingly, the thunder in those clouds is louder now; the lightning is getting closer than is comfortable.  The time has come, indeed past, for us to pause our grateful gaze and take up our urgent cause.


Evacuation Route: Mapping a Common Exodus from Multiple Global Threats, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Feb

Up and down the lanes, the last unevacuated townspeople wake, groan, sigh. Spinsters, prostitutes, men over sixty. Procrastinators, collaborators, disbelievers, drunks. Nuns of every order. The poor. The stubborn. The blind.” ― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

I have just completed a (very late arriving) flight to Mexico City soon to join regional diplomats and civil society representatives to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Tlatelolco and its key implementer, the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL).

As is widely known, the Treaty of Tlatelolco sets out protocols and responsibilities for a nuclear weapons-free zone that has been both stable and in its own right and critical to the development of other regional security arrangements within and beyond the region.  These include zones in other parts of the world that are helping to “shrink” the political and logistical space far-too-long occupied by nuclear weapons and their possessor states.  Moreover, from the security frameworks set in motion by UNASUR to the more normative security platform organized at the United Nations known as CELAC, Latin American states have to a remarkable degree taken advantage of their relative stability and prosperity to create collaborative security that informs and inspires practices worldwide. These collaborations have simultaneously helped preserve critical policy distance from dependency on nuclear weapons and their security doctrines while deepening regional commitments to address the poverty, trafficking in weapons and narcotics, gender-based violence, and social inequalities – often the result of numerous, intimidating interventions from non-regional states — that have tangibly jeopardized the security of too many in the region for far too long.

At the same time, OPANAL is widely regarded as the gold standard for weapons-free zone implementers, a reliable and visible mechanism to keep governments focused on their own disarmament responsibilities while advocating for measures such as “negative security assurances” to help protect regional states from attack from the nuclear armed states as well as encouraging states to monitor their dependencies (and even at times enabling actions) regarding the protective nuclear “umbrella” offered by the US which the treaty itself seeks to disown.

The last time we attended a major OPANAL event was three years ago under its previous Secretary-General.   Our contribution at that time – which we may have occasion to repeat this Tuesday at the Mexican Foreign Ministry but will surely highlight during workshops later in the week with our welcome partner Instituto Mora – is the importance of simultaneously affirming activities to fulfill treaty obligations while promoting more reliable security and development arrangements within and beyond the geographic zone which the treaty helps to define.

Such arrangements include many of the policy norms, practical program and fiscal obligations embedded in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As we noted in another publication on the 2030 Agenda, and about which we have been motivated to take our own action, there has to date been insufficient interaction between development and security actors.  Specifically, as noted by Laura Pereira and others at the UN, disarmament experts were noticeably uninvolved in the formulation of Sustainable Development Goal 16, the so-called “peace goal.”  And while Goal 16 does suggest a responsibility to curb the small arms proliferation and trafficking that negatively impact development processes – a key element of Latin American security undertaken with welcome assistance from the UN regional disarmament office in Lima – Goal 16 makes no mention of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

This omission is noteworthy given the devastating impacts from the use of nuclear (or other weapons of mass destruction) on any viable strategies for development .   As the nuclear weapons community is fond of reminding the rest of us, the “humanitarian consequences” from the use of these weapons is likely beyond our capacities to respond.  We are already painfully aware of the high costs of conflict in Latin America and elsewhere – so many diverse lives traumatized, ruined and often ended by insurgencies, by indiscriminate bombing raids, by landmines and other explosive remnants of war.  When nuclear weapons themselves become a lively option for use, the costs of conflict could literally bankrupt the human treasury.

But the other side of this policy interaction also demands more attention.  In the two days of events to celebrate the long history of effective OPANAL actions on behalf of Tlatelolco, little mention will be made of the political, social and economic contexts in which weapons of mass destruction could become, once again, attractive options for states.   Even in the program for the international seminar organized for the first day of the Tlatelolco celebration, the words “development” or “human rights” do not appear on the schedule at all.  Climate is mentioned but simply as a way of “ranking” existential threats, not as the basis for building common policy frameworks for eliminating those threats.

Clearly not every event can cover every eventuality.  The seminars we will conduct with Mora later in this week will also evidence conceptual gaps, will also fail to capitalize on openings for growth and response.  That said, people in these anxious times are also anxious to know how things “fit” and we must do a better job of helping them make connections, as a first step through a demonstrable willingness to seek out and make those connections ourselves.

A development agenda that does not find a way to “flag” existential threats, including from weapons of mass destruction, is engaging in wishful thinking.  So too is a disarmament agenda that does not rigorously interrogate the manifold threats to peace and security from poverty, trafficking, discrimination and a myriad of other factors. We need to be in dialogue with the threats we do not directly address, not to solve them all so much but to be attentive to, support and encourage those attempting to transform the world – to evacuate the threatened, if you will — in ways other than but complementary to our own.

There was a discouraging news wire that the US president was recently having a discussion with his Russian counterpart regarding nuclear weapons policy commitments, specifically those embedded in the START treaty.  At one point, apparently, the US president had to pause the call to ask others standing in the oval office what START was.  While this president may well set the bar for policy incuriousness, the fact that so many nuclear weapons are now in the hands of volatile governments and their leaders is of grave concern.  So too are the relatively tepid commitments from these states to contribute to sustainable security frameworks that (they say) are needed in order to make nuclear weapons obsolete.

Nuclear weapons need to go, regardless of other circumstances.  But circumstances in these difficult times require more from all of us; certainly more from those of us in the security field:  more solidarity and communication with the marginalized, more attentive policy linkages, more tangible encouragement for the important work of others.   As many within our “sector” are thankfully recognizing, this is not the time to “double down” on our issue silos or on our self-serving proclamations about the way things “ought to be.”  If we are to successfully apply a healing balm to our deep social wounds – those that threaten our very existence and those that daily eat away at our collective dignity and resolve – we are simply going to have to raise our game. We will endeavor to accomplish exactly that during our busy policy week in Mexico.


Doing and Enabling: Broadening the Peacebuilding Tent, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 May

First off, blessings to all our Orthodox friends and colleagues who celebrate Easter today.

This past Wednesday (April 27) a rather remarkable if under reported event occurred: the Security Council and the General Assembly (in that order) approved a joint resolution designed to strengthen the structure and activities of UN Peacebuilding.  Based on a special report authorized by the UN Secretary-General, this joint resolution was perhaps the clearest, recent example of key UN agencies authorizing and encouraging each other’s work rather than defending institutional turf.  To see operational language like this in a UN resolution was a sight for these sore eyes:

To serve as a platform to convene all relevant actors within and outside the United Nations, including from Member States, national authorities, United Nations missions and country teams, international, regional and sub-regional organizations, international financial institutions, civil society, women’s groups, youth organizations and, where relevant, the private sector and national human rights institutions, in order to provide recommendations and information to improve their coordination, to develop and share good practices in peacebuilding, including on institution building, and to ensure predictable financing to peacebuilding.

The Security Council vote was unanimous, short and sweet.  The GA process, however, provide ample opportunity for key peacebuilding actors and other member states to share their hopes and aspirations for more effective UN conflict prevention and resolution efforts.  Many statements indicated that delegations understood just how momentous the moment was.  For instance, Mexico noted the need to change the “epicenter” of peacebuilding from post-conflict response to conflict prevention. Sierra Leone cited the diverse contexts in which peacebuilding occurs, contexts that can be enhanced and even effectively coordinated by UN efforts.   Australia urged that core UN “bridge building” efforts towards a sustainable peace reach out more resolutely to women stakeholders. And Kenya’s Amb. Kamau urged a flexible role for UN peacebuilding that spanned the terrain from prevention to conflict relapse, that distanced peacebuilding from military response, and (along with Sweden) that provided support to states beyond the few that were formally “configured” within the Peacebuilding Commission.

There was much more, of course, virtually all of it designed to broaden the space for peacebuilding in ways that respect diverse national and community contexts, space that intentionally includes the skills, passions and aspirations of its many stakeholders.

Indeed, it is this “authorizing” element that seemed so critical to us.   We have written previously about the negative implications of UN turf wars, urging agencies to concentrate less on what they do and brand, and more on what they share and leverage.  The attitude we urge turns out to be one that is quite conducive to the revised philosophy and architecture of UN peacebuilding.  Indeed, our office is in touch regularly with a myriad of activities that qualify as peacebuilding in every aspect:  efforts to protect courageous but besieged journalists; uphold human rights standards in the justice systems of the Caribbean; help women farmers in Central Africa to grow crops for healthy, local consumption; promote democracy in communities under strain in North Africa;  explore models of UN peacekeeping that can more effectively protect civilians and eliminate prospects for abuse; find ways to end the trafficking and human displacement in Central America that threatens the community fabric and compromises development.

There is so much more taking place beyond our knowledge and capacity to leverage, people dedicated to causes that have not yet sufficiently acknowledged their value.  This must change and change quickly.

A woman well known to the UN and its social justice advocates came to me recently to ask some advice on how to get more involved in peacebuilding.   The irony of course is that she has been doing peacebuilding all along — so many of you have also.  You may not have access to Commission meetings or be able to tap into peacebuilding funds, but your activities inspire reflection and hope towards more peaceful futures.

The resolutions this week seemed much more important than the usual normative text.  They were, in their own way, an invitation to millions of people who put their lives on the line each day for justice and access to essential services, for climate health and sustainable development, for food security and legal accountability.  Under the new rubric articulated in the SGs report and articulated in this week’s resolution, peacebuilding is becoming a very large tent indeed.    Large enough, we trust, for all the work we do and, perhaps more importantly, all the work we come to know about.

Temperate Zones:   The UN Celebrates its Climate Covenant, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Apr

This past Friday the UN once again made history.   Heads of State and other High Officials from 175 states added their signatures to the Paris Climate Agreement, the largest number of states ever to sign a UN agreement on any single day.

The opening ceremony was mostly a lovefest and not without reason.   To create this consensus agreement was a truly massive undertaking, one that required states to overcome latent climate skepticism while working through some intense political considerations, including the concern that states finally finding their economic footing are being asked to break their carbon habits while the large states make only modest efforts to combat their own carbon addictions.   That states were able to overcome (or at least overlook) these and other obstacles to reach this agreement will go down as a truly historic undertaking in this age of climate trouble.  People outside the UN can only imagine the degree of difficulty associated with bringing a large number of diverging state interests together in an agreement of this complexity and magnitude, albeit with its multiple, notable limitations.

The ceremony was not entirely about hugs and congratulations.  There were warnings as well from inside and outside the UN.   In addition to the seemingly endless “we must move to action” yearnings, several more pointed critiques were made.   For instance, Bolivia was noteworthy in calling attention to the root causes of the climate crisis which in the mind of its president are linked to individualism, greed and militarism and which will allegedly require a thorough re-acquaintance with indigenous lifestyles if the Paris agreement has any chance to succeed.   Special guest Leonardo DiCaprio was equally blunt in urging states to “leave the carbon in the ground,” and transition more rapidly than at present to a more sustainable energy matrix.

Beyond UN confines other warnings abounded, often with greater intensity.  While the ceremony was taking place in the UN General Assembly hall,   twitter was exploding with images of melting ice caps, “bleached” coral and other difficult – if-not-impossible problems to reverse.  The Stimson Center in Washington DC was referring to our oceans as “the world’s largest crime scene.”   As I’m sure was the case with many others, our twitter account was engaged by groups far from New York weighing in on the “temperate” measures being suggested by UN member states for a planet besieged by massive storms and droughts, a planet now thought by many in the scientific community to be at a dangerous tipping point.

Indeed, early on, the negotiations for the Paris Climate agreement exposed an uneven sense of urgency, as large industrial (and polluting) states hedged their bets, newly developing states sought to continue their growth trajectories, and small island states sought to counter what for them is more akin to an existential threat, even in the very near term.   And despite urgings on Friday from French President Hollande for states to overcome what remains of “narrow interests,” there is legitimate concern about how much agreement implementation will actually be able to transcend the rhetorical and self-referential.  During the opening ceremony, it was only Canada’s Trudeau who specifically called for special support for the most vulnerable states, the states which, as a group, bear the least responsibility for the climate mess we now find ourselves in.

During the daylong activities, several states – quoting from the Secretary General’s climate agreement assessment – also noted that “the unthinkable has become the unstoppable.”   As I watched the ceremony, I thought about what is needed – beyond the agreement itself – to keep up our sense of urgency to reverse current trends and replace climate crisis with climate health.  And as is often the case, my mind wandered to concerns that are mirrored in more common human practices.

For instance, in counseling it is common to speak of “bargaining,” clients who agree to make changes that are not so terribly important while escaping responsibility for the more fundamental changes that they really need to make.   This tendency to focus on what matters less in order to avoid commitment to what matters more occurs in many contexts and creates numerous, well-documented problems for families and communities.

In the context of the climate agreement, bargaining by states might well spell the end for life as we know it, substituting carefully-crafted by largely token gestures for the more fundamental shifts on which, as Italy and others noted, the existence of our children and grandchildren depends.   The gifted Tanzanian youth who spoke to the assembled UN dignitaries made clear the stakes of the moment noting, almost as a warning, “I am not alone.”   If the climate agreement is to meet its full potential, states (and other stakeholders) will have to suspend all vestiges of bargaining and be willing to live with some of the highly inconvenient consequences of a climate challenge created largely on our watch.

It is also important, as several states noted during the opening ceremony, that climate health is seen as a full-spectrum responsibility and not merely one of state and even corporate concerns.    The refrain from within the UN of “common but differentiated responsibility” can be put in somewhat more familiar terms – unless we get many more capable and committed hands on deck, this “ship” will take on more and more water, agreement or no agreement.

Easily said, but there are many obstacles to filling this deck – including deep, well-cultivated habits of consumption and media distraction that impede both the development of skills that can contribute meaningfully to address the current crisis, and the strength of character to push us to continue contributing through disappointments and setbacks.  Much like teenagers behave with parents, it is just too easy for all of us to externalize blame on to states and other stakeholders, eschewing the full-spectrum engagements and commitments that bring into sharp relief just how difficult and complex the climate mitigation task actually is. Reversing habits that threaten our survival is every bit as energy and time consuming as forming those habits in the first instance.  There is no time like the present to get started on this difficult but life saving work.

At one point during the opening ceremony, the Secretary-General noted that “we are running behind schedule,” thus delaying the actual agreement signing.   For some, this seemed almost metaphorical – a response to climate threats that many fear might be just a bit too little and just a bit too late.   Others commented on the “footprint” of the signing ceremony, a huge UN room full of officials and their entourages who chose, yet again, to fly in rather than Skype in to express their climate concerns.   Like citizens and their governments, the UN also has habits to address, habits that motivate some to turn their backs on a problem we simply cannot solve without them.   People – skeptical and otherwise — need to know that the policy community, too, is willing to wrestle with and amend our habits for the sake of our common future.

As the Prime Minister of the small island state of Tuvalu made clear at the UN, climate impacts are now a global phenomenon.    Sea waters in every ocean are rising, storms are intensifying, drought and flood zones alike are expanding, traumatized climate refugees are desperately seeking safer ground.   We’re all in this now.   We must all be in this now.  GA President Lykketoft specifically cited the role of civil society groups (like our own) in keeping states on track regarding their climate responsibilities.  Clearly, we on the non-governmental side also have our own, long road to walk on climate impacts before any “all clear” signals are likely to be heard.

The aggregate message conveyed on this Climate signing day was simple and clear:  This is going to be a hard task.  The hour is getting very late.

Let’s get busy.

The Young and the Restless:   Seeking a Wider Gaze at UN Headquarters, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Apr

It was a chaotic and, in some ways, historic week at the UN with major sessions on the threats of terrorism, data-related work by the Commission on Population and Development, special discussions on “drugs and the death penalty” and “the rule of law” (the latter with a focus on children and juveniles), the release of the UN World Water Development Report, assessment of the peace and governance implications of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, and of course unprecedented “interviews” of eight candidates for the position of UN secretary-general moderated by current General Assembly president Lykketoft.  (For background on the interviews, including candidate “vision statements,” visit http://www.un.org/pga/70/sg/.)

Amidst all these high level events were a few more “intimate” discussions that raised issues significant for us and other non-governmental organizations. For instance, this past Tuesday, Ambassador Laura Elena Flores Herrera of Panama headlined a breakfast discussion on “Rethinking the Role of Civil Society in an Evolving UN System,” The breakfast was co-sponsored by the Baha’i international community (probably the most generous of the NGOs around UN headquarters) and the International Movement ATD Fourth World (one of the more “grounded” groups around these parts).

Ambassador Flores Herrera has been a breath of fresh air since assuming her current post in late 2014 and she had some important things to share about the ever-shifting role of NGOs in the UN system.  While (rightly) praising NGOs for their contributions to cementing the 2030 development agenda, she also urged a “widening of our optics” when it comes to partnership building within and beyond our common policy community.  Many of our existing partnerships, she noted, have been disappointing at best, leading some to now distrust the whole notion of partnership building altogether.

Of course none of us can solve global problems alone, not even the largest government or the most well- funded and heavily-branded non-governmental entity.   The question isn’t whether we will have partnerships, but who will they be with and on what terms?   Will they be defined more by generosity and respect or competition and predation? Will they open space for others or shut down helpful alternatives to our often narrow agendas?  Will we as NGOs continue to answer the call when governments (often cavalierly) request more civil society involvement, or will we yield the floor to those many groups worldwide who have important things to share and little opportunity to do so, in part because we in New York so often take up more than our share of policy space?  Is our commitment to a diverse and thoughtful engagement with our system of global governance sufficient to overcome our “duty” to impress our funders and imprint our brand names in every possible conference room?

In sorting through these and related questions, the Ambassador’s notion of “widening optics” was most helpful.   It calls to mind our collective attention deficits, our apparent need to share our own “positions” when we could be serving as the eyes and ears of a vast, rich policy community that, for no particularly good reason, will never be invited to sit in the places we do. It calls to mind our emotional limitations, the deficits of transparency and clarity that we tolerate in ourselves all while critiquing this in our institutions and those who run them.   It calls to mind cognitive dysfunctions that manifest themselves as hyper vigilance around mission statements and policy preferences while willfully ignoring other policy urgencies attached to those preferences, not to mention the many communities worldwide still desperately seeking policy relief.

And it calls to mind our collective discomfort with having our assumptions challenged by new and perhaps even “naïve” voices, persons young and old who perhaps do not represent UN policy interests but, in their own way, are perfectly fine representatives of human interests, interests that as most of us recognize are now facing considerable strain.   These are the voices that can at least begin to reboot some of our acquired UN habits, reminding us that a deeper engagement with these strains on the world generally lies beyond the limits of our organizational preoccupations.

Two stories this week illustrated this “reboot” for me:

The first involved a New York City middle school girl whose class, thanks to a colleague of ours, came to visit us this week, ostensibly to hear about issues in Asia.   The group wasn’t particularly interested in Asia as it turns out.  They were kids – mostly distracted, peer and smart-phone preoccupied, and seemingly so anxious about their lives.  At the end of our session, the girl came up to me and asked if she could make a YouTube video with Global Action.  About what, I asked?  “I want to teach people how to love,” she replied.   When I mentioned to her that it is perhaps less important to teach about love than to practice it in the world, she agreed but said, “I want to do this anyway. I think it matters.”

The second story came about during the question and answer portion of the Secretary-General candidate-interview with UNESCO’s Irina Bokova.   After fielding many, mostly predictable questions from diplomats, a boy (perhaps 16) from Brazil appeared on the video screen behind the dignitaries and asked, “If you aren’t selected for the job, how will you continue to help change the world? Will you still care about us?”

At that point, delegates sitting in that UN chamber let out a collective but muted chuckle.  The diplomats, as it turns out, are pretty anxious about the world as well, and they have all lived through their share of disappointment. But most of them, I gather, continue to believe that a “position of prominence” is needed in order to make change.  You must become the head of a mission, or UN office, or large NGO in order to make a difference.  The boy apparently didn’t care much about that. Indeed, he was suggesting something else:  that what we really need to make change, even more than fancy “positions,” are big hearts, flexible minds, and a passion to leave the world in better shape than we found it, no matter what obstacles – self-inflicted and not — lie in our path.

Teaching others to practice love better.  Persevering through inevitable failure and disappointment to help heal the world.  These reminders from sometimes restless youth are surely outcomes we would associate with a widening optics, reminders that point to the true, core metrics by which we govern and assess the value of our work in the world, even more than large funders or professional recognition.

Doing more and better than we can ever be compensated for or even recognized for, keeping our eyes open, our brains engaged and our hearts generous – this is perhaps more than anyone could ask of us. But it is also less than we will need if we are to contribute – fully and successfully — to a world that a girl from Manhattan and a boy from Brazil can truly believe in.

Promises Made and Promises to Keep: A Small Policy Office Makes its 2016 Resolution, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Dec

Five years ago now, one of our longstanding advisory board members, Dr. Lester Ruiz, delivered an address to the 24th General Assembly of the Conference of Non Governmental Organizations.

“Defining the present, shaping the future: Making the present amenable to transformation,” was a highly thoughtful examination of what we in the non-governmental world think we are doing at the UN, and what we are actually doing.   Ruiz spoke uncomfortable words to an often too-comfortable community, reminding us of the need to sit in front of the “mirrors” that we are so keen to hold in front of governments and international organizations.   He also posed questions to help define the value of our work; more than money and status and branding, more than high-profile board members and multiple speaking engagements at UN side events.   Questions such as these can be suggested from Ruiz’s insightful work:

  • Do our actions build collegiality, diversity, and transformative leadership?
  • Are our offices and other work spaces genuinely hospitable?
  • Does our work create and nurture mindfulness and receptiveness to self, other, and world?
  • Are we doing our best to build networks of solidarity across the contested terrains of global civil society?
  • Do our actions promote the beautiful, the inclusive and the compassionate?
  • Are we using all of our access and assets to inspire a reasonable hope for a healthier, more peaceful world?

Based in part on conversations with GAPW staff and others in global civil society, Ruiz’s words continue to influence our own practice though probably not as much as they should.   As a small office, we are painfully aware of our limitations, some of them self-inflicted; but we are also aware that, despite those limitations, a goodly number of policy makers and advocates in all global regions listen to and depend on us.  They listen to our independent voice through books, blogs and twitter; they depend on us for linkages between global policy and community practice that are largely untainted by gate keeping and other manifestations of our mixed motives; they find a hospitable space in our office that helps them navigate the bewilderment occasioned by the UN and the often cold, inattentive and self-important city that surrounds it; they meet young interns and fellows from many regions who represent the future of this work, if indeed there is to be a future.

And they come because our interest in the UN is genuine and systemic, not opportunistic or sentimental.  We do not see the UN as a mere conduit for the fulfillment of our ‘mission.’ We are not “cheerleaders” for the UN, nor do we believe that the UN occupies a perch that exempts it from scrutiny.  We are attentive to the UN not because it is perfect (it isn’t), not because it brings us honor (it doesn’t), and not because we enjoy any ‘benefits’ of membership (those ‘benefits’ such as they are, seem to decline each and every year). We are attentive as an office because we know that as the UN improves its practice, embracing fairness and adhering to the norms that it inconsistently prescribes for its member states, prospects for a world at peace become more likely.

There is hopefulness here, but also adjustments still to be made.   Following Ruiz, we have been, and are likely to remain, concerned about much of what goes on in New York under the NGO banner.   Too many of us equate the good of our own organizations with what is good for the world.  Too many are disconnected from communities of practice, are more comfortable in elite settings such as the UN than in the places where, much to our discredit, we “leave people behind” with regularity.   Too many of us equate making UN side event presentations with having UN impact, or picking up reports as a substitute for helping those reports find their broadest audience; too many take funding from governments, including well-meaning ones, without properly factoring in the impact of money on our policy choices.

Our funding, our privileges, our branding all have an impact on our organizational priorities, personal motivations, and policy content.  Those claiming otherwise are strongly urged to take a second look.

In addition to this, we have been, and are likely to remain, concerned about how the UN deals with NGOs.  As a matter of course, member states in their public statements routinely cite the ‘need’ for more civil society involvement in UN affairs.  And there are some instances, as with the Open Working Group for the Sustainable Development Goals, where those rhetorical promises were largely kept.   But it is also the case that access for NGOs is increasingly problematic.   There are more and more ‘closed’ designations on the UN’s daily schedule, longer and longer lines as NGOs like GAPW endure screenings multiple times a day when other UN stakeholders experience no such impediments.  Indeed, some days it seems that the primary business of security guards (whom we genuinely appreciate deeply) is to keep NGOs out of more and more conference rooms.

In addition, there is a tendency of some states to lump all “civil society” together, assuming that we all see issues the same way, or that NGO “advocacy” is about “getting our way” rather than being thoughtful or discerning about the relationships linking policy norms, constituent needs and institutional capacity. Indeed, it appears, more and more, that access and visibility are less a function of the answers given to the important questions suggestion by Lester Ruiz and more about having branded expertise (or experience) on issues of state interest, or the ‘right’ government sponsors (which almost always involves funding).

Finally, we have been, and are likely to remain, critical of ourselves.   Our office has not yet opened enough doors for others.  We have not been generous enough with praise when our community does its proper job, such as was the case with the 2030 development goals.   We have avoided some of the conflict that it is, in part, our job to resolve.  We have given up on some people too quickly, and others perhaps not quickly enough. We have allowed our policy ‘notions’ to cloud our vision regarding some of the opportunities and challenges unfolding before us.  We have too often seen the “mirror” as a reflective tool but not so much a pedagogical one.  (Awareness and learning, after all, require very different types and levels of investment.)

Even so, thanks in large measure to our board, funders and affiliates, we have always found ways to play “larger” than our size would suggest.  This year we will commit to finding better ways to make and keep our organizational promises.  This involves more attention to our own institutional stability, a new investment in the ways that we can (and do) add value to the UN system, and most importantly a stronger commitment to represent the concerns of our global partners rather than being fixated on our own policy preferences.

In line with the wisdom of Dr. Ruiz, we know that a fragmented, inattentive world characterized by impunity, self-indulgence and exclusion has little chance to fully implement the astonishing range of global norms emanating this year from the UN.   We need a softer edge, a more attentive and cooperative disposition, a willingness to step back from our urgent business to make sure that our remedial intentions aren’t creating more grounds for urgency instead.

As terrorists threaten, the ice caps melt and greed yet again assaults social equity, we cannot abandon the task of discernment.  This is the task that helps us put to use all our available resources, but to use them in ways that are consistent with our best selves, the selves that – much like the world around us – we have not yet quite attained.

This is our resolution for this challenging, hopeful New Year.   We wish all the best for you and your important work in the world.