Tag Archives: climate

Show and Tell: Advertising Tools and Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Jul

Memories

I regard it as a waste of time to think only of selling: one forgets one’s art and exaggerates one’s value. Camille Pissarro

I wish that television would stop selling our hatred of ourselves, and start seducing us with our love of ourselves. Dan Harmon

If government were a product, selling it would be illegal. P. J. O’Rourke

This was “experts” week at the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF), organized under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council.  The task of the HLPF is “follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) with an emphasis on six of the goals (such as health, gender, oceans), as well as on voluntary national reviews of SDG progress.

The global backdrop for this HLPF cried out for clarity and inspiration. For  instance, many readers of this blog will have seen footage of an iceberg the size of the state of Delaware breaking off from Antarctica, an event that might not have been the direct result of climate change per se but which portends additional ice-shelf cleavage with ever-greater risks to the rising (and desalinization) of our seas.

Moreover, the Security Council gathered this week to assess the ever-deteriorating situation in Yemen, now characterized by almost unimaginable rates of famine and cholera.  As is often the case in the Council, Uruguay issued its thoughtful warning, looking permanent Council members (the UK and US) in the eye while reminding them that it is their weapons sales that are enabling so much of the Yemeni carnage.

And of course, there are the ubiquitous nuclear provocations emanating from North Korea (DPRK) with resulting (and also provocative) military exercises from the US and South Korea, a scenario as likely to spark new conflict as to calm its prospects.

The “experts’ week” of the High Level Political Forum largely dodged such security and climate concerns – a well-attended, early-morning side event on the human rights dimensions of development was a relatively rare exception.  Instead, other helpful sessions called attention to gaps in data and access to scientific research relevant to sustainable development. Moreover, some of the “spotlight” on development funding added excellent value, especially that which sought to understand the nature and challenges of corporate finance in the overall development agenda.  What was missing for us is analysis of the implications from the vast sums already being pledged by state and non-state entities to clean up horrific messes in the aftermath of the devastating climate disasters and armed conflicts raging worldwide.  The more funding is required for such victim response, the less is available to build the health, nutrition, and gender architecture, let alone for poverty alleviation and infrastructure development.

Despite a spate of human-made crises testing the limits of human response, there was in evidence a fair amount of “salesmanship” at this HLPF “experts’ week.” We are used to some of this at UN Headquarters – endless events promising audience “dialogue” but which are really opportunities for UN agencies and carefully selected NGOs to promote their relevance to the governments on which they largely depend for funding.  These podium-focused, statement-driven, speaker-overloaded events, which largely obscure what is often considerable audience expertise, often add more sales potential than policy significance.  Indeed, much of this HLPF “experts week” was more like “show and tell” and less like an open-ended conversation about relevant tools, needs and challenges with diverse peer stakeholders.

The nature of “the sale” has always been an interest of mine, in part because I’m so inept at it.  Unlike some people who scroll through commercials to get to the programs, I will spend occasional evenings doing the opposite – focusing on commercials instead of programs and discovering the following:

  • There are some incredibly clever people working in advertising; in an age that is suspicious of organized religion and has largely abandoned psychology, advertisers seem to have forged the principle path to our souls, convincing most of us that, in essence, “we are what we own.“
  • Where advertisers target young people, and they do quite often, they clearly see them mostly as distracted narcissists. According to commercials, young people do little but party, drive hot cars on deserted urban streets, stare at their phones and go on holidays; all with ample quantities of time and money.  Aside from their consumption patters, they apparently aren’t to be taken seriously any more than poor, disabled or indigenous people are to be taken seriously.
  • The essence of advertising remains as it has been – describing/inventing a problem for which a particular product becomes a kind of “savior.” Sadly, the problems that advertisers address seem as petty and distracting as ever, especially problematic given the global crises clamoring for attention.
  • Advertisers don’t worry about whether their products are actually needed or particularly relevant to the lives they touch. And they certainly don’t concern themselves with the implications of acquisition for emotional or fiscal health, let alone for the ability to obtain more essential goods and services.  Once advertisers convince you to purchase, the job is done.
  • Advertisers keep tight control over their narrative. There is little doubt expressed, no shortage of enthusiasm for the brand, no contrariness emanating from the “real people” who increasingly populate commercials.  With few exceptions (and there are some) advertisers only acknowledge competitors to expose their flaws, their limitations, none of which apparently pertain to the product they themselves are offering.

Given this overview, it might seem impertinent to call attention to the “salesmanship” of something as important as the HLPF, but the reference is not completely without merit.  Most HLPF events were, indeed, tightly managed with emphasis on what we’re doing more than on what we’ve neglected.   Discussions on specific tools too often obscured the contributions of the larger sector and even more often neglected discussion of the tools we still need and have yet to develop.  And while some states (Belgium, Finland, Argentina and others) tried to open up space for youth and persons with disabilities, grumblings in the hallways regarding the absence in sessions of the people living in poverty, indigenous persons and other “marginal” stakeholders were frequent.

And through all of this, as our interns would likely attest, there was a decided lack of bold inspiration, a clear show of unscripted determination that we can get through this deep valley  of deprivation if only we can find ways  to commit more and pull together better, to include more and listen better.  (Indeed, this was the way in which the HLPF was least like a sales event.)

Starting Monday, a steady stream of ministers will come to the UN to report on progress on national implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.  These ministers will surely tell us what they’re doing to achieve SDG targets or, more to the point, what they want us to believe they are doing.  What we are sure to hear less about (and need to hear more) is which of their commitments are actually taking root, actually mobilizing public participation, actually impacting public attitudes and the behaviors that flow from them.

And many UN agencies and NGOs will be following these potential funders with interest, anxious to convince officials that what these stakeholders are doing is good (which it certainly is) and sufficient (which it certainly is not).  Indeed, we are collectively losing ground in several critical areas, including with regard to the security arrangements that can provide a predictable and rights-based development environment, and the climate arrangements that can possibly keep us under the 2 degree threshold on which our future upon this planet likely depends.

With all due deference to the many, mostly useful policy tools and suggestions on display at the HLPF, and while endorsing the importance of preserving the indivisibility of the SDGs, we must not take our eye off these larger threats.  If we fail on climate and security, we risk an endless string of gender-balanced armed conflicts; technologically advanced cities under water; sustainable farms “baked to a crisp;” and educated children who find themselves graduating without a viable, livable planet to inherit.

This would be the ultimate, tragic irony for our global system: so many billions having been spent to promote community well-being and political and economic inclusion on a planet that at times seems on its way to becoming a war-ravaged hot-house. Unless we can together find ways to inspire deeper commitments to peace and climate health, including among our development and other UN sales partners, this is one irony that we might not be around long enough to assess.

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

4 Jun

14

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.

 

Crying Wolf:  The UN Hedges its Bets on Crisis Response, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Oct

As most readers of these posts know, we’ve been around the UN for quite some time.  And we find that most of the people who work here, in and out of the diplomatic missions, really do care about making the world a better place.  But there is also a pervasive cynicism afoot in our time, including the belief that crises are sometimes manufactured by elites in order to consolidate their authority.  The view in such instances is that elites put out images of threats to people who are largely powerless to respond themselves and thus must rely on “leadership” they barely trust to determine the policy path forward.

We can tell you from many long hours in diverse UN conference rooms that the wolves are running loose all around the building — on weapons and climate, on oceans and pandemics, on inequalities in economics and politics.  But given what we often experience regarding UN political culture, there are indeed legitimate questions about whether the UN is equipped to handle this collection of sometimes existential threats, to lead with integrity and by example, bringing together the resources and cooperative spirit needed to get the human race over its current, stubborn humps: a tangible sense of urgency on the one hand; a sincere willingness to rethink unreliable strategies and alliances on the other.

From the standpoint of integrity in policy decision making, these past few days at the UN were a mixed blessing at best:

The highlight of the week clearly was the selection of the next UN Secretary-General .  Mr. Guterres is a smart and good man, and we wish him well.   He is also arguably the person we would have gotten regardless of how transparent (or not) the SG selection process was, especially given all of the men who are currently seated around the Security Council oval and whose recommendation for SG was unlikely to be overturned.   Given the large number of singularly qualified women vying for that post, given the volume of gendered discourse permeating virtually all UN conference rooms, and given the broad perception that the UN is in serious need of an administrative “shake down,” the time seemed right to turn the page on what has been a male-dominated leadership post.   Except it wasn’t.

Downstairs from the Council chamber in the First Committee of the General Assembly, discussions focused largely on what to do about the threat posed by nuclear weapons.   Increasingly, as many of you recognize, the international community is gathering behind proposals for a negotiated treaty to “ban” these weapons.   The principle hold-outs, of course, are the current nuclear-armed states, the same states (rightly) grinding their teeth over nuclear weapons in the hands of the DPRK and – potentially — terror groups while (wrongly) spending many billions of dollars modernizing their own arsenals and even exploring their extra-terrestrial deployment.  The “anti-ban” statements made Friday by the US and UK – punctuated by a “fist bump” at the end – signified to onlookers that the nuclear armed states don’t take the threat from these weapons as seriously as much of their rhetoric might otherwise suggest.

While the Security Council was busy negotiating the selection of Mr. Guterres, it was also immersed in a series of security –related discussions “lowlighted” by the October 8 emergency session on Syria during which not one but two different resolutions on the Aleppo violence failed to pass.    In addition, the Council attempted this week to clarify its intent regarding peacekeepers in Central African Republic while receiving an underwhelming briefing on ISIL, including its potential expansion within Yemen.  Despite the horrors inflicted by the repeated bombings of hospitals and other civilian targets, the excruciating and widening famine, and the escalating violence now involving a US warship off its coast, the ISIL briefing was barely the only mention of Yemen this week in chambers.

As with other global crises, the Council seems at times unable to back up urgent rhetoric with practical remedial strategies.  In addition, the Council often seems unwilling to “share the ball,” assuming that if there is going to be a “winning shot,” they are going to be the ones to take it.

One partial exception to these unsettling circumstances was in response to the damage to Haiti caused by Hurricane Matthew.   Here Security Council members were joined by other member states such as Brazil pledging immediate support for victims and urging a delay in plans to draw down the UN’s peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH) there. During the mostly helpful discussion, there was also some acknowledgment of the UN’s role in initially bringing cholera to the country, the post-Matthew recurrence of which adds another (and needless) dimension to Haiti’s already-massive relief challenges.

And then there is Iraq, where the pathways to freedom from ISIL are simply horrific to behold:  the political and geographic divisions that begat a dictator that begat a US invasion that begat a partial power vacuum that begat a terrorist movement that begat a caliphate that have now necessitated some of the most heartbreaking “liberations” we will have seen in our lifetime.

As the Iraqi army prepares to move on liberating Mosul, there are already concerns of a massive humanitarian disaster awaiting us beyond the pale of what we have already seen in Falluja.  At the UN, Iraq’s Ambassador has been visible, acknowledging the profound physical wounds, social dislocations and emotional trauma that are likely to accompany this “liberation” from ISIL’s clutches.   He has also been active in seeking support from the UN and other member states.   In this, the response of the UN Mine Action Service has been particularly noteworthy especially its work to help eliminate short and long-term threats from landmines and the ubiquitous, easy-to-make, improvised explosive devices.

People in Iraq, as elsewhere in the world, have endured multiple sufferings as one faulty policy decision is ostensibly “corrected” by another – decisions seemingly based on political expediency more than on a sense of urgent, attentive compassion – addressing the current crisis but not quite in a manner that anticipates and plans for contingencies, that involves all meaningful stakeholders, that takes account of any past policy deficiencies, and that places potential victims at the very center of our policy planning.

It is possible, indeed essential, for us to have more of this type of policy planning which can build public confidence in the integrity of our leaders and which can help ensure that the cycles of policy errors and consequences that establish the context for so many of our current threats and crises are effectively curtailed.   If Mr. Guterres can inspire more of this planning to effectively (and enduringly) address the wolves currently howling at so many of our doors, his time in office will be time well spent.

Full-Court Press:  Placing the UN’s Accomplishments and Shortcomings in Context, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Oct

We bombard people with sensation. That substitutes for thinking .―Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Those of you who follow the UN (either through us or other sources) know that this hasn’t been the very best of weeks.   We appear to have a new Secretary-General, but it remains to be seen if he can rise above the disappointment of both Eastern Europeans anticipating the selection of one of “their own” and countless others who believed that this was finally the time for the UN to choose from among a bevy of highly qualified female candidates.

In the UN General Assembly Committees meeting this month, teeth were clenched over matters such as the status of Western Sahara and other non-self-governing territories (4th), the human rights responsibilities of counter-terror operations (6th) and the relative merits of a negotiating process in 2017 that might at some point lead to a “Ban Treaty” on nuclear weapons.

We also received disappointing news this week that a suit brought on behalf of the Marshall Islands in the International Court of Justice by a legal team which included our office mate, John Burroughs, was turned away by votes of 8-8 (for the UK) and 9-7 (for both Pakistan and India).  The suit represented an attempt to create legal pressure on nuclear weapons states to fulfill their international nuclear disarmament obligations “in good faith. “  Such pressure, wistfully, must await a different diplomatic opening.

There was some positive news on the climate front as European Union member states held a hopeful event to highlight their ratification of the Paris climate agreement, thus pushing it over the line towards Entry into Force.   But even here, even as the Paris agreement set a record for rapid ratification, optimism and reality managed to distort one other. As president of the General Assembly Thompson (Fiji) noted, this event occurred as Haiti lay in ruins from hurricane Matthew and polar melting affecting coastal and small states accelerates:  a glass struggling to retain its half-portion of fluid.

And then there is Syria, the topic of a rare Saturday session of the Security Council, a session that Russia itself – the current Council president and sponsor of one of two resolutions offered up for vote – referred to as a “spectacle” that would accomplish little and simply waste valuable time.   Russia itself vetoed the alternate proposal on the table – offered chiefly by France and Spain – setting off a bitter exchange that strained Council protocol and featured a “walk out” by 3 permanent members when the Syrian Ambassador began his own Council remarks.  Egypt captured the mood of many left in the room, wondering aloud if anyone in Syria any longer cares what the Council does or doesn’t do.

For those of us who make a point to be present as these and related deliberations take shape, there are several priorities for us – attentiveness to the topic at hand and to subtle shifts in government positions; linking conversations across various meeting rooms to get (and communicate) the full measure of the UN’s engagements on its most important issues; and – perhaps most important –showing interest in how our “bubble” deliberations are perceived by communities far beyond the UN.

This final consideration is critical for us as it seems to be for a growing number of delegations and civil society.   If the reputation of the UN is defined largely by perceptions of policy incompetence, ill will and/or internal branding that raises expectations beyond the capacity and will of the UN system, then there is ultimately little point to our work here.  If the UN Security Council –to cite one example — is turning into a “dialogue of the deaf” then we should be directing our own and others’ energies to places of greater resonance and effectiveness.

We still believe in the UN’s promise though we remain concerned that promises made here are quite more numerous than promises kept.  We also continue to see value in our mandate made more possible by the increasing transparency of the UN system – a mandate related to dissemination and analysis defined in part by what we feel are the best and worst, the most and least hopeful, aspects of UN activity.

In that light, there was a small event hosted this week by Ireland that highlighted some of our concerns regarding the dissemination aspects of our work.   At this side event, devoted to the question, “Do we live in an age of misinformation,” media representatives from inside and outside the UN discussed the ways in which the current media climate impacts public perceptions of migrants and refugees now on the move in record-shattering numbers.  Ireland’s Ambassador Donoghue shared his concern about media accounts that raise the bar on prejudice rather than on understanding.   A social media expert from CNN offered opaque linkages between the media we come to “trust” and the media which merely validates opinions and values that we already hold, in too many instances to the denigration and/or stereotyping of others.

It is important for us as an office to remember three things here:  First while increased transparency at the UN is welcome, it is no substitute for accountability.   While we are grateful to sit in the meetings that we do, we are well aware that, for the most part, we are staring through an ever-larger picture window at a meal that we ourselves are not allowed to eat.   Much like our professional journalist colleagues, we must struggle to find the gaps – often evident only after many visits to many different conference rooms – that allow us to make meaningful contributions to state and UN accountability.  We need to do more than cite UN intent; we and other must help ensure that intent is actionable.

The second is that those in positions of authority who perceive a problem “on their watch” have some remedial responsibility relative to it.  If it is the case that social media — and specifically the way in which it is used by corporate media – contributes to ever-more, like-minded “ghettos” where people only hear what they want to hear, then it is the responsibility of media companies to help figure out how to address this shortcoming.  To raise a legitimate concern in a UN conference room and then throw metaphorical hands in the air as though we are powerless to address that concern seems a bit disingenuous. After all, the point of knowing is only partially about validation or control; it must also be about possibility and change.

The third lesson has to do with assumptions of bias on the part of media professionals but also garden-variety bloggers such as ourselves.  There is certainly ample bias to examine; however as many media professionals recognize (even if they refuse to acknowledge it publicly), bias is only partially about the things we say about the things we choose to cover.  It is also about what we choose to cover in the first place and the “contexts” we establish for the claims we subsequently make. And these latter “choices” now trend too often towards the sensational, the scandalous.  We are well along to becoming “ambulance chasers” of breaking “news,” which itself represents a bias of monumental proportions.

The UN community can surely do much to counter misinformation on complex global challenges such as global migration, including its own role in moving this community of nations forward in ways that would be virtually impossible if the UN itself did not exist.  But people deserve more, need more than “half stories” and official spin.  They deserve instead a fair and full accounting of UN practices, practices beyond the celebratory, beyond the sensational, even beyond the gravely disappointing; practices that hold the promise of a more stable, peaceful world, but mostly for now (as we have seen this week at the UN) only incompletely.

During the Irish media event, a speaker from Syria spoke of the need to “humanize” migrants, to see and communicate migration in its full complexity beyond stereotypes and “challenges” posed to host communities.   This embrace of complexity is sound advice for every stakeholder in UN coverage and for our communication with diverse constituencies. Following that advice will require more –from those who produce UN-related content and from those who consume it.

Food for Thought:  Diversifying the UN’s Peace and Security Shareholders, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Jul

Japan as Security Council president for July held an open debate this past week on Council working methods, perhaps my favorite of all the Council meetings.

During the hours of discussion, Council members and other states aired their suggestions for reform, but also their frustrations with the pace of change, the political dynamics affecting the maintenance of international peace and security, the stubbornly uneven power dynamics within the Council, even the degree to which the Council remains reluctant to engage meaningfully on its core mandate with other relevant parts of the UN system.

We have our own suggestions for how the Council should recalibrate itself and have written about these previously.  One more recent suggestion involves restraint regarding what we see as the overuse of “condemnation” as a response to violent incidents or offenses against the international order.  Too much condemning with too little follow up is as likely to breed contempt as compliance, as most any teacher or parent can tell you.  Our preference, to the extent feasible, is for the Peacebuilding Commission’s evolving protocols on conflict and abuse – early and vigorous diplomatic response, steady and disciplined stakeholder engagement, and broad-based capacity support wherever needed.

But one working methods issue that strikes us as particularly noteworthy was raised on Tuesday by several states, including the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the Russian Federation. All made clear that, in this imperfect world, the Council’s agenda is now utterly overburdened with too many crises and competing agendas; too many lengthy ‘canned’ statements and overly complex press notes; too many negotiations producing resolutions of limited impact; too many ‘routine’ engagements leaving insufficient time for the Council to assess urgent conditions on the ground.

Through its thematic obligations, the Council has been (rightly) seized of the peace and security implications of women’s and children’s participation, climate change and drought, poverty and hunger, trafficking in drugs and arms, and much more.  However, states have reason to fear (and have expressed as much during Council debates) that Council involvement in these thematic areas often blurs the line between leveraging response capacity and exercising response control.  In that light, Russia and others have consistently called for the Council to concentrate on state-specific threats and leave thematic matters to the General Assembly, ECOSOC, and UN specialized agencies.

While we agree that the Council is overly burdened, should better respect the aptitude of other parts of the UN, and cease “stepping on the toes” of relevant stakeholders, it is also true that other UN agencies are not always willing to make the reverse linkage in the form of recognizing and articulating the full security implications of their own work.  If the Council is to be convinced to recognize security interests and expertise elsewhere in the UN, it would be helpful to see more evidence by other UN agencies of that recognition in return.

To some degree, this “recognition deficit” was on display in an otherwise fine side event this week hosted by the World Food Program (WFP).  The event  “El Niño-induced Drought in Southern Africa” was a lightly attended follow up to a larger event the day before on “Responding to the Impacts of El Niño and Mitigating Recurring Climate Risks,” featuring HE Mary Robinson, now the UN Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate.  Robinson as many of you know is quite a “legend” around UN Headquarters and she deftly cited the many places in the world –including southern Africa – where drought and flooding in some nefarious, climate-driven combination is creating havoc with communities and livelihoods.

The “southern Africa” event the following day covered a range of issues pertinent to what was described as a “level three emergency” after 2 years of what is now universally recognized as devastating drought in the region.  Conflict implications per se were not a major dimension of the conversation, and speakers seemed relatively uncomfortable examining the larger implicated “complexities” of the southern African crisis, though SADC’s Mhlongo did underscore the links between drought-related economic impacts and levels of gender violence and HIV infection.

Our office attended this event in (for us) large numbers, in part because of our solidarity with affected people in that region, in part because of our respect for the work of WFP, but also in part because of our belief that climate-related drought and hunger are (and will continue to be) major drivers of human conflict worldwide.

People eating their own seeds rather than planting them, people leaving emaciated cows to die in the fields rather than milking them, people staring helplessly into the traumatized faces of their nutrition and health compromised children rather than taking them to school, these are prime candidates for displacement and all of its attendant vulnerabilities, including conflict-related vulnerabilities.

And while it is reasonable for the WFP and others to focus on the areas closest to their mandate and ignore the larger concerns lurking both “on the ground” and elsewhere in the UN system, we explicitly urged them not to take this path.  Indeed, we softly reminded them of some of the relevant realities of the UN system – a system struggling to extract funds pledged to already existing crises, a system struggling as well to grasp and address the many potential ‘sparks’ of conflict — often blithely referred to as “root causes” – sparks to which all of us in this system need to be more fully attentive.

And a system that seems to be perpetually in competition within itself to keep focus and attention on matters of greatest urgency.  If Special Representative Kubiš is anywhere near correct in what he reported this past week to the Security Council, the upcoming military liberation from ISIL control of Mosul in Iraq will set off a humanitarian catastrophe of massive proportions, rapidly drying up available assistance and commanding (at least in the short term) most of the media headlines.

We mentioned the Kubiš prediction at the WFP/southern African event, and it was clearly not comfortable for the presenters to grasp how other global events could steal away attention from the regional, climate-induced crisis on their own agenda. It must be discouraging indeed to have to consider prospects of pledges of support un-made or un-honored, of compounding La Niña storms quickly turning parched fields into seas of mud that will only magnify misery and fuel conflict, and especially of other UN and state officials looking the other way towards more ‘compelling’ violence-inspired crises elsewhere.

Special Envoy Robinson has surely experienced such discouragement from many angles in her long and impact-filled career and she urged her audiences this week to constantly keep our numerous and complex threats in mind, especially as they impact future generations.  The “full-spectrum” response rightly sought by WFP for southern Africa requires commensurate, full spectrum mindfulness – not only of the effects of drought and hunger, but of their peace and security implications and of the sometimes competing capacities and interests of the UN system.   If we want a more focused, less political, more system-sensitive and less burdened Security Council – and we do – all parts of the UN must contribute more to a comprehensive assessment of peace and security risks and responsibilities, especially in times of crisis.  While we might want (or need) to believe otherwise, there simply is no part of our common work – on climate and poverty, on discrimination and justice — that does not also possess relevant peace and security dimensions.

Lens Crafters:  The Vision Deficits that Cloud our Global Policy Choices, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Feb

I am sitting in my New York office having earlier braved a record cold morning, wearing more clothing than I ever knew was in my closet.  Time now to reflect on a line from a speech given in Munich yesterday by Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, who reportedly wondered:  “Can we unite in order to stand up against the challenges we face? Yes, I am absolutely sure that we can.”

The “challenges” in this case refer mostly to those related to Syria – ending the war, “degrading” ISIL, addressing almost unprecedented violations of international human rights law, providing access for humanitarian relief to those trapped in zones of despair or sitting in camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

Any alleged “certainty” about Syria’s future is heartwarming I suppose, but also mostly problematic.  The bombs of several countries (including far too many of Russia’s) continue to fall.  The Saudis are set to send in ground troops.   Turkey continues to keep an eye open for opportunities to vanquish the Kurds.  A full spectrum of abuses committed against civilians continues to unfold.  NATO ships are set to interdict and return refugees to places characterized by empty markets and violent unrest.  Arms continue to flow in all directions.  Pledges of assistance are more numerous than pledges honored.

Prime Minister Medvedev is right at one level.  We can address these and other global challenges.   They are not beyond our collective skills set; not even beyond our politics.  They might, however, remain out of reach given the self-inflicted “degrading” of our collective vision, seeing what we need to see, what we need for others to see, rather than all that lies in front of us.

 Self-distraction and self-delusion stealing the stage from clarity and honesty

The default for sub-standard policy these days seems to be some form of “we didn’t see this coming.”  At the same time, we gush over all of the technology – both earth-bound and in space — that allows us to probe and peek, to prod and predict.  The weather system rattling my leaky apartment windows last evening was forecast well over a week before it arrived.   Indeed, our forecasting in so many areas relevant to policy has reached breathtaking proportions.   We might not have been able to predict with full confidence the extent of the current Zika outbreak, but we certainly know enough to stay vigilant regarding potential pandemics, the “when” exhibiting a stronger probability than the “if.”

Unfortunately, our policy vision these days is too often saturated with a blend of enthusiasm and desire.  And there is no impediment to clear and honest assessment quite like that of desire.  When we want it to be so; when we need it to be so; we find ways to convince ourselves that it is so.

More and more, our claims “not to have known” are undermined by the very technology on which already we over-rely.   When we fail to see all that is in front of us, when our enthusiasm blocks our willingness to assess all obstacles that threaten our cherished policy assumptions and conclusions, we run the risk of doing damage to the very constituents we otherwise seek to assist.  But this is less about our technological “eyes” than it is about the personal lenses we have allowed to become foggy and dusty.

In the case of Prime Minister Medvedev, it would appear that his enthusiasm for a resolution to Syria consistent with Russia’s national interest has created its own thick blinders.  Russia’s conduct in Syria is hardly the only conduct beyond reprehension, but it is staggeringly reprehensible in its own right.  Indeed, it is hard to see how peace can be sustained given such levels of myopic leadership.

This problem of vision affects more hopeful policies as well.  The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a remarkable achievement in their own right, have been subject to a series of urgent discussions in the early days of 2016. Much to its credit, the UN has not waited for the dust to settle but is making strong connections to important stakeholders (youth, women, indigenous, persons with disabilities) and urging member states to quickly identify areas of priority activity and relevant needs for capacity assistance.

In addition, good work is being done in two key areas – the indicators that will drive assessments and the financing that will sustain progress.   But there also seems to be a largely unspoken assumption of predictability in the “enabling environment,” one which is likely related more to our enthusiasm for the goals than to a sober assessment of current security, fiscal and climate prospects.

As noted in a recent UNCTAD briefing in New York to launch the report, “Rethinking Development Strategies after the Financial Crisis,” any assumptions about an “enabling environment” are fraught with peril.   UNCTAD officials noted two major impediments which have to date received insufficient attention and which have the power to short-circuit the most enthusiastic applications of the 2030 development agenda.  The first of these is the prospect of another major financial downturn, most likely initiated by some of the very same institutions that we failed to hold accountable for the last one.  In such a scenario, equity markets will shrink and states will feel forced to preserve stasis rather than reaching out to help lift the fortunes of those hitherto marginal.  Another financial collapse will likely ensure that our best development efforts will still “leave plenty behind.”

Second, there is a noteworthy shrinking of policy space in many countries, a shrinking that damages prospects for full participation, but also for policy innovation and assessment of “official” priorities.  We must explore the participation and assessment implications of all the SDGs, perhaps especially Goal 16, but we must do so based on clear analysis of the current threats posed to journalists, human rights advocates, indeed most anyone who dares to expose an emperor’s nakedness.  In many parts of the world, there is currently no “enabling environment” to count on here either.  Not yet anyway.

For many young people rightly frustrated by their elders and our global legacies, there are occasional bursts of concern for our collective future.  Are we going to make it?  Do we have what it takes as a species to get over ourselves and address the full implications of all the challenges that face us, not just the ones we are willing to see?

It would be foolish to sell us short.  We can still make good on our promises and bring some healing to the planet in the process.  We can end violent conflict, bring international finance under control and wedge new policy space in otherwise recalcitrant states. But it would also be foolish to believe that we can make any sustainable change merely by tinkering with policy resolutions and other international instruments.   Those instruments, while not perfect, are mostly already sufficient to their purposes.   The “wild card” here is us, what we see and what we refuse to see.

In the Christian bible, there is a line in which Jesus of Nazareth warns those looking for specks in the eyes of their neighbors to first take the “logs” out of their own.  Such excavations are encouraged as they can do much to restore the clarity of vision and firmness of purpose we will need to get over both our “enthusiasms” and our current, bulging “humps” of security, development and climate challenges.

Calling for Clarity and Constancy: The UN Doubles Back on Recent Commitments and Expectations, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jan

Back in October 2015, under Argentina’s leadership and with the support of several other member states, the UN held a panel on Ethics for Sustainable Development.

We commented at the time on both the format and substance of a discussion that we found to be notable at several levels, including its focus on the many ways in which those who control capital flows and labor relationships have increased inequality at a time when most of us at the UN feel an urgency to narrow it.

This past Wednesday, with leadership from Panama’s Ambassador Flores, part II of this assessment of our collective ethical responsibilities to sustainable development was held.   The large and enthusiastic audience filling the Trusteeship Council chamber, including a large number of permanent representatives, attested again to the importance of the UN’s ethical responses to its own high commitments and the broad expectations thus raised.   The content of this discussion was both structural and personal, and demonstrated much overlap with the October event.

For us, such overlap was welcome as it reinforced sentiments shared by Palau, the Netherlands, panelist Dr. Bernardo Kliksberg and others, that while we are certainly capable of overcoming avarice and other forms of malice, ethics is hard, habituated work for persons (and institutions) as “complex” as we all tend to be.  Sustaining ethical behavior requires regular reinforcement and self-scrutiny even (especially) at the heart of global governance.   Unfortunately, as Dr. Kliksberg noted, we have spent too much of our collective energy “hardening our hearts” and waiting for technology to soften the blows which we have inflicted on ourselves through our generalized inattentiveness and our “speculative, unbridled greed.”  We can (and should) do a better job of cultivating our ethical nature, as noted by Liberia, but there are few short-cuts – no pills to swallow or aps to download that can keep us from having to set out on the long and often winding ethical road.

The “ethical roadmap,” cited by Ambassador Flores, is an important contribution to SDG fulfillment, but as we know from our own work with Green Map System, maps are mostly useful only when people desire to get to the places to which the maps point us.  The more thoroughly we cultivate and model ethical behavior, the more we reinforce the notion that ethics is a daily walk and not an episodic one, the more useful that ethical roadmap will become.

The Deputy Secretary-General, as is often his welcome role, sought to assist event organizers in rallying diplomats and NGOs to embrace an ethic worthy of this “unprecedented” SDG agenda.   He shared the view that the SDGs can best be understood as a “declaration of interdependence,” a declaration that privileges solidary with the most vulnerable.   We at the UN have raised expectations very high now; meeting this ambitious calling requires us to be regularly informed by those whom we seek to support.  It requires us to reach out intently, but also to reach deeply, beyond our zones of comfort to places hard to reach and even harder to address.   The “margins” we acknowledge here in New York are often safer and more “recognizable” spaces than those framing the context for families struggling at the edges of desperation.

Ethics is hard work indeed, but it is hardly without its conceptual guideposts and even its satisfying moments. Dr. Kliksberg made mention of Pope Francis’ “hallowed addiction” to addressing the needs of the poor, an addiction which seems to energize the Pope and from which our own, policy-driven, poverty-reduction efforts could learn some valuable, sustaining lessons. The president of ECOSOC, Amb. Oh Joon of the Republic of Korea, cited “access to justice” as a fundamental “leveling principle,” such leveling being a key outcome of SDG fulfillment but also a cardinal value of a newly revitalized ECOSOC that will celebrate its 70th anniversary later this week at the UN.

Despite what our current economics and politics might suggest, this commitment to “leveling” is in the best interest of all of us.  We cannot continue to plunder the planet and turn the most desperate constituencies into statistical abstractions or social media caricatures.  We cannot raise the bar with one hand and use the other to smack down people desperate to grab on.

Back in the Trusteeship Council chamber, Germany was clear on the point that “ethics is not a luxury” for 2030 development implementation.   But this net must be cast wider.   The expectations that we raise across the three pillars of UN activity all have ethical components, as does our collective behavior which sometimes falls off the proverbial “wagon” when we think no one is looking.

Someone is always looking.

As many diplomats have affirmed with a sense of well-deserved pride, this is a big moment for the world; also for the UN.  If we can deliver on our development and climate promises; if we can (as Palau noted) systematize ethics in our diverse policy outcomes; if we can better balance (as Argentina urged) our national ambitions with our commitment to inclusion, then the most vulnerable will get more of what they need, the planet will stand a chance, and the UN will have made an important statement about the indispensability of multilateral frameworks going forward.

All of these qualify in whole or in part as “hallowed addictions,” worthy in their own right of our full and ethical attention.