Tag Archives: governance

STEM Cells:   The UN seeks an Elusive Balance on Human Innovation, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Jun

Medicine Bottle

If you are too careful, you are so occupied with being careful that you are sure to stumble over something. Gertrude Stein

A single decision can spawn a thousand others that were entirely unnecessary or it can bring peace to a thousand places we never knew existed. Craig Lounsbrough

Don’t sail out farther than you can row back.   Danish saying

This was an interesting week at the UN punctuated by important elections for the UN Security Council and for the president of the General Assembly.   The new Council members – Belgium, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa – will bring considerable policy savvy and expertise to the Council oval as well as well-crafted positions on how the Council can be reformed to more effectively serve the interest of the membership and more skilfully address peace and security challenges.

As for the incoming president of the General Assembly, we have high hopes for María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, currently Ecuador’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Our own twitter feed has been on overload all week as people reacted to the sound of a strong woman’s voice set to lead the UN’s most democratic chamber.  Ms. Espinosa Garcés, as has been noted often, is only the 4th woman to hold this post in the history of the UN.  But what excites us is the range and strength of her policy priorities – disarmament and indigenous rights, gender and environmental health, including ocean health.  She is well-positioned to continue the recent history of successful GA presidencies while keeping a watchful eye on challenges that now threaten a vibrant multilateralism.

In these and other policy matters, she has her work cut out for her.

Among the many policies elevated by the UN this week – from migration and criminal tribunals to counter-terror and the drive to end tuberculosis – the state of our environment took center stage. Of particular concern was the urgency of eliminating single use plastics that have created toxic islands larger than France in the middle of our oceans, endangering all marine life including (as noted in a side event) the birds that must rely on a now-plastic-infested and declining ocean bounty.

Former GA president Peter Thomson of Fiji is now heading the UN’s efforts on ocean policy and he held a series of meetings with diplomats and other stakeholders to promote a more urgent engagement with ocean health, including support for Law of the Sea treaty obligations and his own plans for a conference in 2020 to assess ocean-related progress.  Thomson, as per his reputation, did not mince words, noting that “we are losing the battle” on oceans, though at least now “we know we are losing” due to a series of dismal ocean indicators.  One can, he suggested, “plead indifference, but not ignorance” to the science that paints an uncertain future for human life as ocean life continues its own downward trajectory.

Later during one of his multiple engagements, Thomson suggested, much more hopefully, that we are all “ocean people” in this room, citing “snowballing commitments” to policies that can address an array of ocean related threats – desalination and depleted fish stocks, plastics pollution and commercial dumping – while we still have the opportunity to reverse conditions.

The question for us had something to do with ocean policy but more to do with the science which must direct such commitments, ensuring that remedial policy measures are correctly targeted, robust in their application, and sufficiently engaging of the widest range of global stakeholders.  As with other existential threats to our children’s future, we are long past the point where half-hearted, token gestures will reverse our current stable of “dismal indicators.”  For too long, we have ignored the scientific evidence of ocean decline.  But more than that, we have resisted the call to better understand the benefits and limitations of the scientific community. We have resisted allowing scientists to help create communities of learning in policy settings, in which global innovation and global ethics can combine to guarantee global health.

Ironically perhaps, as the state of ocean health was being debated in one UN conference room, the STI Forum (Science, Technology and Innovation) sponsored by the UN Economic and Social Council was taking place in another.  In the STI plenary meetings and side events, participants heard much about innovations that promise more accurate and comprehensive data to drive policy response on some of the crucial issues facing the planet.  Of particular note for us was the “integrated system” developed by the World Meteorological Association that seeks to ensure high-quality, real-time information on weather-related shifts and potential climate disasters necessary to accurate forecasting in a time of increasing climate volatility.

But much of what interested us at the STI is the interplay of those for whom technological innovation is now essential to our very being as a species and those who cast a wary eye at any innovation not attached to clear warning labels.  Indeed, the gap between these erstwhile “camps” seems to be widening a bit as more and more people place their bets on technology to solve global problems while others cringe at the increasing complexity of personal and institutional technology which is already running far apace of regulatory policies and structures of governance.  As a representative from Alibaba Group admitted, we are now “being split,” in part because we fail to recognize that all technological developments “are a two-edged sword,” a reassuring breeze in some instances, a tornado in others.

As someone probably more Luddite than acolyte, I have an innate sympathy with those with “stick up their noses” at the enticements of innovation that few actually seem to be asking for and that promise benefits as likely to increase inequalities as level them.   As Brazil urged this week, regarding this “4th Industrial Revolution,” we must “learn the lessons” from the 2nd and 3rd Industrial Revolutions.  Why are inequalities still so pervasive in this world?  In this “tech rich” (and tech-obsessed) age, how is it that so many people are still without toilets?  These are the questions that continue to preoccupy our office, even as our high regard for scientific inquiry remains unbroken.

There are important questions to ask regarding this seemingly widening gap, a gap in part driven by technological enthusiasm, in part driven by a neglect of growing global inequalities, in part driven by public disconnect from the science that can provide indicators of trouble at a moment when trouble can still be diverted.  With climate and ocean threats taking center stage, how do maintain the “culture” for scientific inquiry that keeps us creatively innovating but also mindfully regulating? How do we ensure that the regulation we endorse is robust and flexible enough to keep from “stumbling” over the next iterations of scientific advance?  And perhaps more relevant to the security policy community, how do we keep from running further and further behind the pace of technology for which “dual use” continues to communicate both the promise of progress and of existential threat?

On the table where I am writing sits a bottle of pills that I am “required” to take as part of my long-term recovery from my genetically-mandated heart surgery.  In many ways, these pills (and the complex surgery that preceded their use) represent a culminating moment in my personal interaction with science and technology, having been at least temporarily “cured” of a problem that apparently killed many of my ancestors, a cure that highlights the plight of many of my global contemporaries who, in this stunningly unequal world, do not have access to the high-tech, life-saving measures that I do.

This pill bottle, like many other of life’s affairs, comes attached to both a promise and a warning.   Take the pills as instructed and I am more likely to reap health benefits.  Take them otherwise and not only are the benefits threatened but other complications could ensue – including in this instance liver damage.  When medicines enter a complex organism such as the human body, it is essential  that we do our best to assess risk factors.  What can possibly go wrong here and how can we minimize adverse impacts?

The global community represents complexity on a scale that much more vast, and thus the responsibilities raised by our “ingestion” of technological innovation become more complex as well.  As the World Economic Forum’s Philbeck noted during the STI, we must “avoid language directed towards technology that either fears or romanticizes it.” Other speakers warned of the dangers of taking a passive stance towards technological innovation, noting that as science continues to move past conventional boundaries, we must ensure that any new resulting “tools” enhance sustainable development  rather than take us in another, less inclusive, less participatory direction.

As Philbeck also interjected, trust must be earned in the technological realm as in others, but trust must be grounded in our attentive awareness of potentials and pitfalls.  In an age where so many people are still denied access to the “fruits” of science and technology, where elites eagerly horde both the capacity and application of those “fruits,” and where regular folks increasingly demand the benefits of technology independent of any responsibility to assess its impacts and avert its addictions, we risk exacerbating a crisis of our own making.   We may, indeed, have already sailed further and faster on these technological “waters” than is in our best collective interest.

This is not the time for timidity or the excess caution that might cause us to stumble, to be sure, but it might be wise to slow down the pace of our sailing a bit and recalibrate our distance from the shore.





Cooperation Nations:  Creating Circles of Many Winners, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Jan

The only thing that will redeem [human] kind is cooperation. Bertrand Russell

There are days in our office (as I suspect in most others) when dissonance overwhelms clarity, when it seems as though we are hell bent on confirming the darkest, murkiest corners of our human character.  While it appears that Gambia will finally achieve political transition, ominous clouds are descending over Cameroon, a country and people for which we have a special fondness and which appears, more and more, to be giving in to the stresses of Boko Haram, refugees from its neighbors, and the vestiges of a protracted bi-lingual struggle that is now quite out in the open and warns of more ugliness to come.

And then there was Friday’s spectacle in Washington, DC featuring a new president with his own dark and at times insulting message; a day that also called attention to a violent minority within what were mostly peaceful protestors, a minority whose own angry message is unlikely to turn down any of the heat that most in what is now referred to as “the winner’s circle” of governance seem disinterested to turn down themselves.

Up the road in New York, I sit daily in “safe” multilateral space, full of people whose task it is to create and endorse norms that are intended to impact behaviors within and beyond national borders.  On the US inauguration day alone, the Security Council found common ground with the Economic Community for West Africa on ways to ease what is now a full-fledged political transition in Gambia.   The General Assembly is close to finding common ground on a conference that will endorse protocols for “safe, orderly and regular migration” with a clear priority on “effective participation of all relevant stakeholders” from scientists to migrants themselves. And in ECOSOC, the Forum on Forests cemented details on a document that will highlight the critical role that forests must continue to play in addressing climate-related impacts.

There are holes that can be “poked” in all three of these initiatives, including states running away from the idea that the regulations they are creating on migration governance have any sort of legal force. But the fact remains that none of these would have even a fraction of the global support they enjoy if not for the sometimes torturous but mostly welcome convening and norm-building power of the UN.

With dramatic changes in Washington, that power will surely and soon be put to the test.  Despite the fact that the US has long been the de facto decision maker at the UN, despite all the deference to US interests which most UN diplomats are encouraged to display, new leadership in Washington seems convinced that the UN will need to sing even louder for its supper — deep-throated odes to the needs and whims of US leadership — or risk losing its place at the dinner table.

There have been US-orchestrated challenges previously, mostly behind the scenes, to the fiscal and political integrity of the UN.   And frankly not all those challenges have been without merit.   It is difficult to assess the current threat level at this early stage, one which could well result in more or less the status quo or facilitate a highly dramatic move out of New York with US funding completely severed,  at least until the next electoral cycle.  Multilateralism was never the strongest interest of many of those who bothered to vote in the US election this time around, and there was nothing in yesterday’s inaugural speech that indicated that such dismissive indifference to the UN, at least at high official levels, will abate any time soon.

Thankfully, the UN that I see up close every day is better equipped than perhaps it has ever been to handle this challenge.  More governments are taking the lead on policy, grasping connections across sectors and finding ways to contribute to the global commons and not only reap its capacity-building benefits. More governments are stepping up with ideas, with funds, and with inspiration needed to cooperatively tackle global problems, some of which have become nearly overwhelming in their scope.

Let’s be clear:   While the UN still too often privileges protocol over insight and bureaucracy over character, we have what it takes in this space to meet our global development and climate obligations.    We have what it takes to create safe and orderly conditions for persons fleeing conflict or drought, or merely seeking a safer environment for their children.  We have what it takes to end our reliance on weapons of mass destruction, to reduce threats from pandemics, to solve conflicts upstream so that we don’t have to unravel mass atrocities downstream.

There is enough talent and resolve in and around the UN to help the human race get through this rough, distracted and dangerous patch — with or without the largesse or approval of any single state and its temporary government.

And thankfully, the potency of our multilateral institutions is mirrored, even surpassed, by the potency of global citizens. The extraordinary, hopeful and non-violent marches that swamped the streets of Los Angeles, Washington DC and New York on Saturday and which resonated with many thousands of other women (and some men) marching in settings from Mexico and Australia to South Dakota and Missouri, are the latest, forceful indication that there will be no turning back, there must be no turning back, on women’s full participation, on respect of persons, on gender justice.

But as there is no turning back, there must also be no turning away.   For every woman of determination marching on Saturday, there is surely at least one woman who might feel slighted, or ridiculed; who might be discouraged from participating in marches in part ABOUT participation perhaps because she doesn’t toe the line on progressive orthodoxy; because her views on what makes women empowered don’t jive with the ideational and behavioral expectations of the political and cultural celebrities who seem always to find their way in front of the cameras.

If the myopic grimness characteristic of Friday’s inauguration in DC is to be countered effectively – and the Saturday marches were a hugely hopeful beginning — it will require an expanding tent, what we at the UN like to refer to as “a broader range of stakeholder engagements.”  To counter threats from hostile officials, whether grounded in ideological paranoia or garden-variety misogyny, our mostly like-minded movements – no matter how large and vocal — are unlikely to be sufficient to the current spate of threats, even if those groupings are already better equipped to fill the streets with legitimate concern than the sources of the threats themselves.

The pathway to the change that women are rightly looking to sustain and grow lies beyond elections and their victors, beyond celebrity endorsers and well-worn messaging.  Indeed, it probably also lies beyond the women marchers themselves.  Much like the hopeful agendas endorsed this week at the UN this change does not depend as much as we might think on the largesse or “permission” of any particular government.  But it does depend on our willingness to push the envelope on participation, doing more to ensure that all who seek to share a contributing, even cooperating voice will have that voice respected and, to the highest degree possible, integrated.

We at the UN must work much harder to honor our promises to include all states and their constituents in global policy. On the domestic side, we would also do well to keep our doors – and our ears – open to the voices of those many, still-marginal women and their still-marginal neighbors, persons tempted to brood in the darkest corners of our national psyches in part because they feel, rightly or wrongly, barred from access to brighter spaces.

Registering Discontent: The UN seeks to renovate a damaged democracy gateway, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Nov


The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.  John F. Kennedy

Today is Marathon Sunday in New York, a time for fireworks, physical achievements and extraordinary courage by those overcoming significant limitations to push themselves across the finish line.

This is also, of course, the Sunday before the US presidential elections, a marathon of another sort, as sordid a civic affair as I can ever recall.

The disappointment goes deeper than the compromised candidates, the numerous leaks of known and unknown origins, the obsession with fondling that slides past legitimate human rights concerns into reality TV titillation, the ascriptions of “deplorables” that obsess on the specs in the eyes of others but fail to see the logs blinding ourselves.

Seemingly hundreds of reasons exist to not vote for the “other” candidate, but few rationales seem to have been offered to vote “for” someone, for something, for a vision of the future that doesn’t lock us into perpetual mistrust of others, impeding pursuit of our lofty and urgent social projects, including projects on climate health and the prevention of mass atrocities undertaken with the United Nations and other multilateral settings.

Are our candidates to blame for this mess?  Is the media?   Is it our “culture” of violence?  Is it the fault of habituated, self-interested neglect emanating from too many of our political and economic elites?  Is it really just a matter, as the late US President Kennedy (along with many others) seemed to imply, that some people are smart enough to “get it” and others just can’t?

Can it possibly be that simple?   Is “ignorance” really that easy to identify?

And it’s not only here on this corner of our planet.   From El Salvador to the Philippines, people are grasping for ointment to sooth their own deep disappointments, the sense that their lives have not improved as promised, that the system is perpetually tilted away from themselves and their families, that life has been needlessly stressful, needlessly challenged, needlessly insecure, but also deficient in key elements that make life worth the bother – including dimensions of importance and meaning.

And this struggle to discern genuine pathways from disappointment is not getting easier. What is now held to be “true,” apparently, is little more than what you can convince others to be true.   We do it on Facebook.   We do it in politics.  There is too little now that we can place our trust in beyond branding, beyond self-promotion, beyond our “distractions” of preference, beyond the masks that conceal who we really are, what we are fearful of revealing to those close to us, let alone to Wikileaks.

We can do better than this.   We can fix what is broken.  But this clock is winding down.

On Friday, a small segment of the UN community took a short break from controversies over nuclear weapons, the International Criminal Court and the treatment of Syria refugees to ponder ways to “strengthen electoral integrity.”   This timely, frank and urgent discussion was sponsored by the government of Mongolia and involved representatives from International IDEA, the UN Development Programme, the UN Department of Political Affairs and Harvard’s Electoral Integrity Project.

Insights from the session were both numerous and relevant to current circumstances. One observation of note urged us to abandon a “free and fair elections” mantra that implies electoral “perfection” often beyond our capacity to reach. The panelists spoke rather of “credible elections” with robust protection of ballot integrity, the prevention of voter harassments and, perhaps most important, the willingness of the parties to peacefully (if bitterly) recognize and accept election results.

There was also acknowledgment that we make a mistake by at times assuming such a strong link between our “right to vote” and the maintenance of healthy democracies.  Harvard’s Pippa Norris made a strong pitch for oft-neglected “civics education” while also noting that elections (and the growing business of election monitoring) are merely the opening gambit in a process to ensure that all political factions and all stakeholders have a place at the policy table.   How we elect is one crucial matter.  How we work together (or not) in the post-election period is even more important, even more determining of our ability to resolve our conflicts and fix lingering matters such as voter access and security sector intimidation before the start of our next, also likely contentious, election cycle.

Indeed, as the very wealthy in the US are now legally permitted to both recognize and operationalize, voting itself is one of our more modest “influence footprints.”  Indeed, the health of our democratic system is only partially about casting a political preference; but also in part about how closely we listen to and care about each other, how much we are willing to overlook (or even forgive) each other’s flaws, how willing we are to resist substituting a “rooting interest” (at times even at the tip of a gun) for a sincere engagement with political processes from the local to the global, the needs and rights of others (not only the well-positioned) placed on par with our own.

Voting is to democracy what Christmas-only church attendance is to Christianity – helpful in its own way, but by no means an engagement sufficient to the challenges of political or religious life.  As one of the UN panelists on Friday noted rightly, “good elections” are not the same as “good governance.” Both matter greatly, but the latter will always matter more, will always demand more of us.

The claim of one of the US candidates notwithstanding, there appears to be little chance that our upcoming elections will be corrupted from forces beyond the ballot box. The “insider” erosion of our democratic processes, however, is quite another matter.  At the end of this electoral marathon, there will be few roses to hand out as we reach the finish line, little to celebrate beyond the families of the candidates and their closest political confidants.  For the rest of us, a bit of temporary relief perhaps, but also worry that the larger political marathon – the one about rescuing our democracies from ourselves – remains very much stuck in the starting blocks.

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.

Stating the Obvious:  Good Governance as a Justice and Health Priority, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Feb

This week at the UN provided more fodder for policy writing than most weeks, and more than can possibly be summarized in a small space.   From Monday’s extraordinary Operational Activities for Development segment of the Economic and Social Council to late Friday in the Security Council as Special Envoy de Mistura counted down the final moments before the start of the Syria “cessation of hostilities” agreement, the week was diverse, notable and hopeful.

Steady movement towards diplomatic consensus could be seen at high level events this week focused on issues as diverse as the development implications of migration, increasing gender-balanced mediation resources, and motivating more engagement by the full General Assembly membership on peace and security issues, including on our civilian protection responsibilities.  But sometimes it is the smaller events that highlight important linkages we need to pursue further.

Two such events occurred this week, one “off campus” involving medical personnel discussing the spread of the Zika virus and the other at UN Headquarters highlighting the need for additional resources for Legal Aid as one component of state commitments to justice and criminal accountability. The Zika discussion was sponsored in part by Women in International Security whose programming we broadly endorse.  The Legal Aid discussion at the UN was sponsored by Norway, the US, South Africa and the International Legal Foundation (ILF).

While it might not seem so at face value, these two events had some important dimensions in common.  For one thing, the events highlighted the many “pro bono” services both medical and legal professionals offer, often under extremely challenging circumstances, in an attempt to help redress access and resource imbalances and the injustices that often flow from them.  Indeed, generations of lawyers have put their lives on the line to uphold the work of human rights advocates and other, perhaps more ordinary people, in danger of having wrongful abuses swallowed up by inattentive or corrupt states. At the same time, many of us have watched in awe and mainly at a distance as doctors with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other groups keep societies on life support through bombing raids and grisly pandemics. While Zika impacts are not to be equated with those of Ebola nor HIV in its earlier iterations, there are risks to take account of here as well, including to expectant mothers in areas of limited medical care and female doctors who might themselves wish to conceive at some later time.

Those of us with relatively “easy duty” here in New York surely do not give sufficient honor to those with high professional credentials who choose a much more challenging path, bringing some measure of justice and healing to places most of the rest of us hesitate to go.

The other major commonality of these events is an implication for good governance.  At the Zika event, the medial professionals competently explored the epidemiological implications of the disease and drew connections to other (often more severe) pandemics.  But it soon became apparent that descriptions of disease response needed to be placed in their larger political and social contexts.   What are the security, development and governance dimensions of a viable health response framework?   What does the medical profession need from states, all states, such that doctors can contribute more than helping patients recover from disease or injury only to face economic deprivation, insecurity in many forms, even abuses at the hands of their own leaders? The doctors in this discussion were not entirely comfortable responding to this inquiry, but all have served in challenging settings and all understood the “enabling” criteria for effective medical response which many states are unable or unwilling to provide.

The event on Legal Aid offered another lens on this problem.   As with response to pandemics, no one in the UN conference room would have suggested that Legal Aid was not a useful commitment.   All of the designated presenters and diplomats who followed voiced concern about chronic imbalances our justice outcomes.  US  Amb. Power gave full support to ILF’s work while noting the degree to which the US continues to fall short on legal fairness.  Argentina’s Amb. Garcia Moritan made clear that legal access – a core provision of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – should privilege free legal assistance if such access was ever to become universal.  South Africa’s Mlambo highlighted Legal Aid as a key element in any successful effort to eradicate poverty, itself perhaps the single key objective of the SDGs.

Ever-thoughtful Brazil reminded the audience that access to justice and access to the courts are simply not the same thing, and urged more dispute resolution resources outside formal courts.  What was not discussed at great length, to the chagrin of some listeners, is the ability of Legal Aid, court-appointed legal assistance, or any other form of pro-bono aid to overcome the enormous legal advantages accruing from the growing economic inequality within many states. As access to legal aid is not the same as access to courts, neither is it the same as legal clout sufficient to take on the corporate and political hegemonies that can pay for (or in some instances pay off) the highest caliber of legal services.

The sad reality is that, while Legal Aid should command higher policy attention, many of those who could benefit most from that assistance already feel “burned” by their justice system.  This was certainly the case in my Harlem parish, and I have heard similar stories in poverty stricken areas worldwide.  Many people know (or think they know) that the legal system is “rigged” against them, not just because they have irresolvable difficulties locating some form of legal assistance, but because economic and social inequalities have clear, compelling and largely detrimental legal dimensions. Rightly or not, these people have developed significant trust issues with the state and its legal institutions.

When I was a child, it was common to see summertime trucks passing through the neighborhood spraying chemicals designed to suppress mosquito populations.  And while the fumes seemed toxic enough (and in fact turned out to be of some medical consequence to more than just the bugs) folks in the neighborhood had sufficient residue of trust in the government to allow the sprayers to pass without protest.  But in too many parts of the world, such spraying might be interpreted as an attack of the state.  In too many parts of the world, the urgent instructions of medical personnel seeking to control a pandemic might be interpreted as a state-endorsed violation of their personal and cultural integrity.  In too many parts of the world, people have had painful, interactive lessons with the legal systems in their countries of residence and, as a result (as quoted recently in a NY tabloid), simply “don’t do courts” any longer.

Building trust in the principles and practices of states is not an optional measure, but is essential to any medical healing or legal leveling in the social order.  At the same time, recognizing the myriad of consequences for medical healing, legal assistance and more from both an unequal social order and the resulting deficit of public trust is just as important.  Those of us seeking to expand medical, legal and other assistance must commit more to ensure a proper “enabling environment” for needed services; which in large measure is tantamount to better ensuring more effective and trustworthy patterns of governance.