Tag Archives: inequalities

Power Strip: Opening Spaces for Accountable Governance, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Jan
They joined hands.  So the world ended.  And the next one began. Sarah J. Maas
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Martin Luther King, Jr.
If people get hungry they will eat their rulers. Protest Banner on the Streets of Beirut.
Take the power to love what you want in life and love it honestly. Susan Polis Schutz
Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.  John Steinbeck
Power changes everything till it is difficult to say who are the heroes and who the villains.  Libba Bray
On a snowy afternoon in New York, I tried to find an appropriate image for the heading of today’s post, an image of power that was not linked to destruction or subjugation or any of the other dystopia/rescue fantasy images that we so often link power with now.
I failed. Image after image I consulted was devoted to superheroes vanquishing one thing or another, skyscrapers under construction that block the sun, weapons firing and smokestacks smoking, all symbolizing conquest or “progress” that seemed predictive in their own way of a world hurdling towards its own reckoning.
I could hardly find any image that close to signified what our little Global Action tree tries to convey — the preservation and abundance of life, a bit of shady respite from the numerous coercive elements, a place of wisdom and reflection to help sort out the chaos of our inner and outer lives.  And so, this tree that many have found confusing or misleading, an image that has perhaps strayed a bit far from the hard security origins and purposes of this now middle-aged non-profit, our “tree” is the best symbol I could find to discuss a dynamic that has become vexing to some and hopeful for many.
I speak here about the slow, inexorable, sometimes painful shifts in global power, a dynamic that is hardly linear and is replete with its own inconsistencies and hypocrisy; a movement which we find encouraging at several levels but which is also generating significant, even violent resistance in many quarters of the globe.
In setting after setting, people are taking to the streets and demanding a voice on governance, on women’s rights, on climate; resisting in many instances the slide into authoritarianism and its style of leadership which insists that the restraints which they advocate for their political adversaries simply do not apply to themselves.  These power grabs are often encouraged and enabled by much of the populace, especially people who have long felt disrespected and neglected by their erstwhile “democratic” leadership and who believe, though probably without cause, that association with power harboring a pretension to absolutism will convey absolute benefits for themselves and their “tribe.”
This form of association with power seems more closely aligned with fear than any other single emotion.  And to be sure there are plenty of reasons to be fearful given the range of future-compromising global threats that we at the UN seek to mitigate on a daily basis.
But there is more for us to consider, beyond the polar melting, terror attacks and doomsday fortresses. Egged on by numerous forms of media that understand well our almost genetic attentiveness to car wrecks — metaphorical and actual — we are being fed a steady diet of images that drive larger wedges between already distant community interests.  We who already live too often in bubbles beyond the direct impact from what offends us or makes us uncomfortable are increasingly convinced that people are “coming for us,” coming for our families, coming to compromise our dignity yet one more time, coming to corrupt our children and immobilize their breadwinners, coming to impose their will on us in ways that merely patronizes our faith and values, that offers only a path back to an “old normal” and then discriminates (sometimes fiercely) against any who seek to fashion new social options.
And yet in the midst of this externally-motivated fear, in the midst of all the mistrust currently masquerading as enlightenment, the anger that only pretends to have a larger social purpose, there are signs of movement that can make the world more sustainable, more inclusive, even more democratic.
Just on our twitter feel this week, we have been regaled often by the determination of people to shift global circumstances without waiting for official permission.  Perhaps the best example came courtesy of Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze, a young person from Burundi who has been organizing tree planting (#GreeningBurundiProject) with other young Burundians as a practical contribution to climate change.   But more than that, he is enabling participation by young people in the future of his country, a country compromised in recent times by governance issues and human rights abuses, by electoral-related violence and the related exclusion of ethnic groups not aligned with the interests of the dominant political party.  The trees now being planted in Burundi thus herald a country that is slowly, inexorably becoming greener, but also we must anticipate, more inclusive and accountable to diverse citizen interests.
Another example spoke directly to this age now dripping with anti-Semitic venom. A touching video was re-circulated this week of Sir Nicholas Winton being honored by the many (now-adult) children he once rescued during the Holocaust, a remarkable process of rescue about which he remained silent for almost 50 years of his life.  For me the video was a moving reminder that the people who defend the defenseless and protect the innocent — from Auschwitz to Haiti and South Sudan — may not be “perfect” in any conventional sense, but they are incarnating the capacities that we possess in greater abundance than we have recently shown, capacities to re-weave our “garment of destiny” and also re-fashion human relations (including on power) in ways that can inspire rather than compromise our collective survival.
In its own cautious manner, the UN is also feeling some of the pressure to invest more in democratic accountability and move away from “consensus” structures that still freeze patterns of committee memberships and leadership in ways both gender-restrictive and Euro-centric.  Aside from the pervasive and well-documented (by us and others) determination to reform the Security Council, there were several events this week that underscored still-subtle but visible shifts in UN power dynamics.  For instance, the leadership handover of the Group of 77 and China from Palestine to Guyana was a chance for the UN to demonstrate the value of what Azerbaijan referred to as the “unity” of developing states, countries that represent the majority of UN membership but have yet to create a base of power that can ensure viable, inclusive, sustainable human security for more of the world’s peoples.
But they’re trying.  Earlier in the week the General Assembly took up a resolution opposed by the US and most European states, to expand what is known as the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ).  The resolution sponsored by the G77 sought to redress geographic imbalances in the Committee which have remained stubbornly in place for many years.  Despite budgetary implications in a time of fiscal limitations, G77 members affirmed in this resolution that inclusiveness long-deferred simply must be addressed, that the struggle to re-imagine and then incarnate power at the UN was worth the temporary fiscal inconvenience.
Closer to home for us, we continually honor the young people who grace us with their presence and who are ready and willing to share their skills and talents in ways that are neither competitive nor sentimental, that are not about grasping power but about shifting how we understand it’s functions and limitations, about ensuring that policy discussions more actively seek out the direct involvement of the people most likely to be impacted by policy decisions too often taken “on their behalf.”
These are relatively small windows towards broader participation, but (like our tree) they are symbolic of changes that seem to be pushing up through what are still relatively narrow openings.  At the briefing this week on preparations for the next G20 Summit convened by the president of the General Assembly, Germany and others noted the almost unimaginable concentrations of financial and political power in the hands of a few countries that control 90% of global wealth while being responsible for 80% of global emissions. This prompted fresh calls by member states for eliminating gross inequalities as well as fears from Japan and others regarding the potential of our under-scrutinized and rapidly “digitalizing economy” to increase inequalities even further.
The current march of political and economic power consolidation that many now largely accept as inevitable or even take for granted is now showing welcome cracks. But we will need plenty of courage and wisdom to widen those openings further and insist that the power structure that emerges is more inclusive of diverse aspirations, more enabling of mutual interest, more transparent and trustworthy, more devoted to planting trees than producing arms, more prone to joining hands and setting in motion a world in which we can all contribute, all participate, all survive (and perhaps even thrive).
This is neither a “soft” nor sentimental plea, but rather a realistic one.  If we have learned anything from this age of unaccountable governance and hegemonic economics, it is that where legitimate demands are repeatedly ignored, illegitimate demands are soon to follow.

Editor’s Desk: Moving the UN Closer To its Masterpiece, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 May

The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason. T. S. Eliot

Growing a culture requires a good storyteller. Changing a culture requires a persuasive editor.  Ryan Lilly

Focus on making yourself better, not on thinking that you are better.  Bohdi Sanders

Edit your life frequently and ruthlessly. It’s your masterpiece after all.  Nathan W. Morris

One of the satisfactions of being inside the UN each day is to see the multilateral system generating effective outcomes:  elevating the formal status of indigenous people and persons with disabilities; calling practical attention to our (so far) too-tepid responses to threats from our plastic-filled oceans, our rapidly warming climate and our shrinking biodiversity; dodging bombs and bullets to reach literally millions from Yemen to the Central African Republic with humanitarian aid; helping states like the Gambia transition to more inclusive governance, Burkina Faso hold the line on a fresh wave of terror attacks, or Bangladesh manage its Myanmar-responsible refugee crisis.

But we also recognize that world remains messy with so divergent policy goals, so many values and expectations, so many vested (and often unacknowledged) interests.  It is also “messy” in the sense that the institutions which have been in the forefront of efforts to navigate and even “referee” the mess, including the UN of course, have been and remain intensely political in nature, not only in terms of the “politics” of negotiating some version of consensus, but “political” in the sense of telling less than the truth we know, the truth that serves the interests of our national policy hierarchies but not necessarily the needs of the global commons we allege to represent.

We have made this point before, but it bears repeating here:   we have enabled formation of a “culture” within our multilateral settings where “straight talk” is too-often at a premium, where norms and resolutions are not expected to be implemented, and where articulated policy preferences and recommendations mask as many dimensions of our sometimes existential problems as they clarify.

This past week at the UN was in part an exercise in why the system where we spend our days could use an editor of sorts for organizational culture.   The General Assembly discussion this past Wednesday on “inequalities within and between nations,” especially in the introductory session, outlined  a growing crisis that many at the UN believe rivals climate and weapons of mass destruction as existential threats to our future.  As often this year, GA president María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés set a tone that was part restating the UN’s commitment to fulfilling SDG 10 and part potentially culture-shifting storytelling, noting that we live in a world where some children are fortunate to eat once a day while others eat “whatever and how often they wish.”  She also quoted an African proverb that “injustice is like a snake that only strikes those who are barefoot.”

But what gave this session its “legs,” moving the room beyond mere outrage at the growing gaps between the rich and the rest, were the specifics provided by other speakers to address in practical terms the Egyptian Minister’s call for the rapid, intentional “removal of obstacles” to the reduction of poverty and inequalities.  States and other stakeholders shared diverse practices designed to improve domestic revenue streams, eliminate corruption, improve access to education and other public services, and even consider income floors for citizens.  With due regard for national context, what the session lacked was someone to clarify and distill common priorities and help build specific lines of support for hopeful and replicable initiatives by states and other stakeholders.  As the “operational activities” segment of the UN’s Economic and Social Council opens this week, we hope that more persuasive “editing” of the activities that can incarnate our development goals is on the near horizon.

But of course inequalities are not confined to the vast spaces separating barrios from corporate board rooms.  There are also inequalities – sometimes vast – when it comes to how states are able to manipulate the levers of power and influence the narrative in multilateral settings.  The Security Council is often “ground zero” for the display of such inequalities — permanent members who cast blame but rarely accept it; members who make statements that share a portion of the global truth, but mostly the portion that serves more parochial interests; members who adopt resolutions for others but are all-too-willing to bend international obligations to suit themselves and their allies; members who resist efforts at significant reform that could alter the very fabric of the Council’s  culture and working methods, including how it engages with the rest of the UN system.  The culture of the Council is not even remotely “edited frequently and ruthlessly” nor is there now any candidate for the task who would be trusted by more than a handful of members currently serving.

To find examples of the varying levels of policy effectiveness in a largely “unedited” Council, one would only have to consult last week’s meetings:  a largely successful review of the G5 Sahel Force with the Foreign Minister of Burkina Faso; an urgent session seeking to preserve what remains of the cease fire in Idlib, Syria in the hopes of preventing the renewed bombing that would signal a humanitarian disaster beyond what the UN and other agencies could possibly handle; a session on Yemen which celebrated the demilitarization of the Hodeidah ports while continuing to blame only Iran and Houthi rebels by name for the still-considerable violence across Yemen, mentioning Saudi Arabia only in praise for their generous donations to ease the suffering of the many thousands of Yemenis put at deadly risk by Saudi bombers (with weapons from the US, UK and others) in the first place.

And then there was the discussion on Cameroon, held outside the formal chamber in an Arria Formula format, but which nevertheless represented a breakthrough of sorts regarding a conflict with many victims that has directly impacted our office and that we and others have been warning about for many months.  Convened by the US, the session was noteworthy for the sometimes-gruesome truth-telling of USG Lowcock and two Cameroon briefers, especially the director of Reach Out Cameroon who was known to us from previous trips to the country and who gave what she called a “human face” to the vulnerabilities of so many living in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon – including those who have “lost it all” and are now “trapped in the bushes” or “living in petrol stations.”

We have sat with many of these images already; no doubt some of the diplomats have also. However, despite the concerns of the UK that the Council is now at risk of having to “discuss Cameroon more often,” there seemed to be little other interest in taking this matter on to the formal SC agenda.   There was no plan floated (let alone agreed upon) to confront Cameroon whose representative remained defiant throughout.  Some states were concerned about jeopardizing Cameroon support for counter-terror operations around Lake Chad and for the care of refugees from the Central African Republic.  Others were concerned about putting Cameroon on the formal Council agenda when risks to International Peace and Security were not yet persuasive.  Still others expressed concern about placing yet another African state on the Council’s agenda without clear strategies for entry and exit.

We were dismayed to note that despite the compelling testimony, especially from the Cameroon briefers, not a single other speaker directly referenced any segment of their stories.   Not one.  Caveats to a deeper involvement by this Council appeared to win the day.  “Partnership” with Cameroon commanded a higher priority than rescuing women and children from the bushes.

Beyond the Cameroon briefers, there were certainly truth-tellers in the Council this week – including ASG Keita on fresh threats from terrorist violence in the Sahel, USG Lowcock on the incontrovertible links between violence, deprivation and displacement in Cameroon and NW Syria, Special Envoy Griffiths on the “corrosive nature of extended war” and the still-perilous, still-fragile security and political context in Yemen. Added to that has been the constant and welcome refrain from May president Indonesia that the primary purpose of this Security Council is “to save lives.”

But if this SC as to achieve this “masterpiece” of a purpose going forward it must focus more energy on “making this better,” to  embark towards what could represent a profound cultural shift, one in which states are expected to take responsibility more often than they cast blame; a shift that encourages the “right deeds for the right reasons,” that confesses more often the “mixed” that constitutes motive, that not only consults the truth on the ground but allows such truth to fully infuse its policy decisions, that honors security alliances which don’t require women and children to hide out in petrol stations.

In our current, hyper-active and crisis-defined system, one that is driven by state interests and large state interests above all, I don’t know from whence that fully “persuasive editor” of our institutional culture is most likely to emerge. But for the rest of this year and perhaps beyond, our small team of interns and fellows will remain on the lookout.



Finish Line: Honoring the Accomplishments and Aspirations of our Common Journey, Dr. Robert Zuber

13 Jan

finish ii

I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have. Abraham Lincoln

One who lives without discipline dies without honor. Icelandic Proverb

To be able to look back upon one’s life in satisfaction is to live twice. Khalil Gibran

There is no beauty in sadness. No honor in suffering. No growth in fear. No relief in hate. It’s just a waste of perfectly good happiness. Katerina Kleme

On Friday, the UN Security Council held its regularly scheduled meeting on the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a briefing from the always-enlightening Special Representative Leila Zerrougui. Part of her task was to introduce the latest sobering and comprehensive report of the Secretary-General on the situation in DR Congo including issues affecting the promotion of regional peace and security – efforts to control the latest Ebola outbreaks, assaults from armed groups on civilians and medical personnel, and the ongoing theft of natural resources – as well as the activities of the UN Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO), to protect as many civilians as possible and ensure a modicum of stability in this vast country.

This Council session was a bit different in that the focus was on recently-concluded and twice-delayed presidential elections in DR Congo, the conclusion and final certification of which is to (hopefully) lead to a peaceful transition of power in the country, the first such transition in DR Congo history.  A bevy of speakers, including from the African Union, the Foreign Ministry of neighboring Zambia (representing the Southern African Development Community) and the DR Congo National Electoral Commission (CENI) lent gravity to the proceedings, reinforcing the importance of this process for the often-compromised political legitimacy of the country as well as its implications for stability both within and even beyond the region.

Also highlighted was the suspension of the vote in Beni territory and Butembo in the North Kivu province due to health and security concerns.  Such suspensions, which promised to be resolved in time for March parliamentary elections, were duly noted by speakers but not fully interrogated, specifically in terms of how such suspensions might have affected the electoral outcome (a provisional win for Felix Tshisekedi).  In a country where trust levels are acknowledged to be low, the absence of Kivu votes is sure to become an issue that will linger past any upcoming inauguration and subsequent calls from the new president for patience and reconciliation.

Moreover, there were charges at this meeting that many votes had not been properly counted prior to certification.   Among the thousands of trained monitors at polling places across DR Congo were those of Conférence Épiscopale Nationale du Congo (CENCO) one of whose officials addressed the Council and who laid out (in respectful tones) concerns over the vote count, concerns exacerbated by the lack of cell phone access for many during the voting process.  Simply put, CENCO’s polling figures are at times significantly at variance with those of CENI, prompting the request that CENI share its complete polling data in full transparency in order to “set minds at rest.”

It is not necessary to gloss over these concerns, nor “fetishize” the benefits of elections on other matters afflicting DR Congo (as some in the international community are prone to do) to recognize the enormity of this electoral achievement, made possible in part by the decision of DR Congo’s long-serving (but still relatively young) president Joseph Kabila to remove his name from consideration for another terms as president.   DR Congo is a huge and unevenly developed country facing a myriad of threats including its own legacy of corrupt, unresponsive and at times abusive governance.  As noted by several Council members – including new member South Africa — and more forcefully by CENI’s president; that these elections were as successful as they appeared to be — with only sporadic violence, robust monitoring of polling places, the successful registration of millions of Congolese, and voting machines (those not destroyed by fire) that appeared to work better than some had predicted – was as much as could have been hoped for, and should be respected and duly honored as such.

This entire discussion inadvertently underscored a deeper concern for me, one that punctuates much of our efforts within and outside this policy space: when is our work within the complex contexts of policy good enough?  And who decides?  Is it possible to walk the line defined by Belgium and other Council members whereby we can laud the courage and persistence that led to the prospect of a peaceful transition of power while at the same time demand that the political will of the Congolese be fully honored and that persons seeking to report on irregularities be both listened to and protected?

To put it another way, can we put our hands on the oft-elusive formula that allows us to both honor accomplishment and demand better, that makes it possible for us to integrate and even appreciate the diverse expectations of policymakers and constituents that drive equally diverse assessments of our successes and failures, assessments that can (and have too often) become wedges distancing official proclamations of progress from the unrealized aspirations of constituents?

CENI’s president was clearly frustrated by much of what he heard at this Council meeting, rightly citing the legal requirements pertaining to his office, the massive logistical challenges of registering voters and votes in an area larger than western Europe, even the emotional challenges associated with citizens putting faith in the ballot box to help solve a myriad of development and security problems in a country with a democratic culture that is literally in its infancy.  On the other hand, if electoral challenges are unaddressed or even ignored, if a fledgling trust in an equally fledgling political culture is once again trammeled in part by too-easy “reassurances” from state authorities, then all of the thorny problems that a new government will be expected to address will become that much more daunting.  And DR Congo already has more than its share of threats to human dignity to which it must respond.

This week, I came across another in a series of recent articles providing data sets that ostensibly demonstrate that, in some significant ways, 2018 was the setting for much in the way of “global improvements.”  While I have rarely met persons whose immediate circumstances “felt better” on the basis of published percentiles and other data sets, it can certainly be valuable to take stock (albeit cautiously) of progress in the aggregate.  And yet human striving has mostly yielded mixed (and often unequal) benefits, including with regard to human motivation (and human gratitude).  We are clearly making some progress on reducing absolute poverty, halting the spread of infectious disease, communications within and across cultures; this and more deserve appreciation and respect.  But we are also losing ground in several key areas including levels of food insecurity and forced displacement, and the health of our oceans and climate.  Moreover, despite the proliferation of “smart phones,” direct access to capacity such as technological innovation and financial instruments seems less equal in this world than has been the case at any point in my lifetime, perhaps in human history.

Data can be critical to keeping progress on track and exposing gaps and limitations in even our best intentions.  But it cannot – indeed must not – become a substitute for the decisions by people in families and communities regarding the point at which good enough is truly “good enough,” that time when promises by governments and policy leaders for greater health care, education and social equity are both kept and in line with aspirations, aspirations that are now continually stoked by the incessant displays of high lifestyles to which those in developing countries, and especially the youth, enjoy at least remote digital admission.

All is not doom and gloom in our times, to be sure, but we still have a long road to travel before we achieve the world envisioned – indeed demanded – by the UN’s sustainable development goals.  Along the way, we have things yet to learn, including the tricky matter of honoring without settling, critiquing without discouraging.  Moreover, we must continually rethink those too-tempting conclusions by government officials and data experts, that what seems “good enough” to them is actually “good enough” for others.


Home Alone: Making Space for Human-Scale Sustainable Development, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Feb

Home is where my habits have a habitat. Fiona Apple

I think what you notice most when you haven’t been home in a while is how much the trees have grown around your memories. Mitch Albom

Home isn’t where you’re from; it’s where you find light when all grows dark. Pierce Brown

The Commission for Social Development has taken up its annual presence at the UN.  It is an outlier body in some ways that seeks to take a more holistic (and welcome) view of human well-being, beyond the metrics of consumption and production, beyond the reach of military might and trade balances. The Commission is a place within the UN where really smart people can talk about human respect and “happiness” as freely as they discuss big data and digital access.

Social development is to some degree about how people organize themselves and how certain attributes – poverty, aging and disability among them – impact social cohesion, that is the ability of people to find meaning, identity and fulfillment in the places where they live: and in the best of circumstances, to master how to thrive in each other’s presence without conflict or discrimination.

There are some delegations that seem to take this Commission very seriously including a number of the European states as well as some from the Arab region.  But others express unease with some of the agenda items for the Commission, which include a focus on poverty eradication in Africa that already has “home bases” elsewhere in the UN system. In some instances, there seems to be a concern that the “softer” tones of the Commission lead to value commitments that are perhaps not as inclusive as they seem and that some states have trouble accepting, let alone controlling.

Although it represents a bit of a departure from the hard security and even harder development concerns that preoccupy our office –including this past week ongoing sieges in parts of Syria and peacebuilding in Burundi that suffers from a lack of consensus on what is happening on the ground — I have a soft spot in my heart for this Commission.  I am especially heartened by its attempts to promote human well-being through a wider lens than the “big ticket” items of global security and climate health, though our uneven successes in these domains certainly impact prospects for each and every aspect of social development.

This lens is wide indeed. Family life seeks a home in this Commission.   So do people with disabilities.  So do people facing chronic poverty and homelessness.   So do those facing “old age” without sufficient means to sustain their remaining lifespans. So do people seeking dependable levels of social protection for their children.   So do those seeking to overcome their various addictions.  So do those seeking to open small businesses or secure micro-loans.  So do people – especially youth — seeking employment opportunities in a sometimes unforgiving market.

And so do those recognizing the growing problem of economic and social “inequality.” Indeed, at a side event prior to the opening of the Commission, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Iceland (current Commission Chair) raised the possibility of this Commission becoming the “home base” for this critical and oft-cited concern as we together gear up to meet our sustainable development responsibilities.

In speaking later in the week with a few of the NGOs around UN headquarters, it seems that there is divided opinion on how (or even whether) our expanding inequalities can find a proper seat at the Commission table. Inequalities are, to many of us, critically important obstacles to overcome if the sustainable development goals are to be achieved in anything like a timely manner. So long as wealth and power continue to consolidate, so long as people continue to concentrate on their status rather than their contributions, so long as inequity becomes the price we are willing to pay for consumer access and digital convenience, this problem will remain a most difficult nut to crack.

In such circumstances, for such a “home” within the UN system to matter it must create and then sustain that elusive balance between habit and competence.  It must cultivate the capacity to seize attention within a UN community that is largely distracted by humanitarian emergencies, ocean degradation, nuclear weapons and terrorism.   And it must have the bandwidth to address this singular, complex challenge without losing sight of the many other issues and dimensions of social development to which diplomats and NGOs attached to the Commission are rightly demanding focus.

A home, we must be reminded, can surely be a place of comfort and familiarity, but it is also a focal point of meaning and adaptability to circumstances.  Home is the place where we become who we are, creatures of habit but also creatures of competence and, hopefully, of reliability, honesty and other aspects of character as essential to healthy communities as technological access and the metrics of economic development.  Home often represents a sentimentalized attachment, but one that is tied to real human capacity, to the relationships and contexts that makes it possible for us to get through our hardest days, to push our lives to matter, and then perhaps to matter even more.

Maybe the UN doesn’t have the bandwidth for concentrated attention on concerns such as these.  Maybe the Commission is simply not robust enough to put things like inequalities on the international agenda and then ensure that these issues continue to find the spotlight they deserve. Maybe it is not yet equipped to fully assert the human dimensions of the sustainable development agenda which is now our hallowed task. Maybe the Commission will never be able of itself to generate sufficient light to crowd out the darkness of poverty, discrimination and listlessness that infect too many corners of our world and for which people are increasingly demanding relief.

The ability for any UN agency to meet the demands of a proper home – security and engagement, habit and challenge – is essential. It is important that our work here does not succumb, as duly warned by a former Chilean colleague Juan Somavia in a quote provided by our friends at Global Policy Forum, to the easy virtue of “mechanized” policies that fail to respect “the dignity and value of the human being.” Such elements are absolutely essential both to a life worth living and to the goals of sustainable development that can, once fully implemented, provide a sturdier and more inclusive platform for human well-being.   These are the elements that we would do well to pursue and that this Commission might in some near future be best suited to lead.

If the Commission can find the tools and the narratives to help us all humanize our policy tasks; if it can offer a “home base” for all aspects of social development, including the formidable challenges related to eliminating inequalities; if it can ensure that its core issues are never confined behind locked doors or, as was intimated during this week’s ECOSOC Youth Forum, used as a pretext to keep women and youth in habituated spaces rather than inspiring their full participation in the sometimes uncomfortable world beyond; then its value to the full and timely implementation of the sustainable development goals will be beyond all reproach.

Moreover, if this Commission could somehow manage to rally the full UN system to eschew an overly-“mechanized” policy dynamic, efforts beyond holding aloft – at times virtually alone — the mantle of human dignity and community well-being, then its status as a proper “home” to help all of us holistically identify and address threats to social development will be assured.

And then we will then have that much a better chance of taming the inequalities beast that now threatens to disenfranchise and de-value us all.

Disabling Inequality:  Establishing Conditions for a Healthier, Less-Conflicted World, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Dec

Korean Artist

On December 3, the UN commemorated the International Day of Persons with Disabilities with day long displays of art and film along with some stirring and inspirational panel discussions led by senior UN officials, influential diplomats and leaders of disabilities-focused organizations.

No fewer than seven Ambassadors followed presentations by the Secretary-General, ASG Bas and NGO leaders on disabilities, affirming their “commitment to action” in relation to the day’s theme, “Inclusion Matters:  Access and Empowerment for People of all Abilities.”   Among the highlights of those presentations was Kenya Amb. Kamau’s call for “inclusive education” to increase options and empowerment for persons with disabilities while also highlighting the degree to which such persons are disproportionately victimized by armed violence. Spain’s Amb. Oyarzun noted that it has been a decade since persons with disabilities “were no longer ignored in policy,” but also cited the long road ahead until equality of access is assured.  Amb. Yoshikawa of Japan and Amb. Bird of Australia highlighted the high mortality rates of persons with disabilities affected by humanitarian disasters and called for greater sensitivity in disaster risk planning.  And the current president of ECOSOC, Amb. Oh Joon of Korea, cited disabilities as a “cross-cutting” theme, the recognition of which by the UN has allowed it to better “lead by example.”

In a week when diplomats and activists in Paris were trying to stave off a climate disaster, the Security Council was trying to make sense of escalating violence in Burundi, other diplomats were wrestling with ways to make the Council’s sanctions system more fair and effective, and officials in the US were attempting to draw lessons from our latest mass murder rampage, it might seem that there are far more important things to focus on than the plight of persons with disabilities.

I think not.

One of the things that policymakers need to do more, and often fail to do, is to look beyond current crises to the societies left in their wake.   If we are somehow able to disarm our weapons and clean our waterways; if we are able to restore the ice caps and reverse species extinctions; if we are able to end mass atrocities and settle restless populations, then what?   How do we best lay the ground for societies that have some chance of consolidating the gains from crisis resolution in ways that minimize the risk of new crises taking their place?

The uncomfortable truth is that, sometimes, the burdens of our current crises often shield us from exercising this larger policy responsibility.  Discrimination against persons with disabilities surely seems less “existential” than climate and mass atrocity violence until we recognize the degree to which inequalities foment such threats and, indeed, impede their successful resolution.

This recognition is similar to comments made by Guatemala’s Ambassador Rosenthal during his review of the Secretary-General’s recent Peacebuilding report.   Echoing comments from others, Rosenthal noted that peacebuilding has been largely restricted to post-conflict settings.  And while the goal of eliminating recidivist violence is noble, the best way to ensure this is to work more creatively and “further upstream,” to breathe fresh air into our policy structures so to prevent the inequalities and discriminations that are the “first principles” of a dangerous planet.

The presence of wheelchairs, walking sticks and sign-language interpreters in spaces normally filled by persons lacking visible limitations reminds us of how carefully scripted and stubbornly “fashioned” life in our corridors tends to be.   We speak when protocol determines our right to speak.  We dress according to “western” business models even though many of us are not “western.”  And we mostly walk independently from one meeting to the next.   We see with two eyes, hear with two ears.  Our brains have been schooled to grasp the intricacies (and tolerate the tedium) of our policy discussions.  At the same time, we outwardly show little joy, share little of the emotional space that houses our own hidden “disabilities.”

And we have established social structures defined too much by competition and too little by kindness and respect: competition that is based largely on criteria that is both school-driven and limited in scope, with “winners” largely confined to persons with multiple formal credentials, conventional incarnations of beauty, aggressive ambitions, or well-sculpted physiques.  In most every instance, these are persons without recognizable “flaws,” such being determined by the very same people who have managed to avoid having, or at least showing them to the rest of us.

But of course there are manifold skills, talents and contributions beyond our socially-sanctioned ambitions, ones which we need both to solve our greatest challenges and to create those “peaceful, inclusive societies” to which we so often point, hoping that such societies can be successfully crafted such that they can somehow ward off another generation of existential threats.

Nowhere during this day of events was this any more clear than in the art exhibit “Like Wildflowers, Like Stars,” from the Korean artist Kim Geun-tae.  The faces he renders – children living with disabilities – show a range of emotions from confusion to joy.   Some faces appear remote while others are delightfully engaging.  Some of the children appear sick, others are physically incomplete, but few could walk this UN corridor and conclude that these renditions do not represent a veritable cornucopia of potential contributions to the societies that we need and want.

The lessons in the paintings are both simple and numerous, but two stayed with me.   One of the panels asks, “Does this child have cerebral palsy or polio?”  The answer comes:  “I am Min-june.  I am not palsy or polio,”  reminding that none should be defined by our limitations, the visible nor the hidden.  And the second lesson may have greater poignancy.  In a panel that depicts children with disabilities in obvious distress, the artist proclaims, “The harder we feel our lives are, the more firmly we have to grasp each other’s hands.”

Indeed, the more important it is for hands to be extended.

In reflecting on the beauty of the artist’s panels, on the often-wise content panels earlier in the day, as well as on the many grave responsibilities found daily on our policy plates, I cannot but wonder about my own “disabilities” — out of sight for the most part, but not without consequence for others.  For many of these “others” worldwide including persons with disabilities, life is hard now, and our collective response is not with hearts and hands fully extended.  Our crisis reactions are overly militarized; we are too dismissive of each other’s talents and contributions; we are inattentively sending species to extinction and threatening to do the same to ourselves; we do not “step up” often enough with understanding and welcoming hospitality; we allow ourselves to be distracted too often by so many things that just don’t matter.

Thankfully, these are all things we can do more about, some primarily in the realm of policy, others within our private dwellings and local communities.  In the end, as we were reminded this week, one of our best, most sustainable antidotes to social and political crises is to humanize the cultures of discrimination and inequality that now lie at their roots.