Tag Archives: peace

Modeling Agency:  The Gift of a Father’s Inspiration, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jun

My father would take me to the playground, and put me on mood swings. Jay London

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdomUmberto Eco

Beauty is not who you are on the outside, it is the wisdom and time you gave away to save another struggling soul like youShannon Alder

I should no longer define myself as the son of a father who couldn’t or hasn’t or wouldn’t or wasn’t.  Cameron Conaway

A few weeks ago in this space, I posted an essay honoring mothers for their sometimes heart-wrenching task of accompaniment — helping children to overcome the challenges that we can no longer “fix” for them.   The images of refugee mothers dragging their children across hostile terrain, away from everything familiar but no longer safe, is a gut-clutching narrative that is repeated, in tone if not in substance, millions of times over in our fragmented world.

Fathers, of course, are hardly excluded from such painful and emotionally-draining experiences.  Indeed, two images in these past days have moved me beyond the dull ache that often results from long days in UN conference rooms.  The first is perhaps the more familiar:  a Honduran man who brought his child across the US border only to have them immediately separated by US agents. The man was subsequently taken to some sort of prison facility where he apparently hanged himself, taking with him we can only assume portions of shame and remorse for daring and then failing to seek a safer and perhaps even more prosperous environment for his family.

As angry as this story of separation made me, the other image was in some ways even more tragic.  A young Syrian boy awakens after surgery to discover that the landmine that prompted the surgery in the first place has left him dazed and confused, but also blind.  As he flails away in his makeshift bed, his father attempts to comfort that which might never be comforted, a boy who must now deal with the double trauma of injury and darkness, and the father who knows that, despite the destruction all around punctuated by the threat of more landmines, his son will now need more from him – and for a longer period — than he ever imagined.

The insights here for me are twofold and apply to most all parents and caregivers. The first is the extraordinary violence and indifference that characterizes our treatment of so many children in this world. How do we rationalize children forcibly separated from parents, having to play in a field with un-exploded landmines, recruited into armed insurgencies and brothels, forced to beg for provisions that might sustain their lives but won’t allow their brains – let alone their hearts – to grow?

And the second insight is the burdens that all of this places on caregivers – on fathers who take their protective and provider responsibilities seriously – parents and others who must bear to watch an often heartless world plunging their children into darkness and despair.  As many parents now recognize, we can stand sentry on the porches of our homes, but the storms that make more of our eyes suspicious and our souls frustrated are unlikely to be frightened away.  The wolves, it seems, have gained strength of wind and a more strategic predatory interest since they first appeared in our fables.

And our now-apparent propensity for short-term policy fixes is only likely to make our long term prognosis more alarming; that time, past our time, when our collective lack of vision and kindness that jeopardizes any sustainable peace will come home to roost.

I am not a father myself, and many of my closest father-friends know to take some of my reflections on fathering as worth only the smallest grain of salt.  But I think most would agree that if we want children of character, children who care about things other than themselves, children who have the courage and resilience both to face up to the threats from storms and rebuild better in their aftermath, then we have much that we now need to model for them.

The best fathers and others who accompany children known to me do this as a matter of course.  They eschew the “do as I say not as I do” method of child influence for lives that are transparent and accountable, lives that seek to demonstrate the perseverance, resourcefulness, kindness, duty and integrity that they would be pleased to see more of in the world, certainly more of in the children they raise and know.  These fathers and others inspire lives of sustainability and service by living lives of sustainability and service, lives of strength and resilience by adapting and persevering.  They know to fill an increasingly barren and distracted landscape, not with words but with active hands and a big heart.

If there was ever a time for us to reboot our responsibilities to the next generations, this just might be it.  As it turns out, the “little scraps of wisdom” that fathers impart are often the very scraps that get children out in the world rather than shrinking in the corner, that help them create circles of concern as large as their hearts can bear, that help them cash in their anxiety and suspicions for a curious, compassionate and confident engagement with life.

Today is the World Day to Combat Desertification, a day for me to reflect on both the reality and the metaphor of our creeping deserts; the lands that can no long support a harvest, the souls that can no longer sustain meaningful connection, sometimes not even to our closest of kin. In our climate-damaged world, we are losing more and more precious land by the day, thus sending more and more families on a perilous journey to find safe spaces for children, land that will yield its fruits and strangers willing to risk becoming neighbors.

At the end of our days, as those of us who dare to make policy for others will also discover, our children are unlikely to ask why we didn’t buy them the latest gadgets to distract them from life, but why we didn’t do more to fix what’s broken in our world and why we didn’t prepare them better to fix things once we’re gone?

For all the fathers out there who are prepared to fully and lovingly answer those questions, we are forever in your debt. Through your strength of character and willingness to model, you are doing your part to make the desert bloom again.

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Service Contract:  Sharing the Burdens of a World At Odds, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Jun

Service

You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. Martin Luther King Jr.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.  Rabindranath Tagore

One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone. Shannon Alder

I’m starting to think this world is just a place for us to learn that we need each other more than we want to admit. Richelle Goodrich

The UN had its moments of schizophrenia this week:  An historic decision to approve by consensus the Secretary-General’s proposal for reform of the UN Development System occurred on the same day that the chairs of the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies held a rare and important discussion on the crucial role of these treaties in fulfilling our sustainable development goals, a discusson that few bothered to attend.   The Security Council, due in part to a US veto, fumbled away an effort by Kuwait to ensure a measure of international protection for Palestinians enduring deprivation and violence –especially in the Gaza strip– on the same day that the UN highly honored peacekeepers who sacrificed their lives attempting to stabilize and offer protection in what have become increasingly volatile and unpredictable conflict zones.

This particular honoring of fallen peacekeepers through the Hammarskjöld Medal Award Ceremony had special significance, both because of this being the 70th anniversary of UN peacekeeping and because the list of casualties to which we all properly call attention seems to be growing longer each and every year.  From Tanzania and Pakistan to Ethiopia and Morocco, troops volunteer to be placed in harm’s way to stabilize and protect only to find themselves on the receiving end of a bullet or explosive device.  As is well known, Mali (MINUSMA) has been a place of particular vulnerability for peacekeepers.  As explained by USG Lacroix during the honoring ceremony, MINUSMA forces directly experience one violent incident on the average of every five days.  These forces, much like their counterparts in places like the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo, are not “keeping peace” so much as buying time for political agreements to be reached and take full effect, for armed elements to lay down their weapons and for national governments to assume not only control but also responsibility for the well-being of their citizens.

This is not the time or place to review in any detail the current status of peacekeeping operations, including ways in which such operations must be more tightly bound to “good faith” political dialogue, as well as the degree to which “protection” measures run the risk of appearing to be a “partisan” rather than a neutral activity, “taking the side” of the state or a particular party to the conflict.  There are also issues regarding troop reimbursements and equipment procurements that continue to plague at least some of these operations. But what is more important in this space (without assuming motives) is the remarkable sacrifice, the decisions that some make to place themselves in situations where they can remind the desperate and victimized that they are not alone, who choose the service of peace in settings where there is little or no “peace to keep.”

The notion of sacrifice itself now seems “old school” to many, in part because we have allowed ourselves to be overly determined by “preferences,” personal to be sure but also professional.   There is a Subway sandwich commercial now playing over and over on the few television shows I have the time to watch, in which the words “I want” crop up endlessly in the jingle accompanying the imagery.  Far beyond the food industry, “wants” it seems are being reduced at an accelerated pace to the immediate objects of our desire, more about fulfilling a craving than defining a relationship let alone a purpose.

Moreover, it seems, we have become more and more disconnected from the people who have made these often difficult choices to serve and protect. We might take the time to “honor” those who fight our fires, drive our emergency vehicles, report on dangerous conflicts and human rights abuses, or keep erstwhile “enemies” at bay, but we generally have little interest in the practical details of their lives, what it takes for men and women — often inspired by those who love and support them—to choose to place themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others, including “others” choosing to pursue “what they want” with hardly a second thought.

Even in the small sessions this week with the UN Treaty Body chairs, people who have indeed made choices to serve and defend the rights of others, there was evidence of this tendency to petition the skills and authority of others without sharing their sometimes considerable burdens. Indeed, some of the few NGOs who attended the Treaty Body meetings this week got a bit of blowback from the chairs, one of whom remarked a bit tongue-in-cheek that every time NGOs share their thoughts “we end up with more work to do.” The human rights pillar of the UN’s mission continues to buckle, in part because a lot of genuinely good and talented people have yet to fully master our “sharing of service” burdens, the requirement to participate more directly in the challenging and at times even dangerous activities undertaken “in our name.”

Over and over during the Hammarskjöld honoring ceremony, attention was given to the urgent need to increase peacekeeper safety including highlighting all that DPKO is proposing to better ensure that troops and other personnel sent to the field are returned intact to their families and communities.  Appropriate equipment would help.  Flexible command authority in the field would as well.   And certainly the Security Council can do more to ensure that peacekeeping mandates are clear, attainable and tied to both viable political negotiations and timely exit strategies.

But there is more to examine here, the culture behind the logistics.  We have written often (as have others) about the UN’s general propensity for being “slow on the uptake,” in terms of its attentiveness to potential conflict situations.  For instance, we and colleagues have been calling attention for some time to the still-ignored dangers of a wider conflict in Cameroon, but also to the cultural issues that prevent situations like this one from receiving UN attention at a stage when conflict is most likely to be contained.

Some of this problem will hopefully be resolved as the SG’s reform proposals for the UN’s peace and security pillar are rolled out.  But some is related to the institutionalized resistance of the UN system to invest in domestic security concerns until they have clearly reached a boiling point.  In this instance, the creeping tensions within states like Cameroon can be likened to someone with a smoking addiction.  Smokers might be told over and over by doctors, friends and others to quit their habit, but refuse the advice until the first cancer screens come back positive, at which point they frantically seek assistance from the very persons whose advice they originally scorned.

This pattern, one which has permitted so much pain and grief in the wider world, must give way to a system characterized by greater levels of institutional trust, better early warning and conflict prevention skills, and a greater commitment to the service which is indeed at the heart of the joy and meaning of life, helping to ensure that smokers can lay down their cigarettes before they need to consult an oncologist.

One of the most “liked” lines on our twitter feed this week came courtesy of the Department of Field Support which reminded the Hammarskjöld Ceremony audience that “the best way to honor the memories of fallen peacekeepers is to renew the commitment to peace that motivated their sacrifices.”  But beyond that, we should consider expanding our commitment to the service of others, service that the times now calls for and on which our own lives depend, service that can make available the skills and “grace” needed to build the sustainable peace that many millions worldwide now long for.

Land of Promise:  The UN Takes Stock of an Underestimated Continent, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Oct

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Where a woman rules, streams run uphill.  Ethiopian proverb

Do not let what you cannot do tear from your hands what you can.  Ashanti proverb

I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.  Nelson Mandela

There is always something new out of Africa. Pliny the Elder

This was “Africa Week” at the UN, a time for this entire community to stake stock of our debts to African peoples but also to celebrate the many ways in which Africans are truly developing and then implementing home-grown solutions to their own problems.

Despite the many responsibilities associated with the six General Assembly Committees that meet all this month, most all UN hands were “on deck” for all or part of this week long assessment of the roads that African states have tread and what they might still become.  This included as well the UN Security Council, which bears the brunt of responsibility for resolving conflicts from South Sudan (on which it met this past week) and Mali to Nigeria and now Cameroon. The Council is currently in the Sahel region (today in Mali) on mission to assess the status of the P-5 Sahel Force which it authorized and which is intended to bring stability to a region threatened by a “cocktail” whose ingredients include insurgency, climate stresses and food insecurity.

The stated goals for Africa week, “an integrated, prosperous, people-centered and peaceful Africa” draws heavily on the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda as well as Africa’s own Agenda 2063.  These goals were articulated in a thoughtful manner throughout the week, avoiding clichés and “quick wins” in favor of clear sighted examinations of what African states and their peoples need and what stands in the way of their progress.    Part of that discussion is related to finance, not only to the preservation of essential remittances, but to the ways in which states can better protect their own natural resources from exploitation and increase sources of domestic revenue, including through reducing “tax avoidance and profit shifting.”

Beyond finance, the week highlighted a variety of challenges, including forced migration patterns exacerbated by climate-related drought and multiple iterations of armed violence.   There were also important discussions on creating more opportunities for affordable credit and “decent work” — in many instances highlighting the degree to which the African labor force is now both robust and youthful  — as well as on the challenges in harnessing Africa’s unprecedented “demographic dividend.”

The implications of this “dividend” go well beyond employment. Over the years at Global Action, I have been blessed to visit and work in most every region on the continent, including Egypt in the north, South Africa in the south, Senegal in the west, Kenya in the east, Cameroon in the center.   And while all of these countries have much cultural and ecological diversity to commend, one of the things they seem to have in common is young people who are anxiously and even impatiently prepared to assume mantles of economic and political leadership.   There is a “leadership dividend” across Africa as well, people who hope to soon turn their aspirations into higher offices, people who refuse to choose between integration and sovereignty, between economic development and environmental protection, between reliable governance and local participation. These are people with the fresh ideas about how Africa might be and are prepared to make the changes needed to ensure that the goals enumerated in the UN’s Africa Week are more than just another set of multilateral promises.

The Concept Note for this Africa Week highlighted two particular challenges for this new generation of African leader.  The first of these is “integration” of a continent divided by deserts and jungles, but also by culture and language, even at times by levels of openness to continent-wide initiatives focused on security, trade and other matters essential to sustainable development.  Despite positive efforts by the African Union on security and sub-regional entities such as the Southern African Development Community on African trade, optimal levels of integration remain impeded by a series of issues that have long resisted resolution, including providing dependable access by land-locked countries to seaports in neighboring states and creating a more reliable transportation network linking those states.   In this regard, the ambitious (and costly) proposal floated this week for an Integrated High Speed Train Network is welcome, especially by persons who have long struggled to move themselves (and their agricultural products and other commodities) around Africa’s vast spaces.

And then there is the security (threatened by both insugencies and excessive state responses) on which all intra-and inter-state development depends.  On numerous occasions, reference was made this week to the African Union initiative Silencing the Guns by 2020, with outcomes considered by many (rightly in our view) as essential to a sustainable future.  Many African states are now awash in weapons both licit and illicit.  And as the AU’s “Silencing” report notes, “the continent has hosted, and continues to be home to, a number of deadly conflicts that jeopardize human, national and international security and defy efforts to resolve them.”  Such conflicts involve state and non-state actors, and often draw on sources of weapons located far from the scenes of the violence.   The “fuel” for these conflicts often takes the form of governance that is unfair or even unjust; food, water and health insecurities that force families into heartbreaking choices; exploitative employment in sectors such as extraction that provide little economic relief and poison local ecosystems;  and rights violations that keep so many women, youth and indigenous persons locked into senseless, disempowering social roles.

The “leadership dividend” which we have seen first-hand in many African regions seems capable of both drying up access to weapons and healing many of the social and economic causes that cause people to reach for weapons in the first instance.  This “dividend” must remain at the center of any UN discussions on African issues and capacities going forward.

The World Economic Forum noted this week the strong possibility that by the year 2100 one third of all people on earth will reside in Africa.   Assuming that we don’t bomb or melt ourselves into extinction before then, this is a staggering statistic, one that will impact every aspect of African governance, security, economy and ecology.   The “strongly intertwined challenges” that currently characterize areas such as the Lake Chad Basin, the Horn of Africa, and the Central African states will evolve in unforeseen ways across the continent, calling for gender and culture-balanced leadership that can inspire hands and hearts that “know what they can do” and commit to doing it.

For the rest of us — during Africa Week and every other week – we must do what we can and all that we can to ensure that Africa has every opportunity to be at peace and, as Mandela noted, to be at peace with itself.

 

 

Peace Day:  Turning Aspiration into Inspiration at UN Headquarters, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Sep

Evola

Without peace, all other dreams vanish and are reduced to ashes. Jawaharlal Nehru

It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. Martin Luther King, Jr.

You cannot find peace by avoiding life. Virginia Woolf

September 21 is designated each year by the UN as the International Day of Peace.  Given the centrality to the UN’s mission of eliminating war and armed violence,  mediating and protecting peace agreements, and otherwise “maintaining” international peace and security, one might imagine that the entire UN building would be given over to inspirational discussions and hopeful commitments under this rubric.

Well, sort of.  For this is also the week that heads of state make their way to New York to represent their countries in a range of high level discussions on issues related to the tools, stakeholders, funding sources, and aspirations that we are ostensibly (and hopefully) to address as a global community.   While the primary purpose of many heads of state is to address the General Assembly, there will also be opportunity for an array of bilateral meetings and more general program gatherings on topics relevant to peace and security ranging from peacekeeping reform and human trafficking to ocean health and “south-south” cooperation for sustainable development.  And to show more tangible support for the millions of migrants forced from their homes and communities by violence, discrimination, drought and other threats to peace, dignity and social inclusion.

As is the case every year, this week serves as a reminder that while UN diplomats are skilled at developing global norms, the decisions needed to turn norms into peace-promoting actions, aspirations into inspirational practices, are mostly made in national capitals.  So too are the decisions to adopt arms treaties and security-related resolutions without teeth, to turn the power of state security-sector capacities against civilians, to jeopardize in a myriad of ways the global interest in the name of national interest.  In that light, one can only hope and pray that global leaders will see fit to lobby each other – and by extension instruct their UN ambassadors – to do more to resolve ongoing crises in South Sudan, Myanmar, the DPRK and Yemen; to reduce arms production and not simply control its flows; to turn away from weapons technology that abstracts the processes and consequences of killing; to endorse reformed UN peace and security architecture that replaces downstream coercion with upstream mediation, conflict prevention and early warning; to double down on international justice and reconciliation as viable means to end impunity for high crimes and restore citizen faith in governance.

It is noteworthy that the UN decided to honor this international peace day –with both a youth summit and the annual observance held at the Peace Bell — on September 15, prior to when global leaders were set to gather in our neighborhood.   With all due regard for the youth representatives who chimed in from New York and Bogota, it seemed like an opportunity missed not to have presidents and prime ministers get to join hands in solidarity with the UN officials who now labor for peace under difficult political and bureaucratic circumstances.  A photo op to be sure; but perhaps one with more influence and staying power than some of the interminable images this week as heads of state climb to the GA podium in an attempt (sometimes futile) to convince us that they are already doing everything needed to solve global problems, and that circumstances in their countries (or in the world) really aren’t as dismal as they seem…

Global Action, like many NGOs around UN headquarters, has a strong vested interest in how these global leaders assess and support their country’s UN presence.   In such a political and (now) overly branded environment as this one, it is nevertheless relatively easy to spot disconnects between the policy priorities emanating from missions and those from foreign offices.   One of the reasons that we value multi-lateral policy spaces is that it does bring out progressive impulses in delegations that might not play so well at home.  Those same impulses, however, can at times mask domestic concerns that would do well to receive more concerted international attention:  the delegations for instance that champion “peace” in UN conference rooms while their capital counterparts are laying plans to bomb civilians, arrest journalists, suspend constitutional freedoms or otherwise undermine the rule of law.

We also have a vested interest in promoting full spectrum policy engagements that can contribute to the resolution of concrete threats inflaming larger existential worries such as climate warming, another world war, or the death of the oceans on which we all rely. To the extent we (collectively) are able to do so, we need to make peacekeeping and atrocity prevention more reliable and less political.  We need to make better use of the UN’s growing peacebuilding expertise including moving it from its current, post-conflict ghetto into a broader, prevention-oriented, consultative role with states.    We need to invest more stakeholders in the “worldly tasks” of violence prevention, conflict mediation and environmental care – inclusive stakeholders operating well beyond the remit of states, corporate interests and erstwhile “experts.” We need to endorse in practical terms the peace and security implications of all obligations under the 2030 Development Agenda – from education and gender equity to healthy forests and sustainable cities – not only the targets listed within Sustainable Development Goal 16.

And we need to insist in every conceivable forum that resolutions and treaties to manage weapons flows must overtly support the goal of reductions in weapons production.   Despite our normative efforts, the world remains awash in weapons that enrich traffickers and arms merchants while emboldening criminality and insurgency.  States that encourage weapons production while simultenously endorsing efforts to end weapons diversion need to rethink the implications of those commitments without delay. The more weapons we produce, the more will escape even our best efforts at management and control.

As the International Day of Peace approaches, we are keenly aware of intractable conflicts in places like Central African Republic and Libya, but also of hopeful transitions to peaceful futures in places such as in Liberia and Colombia.  We are aware of the many unheeded resolutions emanating from the UN Security Council, but also of capacities within and outside the UN system based on the premise that “maintaining” international peace and security implies more skillful proactivity and less coercive reactivity – more attentiveness to the smoke rather than waiting for the fire.

Whether we like it or not, the global public tends to judge us here on our peace and security effectiveness – not how many victims of violence we assist so much as how successful we are in stopping violence in the first place. This is the standard which the current UN leadership has overtly endorsed.  We will be anxiously listening for openings from global leaders that will help all of us plot the next preventive path.  We will be anxiously listening as well for commitments from these leaders that we can use to help inspire more inclusive, global peace participation – integrating inspiration from diverse issue advocates and from peace-oriented artists such as Lin Evola — and renew at least a bit of global confidence in the UN’s commitment and effectiveness regarding its (more urgent than ever) core peace and security responsibilities.

 

 

 

 

Show and Tell: Advertising Tools and Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Jul

Memories

I regard it as a waste of time to think only of selling: one forgets one’s art and exaggerates one’s value. Camille Pissarro

I wish that television would stop selling our hatred of ourselves, and start seducing us with our love of ourselves. Dan Harmon

If government were a product, selling it would be illegal. P. J. O’Rourke

This was “experts” week at the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF), organized under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council.  The task of the HLPF is “follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) with an emphasis on six of the goals (such as health, gender, oceans), as well as on voluntary national reviews of SDG progress.

The global backdrop for this HLPF cried out for clarity and inspiration. For  instance, many readers of this blog will have seen footage of an iceberg the size of the state of Delaware breaking off from Antarctica, an event that might not have been the direct result of climate change per se but which portends additional ice-shelf cleavage with ever-greater risks to the rising (and desalinization) of our seas.

Moreover, the Security Council gathered this week to assess the ever-deteriorating situation in Yemen, now characterized by almost unimaginable rates of famine and cholera.  As is often the case in the Council, Uruguay issued its thoughtful warning, looking permanent Council members (the UK and US) in the eye while reminding them that it is their weapons sales that are enabling so much of the Yemeni carnage.

And of course, there are the ubiquitous nuclear provocations emanating from North Korea (DPRK) with resulting (and also provocative) military exercises from the US and South Korea, a scenario as likely to spark new conflict as to calm its prospects.

The “experts’ week” of the High Level Political Forum largely dodged such security and climate concerns – a well-attended, early-morning side event on the human rights dimensions of development was a relatively rare exception.  Instead, other helpful sessions called attention to gaps in data and access to scientific research relevant to sustainable development. Moreover, some of the “spotlight” on development funding added excellent value, especially that which sought to understand the nature and challenges of corporate finance in the overall development agenda.  What was missing for us is analysis of the implications from the vast sums already being pledged by state and non-state entities to clean up horrific messes in the aftermath of the devastating climate disasters and armed conflicts raging worldwide.  The more funding is required for such victim response, the less is available to build the health, nutrition, and gender architecture, let alone for poverty alleviation and infrastructure development.

Despite a spate of human-made crises testing the limits of human response, there was in evidence a fair amount of “salesmanship” at this HLPF “experts’ week.” We are used to some of this at UN Headquarters – endless events promising audience “dialogue” but which are really opportunities for UN agencies and carefully selected NGOs to promote their relevance to the governments on which they largely depend for funding.  These podium-focused, statement-driven, speaker-overloaded events, which largely obscure what is often considerable audience expertise, often add more sales potential than policy significance.  Indeed, much of this HLPF “experts week” was more like “show and tell” and less like an open-ended conversation about relevant tools, needs and challenges with diverse peer stakeholders.

The nature of “the sale” has always been an interest of mine, in part because I’m so inept at it.  Unlike some people who scroll through commercials to get to the programs, I will spend occasional evenings doing the opposite – focusing on commercials instead of programs and discovering the following:

  • There are some incredibly clever people working in advertising; in an age that is suspicious of organized religion and has largely abandoned psychology, advertisers seem to have forged the principle path to our souls, convincing most of us that, in essence, “we are what we own.“
  • Where advertisers target young people, and they do quite often, they clearly see them mostly as distracted narcissists. According to commercials, young people do little but party, drive hot cars on deserted urban streets, stare at their phones and go on holidays; all with ample quantities of time and money.  Aside from their consumption patters, they apparently aren’t to be taken seriously any more than poor, disabled or indigenous people are to be taken seriously.
  • The essence of advertising remains as it has been – describing/inventing a problem for which a particular product becomes a kind of “savior.” Sadly, the problems that advertisers address seem as petty and distracting as ever, especially problematic given the global crises clamoring for attention.
  • Advertisers don’t worry about whether their products are actually needed or particularly relevant to the lives they touch. And they certainly don’t concern themselves with the implications of acquisition for emotional or fiscal health, let alone for the ability to obtain more essential goods and services.  Once advertisers convince you to purchase, the job is done.
  • Advertisers keep tight control over their narrative. There is little doubt expressed, no shortage of enthusiasm for the brand, no contrariness emanating from the “real people” who increasingly populate commercials.  With few exceptions (and there are some) advertisers only acknowledge competitors to expose their flaws, their limitations, none of which apparently pertain to the product they themselves are offering.

Given this overview, it might seem impertinent to call attention to the “salesmanship” of something as important as the HLPF, but the reference is not completely without merit.  Most HLPF events were, indeed, tightly managed with emphasis on what we’re doing more than on what we’ve neglected.   Discussions on specific tools too often obscured the contributions of the larger sector and even more often neglected discussion of the tools we still need and have yet to develop.  And while some states (Belgium, Finland, Argentina and others) tried to open up space for youth and persons with disabilities, grumblings in the hallways regarding the absence in sessions of the people living in poverty, indigenous persons and other “marginal” stakeholders were frequent.

And through all of this, as our interns would likely attest, there was a decided lack of bold inspiration, a clear show of unscripted determination that we can get through this deep valley  of deprivation if only we can find ways  to commit more and pull together better, to include more and listen better.  (Indeed, this was the way in which the HLPF was least like a sales event.)

Starting Monday, a steady stream of ministers will come to the UN to report on progress on national implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.  These ministers will surely tell us what they’re doing to achieve SDG targets or, more to the point, what they want us to believe they are doing.  What we are sure to hear less about (and need to hear more) is which of their commitments are actually taking root, actually mobilizing public participation, actually impacting public attitudes and the behaviors that flow from them.

And many UN agencies and NGOs will be following these potential funders with interest, anxious to convince officials that what these stakeholders are doing is good (which it certainly is) and sufficient (which it certainly is not).  Indeed, we are collectively losing ground in several critical areas, including with regard to the security arrangements that can provide a predictable and rights-based development environment, and the climate arrangements that can possibly keep us under the 2 degree threshold on which our future upon this planet likely depends.

With all due deference to the many, mostly useful policy tools and suggestions on display at the HLPF, and while endorsing the importance of preserving the indivisibility of the SDGs, we must not take our eye off these larger threats.  If we fail on climate and security, we risk an endless string of gender-balanced armed conflicts; technologically advanced cities under water; sustainable farms “baked to a crisp;” and educated children who find themselves graduating without a viable, livable planet to inherit.

This would be the ultimate, tragic irony for our global system: so many billions having been spent to promote community well-being and political and economic inclusion on a planet that at times seems on its way to becoming a war-ravaged hot-house. Unless we can together find ways to inspire deeper commitments to peace and climate health, including among our development and other UN sales partners, this is one irony that we might not be around long enough to assess.

Budget Busters:  The UN Leverages Peace and Development in Leaner Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 May

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If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.  John Lennon

Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.  Gloria Steinem

Problems do not go away. They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit.  M. Scott Peck

Among the many memorable things that happened at the UN this week, the highlight for me came courtesy of the Uruguayan Foreign Minister during an important Security Council debate on protection of health care facilities in conflict.   Calling the UN to invest more in inspiration to better honor the trust for a peaceful and sustainable world that others have placed in it, he noted that Martin Luther King was never once known to utter “I have a strategic plan today…”

The Minister’s comment, which evoked considerable applause in the Security Council chamber, was not intended to denigrate planning nor the difficult logistical and financial decisions that must be made every day in order to sustain this complex institution and its expanding agendas.   But it was good for participants in this Council meeting to be reminded that some of the “slog” of this place – its excessive statement making and consensus building, its endless discussions on finances and working methods – is tied to a larger vision, a higher purpose, a dream if you will of a cleaner, fairer, more peaceful, more prosperous planet where people spend more time sharing than scheming, more time listening than condemning, more time facing and addressing problems than pushing them off on others.

Disconnected from the larger dream that connects its three “pillars” and animates with urgency the numerous studies and resolutions that emanate from this place, the UN risks becoming just another multilateral bureaucracy, just another talk shop for states looking for change mostly on their own terms, just another institution yielding tepid and largely predictable responses to the unique crises (mostly of our own making) currently lapping at our shores.

For many of us, as we have noted on other occasions, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their 169 targets represent this sort of dream: a world where agriculture is sustainable, governance is trustworthy, education is accessible, oceans and forests are healthy, migrants and refugees are respected, women speak their own policy voices, climate is stable, weapons are restricted and poverty is relegated to the history books.   We are a long way from this dream; indeed we may well need to raise trillions of dollars to meet the goals we have set out for ourselves, an overwhelming figure exceeded only by the trillions more we would need to spend in a last-ditch effort to save our species if we fail our current sustainable development responsibilities.

This week in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), delegates and experts to the Forum on Financing for Development wrestled with the logistics of raising such vast sums in an uncertain climate.   In plenary sessions and numerous side events, Forum participants hit many important notes, including:

  • Mobilizing (and retaining) domestic resources, including through more equitable tax policies, better data disaggregation, and an end to government corruption
  • Creating investment partnerships with for-profit entities that encourage “triple bottom line” policies and reaffirm the applicability of human and labor rights frameworks
  • Reaffirming the importance of “remittances” to many developing countries and urging stabilization and even reduction in “remittance costs”
  • Increasing access to banking and other financial services, especially for too-often excluded women and the rural poor
  • Noting the risks to fragile economies of excessive debt and urging review of existing debt sustainability frameworks
  • Urging the growth of “south-south” cooperative frameworks to complement north-south funding and capacity support

Despite these and other hopeful measures, the Forum’s Outcome Document also took note of a series of challenging contexts – climate change, armed conflict, humanitarian crises, natural disasters and environmental degradation – whose remedial costs could easily overwhelm our most creative and constructive, development-related fiscal policies.  Such challenges are both urgent and vast in scope; each in their own way calls into question that elusive, “predictable” social and fiscal environment which makes fulfillment of the SDGs much more likely.

Indeed, current funding needs in settings from Yemen to Somalia — much of it tied to armed conflicts that we probably did not do enough to prevent in the first place – have created conundrums for global assistance.   In my time at the UN, I have never seen so many “pledging conferences,” so many requests for states to support efforts to ease misery borne of armed violence and terror; of climate-related drought and flooding; of forced migration and the human trafficking that too often follows in its wake.

While the human misery of our age often seems inexhaustible, the remedial funding is not.  In many instances, it is politically and fiscally taxing for states to address immediate crises while keeping funds in reserve to support their longer-term development responsibilities.   Something has to give.

Added to this, of course, is a US administration that has signaled its willingness to cut back on virtually all of its diplomatic commitments, including to the UN.  While it is unlikely that president Trump’s budget priorities will survive Congressional scrutiny as submitted, the threat of cuts has many in the UN on their heels.  And while we are skeptical of the publicly-articulated notion that the UN simply can’t function unless the US keeps writing large checks, any substantial US cutbacks will certainly complicate funding thresholds for each and every one of our sustainable development promises.

At the UN this week, there were at least two side events that offered some cross-cutting encouragement.  At a small Forum-related side event hosted by Norway and Indonesia, representatives of the UN’s development and peacebuilding sectors came together to stress the need for better use of existing resources to “catalyze” innovative responses and actions, as well as to clarify our responsibilities as a community in light of shifting conflict, climate and development threats.  All were in agreement that the development and peacebuilding communities need to “root harder” for each other and prioritize their interlinked mandates.  There was also broad recognition of the futility of development assistance in situations of active conflict as well as the irony of the UN’s essential but “under-resourced” peacebuilding architecture when so much funding is currently being poured into often unsuccessful “crisis response,” such as in the Central African Republic.

Also this week, Croatia led a “GA 4th Committee” discussion focused on the preventive value of Special Political Missions (SPMs), “special” in the sense that they are “upstream” responses that are carefully adjusted to context.   One delegation after another lauded the potential and cost-effectiveness of SPMs, “good offices” and other political and diplomatic tools designed to minimize prospects for larger conflict.  While offering his own validation, Ambassador Kamau of Kenya underlined the vast disparities between UN peacekeeping funding (which is largely oriented to conflict response) and the still-limited support available for full-spectrum peacebuilding and other conflict-prevention measures.

The UN prides itself (rightly so) on its many efforts to help states cope with a variety of shocks – including those related to climate change and threats of terror.  The test for this system now is whether it can swallow its own medicine, whether we can successfully prepare to meet our growing responsibilities in a time of fiscal shocks, to do all we can with what we have at our disposal.  While the Financing for Development community searches for its “trillions,” reducing conflict threats through effective peacebuilding and related tools would constitute an important, cost-effective contribution to the dream of peaceful, fair, inclusive and healthy societies underlying practical implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Shake Shack:  Mothering in an Unpredictable Age, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 May

My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it. Mark Twain

My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Motherhood was the great equalizer for me; I started to identify with everybody… as a mother, you have that impulse to wish that no child should ever be hurt, or abused, or go hungry, or not have opportunities in life.  Annie Lennox

Yesterday on my way to the office I stood on the subway near a seated mother –my guess is she was from somewhere in the Caribbean — and her young son. They were both visibly fatigued – it was early on a rainy and chilly Saturday and the boy was now becoming a bit agitated.  Without saying a word, without apparently being prompted by the son, the mother carefully fashioned a pillow on her lap and then gently coaxed the child to put his head down.  He was asleep within seconds.

Such acts as these, small but consequential, are much of what we honor on a Mother’s Day.  The comforting and feeding, the diapers and disinfectant, the telling of stories and issuing of warnings, the granting of untimely requests and the mediation of endless sibling squabbling, all of this and more in whatever form it takes is necessary for young vulnerable people of need to grow into older vulnerable people of promise.

Much mothering – whether conducted by biological mothers or “other mothers” – is intended in part to create secure and stable family environments, predictability that is still elusive for far too many children, and that now seems mostly to occur (when it does) within individual domiciles.  We know “where things are” in our homes, but in the world at large, peoples and cultures are now being tossed about as though we were living through a perpetual hurricane.

This represents part of the agony for many mothers I know. We can balance our children’s diet, tell them stories, buy them proper clothes and send them off to school, all the while holding our breath, praying hard and crossing our fingers; hoping that the center will hold long enough in these unstable times for our children to have a happy and productive adult life, that our multitude of small acts consistent with concerned parenting will somehow add up to prospects for prosperity and purpose.

But this hope, as it has for mothers across time and space, has one major caveat:  Most of what we teach our children, most of what we long for their future, depends for their fulfillment on a predictable social and security environment.  And whether or not we’ve actually ever had such a thing, we clearly don’t have that now. Despite what too many of our schools and advertisers and technological gurus need us to believe, the veil of predictability has been pulled back in so many ways, revealing a world that is shuddering if not shaking, increasingly fierce motions that are testing the nerves of both parents and the political leadership who now grace (or dis-grace) our halls of state.

Perhaps it is enough for mothers to teach what they know and hope for the best.   Perhaps that is the very best that can be done.  Or perhaps that is simply the recipe for yet another mother’s heartbreak, and another, and more after that.  Perhaps this recipe needs tweaking just a bit.

This week, in a UN building filled to the brim with talented women, three with lofty gravitas made high-profile appearances representing all three of what the UN calls its policy “pillars.” From the human rights and justice pillar was Ms. Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, who briefed the Security Council on the difficulties in securing prosecutions for crimes in Libya and also met with her “friends” group to discuss ways to eliminate state “non-cooperation” and bring more diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds into the work of the Court. UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed, the custodian of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals promises, provided an inspirational message to the “integration segment” of the Economic and Social Council devoted to meeting the “greatest global challenge” of poverty reduction. And on the peace and security front, High Representative of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, addressed the Security Council on the importance of expanding UN-EU security cooperation. Her remarkable presentation included a soft jab at the United States to both abandon its threatened withdrawal from multi-lateral engagements and to “find its own way” regarding commitments to heal our climate-threatened planet.

What all three of these remarkable women had in common this week is their vocal, passionate commitment to ensuring that our collective promises on justice, development and security will be met; that whatever can be done to calm our shaking planet will somehow become our collective priority.

They all have something else in common – they are all mothers.

I don’t know what kind of mothers they are, and I wouldn’t want to assume.  While you wouldn’t always know it from reading UN policy documents, there are thankfully many ways to be a woman, many ways to mother, many ways to nurture and inspire, many ways to mentor. Our pious certainties regarding “what mothers do,” or “what women want and need” can obscure any number of important struggles (and related conversations) on identity and responsibility.

For their part, I suspect that each of these three mothers of distinction has experienced in her own way more than a few moments of anxiety, perhaps even remorse, given that the demands of their high-order positions make absences from their children’s (or grandchildren’s) daily lives all too frequent.  Many professional women feel this, of course, immersed in meetings rather than in bedtime stories, eating on the run while children text that “daddy’s pancakes don’t taste right.”

But there is something about these particular mothers, something compelling about their vocal and pragmatic resolve to make a better world, one fit for all children not only their own.  Despite responsibilities in the world that place restrictions on family time, there remains the expectation — when their growing progeny have gotten some distance from social media addictions and raging hormones — that they will one day be able to look their children square in the eye and let them know that they did all that they knew to do to ensure a more stable, secure and sustainable world in which –collectively–their dreams and choices can continue to matter.

This is a powerful gift that, like inoculations and braces and homework, children might only be able to appreciate fully when they are old enough – and fortunate enough – to bear children of their own. There are no Hallmark cards devoted to mothers who help “stop the shaking.”  Perhaps there needs to be.

The many young people of diverse backgrounds who pass through our office each year have an eerily similar take on the world they are soon to inherit.  When I ask them if they feel prepared for all the chaotic motion characteristic of this current planetary phase, they almost always and without hesitation respond “no.”  It is difficult to know to what extent this is in response to the diverse threats they experience with us at the UN on a daily basis – wars and rumors of wars, climate change and our often tepid responses, traumatized children and families on makeshift rafts or reeling from the effects of famine. But it is unsettling that after so much parenting and so much schooling, even children of privilege feel inadequate to act on a stage that feels perpetually unsteady.

Also on this dreary New York weekend, I had a long Skype chat with a former colleague struggling in Mexico with the manifold contemporary responsibilities of being a mother – meeting her daughters’ needs, comforting their wounds and guiding their preparation for life outside the home while contributing in a larger sense to the stability of a world in which her parenting can hopefully have some impact.  Thankfully, she is finding that way, not on a global stage like Mohammed or Bensouda perhaps, but in community settings that matter and in ways that communicate – to both her children and the wider society – that there is still a sound basis for hope in our common future.

And like these three women of international prominence, the commitments of my former colleague will allow her one day to look her daughters in the eye and let them know that she also did her part – beyond the packed lunches and bandaging of scraped knees — to secure an unsteady planet.