Tag Archives: Inspiration

Apple Pay: Inspiring our Policy Perseverance, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Dec

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.  Martin Luther

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.  Kurt Vonnegut

There are years that ask questions and years that answer. Zora Neale Hurston

The soul is healed by being with children. Fyodor Dostoevsky

Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. Madeleine L’Engle

At the end of another long week at the UN, diplomats and leadership struggled once again to cross the annual finish line. The Security Council held a session on Central Africa, including the conflict in Cameroon, which was more formula than foresight – conventional calls for dialogue and political will with only Belgium clearly grasping that efforts by the government to promote reconciliation in the primarily English speaking areas of the country have not impacted conditions on the ground; indeed seem to be intended more to placate an international audience than to quell the violence and open the door for accountability and justice.   Those few of us in the chamber who have followed the Cameroon conflict for some time and were hoping for a bit more defiance – or at least to witness the inspiration to defy – were largely disappointed.

Just down the hall, a two-day review of the Vienna Programme of Action for Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDCs) was also concluding.  This review, essential to the fulfillment of our sustainable development responsibilities, endorsed an excellent Political Declaration under the leadership of Austria and Bhutan which focused on the unique economic, security and trade-related challenges faced by states lacking sea access and, in some instances, even commercial interaction across land borders.

And yet this important event also ended with the whimper as both the President of the General Assembly and High Representative Utoikamanu struggled through prepared remarks in ways that sapped what little energy remained in the Trusteeship Council chamber.  Having lamented a day earlier the degree to which progress on sustainable development in many LLDCs remains stagnant, one would have hoped for a more determined set of final presentations, an infusion of energy which could communicate to delegations and a wider audience that there is sustainable passion behind the adopted Declaration, that we understand the full relevance of the plight of the LLDCs to the fulfillment of our 2030 Development Agenda promises.

Thankfully, there were other UN engagements this week with more abundant energy, including a Thailand-sponsored event on the importance of soil protection to sustainable agriculture, an excellent joint meeting of the Peacebuilding Commission and the Economic and Social Council on peace and security in the Lake Chad/Sahel region of Africa, and a multi-stakeholder Open-ended Working Group on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security. The latter event brought dozens of academics and representatives of governments and civil society together to discuss cyber threats to elections, to weapons systems, and especially to what was often referred to as the “public core” of the internet that is now (as you surely know) awash in viruses, phishing scams, and other threats to privacy and protection.  What made this event work as well as it did was the willingness of the Chairs – Singapore and Switzerland – to privilege the expertise of the non-government representatives more than their government counterparts.  Most all Working Group participants seemed comfortable speaking with each other, rather than “over” each other as is so often the case here.

Despite these hopeful policy settings, the overall mood of the building seems now less of a roar and more of a whimper.  People are tired; in some instances, also clearly a bit discouraged.  Diplomats soldier on, read their statements, pay attention (more or less) to what others are sharing, and shuffle themselves between relevant conference rooms where all-too-familiar issues reappear on their agendas without resolution –and often without progress.  Funding is also unusually tight as key contributors (including Brazil and the US) withhold resources needed to keep the UN in full function, symbolized in part by a heavily-used escalator that now only runs to the 2nd floor instead of the 4th, as well as doors that are locked and meetings which are raced through more quickly than usual as there is currently no prospect of overtime pay for any UN employee.

From our vantage point, we are not as preoccupied with funding aspects per se as with their implications for inspiration, for visible energy and commitment, for expressions of enthusiasm that we actually have what it takes to meet our ambitious obligations to constituents; that we as a community remain undeterred by obstacles of logistics and budget which (if we are honest) appear largely irrelevant when placed alongside the impediments to persons ravaged by war and poverty, by drought and corrupt governance, by massive storms and equally massive indifference.

As we sit in diverse conference rooms each day trying to sew the pieces of relevant UN policy together and ensure in our own small way that efforts to obfuscate or even deceive are called out, what we look for – indeed long for – is inspiration: that sense of urgency to solve the problems that have wrecked havoc for far too long; that determination to use all of the abundant expertise available within the UN and to supplement it where needed with the best (and most diverse) of what is available outside; that regular acknowledgement that we can visualize who needs us and who we are working for; that we can feel at least some of the pain that comes from the impact of violence we have not averted, under-development we have not yet tackled, natural disasters we failed to predict, disease outbreaks we failed to prevent.

Diplomats have their own compensation mechanisms for functioning in what has become, too-often, a high-octane, low-inspiration environment.   For us on the non-government side, we are too often left to invent our own inspiration, to write our own sonnets and plant our own trees, to secure essential heart energy from places largely invisible to the eye.  In some conference rooms, such as was the case this week, positive energy is still accessible. In others, energy levels are far more lethargic than electric.

This is, indeed, a “first-world problem” but one with far broader implications.   What must it look like for global constituents to watch this community of policy muddle through issues that, for them, are literally matters of life and death?  How must it feel to read resolutions that purport to address constituent concerns with barely a shred of constituent intervention?  What must be the trust implications of promises made and then ignored, of binding declarations without schemes for implementation, of grave crimes that go perpetually unpunished or “cashed in” for the sake of “peace agreements?” For us here in the center of global governance, policy lethargy is an indulgence understandable at one level but almost unforgivable at another.

Back in the Security Council yesterday, it was indeed an inspiring site as we put away our computers and diplomats filed out of the chamber, to see a baby belonging to one of the UN diplomats crawling along our row, happy as he could possibly be, exploring a space that should have more to do than it does now with preserving and protecting his future and the many millions of girls and boys in his generational cohort.

We don’t see babies often enough in this seasonally-fatigued and too–often discouraged space packed with events and responsibilities but short on genuine enthusiasm and inspiration.  Lacking the presence of children, it seems too easy now to forget who we’re working for, the specific circumstances of who and what we’re perhaps only pretending to care about, the duties to promote and protect, to warn and respond, to assist and inspire, to question and discern, duties that come with our largely undeserved places at the center of policy. This peculiar iteration of policy amnesia is bad for constituents, but can’t be good for any of us here at the UN either, from senior officials to cafe servers.

I know that there is plenty of inspiration swirling around my own life, including some remarkable women, interns and other colleagues who are constantly exploring and finding new ways to place their skills and energies in the service of the world.   I need to tap into more of this energy going forward, in part so I can continue to plant the “apple trees” that are mine to plant,to invite others to create new sonnets, to better share my portion of inspiration directed primarily to the heart, and all this regardless of the current political circumstances or mood of the room.

I’m going to take a few days this week in an attempt to relocate that very tap.  I’ll let you know if I’m successful.

Construction Zone:  The SG Report’s Overlooked Obstacles and Inspirations, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Aug

Under Construction

The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision. Helen Keller

Nothing is more imminent than the impossible . . . what we must always foresee is the unforeseen.  Victor Hugo

We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper. Isaac Bashevis Singer

The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope. Leonora Carrington

If you need a reason to get involved in world politics, all you need to do is watch a playground of children.  Laurance Kitts

This has been one of the slower weeks at the UN in recent memory.  Aside from an excellent, first-time event to honor victims of terrorism, the highlight of the week was probably the release of the Report of the Secretary-General on the work of the Organization, the latest in an annual exercise that gives those who take time to read it a sense of how the UN system – seen almost exclusively through the lens of UN secretariat leadership – is adjusting its processes and priorities in an attempt to address the too-frequent, darkening clouds which daily permeate our news feeds.

The report promises a “frank and realistic” appraisal of UN and global challenges. As is the case with many prior SG reports, I would exercise caution in using such terms to describe this document.   As I will allude to below, such an appraisal would require the SG to talk less about his own “launchings” and more about the efforts of the complex system of which he is a part – including work already done to lay the groundwork for his own tenure; the many stakeholders inside and outside the UN system that create complementary and essential frameworks for change; even the unsung heroes “in the field” who help restore faith in the “work” of the UN.  That faith, we fear, is routinely compromised by several un-named factors, including the political maneuvering of powerful states and officials inside UN Headquarters, certainly within in the Security Council, maneuverings currently as likely to maintain the “stasis” of deadly conflicts (and their many implications for the other UN “pillars”) as to resolve them.

Indeed, these reports increasingly are neither particularly generous of spirit nor “frank” in terms of naming political, fiscal and institutional impediments to achieving the “world we want,” the world as noted several times in this report is promised by the Sustainable Development Goals.  Indeed, at points, these “reports” reminded me a bit of funding proposals that small NGOs like mine might submit – long on “what we’re doing,” and reminders of “what more remains to be done” (with additional funding of course) and short on assessments of what barriers lie in the way of achieving our desired ends, including of course the sometimes unhelpful ways in which we, ourselves, conduct our own business.   Indeed, this SG report (as with others) seems deliberately “pitched” to funders, in this instance to the member states who must “sell” the value of the UN to national capitals; also to the many “partners” of the UN characterized increasingly by multilateral lenders, multi-national corporations and large NGOs who already exercise an outsized influence on current UN policies.  The world may seem to be quite a mess in the eyes of many constituents, but the message to funders and key partners is that we at the UN have the goods to clean it up or, at the very least, are developing the tools and protocols (at the direct urging of the SG and with proper support) to clean better.

In fairness to this report, its release could hardly have been timed more awkwardly – having to compete with the death of former SG Kofi Annan, a man much beloved and of great wisdom and stature who, increasingly over the course of his two terms, found his inspirational voice and helped the UN system increase its global credibility while recovering from a series of scandals and reckless policies related to abuses by UN personnel, “oil for food,” the invasion of Iraq and, surely the most significant failure of his era, the inability to prevent the Rwanda genocide. It is imprudent at best to compare SGs when one has reached the end of his life and the other is in the midst of adjusting to often-grave political and institutional challenges, but it is perhaps noteworthy that our widely-utilized Global Action twitter feed towards the end of this week was filled with hundreds of diplomatic and civil society tributes to Annan while the SG report was referenced less often than the number of fingers on one hand.

Again in fairness to the report, there is much of value in it to the UN and, hopefully, the global community, work that has already taken place “on the watches” of SG Guterres and DSG Mohammed (the latter of whom is noted only in a photo).  The report makes clear that there has been some UN-led progress on countering terrorism,  on improving the safety of peacekeepers, on promoting “free trade” among corruption-free African states, on ensuring participation and leadership by women and youth,  on reform of the UN development system (including the UN’s resident coordinators), on ending abuses perpetrated against women and children, on ocean health, on providing services for victims of terror, and on increasing the “footprint” of a revamped UN Peacebuilding Commission and Peacebuilding Fund, offices for which the SG is thankfully seeking a “quantum leap” in funding support in acknowledgement of the PBC’s growing role in promoting the SG’s desired linkage between “prevention and protection” on the road towards sustainable peace.

The SG also highlighted the more-looming existential threats of climate and nuclear weapons as well as the vast numbers of “people on the move,” in part driven by climate and conflict impacts. But again, there is little to be found regarding “what is in the way” of urgent progress on such matters, nor is there sufficient “frankness” regarding how another “climate summit” and a barely-functional disarmament architecture (including barely-binding treaty obligations) are likely to get us close to anything like the “promised land” as more scientists predict that we are likely to miss our climate targets and more observers note (with great regret) the degree to which weapons spending and production continue to expand despite our hard-fought resolutions and treaties. There is also little assessment regarding how (or if) the well-crafted, soon-to-be-endorsed and purely voluntary Global Compact on Migration can help counter the growing nationalism, xenophobia and intolerance that jeopardize the welfare of migrants and undermine the credibility of our rule-based system.  Again, and especially for an institution that sits at the very center of global governance, “what is in the way” of life-affirming progress is as important to communicate as “what we are now doing.”

One other item of note before closing pertains to the “mood” of the UN building,  Our own take on this after many years of watching and reflecting is that the “culture shift” inside the UN rightly advocated for by the SG must go beyond breaking up the “silos” of secretariat offices to enable and embrace a new appreciation for all UN stasff and stakeholders.   One manifestation of this “culture” would be the ability of the UN system and its leadership to honor the “whistleblowers” within its walls that this SG report seeks to honor outside of them.   Those who expose “shady dealings” are enablers of a healthier UN and not its enemies.  Those who report on the limitations of the UN system and not merely regurgitate its pre-prepared and highly-branded news releases are doing their part to make the UN truly “fit for purpose” in a world of frightening conflict and climate risks.  Those who commit themselves to pay close attention to the UN and member states – not only what they say but what they do – and who read lessons-learned back to its talented decisionmakers — are helping in their own small way to cleanse the system of its inconsistencies, its excesses, its occasional confusions regarding the difference between “construction and completion.”  It is thus with regret that this SG report paid so little attention to the health and welfare of civil society and journalists, those operating in the increasingly tightly-managed spaces within UN headquarters, but especially those who have “watched children on the playground,” and subsequently chosen to risk their lives in otherwise forgotten places to fortify the food-insecure, defend the defenseless, share stories and warning signs we would otherwise overlook, and uphold the values of the UN Charter to which we at headquarters too-often seem to give lip-service.

SG Guterres is correct to stress in his report the importance of multilateral engagement to “solve problems together than we cannot solve alone.”  He is also right to attempt to enhance the UN’s “capacity to operate as a convener of people, a proponent of ideas, a catalyst for action and a driver of solutions.”  But for this to continue, we need several things from our UN leadership, including more frequent demonstrations of inspiration and generosity of spirit, fresh levels of “frankness” regarding internal and external barriers to fulfilling our multilateral obligations, and increased attention to those on the margins of our increasingly high-end “partnerships” who need the UN to be better at anticipating the challenges of the future while addressing what the SG called “remaining gaps” and honoring the SDGs and our other, pending, policy promises.  We must together do a better job of “keeping one eye on the telescope and the other on the microscope.”

Long before the release of his next annual report, we encourage the SG and other senior staff to take some long walks through the building they ostensibly manage, to listen to those who fill up seats in UN conference rooms and cafes, or provide security and other assistance to the many UN visitors who still – justifiably I think – look to this institution to define a path out of collective despair.  Beyond the influences of powerful states, multilateral lenders and NGOs with the fiscal structure of small nations, beyond the many hopeful initiatives both honored and misplaced within this SG report, there is a growing sense – even within this UN building — that we are simply not doing enough to give life a chance.  Clearly, there is more to say, more to do, more to inspire than appears in these SG pages.  Let those missing dimensions permeate our words and actions leading up to the next report’s release.

Glass Cleaner: Reflecting the Inspiration We Find in the World, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Aug

flood

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. Edith Wharton

It is never too late to be what you might have been. George Eliot

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world. Desmond Tutu

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. Joseph Campbell

I’m sitting in the office early on a beautiful Sunday morning in New York, sifting through seemingly endless lists of “inspiring” quotations, hoping to locate one or more offering a bit more insight into what “inspiration” actually requires — why we in the NGO world need to address our own inspiration needs; but also why it is such an important (if often overlooked) aspect of our work that we are willing to offer inspiration for and/or “reflect forward” the inspiration provided by others.

This might seem like an odd topic to take up in a setting like the United Nations, a place that most people who have not given up on us entirely think is literally dripping with inspiration.  Look at all the good work that emanates at least in part from this space; the disaster relief supplied, pandemics overcome, landmines disabled, refugees housed, impunity challenged. Under the UN flag, people risk their own lives daily to protect and provide provisions to civilians in horrific conflict zones.   Under the UN flag, people doggedly pursue elusive political agreements and even more elusive justice.  Under the UN flag, people rally stakeholders to stave off the grave consequences associated with a warming planet, staggering levels of armament and vast populations on the move, risking much in the search for safer havens. Under the UN flag (and with excellent leadership from the current President of the General Assembly, Fiji’s Peter Thomson), dozens of small island nations have banded together in common cause, gathering allies powerful and humble from other parts of the world and then lodging urgent, science-based appeals for ocean health.

There has never been any doubt in our minds about the value of this policy space.  While the UN might never live up to the standards established by its often-incessant self-branding, there is little reason to believe that any of the (more and less) existential messes we have inflicted on ourselves are more likely to be resolved in its absence.

But while the UN is (to our view) very much necessary to global healing, it is also, equally clearly, not sufficient.  Those of us who walk these policy corridors many hours each day quickly become familiar with this system’s limitations:  the restrictive power imbalances among states; the conflict-related messes we struggle to clean up that didn’t need to be messed up in the first place; the promises on development, armaments and more that we so often make to the world and that we know, at face value at least, we are unlikely to keep; the amount of time we spend “condemning” state conduct without any prospect of meaningful follow-through; the often competitive and non-transparent manner in which we engage with other stakeholders, certainly including within and towards the “community” of NGOs.

As with its many successes, there is more to the UN’s “insufficiency” of course, more reasons for people to question if UN and government officials truly grasp the implications of the precarious moment we find ourselves in. Are our levels of attentiveness, dedication and urgency appropriate to the challenges of our times?   Are we doing all that we can with the opportunities presented here, including doing enough to inspire others to fill in our gaps and raise expectations for our collective performance? Do we have both the courage to keep our own candle of inspiration alive and (perhaps more important) the humility to learn from and properly reflect forward the light of inspiration offered by so many others?

This week we in the office (and far beyond) mourned the death of Tony De Brum, the former Foreign Minister of Marshall Islands and a formidable voice for sanity on many issues, but especially on the threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change.  As BBC and other media tributes this week (along with a few personal stories told by our close colleague, John Burroughs) made clear to all, De Brum was heavily and persistently motivated by his life experiences – including witnessing the “Bravo” nuclear test in 1954 while fishing with family – to become a “legendary” advocate for his people and the small islands that still conceal poisons from the early nuclear era and are now threatened by seemingly relentless sea level rises.  The “coalition of high ambition” that De Brum helped to create was instrumental in bringing about the unprecedented Paris Climate Agreement.  As he would no doubt recognize, such a coalition is now needed in many other policy areas where the greed and carelessness of all of us have placed the future of our children (and so many other life forms) in considerable peril.

As with current PGA President Thomson, De Brum demonstrated in full measure that it is not necessary to be a major player from a powerful state to have meaningful impact.  Nor are big-ticket contributions from the most powerful institutions necessarily what are now needed most.  Around the world, from Harlem to the Marshall Islands, there are gardens to tend, children to teach, conflicts to mediate, coastlines to clean, rights to defend, refugees to shelter, poverty to eradicate.  And today, as on too many climate-affected days, flood victims to rescue from the rooftops.

We all should pledge to do more in these times, including providing reassurance and inspiration for all who seek to help “overwhelm” our common, stubborn challenges.  But lest we forget:  many are already doing deeds to promote sustainable peace and justice, often beyond the spotlight of national media and the recognition of international organizations. And as much as we might like it otherwise, it is through reflecting those many deeds, rather than through promotiong our own actions, that inspiration and hope for meaningful, sustainable change can have its greatest impact.  To magnify the light for these murky times, the mirror is likely more potent than the candle.