Tag Archives: Humanitarian Response

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.

Shock Therapy:   Promoting Wider Pathways to Humanitarian Participation, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Nov

This week, I was in Michigan sitting with groups of social work students trying to find pathways to blend the community resiliency they seek to build with a policy community that seems largely disinterested in their skills and testimonies. Among other things, these students struggled with the demands of personal and familial crises, as well as the problems and opportunities that poor, marginalized, disabled persons and others experience for which few if any bureaucratic protocols are entirely relevant.  How, they wondered, do they make a different and preserve their jobs?  How do they communicate the things they have learned in their face-to-face encounters with human need to which their employers are often deaf?  How do they find ways to insert their quite considerable skills into a system that they largely believe to be under-staffed, under-funded and even under-caring?

And make no mistake about it: from the abandoned streets of Detroit to the swollen refugee camps of Lebanon, the international humanitarian system could rightly be described as under siege.  Given the carnage of Syria and Yemen, the generational poverty of Central African Republic and massive refugee flows in the Mediterranean Sea that are rewriting the boundaries of national concern, we are witnessing the evolving of a social and political challenge that is without precedent.

In briefing after briefing to the UN Security Council, OCHA’s USG Stephen O’Brien and others paint a painful picture of impeded access to sites of misery, funding commitments unfulfilled, children abandoned to their own devices, and political resolutions stalled or abandoned.   The burdens now borne by the UN and its major humanitarian partners are trumped only by the misery of so many displaced persons facing a future that seems as grim as the camps that currently hold them.

There will be an attempt to reform our understanding of and responsibility for these crises at the first Humanitarian Summit to be held next May in Istanbul, Turkey. After an extensive process of regional consultations throughout much of 2014 and 2015, a “Co-Chairs summary” was published attempting to crystallize major findings. As the summary noted, “Underlining the entire consultation was the recognition of the common value of humanity and the strong call for the reaffirmation of the universality of the humanitarian principles and upholding international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law. There was a clear call to put affected people at the heart of humanitarian action. Emphasizing that humanitarian action can never replace political solutions to crises, responsible action by global leaders is urgently required to prevent and solve crises and address root causes”

The co-chairs highlighted several themes germane to the consultations and to the core work of humanitarian assistance itself:  Dignity, Safety, Resilience, Partnerships and Finance. Attention was given throughout to helping communities utilize local skills and relationships to become better prepared for crisis response, as well as affirm and finance strategies for caring for persons dislodged by complex humanitarian emergencies occasioned by natural disaster or shocking human violence.

While not expressly named therein, these humanitarian deliberations very much mirror those  that led to the 2030 sustainable development goals – highlighting needs for reliable funding, flexible data, enabling access by host governments, and especially broad participation by diverse stakeholders. In many ways, the participation question is the heart of the matter, the need which if left unfulfilled will jeopardize any hope that we can move humanitarian assistance from response to prevention, from bureaucracy to local contexts and control.

Here in New York, there have been some interesting discussions with suggestions for the type of humanitarian action that delivers with people rather than for them, and that can take its place within a UN system devoted more and more to early political engagement to head off crises before they develop and to strengthening local capacity to deal with crises in the worst instances:

  • Create more rapid response capacity that can anticipate disasters before they materialize and build active, inclusive community partnerships that can help direct humanitarian assistance in the most productive ways.
  • Forge closer relationships with UN political affairs and special political missions inasmuch as many humanitarian crises are political in origin and their most deadly consequences might at least be minimized through robust diplomatic efforts.
  • Promote a better understanding of the security-humanitarian dynamic, including the ways in which overly militarized responses to looming crises can trigger cycles of frustration and retribution that dampen local participation.
  • Create more opportunities for locally-driven response and resiliency plans, developing and coordinating with local assets and placing them effectively and sensitively in the service of humanitarian response.
  • Curb the excessive and often de-contextualized “professionalization” of humanitarian relief, which can result in needlessly inflexible mandates that patronize local residents, instead of incorporating them as agents of response.

In Latin America, as noted often by our colleagues at Instituto Mora, there have been some significant recent successes in response to humanitarian emergencies, though propensities can still be observed to overly-militarize responses even to what are primarily natural disasters – earthquakes, typhoons and flooding.  In addition, what might be called ‘triggers of passivity’ – trafficking in arms and narcotics, gangs, etc. – also inhibit broad community participation in regional humanitarian efforts. Our Mora colleagues are now helping to promote a welcome movement away from humanitarian assistance which is not sufficiently coordinated or financed, does not incorporate local skills, or is discharged by inflexible bureaucracies that do not incorporate into their planning both the benefits and limitations of conventional humanitarian responses and their security arrangements.

While welcome changes are coming, the classic incarnations of humanitarian response are still too often slow to respond, too disconnected from humane political and security arrangements, and certainly too dismissive of local agency. This combination of discouraging factors undermines trust by local communities which we simply cannot afford to squander any longer.  We are simple leaving too many skills on the sidelines – in Mexico, in Michigan and in virtually every community seeking to do its part to preserve and restore human dignity in crisis.  We hope that Istanbul and its preparatory processes can energize responsibilities among diverse stakeholders, and above all make room for the millions of skilled persons seeking and deserving a larger role in humanitarian efforts.