Tag Archives: Local Agency

House Warming: Fixing the Thermostat on our Environmental Health, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Feb

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home. Gary Snyder

The sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself. Rachel Carson

Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part. Hermann Broch

The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes, roads, creatures, and people. Wendell Berry

Home is where my habits have a habitat. Fiona Apple

How foolish to believe we are more powerful than the sea or the sky. Ruta Sepetys

The themes which run through much of the work of the UN in these precarious times are many, but can actually be placed in a couple of large and inter-related bins – the things we need to do better for the people with whom we share this earthly home, and the things we need to change about our relationship to our home itself, changes that can address at least some of the damage that we have willfully inflicted on our climate, our oceans, our biodiversity, our agriculture.

The first of these bins is quite large indeed and contains tools and norms for stopping and resolving conflict, protecting human rights, guaranteeing political and cultural participation, rolling back the excess production of weapons, responding effectively to humanitarian emergencies, ensuring decent work for people, especially young people, improving access to health and education for all, but especially for children and persons with disabilities…

You get the idea. These and more are part of our collective effort – often enabled by the UN — to better “humanize” our human relations, to provide a context for overcoming at least some of the callousness and cruelty that too-often dominate our political and economic relations. UN events on hate speech, counter-terror and excess weapons production this past week are but three examples of multi-lateral efforts to enhance prospects for and conditions of security for global constituents.

And then there are those responsibilities in that other “bin” which are about protecting the quality of human life on a planetary home towards which our species has created incalculable disruption and about which we still mostly fail to make good faith efforts that clearly convey the origins and nature of the crisis facing these eco-“co-authors” of our very existence. Here we speak of the natural treasures we claim to revere but to not sufficiently protect; the soils and insects that make our sustenance feasible but to which we pay scant attention; the climate now altering our home in frightening ways and now on the cusp of permanence but which have inspired mostly half-hearted responses and half-fulfilled commitments.

The UN has a constructive role to play here as well, given its ability to convene diplomats, scientists, NGOs, youth and others to highlight major eco-challenges.   The preparatory meetings held this week in New York for a June conference on oceans in Lisbon brought the potential and limitations of such convening to light. Despite robust enthusiasm from diplomats and a full gallery of NGOs, and noting with appreciation fresh efforts to “green” the shipping industry and approach other of what UN Special Envoy Thomson called “positive tipping points,”’ we were fearful that, much like the recent climate summit in Madrid, this could well be yet another event as likely to disappoint as to inspire, and this despite the contention of some key speakers that Lisbon could indeed be a “game changing” moment.

The reasons for our concern are, to our mind at least, quite clear. There is, on the face of it, value to be had in bringing a diverse range of stakeholders together to discuss the current state of ocean health and explore the gaps that need to be filled (including on ocean science) if we are to seize our responsibility to protect a living entity that is more than a recreational destination, more than a source of protein and recreation, more than a “sink” for our carbon excesses.

But this begs the question: Is there reason to believe that massive UN conferences that are so costly in human energy, hospitality and carbon emissions are actually able to “change the game” on matters of fundamental importance to our survival? Is the Lisbon event really going to move the needle on the “equitable prosperity” called for this week by Kenya, the enhanced ocean governance called for by the UN Office for Legal Affairs? Will it be successful in convincing the global public, as advocated by Portugal’s Minister of Oceans, that our leadership will no longer be satisfied with “half measures” on oceans instead of genuine transformation “that is urgent and fair?”

Perhaps. But events alone will not get us to the sustainable future on which our children’s lives depend.

What is missing?   From our vantage point in the middle of these global discussions, we have not yet made the case to enough people that the situation is as perilous as it actually is, that the earth and its oceans which house our collective aspirations are as “sick” as Envoy Thomson claimed this past week.   Moreover, and perhaps more important, we have not convinced people that we as erstwhile leaders are willing to make the hard choices needed to divert this course, to change the way we do our own business and not merely externalize concern to what we have already concluded are the “bad actors.”

Why, for instance, do we insist on holding large events which waste resources, burn carbon, and create often-tepid outcomes for which few leaders are actually held accountable? Why have we not made better use of the technology now available to enable participation by a wider range of stakeholders who might otherwise and rightly be deterred by the eco-consequences of long-distance air travel and four-star hotels?

And why do people like me tend to hold on to issues at global level instead of enabling the localizing of environmental concerns, the people who best know their lands and waterways and understand their neighbors, the people who can make the case for loving a home enough to preserve and protect it, certainly more than any diplomat or global “expert” ever could? Over the past few days, thanks to the great generosity of two old friends, I was privileged to see local initiatives in rural Mississippi and Louisiana, young people of very modest means, together with the adults who teach and mentor them, working the land and producing crops for local sale that are raising community nutrition levels, bringing people together and restoring community pride – and all without poisoning community relations or the local environment.

Indeed, these young people were described by one of my friends as “smart, connected to each other, knowledgeable, hopeful, proud and going places.” Who better to vouch for the preciousness of their home places? Who better to call things by their proper, local names while bringing attention to these oft-forgotten places of cultural and agricultural abundance? Who better to restore the reverence of home places as the condition for helping such places to thrive?

Like the rest of our threatened biosphere, the care and restoration of our oceans must be led by the people who know them best, the people whose every thought seems to take the ocean into account.   If the UN is determined to keep holding grand events that, to some degree, threaten the decay of our environmental home in the name of preserving it, then such events must fundamentally change their face — ensuring every technological opportunity for “greener access,” allowing for more active listening to persons closer to our lands and seas, and fully acknowledging the search of diverse peoples for deep meanings and even a bit of romance for the home places that can inspire actions in all corners of our world for a cooler, healthier, more bio-diverse planet.

Together with our friends and colleagues, we will use whatever access and leverage we have to make the case for policy that reverences local initiatives as the beating heart of efforts to lower the global thermostat and allow for the restoration of the bio-abundance that once adorned our earthly home.

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.