Tag Archives: development

Justice Matters:  The UN Explores Multiple Pathways to Human Dignity, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jul


On July 14, Judge Silvia Fernandez de Gurmendi, president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), spoke to a packed conference room at UN Headquarters.  The event was chaired by Italy’s Ambassador Cardi and was intended as part of the UN’s acknowledgment of the International Day of Criminal Justice which falls each year on July 17.

The president hit many important notes during her address, including reminding the audience that the ICC is a court of “last resort” for the “crimes against humanity” under its jurisdiction, including the use of child soldiers, sexual violence as a tactic of war, the wanton destruction of cultural property, and soon the crime of aggression.  It is up to member states, she rightly noted, to help the ICC establish a “consistent pattern of accountability” for international crimes, in part by taking greater national responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of such crimes and in part through efforts to deter and punish those who seek to undermine the administration of justice through the ICC, including the interference with/harassment of witnesses.

The president did not take up several questions that some of us might otherwise have expected.  The ICC’s relationship to the Security Council, for instance, has been a contentious one that has included untimely referrals, massive security restrictions on investigations, significant budgetary limitations, and the Council’s refusal to sanction states that fail in their responsibilities to arrest indicted criminals.  Moreover, the president chose not to ‘call out’ states parties which have hosted – rather than captured – those very same criminals.

But what she did suggest was important: that credible international justice is essential to the restoration of rule of law, to human development, indeed to the dignity of victims.   She recognized that a “global system of justice” has many facets that are tied to the activities of courts, certainly to the vigorous promotion of internationally recognized human rights but also to a development and conflict prevention system that can uphold dignity and help ensure that the worst of crimes can be addressed in their potential before they unfold in grotesque practice.

As the president also recognized, other UN events during this past week touched on key elements of a global system of justice.   In the General Assembly, PGA Lykketoft convened a high level event to assess the human rights performance of the UN as it concludes its 70th year.   Fittingly, states used the occasion to promote the need to, as New Zealand and others noted, examine the implications of human rights across the three UN “pillars.” States from Panama and Chile to France and Estonia noted the many rights dimensions that affect people in overt conflict situations, but also highlighted those suffering from torture, discrimination, incarceration-related abuses and many other violations.   And while Liechtenstein rightly lamented that disregard of the ‘rules of war’ seems now to be reaching epidemic proportions, there was broad agreement with the Netherlands and others that we can do more  — and must do more — to ensure that people can finally live in a world “free from armed conflict.”

Last Wednesday in another small conference room, an “A” list of UN officials was brought together by Uruguay and Portugal to discuss the economic and social rights implications of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  ASG Šimonović set a collaborative tone, urging all of us “to bring human rights to the core of our development work.”  ASG Gass went ever farther, noting that the SDGs represent a “new social contract,” while lamenting a “shortage of tools” with which we can hold states (and others) accountable to their SDG promises.   Happily, Gass rightly suggested that the integration of human rights into the SDGs would help make accessible the more fully developed capacities within the human rights community which are already doing much to hold states accountable to rights-based obligations.  As it turns out, tools for SDG accountability need not be created.  They can be borrowed.

As for the convening states, there was enthusiasm for SDG-rights linkages but also cautious tones.  Uruguay’s Ambassador responded to those who see economic and social rights as “vague,” noting that genuinely sustainable development requires ‘dignity work’ in the form of ending gross social and economic inequalities.  Portugal’s Ambassador urged member states to show more leadership on core Charter values while simultaneously urging NGOs to help ensure that values espoused are values enacted.  But he also painfully referenced the many millions of persons in our world for whom rights and dignity remain only “a mirage.”

During his report on Friday in the UN Security Council, Special Representative Jan Kubiš made reference to the upcoming efforts by Iraq and its military partners to liberate the city of Mosul from ISIL control.   While clearly supportive of reducing all manner of ISIL’s influence, Kubiš also predicted that such liberation would likely trigger a humanitarian crisis that could dwarf the already horrific stories of deprivation and rights abuses (including by Iraqi forces) now emanating from Fallujah.  In many instances, it seems, “liberation” bears the potential to create and magnify trauma and deprivation in the name of eliminating them.  The Council, the government of Iraq and the entire UN community must leverage additional capacity to address the psychological and physical dimensions of victim’s assistance in all their aspects.

And of course to do more to ensure that the “pipelines” of trauma are effectively sealed, that relief is more than a fleeting mirage.

As the week’s events underscored, the struggle for sustainable human dignity is a long road, easier to claim than to protect.  As the ICC president noted, we live in a world in which “many perpetrators continue to be untouched.”  Sadly, there are millions more victims in our conflict zones who also remain “untouched.”   Our commitment – on sustainable development and international justice, on poverty reduction and trauma response – is to find the means and the will to touch them all.

Tension Headache:  Attending the demands and aspirations of those who still “don’t matter,” Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jul

This morning on Twitter, we were alerted by Brian Stelter of CNN (a network I rarely watch) about the contents of the front page of this Sunday’s New York Times (a paper I rarely read).  What was remarkable about that front page is that all of the significant pieces of journalism were focused, in one way or another, on the “above the fold” headline:   America Grieves, Tense and Wary.

We rarely in this space venture into “domestic affairs,” though the nonsense emanating from this presidential election season is sometimes so very tempting.   But today is different – the confluence of anger, confusion, discrimination, weapons access, media bias and more has created a situation that some find predictable but many more find intolerable.  The murders of the Dallas police officers have largely stolen the national headlines, and one doesn’t have to accept the recently-offered narrative of “domestic terrorism” to acknowledge the massive pain inflicted on both families and the reputation of a police department that seems at least to be trying.   But in many news services (not the Times per se) Dallas has become both a watershed moment and a bit of a diversion from a season’s worth of mass demonstrations and senseless shootings by and of police, some of which had their own moment in the media, others merely taking their place on a still-lengthening roster of incidences involving people who are more than weary from the many implications of lives “on the margins.”

This aptly designated “tense and wary” scenario is directly related to activities taking place across the street from where I’m sitting, preparations for tomorrow’s important opening of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) of the UN’s Economic and Social Council.

The agenda and assessment activities for this HLPF are clearly focused on one objective:  “leaving no one behind. “  A noble and hopeful objective, to be sure, though one requiring much and strewn with obstacles both identifiable and unforeseen.

As we have written previously, the UN community is doing due-diligence in getting out in front of the massive responsibilities incurred through the goals and targets of the 2030 development agenda: reducing poverty, ending inequalities of economic, educational and political access; saving ourselves from our own relentless assaults on our forests, oceans and climate; and promoting forms of governance and security that offer inclusive participation and rights-based protection.

Despite these welcome UN efforts, we are currently far from these goals, in some cases farther than we dare acknowledge.  Even if we have articulated and assembled the right goals to pursue; even if we are sincere in our financial pledges and fidelity to agreed indicators of success; this 2030 agenda is a daunting business.  It will require sustained commitments by national governments, vigilance by the HLPF and diverse UN agencies and then some; for it will also require more of each of us.  Slogans such as “leave no one behind” can galvanize some measure of our collective responsibility, but their overuse can deaden us to tasks that will, if we are to overcome our current epochal violence and planetary disregard, require greater self-scrutiny and more reliable attentiveness to others than we have so far in our collective history demonstrated.

The discouraging events of this past week are hardly unique but certainly offer yet another reminder of how many people in our world are still left behind, still on the margins, still don’t matter.  From Baton Rouge to Juba, from suburban St. Paul to Gaza, people struggle mightily for respect and relief, for justice and stability.  Tension and suspicion are partially understandable responses to what we see and read about so many human struggles at home and abroad; but these are the reactions that prompt us to seek out stronger locks for our doors but also for our souls.  These are the reactions concerned less about reaching those left behind and more about not getting “dragged” by them ostensibly towards some uncertain and indeterminate bottom.

We can identify the collective mood as the Times and others have done; we cannot give in to it.   The challenges of inclusion characteristic of these times imply that our routine forays into petty self-distraction are not so petty after all.   From the physicist Stephen Hawking to the man in the local Bodega who sells me beer and dish soap, many and diverse voices are wondering if we collectively have what it takes to extricate ourselves from this “tense and wary” swamp of our own making.

The hope of the 2030 development goals is that we do indeed have what it takes but only as a grand and collective endeavor that invites and integrates far beyond those currently on the world’s VIP lists.  In this, it will be especially important to keep at bay all those “locksmiths” seeking access to our personal, cultural and community contexts.

The young (mostly black) men who work alongside our church folks in the food pantry each Saturday morning in Harlem are not at all immune from the tension that now routinely flares into discrimination and violence.   These men work hard early on Saturdays when most of their peers are sound asleep, carrying and stocking huge quantities of provisions, providing service to people who don’t always treat them with the greatest of respect.

But they also know that they need to watch their back.  The news splashed all over this week’s media was not news to them; neither the killings, nor the arrests, nor the tension and suspicion that are so-often and inappropriately hurled in their direction.

These young men have much to contribute perhaps currently more in potential mode; but potential is also inspired by invitations to participate and opportunities to practice — and a commitment from the rest of us not to leave them behind.

We’re going to see what we’re made of over these next 15 years as our 2030 development promises take shape.  Transforming rampant tension and suspicion might well be our species’ next major test.

Freedom Trail: Finding the UN’s Path towards Political and Policy Vigilance, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Jul

It’s a quiet weekend at the UN courtesy of the end of the Holy Season of Ramadan and a long Independence Day holiday weekend in the host country.

It was not so quiet this past week, with important discussions on issues from how to better ensure treaty compliance and improve response to armed conflict and other urban crises to new measures to reign in the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions.   This week’s celebrations, among their other joys, give diplomats and other UN stakeholders a chance to catch their breath and hopefully reflect a bit on the value of political “independence,” specifically the degree to which self-governance is critical to achieving viable pathways towards other “freedoms” and rights which find themselves regularly on the UN’s agenda.

As many of you are aware, self-governance was a core UN preoccupation for at least half its history as nations took on the often arduous task of separating themselves from the colonizers.  A part of that preoccupation is resurrected each year during meetings of the “Special Committee on the Situation with regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.”  With leadership largely emanating from the Latin American states – especially Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia – this Committee took up many still unresolved governance matters affecting many small island territories, but also including more high-profile (and high-controversy) matters such as Puerto Rico, the Malvinas (Falklands), and Western Sahara.   And while 2016 Committee Chair Venezuela complained about a lack of reflection within the UN on “colonialism’s legacies” as well as alleged “stagnation” regarding the UN’s promotion of self-governance,  the passion of Committee petitioners and participating member states bore witness to the belief that self-governance is that important platform on which many other freedoms and capacities depend.

But of course, self-governance represents only an initial step on the “trail” towards building what we refer to as “stable, peaceful and inclusive societies.   As the UN understands fully, it is difficult to talk meaningfully about freedom, inclusiveness or stability with those who have been forcibly displaced due to indiscriminate armed violence; whose communities have been battered (or baked) by climate-related shocks; who endure grave trauma in the aftermath of needless, horrific abuse; whose ethnic or personal identities have kept them in perpetual fear of discrimination or even worse.

While the UN might have some “stagnation” on political independence, it certainly has shown increasing robustness on addressing these other matters germane to fairness, freedom and abundance.  This week, as a follow up to the Istanbul Humanitarian Summit, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) convened three highly valuable sessions which sought to streamline the inter-linkages that define our collective responsibilities to development and humanitarian relief.  To some in the ECOSOC audience these linkages have been apparent for some time, though it was reassuring to have them explored sincerely and at such a high policy level

For most of the panelists and many of the responding UN member states, the sessions in part took on the mood of a confessional – relationship struggles long apparent but rarely acknowledged in formal settings.  Most of us already realize, as Brazil noted, that stopping conflict and the massive flows of weapons that exacerbate conflict is a core UN contribution to all development and relief work.  Most of us also recognize the intrinsic value of policy, as urged by Argentina and others, which “leaves people in control of their own well-being.”  And we mostly all nodded when the Philippines asked “where is the logic” in spending so much on response to crisis and so little on preparedness, meeting development needs more proactively and thus helping communities build their resilience to any shocks that might come along?

Many especially resonated with calls from UN Relief Chief Stephen O’Brien for “mindset change” in support of new (for some of us) modalities for coordinated development and humanitarian response.

Part of that “change” has to do with shifting our response-obsessive logic, our “business-as-usual” mandates with which responders (and their funders) are still mostly comfortable; and this despite the growing “confession” that there is clearly a better, more comprehensive way to relieve the threats that drive despair, undermine governance and eliminate personal and community options.  To that end, as a representative of the International Rescue Committee reminded us this week, we must find the means to revise our objectives such that our collective goal is not how much food we deliver but how “food-secure” people feel.  Not the quantity of aid in and of itself, but the quality of lives assisted.

But part of this mindset shift, I think, also has to do with a certain loss of general skill around matters of vigilance.  On this Independence Day holiday, there are too many entertainment distractions, too many people wishing for political or social sanity (perhaps even blithely assuming their inevitability) but not striding in that general direction, not allowing themselves to be sufficiently attentive to the threats and opportunities that define this current moment.

Many years ago, when I was young and even more foolish, Joni Mitchell hit me between the eyes with this refrain:  Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.  Why can’t we cherish more of what we have before it’s lost?  Why do some of us take so much for granted?  Why are we often so careless with things we say matter to us?  And, specifically in the policy realm, why can’t we do better at fostering (and supporting) cultures that help us to prevent and prepare for risk rather than mourn and attempt to recover from its consequences?

As many of you probably saw, there were photos this morning in the British press of massive crowds gathering in London to “support Europe.” One might well wonder where this level of political energy was before the Brexit vote, why so many apparently couldn’t figure out what they were risking until after risk evolved into an unalterable reality.

In those same press pages, tributes flowed to the late Elie Wiesel, a moral giant of our times.  Wiesel had many quotable moments in his challenging life, but it was his rejection of “silence” and “neutrality” in the face of human horror that spoke to so many of us.

We must, he insisted, be willing to “take sides” when it comes to “torment” and oppression; but such requires vigilance applicable to caring for victims, restoring dignity and opportunity, promoting resilience and self-reliance, eliminating impunity for abuse.  All of these responses require active voices and attentive mind-sets, along with the disposition to ignore the metaphorical rest areas and continue to walk the trail.

This week, perhaps more than others in recent memory, the UN system seemed to take to heart the words of its (now former) Messenger of Peace: a bit more vocal, a bit more thoughtful, a bit more vigilant.  We collectively seem more determined to walk the trail, shedding outmoded policy preferences, cherishing our essential responsibilities, and doing more to open political and development spaces for more of the world’s people.

Peacebuilding Week:  The UN Seeks a Sustainable Culture Shift, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jun

At a time in its history when so much is on the UN’s plate, so much globally and institutionally is perceived to be on the wrong track, the demand for reform is considerable.  More and more, people cannot fathom – and with justification – how structures designed for one era’s crises can be expected to overcome the new and daunting hurdles that lie before us.  A briefing on Syria last Tuesday under the auspices of PGA Lykketoft gave Special Envoy de Mistura and USG O’Brien an opportunity to tell the full UN membership about tentative humanitarian and peace progress, but also just how much further we need to go before we stop adding to the bloodshed and trauma that already stretch our common capacities to their breaking point.

We at the UN often run behind responsibilities and crises rather than head them off.  We negotiate resolutions on weapons systems that have already evolved more dangerous iterations.   We create agreements on climate and development destined to require more energy and resources to clean up previous messes than prevent new ones.  We seek to address the mass trauma from so many victims in so many conflict zones, at times overlooking the obvious fact that the only viable means to effectively address such trauma is to do more to ahead of time to minimize its occurrence.

Like much of the national legislation with which its own policies interact, the culture of the UN system is reactive more than proactive.   Diplomats now speak regularly about the need for better early warning mechanisms and prevention strategies, but this is still largely at the level of aspiration, not representative of a sustainable shift in culture.  As a system, the UN’s “directional” continues to stick on the “post” side of conflict rather than on marshalling wisdom and resources to address conflict threats that we increasingly have neither the skills nor the resources to heal once “threat becomes reality.”

The week’s numerous events on and references to UN Peacebuilding and the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) represented more than branding for a still-fledgling, underfunded and even under-appreciated capacity.   On Monday, the PBC’s Burundi configuration (Switzerland) met to discuss that country’s many current fragilities.  On Wednesday, the Security Council held a briefing on potential directions for the PBC as noted in its 9th annual report. Thursday the PBC was in session all day with excellent opening and closing events and more intimate sessions in workshop format.  At that closing, current PBC Chair Ambassador Macharia Kamau of Kenya made important pledges to take the “longer view” on peace and security, to find political alternatives to military interventions that “rarely promise peace,” and to do what is necessary to “raise levels of ambition” at the UN for ensuring more peaceful and inclusive societies.

The following day, the Economic and Social Council held an historic, joint session with the PBC on the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Sustaining Peace.”  Such linkages hold no surprises for the many civil society organizations (and their constituents) living daily with the conflict implications of failed development policies and their implications for trafficking in weapons, narcotics and human beings.   Still there was an urgent energy on display here that would have been encouraging if not reassuring to global constituencies.

It was truly, as noted on Friday by Ambassador Kamau, a “Peacebuilding week” at the UN.  But this was more than a routine assessment, more than a commemoration of “configurations” well-tended.  It was an affirmation that UN Peacebuilding is staking genuinely hopeful ground, hope that the UN can do more – sooner and tangibly – to reduce levels of global tensions and deprivations before they spill over into active conflict.

We have long advocated for a higher profile for the Peacebuilding Commission.  We laud its ability to attract some of the very best diplomatic talent in the UN system; its longstanding affirmation of the primacy of diplomacy and political engagement; its flexibility in assembling the most contextually relevant and competent stakeholders; its commitment to a full-spectrum engagement with peace, including its economic, development, environmental and cultural dimensions.

Our wish for the PBC, one which is intimated in the Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding review, is for the PBC to reach that point where it transcends its current structural and “cultural” limitations: able to assess and address peacebuilding needs beyond the “configuration” states; able to provide guidance on peacebuilding to states that are anxious but not yet in turmoil; able to provide perspective on the conflict implications of all three UN pillars within an evolving culture that seeks to broaden the policy tent more than control its location and functions.

As part of that transition, the PBC and its evolving UN partnerships must help the development-security linkage to find a deeper discernment, what Korea’s Ambassador Oh Joon on Friday outlined as that “blending of a universal agreement and a fundamental responsibility.”   Part of that discernment was offered by Mexico’s Deputy Ambassador who outlined the “healthy social fabric” needed to sustain peace, but also (along with the Swedish Minister) chided governments for investing more in weapons of war than in tools for building and sustaining peace.

The Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, someone on whose leadership we often reflect fondly, predicted on Friday that the culture change we are seeking, and that was represented by Friday’s joint meeting, is well on its way.  If the problems we face are linked, Eliasson noted, our solutions must be also.   We can and must all do more to claim more “horizontal” and collaborative space if we are to build and then sustain an institutional culture that encourages – as noted by Australia’s Ambassador Bird — full-spectrum response to our diverse peace and development challenges.  “Delivering as one,” she noted, is still frustratingly rhetorical within UN settings and must urgently become the go-to strategy of a reformed, cooperative, preventive UN culture.

We have planted many seeds here at the UN on peace, development, climate and justice, but too many of those seeds have fallen on thin soil.  As the words of Kamau, Bird, Eliasson and others grow deeper roots at the UN, the flexibility and wisdom gathering within the PBC can help ensure a more hopeful, predictable harvest for more of the world’s people.

City Harvest:  Seeking a UN Urban Agenda That Deepens our Rural Connections, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 May

This week the UN Security Council was on mission in East Africa, the General Assembly was focused on AIDS and Migration, and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues concluded another round of UN-based advocacy.  The rest of the building was taken up with preparations for the UN Humanitarian Summit (now underway in Istanbul) and with aspects of trade, development and “south-south” cooperation relevant to the fulfillment of our general obligations under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Perhaps the most important of these were discussions took place under the aegis of UN Habitat on a Draft Document towards a “New Urban Agenda” that will help guide the Habitat III convening scheduled for later this year in Quito, Ecuador.

The rationale for another major gathering on cities is difficult to refute.  As the document’s introduction makes clear, our global demographic continues its rapid shift towards urban areas.  Predictions now are that, by 2050, as many as 70% of global inhabitants will reside in cities making urbanization “one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends.”

These meetings were largely upbeat, highlighting significant improvements in the quality of lives of urban residents since the UN first took up the challenges of cities in the mid-1970s.  Delegations were generous in their acknowledgment of the technological, economic and cultural innovations so often characteristic of cities.  As mostly urban dwellers themselves (even when not serving in New York) delegates seemed grateful for the opportunity to do their part to enhance the longer-term quality of urban settings.

As we know, cities are places of cultural and ethnic diversity; they also, as UN Women duly noted at a related event this week on “Movements of Refugees and Migrants,” provide places of hospitality and employment opportunities for migrants who often find within cities both a base line acceptance along with a community of ex-pats to help ease what can often be a frustrating and lonely transition.  Cities are magnets for the underemployed and dispossessed, but also for the entitled and ambitious.  Cities allow people to redefine themselves, to test their skills and talents, to become something other than what had been “planned out” for them by others.

But cities are also places of distraction and suspicion.  They breed anonymity and emotional disconnection.  City residents are so often found staring into tiny smart phone screens rather than seeking out what little sky lies beyond the tops of buildings.  People in cities become more comfortable with the insides of transit stations than with farmlands or watersheds.  They are part of increasingly relentless, market-driven environments with vast options for consumption and entertainment far beyond those found in other settlements.  And there are times when an endless range of options makes it difficult to make – and hold fast to – any decision, be it about consumptioin or more personal matters.  Sometimes there are so many tempting dishes on the menu it takes many frustrating minutes to figure out just what you want to order.

In our work with environmental mapping (Green Map) we have noted, time and again, the growing impact of human and technological innovation on urban living, offering pathways to make such living more convenient and helping to solve infrastructure related problems that were previously resistant to change.  But we have also noted the degree to which peoples’ (even basic) knowledge about their urban environment is flimsy and compromised.  While advances can regularly be cited related to urban poverty reduction, protecting wildlife habitats, enhancing food security, expanding waterfront access, and “greening” our energy use and modes of transportation, too many urban residents continue to “go small,” seeing mostly what is on the screens right in front of them instead of grasping the issues and connections that that will give us the best chance to move beyond still-current threats to the longer-term achievement of sustainable urban living.

Part of what we need to see now is that larger picture that Peru and others provided during the Habitat discussions: In addition to attention to things like the preservation of cultural heritage and fortifying disaster preparedness and relief in this unsettling time of climate fluctuation, Peru also cited a critical need to enhance urban-rural connections, including a renewed respect by city dwellers for the lifestyles and livelihoods of a shrinking rural populace.

This last agenda is easier said than done.   Until and unless there is a crisis of access (or until we need a vacation break from our urban chaos), city folks too often tend to take rural areas and their inhabitants for granted.   Collectively, we don’t think much about the ways in which our food is grown and produced.  We don’t worry much about the security and sustainability of our reservoirs and watersheds.   We don’t pay much attention to the people who mine our minerals, maintain our cross-country roads or bury the cables for our internet upgrades.   And we almost willfully ignore the lifestyles of people – indigenous and not – who choose to reside beyond the bright lights of cities, people who resist joining the throngs seeking opportunity, security, convenience and endless distraction in urban settings.

Changing this dynamic portends benefits for many, including those who still reside in rural areas and whose issues are often buried under an avalanche of city-focused policy and city-obsessed media.  What is now required, as the Food and Agricultural Organization noted during the South-South discussions, is a new form of cooperation on matters of vital, common interest, a new way (as the “New Urban Agenda” document referred to it) of “conceiving urban-rural linkages.”

This “conceiving” must go beyond rivers and melons to embrace common efforts to reduce our eco-footprint and create reciprocal and tangible regard for diverse lifestyles that reflect important aspects of our human character.   As we cannot flourish without urban innovation and diversity neither can we flourish without deep connections to the land and its biodiversity which surrounds us, or to the people who live with and cherish such connections.  As Cuba noted this week, sustainable development cannot be achieved without the active participation of global “south” countries, but neither can it be achieved in the absence of the skills, care and wisdom of their diverse rural peoples.

A representative of one of those rural peoples – the Sami – came to the Indigenous Forum this week seeking (as did others) redress and reconciliation for what was termed policies of “forced assimilation.”  Whether we like it or not, in an age of climate-related famine, weather-related disasters and widespread armed violence, much of what is driving urban growth feels a bit “forced” as well. We urge Habitat III to do everything possible to continue on the path to make urban centers thrive.  But city life can be vital without being inevitable.  Preserving, enhancing and respecting the “rural option” should be understood as being in the best interests of urban dwellers and constitutes a major objective for those tasked with defining urban interests.

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.

Creating Spaces for Creative Participation:  Practicing Fairness, Heeding Evidence: Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Jan

One of the tangibly hopeful things around UN headquarters is the degree to which participation concerns have been legitimized in policy.   The skills and perspectives of people across gender, race, age, culture, social class, nationality, (dis) ability and more receive at least rhetorical confirmation somewhere or other within the UN’s increasingly busy schedule of policy deliberations.

From the vantage point of the still-excluded voices, gender gets the most attention these days around the UN, with strong agency leadership and NGO support from those running a gamut of gender-specific issue concerns – from ensuring more women’s voices at UN functions to the complete dismantling of patriarchy in all its forms.

And certainly there is plenty to atone for where women’s rights are concerned.

Nevertheless, despite all this legitimate, multi-layered attention, there remain structural and political limitations to enacting our participation concerns.   At the UN, as in much of the rest of the world, we have ample evidence for a tenuous relationship between the things we discuss and the things we actually change.   Sometimes conversation serves as a springboard for personal or institutional reform; other times it serves as their substitute.

In the case of gender, our participation-related limitations take multiple forms.  For instance, despite all of the current institutional focus on gender equity, we still have too many single-gender panels at UN Headquarters.   We still put excellent diplomats such as Luxembourg’s Ambassador Lucas in the awkward position of having to remind her peers, as she did during Friday’s 70th Anniversary celebration of ECOSOC, of the pervasive male dominance of much UN agency leadership.  Despite our generally supportive gender rhetoric, we still have not fully grasped the degree to which national economic policies, peace and mediation processes, poverty reduction efforts and much more remain exclusive domains, including exclusive of too many women.

As Denmark noted during Thursday’s “Implementing the 2030 Agenda to Accelerate Realization of Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls” event, we must do more than we are now doing to ensure that we bring the “marginal into the center.”  This has implications beyond gender, but certainly many implications for how women – including working class women, women with disabilities, and indigenous women – find space to pursue their policy skills and interests. As Regions Refocus’ Anita Nayar stated, the 2030 development agenda gives us another opportunity – one we would do well not to squander – to claim the space needed to “democratize and feminize” implementation of the new development goals.

Indeed, at Thursday’s “gender and development” event, there were many important statements that fit under the heading of “not squandered,” including several shared by men.  For instance, Latvia highlighted the need for more attention to the “gender digital divide” and better indicators to monitor gender-specific compliance. UNCTAD’s Carpentier raised the concern that the current preoccupation with “public-private partnerships” is not delivering the goods on women’s employment. Cuba went so far as to criticize diplomatic training, noting that if such training is gender-biased, future diplomatic placements are likely to remain biased as well.  And Canada noted “evidence” that gender equity signals many important social benefits, and urged all to listen more carefully to that growing body of evidence.

But the event also highlighted an even broader, more systemic concern.

There is a pervasive flaw, in our view, in events around the UN that are “given over” to issue interests:  Gender advocates talking about gender.   Indigenous advocates talking about indigenous issues.  Youth advocates (however you define “youth” these days) talking about youth concerns.   Disabled persons talking about the unmet needs of persons with disabilities.

These mostly branded conversations rarely add as much as we imagine to the evidence base of the largely knowledgeable audiences around the UN. They certainly don’t help build capacity across issue interests.  They do tend to consolidate domains rather than create linkages across domains.  They do not, as advocated by Ireland’s Ambassador Donoghue on Thursday, effectively promote “whole government” and whole systems commitment to full and effective constituent participation.

In response to this trend, we have long advocated events characterized by persons deliberately advocating for “space” for other groupings, not only for their own issues.    With full respect for the incredible talent that the UN routinely seconds into its meeting rooms, we see relatively little value in organizing events wherein the same voices advocate for the same things in the same way.   Such events tend mostly to ritualize policy concern rather than explore its next frontiers.  People come to these events in the hope of new insights or creative policy formulations, only to leave – more often than not – disappointed rather than reassured.

For us, it is always more inspirational to hear about the “stakes” people acknowledge in the unresolved concerns of others.  Why should advocates for genocide prevention care about efforts to eliminate arms trafficking?   Why should youth advocates care about elder rights?   Why should women’s rights advocates, as highlighted by GPF’s Barbara Adams at Thursday’s event, care about illegal financial flows?  Why should Security Council reform advocates care about the accelerated pace of melting ice caps?

And why should those tasked with implementation of the 2030 development agenda care about the full integration of gender perspectives?  On Thursday, we got a hopeful glimpse of what those answers might look like, as well as some insight into all the many other “cross cutting,” (or as Nayar proposed) “co-constructed” discussions that need to take place in and around our multilateral policy centers.  The clarity of our priorities, the quality of our resolutions, the depth of our commitments, can all be enhanced through our willingness to walk a pace in each other’s policy shoes.

At the UN, who speaks at events is largely (and too often) a function of who has been authorized to have a voice.  However, we have sufficient band-width as a policy community such that we can enable voices beyond the usual, and at the same time demonstrate broader policy discernment beyond our organizational mandates and diplomatic portfolios.  The participation space that we increasingly seek to open in the world must be opened wider at the UN as well; on gender yes, but also with respect to other, too-often “marginal” stakeholders seeking their policy moment.