Tag Archives: food security

Hunger Pangs: Cooperating on the Things People Long For, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Nov

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Let him who has not a single speck of migration to blot his family escutcheon cast the first stone. José Saramago

Once you set out from shore on your little boat, once you embark, you’ll never truly be at home again. What you’ve left behind exists only in memory, and your ideal place becomes some strange imaginary concoction of all you’ve left behind at every stop.  Claire Messud

Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice. Jeremy Harding

At times it seems as if the whole world has become a refugee and the few of us, who are privileged enough to wake up to the sound of an alarm clock instead of a siren, those of us who are enveloped by a veil of safety many of us fail to appreciate, have become desensitized to the migrating numbers, to the images of the dead, shrugging them away as a collective misery that this ailing part of the world must endure.  Aysha Taryam

This past Tuesday, the UN convened a special meeting bringing together the President of the General Assembly (PGA), María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, and the heads of various UN agencies tasked with addressing food insecurity and promoting Goal 2 of the Sustainable Development Goals – End all forms of hunger and malnutrition by the year 2030.

On the surface, and given some of the complexities of funding and indicators afflicting other SDGs, this one would appear to be an utterly achievable goal.   Supermarkets in the US and Western Europe are bursting with fresh and prepared foodstuffs, and those foods are trending in the direction of fewer pesticides and greater nutritional value.   Agricultural technology offers the promise of crop yields even on lands that have long since been abandoned. It seems difficult to imagine that there is another side to food access that is actually growing and, in the case of Yemen, becoming more and more grotesque as military assaults and climate-related events gouge any and all prospects for local food security.   While walking the aisles of our superstores, it is more challenging than it should be to think about the often-devastating impact of bombing raids and rainless seasons on small holder farmers, male and female alike, whose labors are essential to the stability of local communities from the Sahel to Syria.

There are times when heartbreak where we have made our homes simply becomes too much to bear.  As we see now in the midst of the California inferno, this can be true even for people in more affluent settings. For those in settings closer to the margins, we find many family members and neighbors doing all they can to ensure stability and nourishment for the children in the places they come from. But for millions, when the sea waters rise and the tsunamis come ashore, when the landmines explode and the rains refuse to fall for yet another year, they simply can do no more to keep those places.

Tuesday’s UN event was based in large measure on a resolution of the General Assembly supplemented by some excellent (if a bit more abstract) analysis on the conflict and climate triggers of our growing hunger challenge offered by senior UN officials from the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development as well as from several member states led by Italy.  The resolution covers these triggers in good detail (as did many event speakers) and lays out a strategy that involves more innovative support for rural areas, including for small holder farmers, such that people can better cope with political and environmental hazards and increase the chances that families can somehow remain in their communities of origin.

What was new about this particular event, and happily so, was the migration-focus of much of this discussion. The aforementioned resolution does not mention migrants at all, but this omission was rectified as speaker after speaker made the migration-hunger connection. As PGA Espinosa Garcés, put it, we are in serious need of a “course correction” when it comes to our global commitment to end hunger, more specifically to eliminate food security among migrant families, with a special concern for forced migrants. This requires adoption of a formula that more than a few who labor within the policy world of the UN would advocate: offering mindful hospitality , ensuring  consistent, comprehensive and rights-based migration governance, and doing more to end violence and mitigate risks that undermine even the most ardent attempts by farmers and families to maintain the homes of their youth.

These are responsibilities, like so many others in the world, that mandate a careful blend of national ownership and implementation together with cross-border and multilateral cooperation.  The “go it alone,” “take care of our own” mentality that seems to be spreading like the plague in these times sounds tough-minded but mostly ensures that families will experience the miseries of migration compounded by malnutrition, and that children will face the option of being rejected at borders or abandoned in detention facilities in societies “that have learned to see generosity as a vice.”

The gist of this insight was reinforced by my colleague at Global Action, Claudia Lamberty, who has given quite a bit of thought recently to the decisions by several states, most notably the US, Austria and Hungary, to reject the upcoming Global Compact on Migration which will be signed by (hopefully) many ministers and heads of state in Morocco in just a few weeks.  In a document which she produced to help us prepare for our own GCM participation, Claudia listed potential economic and political factors that might lead states to make a decision like this about a “compact” which is comprehensive in scope but has no legally binding authority.  Her conclusion is that this decision is as much about multilateralism as about migration itself, in essence a “poke in the eye” to a system that has been long on promises and, at times, short on results, a system which seems to some governments intent on trespassing on the affairs of small and mid-sized states (but mostly not the large states) in matters that are highly sensitive to some national governments.  Inadvertently, the now vast movements of migrants and their many needs – including for food security – have provided some of the fuel for this multilateral backlash, this seemingly appealing choice in some national capitals to promote “protection over principle.”

As we have written previously, the UN is taking pains to counter such threats to its core legitimacy.  This week in fact, the Security Council itself got in the act as China (November president) hosted a debate on effective multilateralism during which state after state took the floor to affirm the importance of the UN to resolving a range of thorny global problems – albeit with occasional interjecting (spoken and implied) of migration-related caveats.

But affirmation itself (with or without caveats) is insufficient to cure the suspicion of some states that the UN’s structure and culture innately privilege powerful governments thus ensuring that many core promises for which the world literally hungers are more likely to go unfulfilled.  Indeed, if the human race is not to dissolve back into some nationalist-stimulated tribalism, we must demonstrate – over and over – the tangible benefits of a system of cooperating states and stakeholders, governments that resist the temporary allures of nationalism and stakeholders who insist that they do just that.  As with migration itself, food security is both a global challenge and a national policy responsibility. As noted in the aforementioned GA resolution, as important as global consensus on such matters is (and it is), plans for addressing these challenges must be “nationally articulated, designed, owned, led and built.”

I am in Germany now about to join a team of experts in reviewing our options and responsibilities in the area of small arms and light weapons.  Increasingly, there is recognition of a symbiotic, if nefarious, relationship between our common insecurity courtesy of a world awash in both weapons and political enmity and the food insecurity courtesy of major external factors that affect harvests — especially for small holder farmers – including climate related events such as drought and flooding that can diminish yields beyond the tipping point; but also armed violence and landmines which can render farmland useless and ratchet up vulnerabilities impacting all community members, especially so for women.

There are many things in the world now for which people legitimately hunger:  for an end to violence, for meaning and purpose, for basic security of food and domicile, for adventure beyond the familiar, for potable water and accessible health care, for justice when abuses occur.  But as the PGA reminded delegates on Tuesday, “eating is a special act,” a fundamental and even primordial right.  As so many in “developed” societies build their fat reserves and clog their arteries through what Italy referred to on Tuesday as “suspect” food choices, we find ourselves in a world of deepening and evermore complex food insecurity that turns the act of eating for millions — including millions of migrants — into an ultimate “hit or miss” proposition.

Fortunately, this complexity is still within our competency to resolve successfully – together as nations and multilateral stakeholders — both for the sake of those who seek to remain at home and those who are driven to follow the promise of more fertile pastures elsewhere.

High Anxiety:  Selling Reassurance and Resolve in the Security Council, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Nov

Saturday in Central Harlem, a group of volunteers headed by Stephanie Ali held a Thanksgiving distribution of groceries, including turkeys.  Some of the volunteers, me included, have done virtually weekly “pantry duty” for well over a decade.

Our pantry lines have been long, even in times of economic recovery.   Not everyone on the line needs the food.  What more of them need – and get – is connection and reassurance.  Connection with people they know and care about.  Reassurance that, in a world of increasing anxiety – caused in part by a confluence of external shocks and increasing feelings of powerlessness – there will be someone “out there” who is dependable when rising sea levels start to flood Manhattan streets, the economy crashes again, and our latest security sector efforts to “bully the terrorist bullies” end up restricting more freedoms than alleviating terror threats.   These people also need some reassurance that authorities entrusted to respond to these and other emergencies will keep the economically marginal at least somewhat close to their hearts.

The world around our pantry clients might be uncertain and beyond their control, but they do read the papers, they are anxious about the longer-term state of city and world affairs, and they are looking for some helpful assurances beyond the immediacy of provisions.  In its own small way, this pantry and its volunteers seek to be part of that larger assurance, week after week, year after year.

Anxiety is not the sole province of the elderly and working poor populating a pantry line.  This emotion literally flourishes inside the UN as well.  Personal anxieties are related to career, relationships and money.  And of course there is professional anxiety related to performance in a volatile security and development framework, including as we saw this week in relation to attempts to address the short and longer-term needs of Least Developed Countries and Small Island States; the challenges of ending drug and arms trafficking; the need to reform overburdened UN peacekeeping operations; the responsibility to urgently reverse damage to oceans and watersheds; the need to head off further violence (and incitement to violence) in Burundi;  and of course the responsibility to craft a proportionate and rights-based response to the recent spate of high-profile terrorist acts.

In these and other multilateral venues, policy is developed that is grounded in anxiety about the current state of global affairs while also producing residual, longer-range anxiety in global constituents.  The questions posed to us on social media are both emotionally charged and relevant.  Are policymakers up to the current complex tasks?  Do they understand the implications of their decisions for diverse communities?  Have they learned sufficiently from past mistakes such that they can say with assurance that key mistakes are not being repeated?   Are states able to process their own policy failures, social limitations and other culpabilities while also attending to grave policy responsibilities such as the ISIL menace?

On these questions, the jury is still out.   Friday in the UN Security Council, Resolution 2249 was hailed as significant milestone in Security Council cooperation on what few would argue is a significant challenge for the international community.   The resolution cites ISIL as (having thankfully deleted the word “unprecedented”) one of the “most serious threats” to international peace and security and invokes the uneasy “all necessary measures” language (without directly mentioning military action) to help “redouble and coordinate” efforts to stymie ISIL and its collaborators.

Of course, few would argue the need to vigorously address terrorism, and many here at the UN are set to welcome Tuesday’s briefing by the Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee on “Foreign Terrorist Fighters.” But it’s not as though the “fight” against terror started in earnest last Friday.  Already, there have been thousands of bombs dropped, sanctions imposed, weapons transferred, surveillance enacted, funding halted, freedoms restricted. Were these methods lacking in strategic merit or policy seriousness?  For instance, were the detonated bombs that have already (by admission of defense officials) killed more than a few non-combatants simply dropped by mistake?  And, more to the point, assuming that existing measures have not been frivolous, what assurances are there that this round of “by whatever means” responses will actually eliminate terrorist carnage more effectively than the last round of responses?

Part of the narrative of this current iteration of our now-endless terror war is that the “unjustified” nature of terrorist acts, regardless of motivation, is the only relevant precondition for aggressive responses by Council members and other states.   Unjustified these acts certainly are, by any reasonable standard, but they also did not appear out of nowhere.  And whether your origin points for such brutal violence involve the Assad regime, the unrelieved discrimination of Palestinians, the US invasion of Iraq, prior dubious Council resolutions on Libya or any other causal links of preference, such points are also not without relevance. “We” are not responsible for terror violence, but “we” are also not without responsibility for the conditions in which such violence can apparently flourish – neither for the high anxiety that policies more robust than strategic might create in constituents.

We would make the case that “all necessary measures” can (and should) be applied to our own societies as well to the terrorists.  External vigilance is needed to be sure, but also accountability is required to the norms, values and expectations that give meaning to social existence and contextualize our growing levels of “high anxiety.”  These are high bars to reach, to be sure, as they are in part the consequence of prior policies that have not met expectations, have not alleviated the suffering we all hoped they might, have not inspired confidence that we can vanquish our enemies without also assessing ourselves.

We very much appreciate the references in the resolution to international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as (thanks apparently to the Russians) to the UN Charter.   These reassurances, as helpfully underscored by Chile and others at the Friday Council meeting, are hopefully more substantive than rhetorical.   Should such references end up being marginal “window dressing” in the implementation of anti-terror initiatives, it is highly unlikely that any tribunals will be organized to investigate the resulting carnage.   Nor will future acts of terror, when and if they occur, be seen as an actionable indictment of the limitations of this particular Council resolution or what would otherwise be seen as legitimate responses to ISIL and its cohorts.

My GAPW colleagues and I spend much time in the Security Council chamber, significantly more than in any other single UN meeting room.   And we have deep regard for the tenacity of Council members and the sometimes fitful progress of this chamber on transparency and working methods, driven especially at this current moment by some extraordinary non-permanent members.  But transparency and accountability are not the same.   The Council lacks structures of accountability for its limited policy scope or errors in judgement.   There is none to hold the Council, and especially its permanent members, responsible to the standards to which they routinely attempt to hold others.

This is one source of anxiety in the longer term, the notion that prior Council actions which demonstrably failed to achieve full objectives end up having little or no consequence for future resolutions.  Indeed, if we are not accountable for our errors, there is simply no reason for others to believe that future actions will avoid similar pitfalls.  For reasons related to limited time or institutional culture, we simply aren’t learning enough from previous experience to alleviate the anxieties of those dependent on this sometimes pedagogically-challenged policy community.

During Friday’s discussion following the unanimous vote on Res. 2249, Lithuania solemnly noted, “We will have to deal with the uneasy question of how much of our liberties and freedoms we are ready to sacrifice to ensure our safety and security in a way that does not support repression.” For my part, I would prefer a bit more liberty even if it means taking on a bit more risk.   After all, liberty’s road to repression is much longer than the one defined by safety and its multiple compromises.

In any case, these are the bargains that will continue define a world wrestling with its political polarization, excess materialism and militarism, and tepid commitments to ending social and economic inequalities and giving this overly-stressed climate a chance to heal.  And we are already seeing governments and their party oppositions ravenously grasping for political space in the aftermath of the recent terror attacks; ostensibly to protect people from terrorists, certainly to protect governments from uneasy conversations about their role in helping to protect the core principles, values and aspirations of people and not merely their physical bodies.

What is apparent, in settings as widely distinct as a Harlem food pantry and the chamber of the UN Security Council, is that our efforts to alleviate anxiousness regarding current affairs must take into account the deeper and “longer” anxieties – people who have good reason to wonder what will become of themselves and their families; and why this recent, welcome show of Council unity and resolve will be able to climb over bars of policy effectiveness and regard for international law when other efforts have mostly fallen short.