Tag Archives: peace

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.

 

 

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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.

Water Logged:  Maintaining Water Threats on the UN’s Collective Radar, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Mar

Empty Chamber

Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.  Leonardo da Vinci

Time is short and the water is rising.  Raymond Carver

Earlier this week, I agreed to contribute to an informal project the theme of which has long informed our larger work but not dominated our attention for some time:  the “state of play” in NGO relations with one another and especially with the issues and resources of the UN system.

Key to this effort, of course, will be the willingness of other NGOs to join us in what we trust will be an honest process of assessment.   The assumption of this community often is that our deficits – where they exist at all — are about our resources, not our energy or discernment.  We have attempted to bureaucratize this work but not taken account of the emotional toll it takes on all of us, inside the UN but in especially in diverse communities; not only because of the injustices and abuses we constantly engage, but also because of glacial pace at which meaningful change occurs. We do this work because we can and because we must; but we also want to be able to look our children and grandchildren in the eye and tell them that we did all we could to reverse levels of global threat.

Time indeed is short; and more than the waters are rising.

As with the UN itself, we in the NGO world spend much time branding the things we’ve done while ignoring those many things left undone, the questions we’ve misplaced, the policy connections we’ve refused to draw, the voices we have all-too-intentionally muted, the doors of innovation and reform we have simply refused to walk through.

The photo at the top of this post, taken by one of our longtime mentors in this work, could well be the starting point for an honest assessmen of our practices and priorities.  The photo was taken in the Trusteeship Council chamber in which the president of the General Assembly was hosting a system-wide dialogue on water-related goals and targets within the Sustainable Development Goals.

The photo shows the top (NGO) section completely empty.  There were a few water activists (bless them) in our row of seats below that section, but the blue seats were, for most of the day, completely and utterly vacant.

Granted it was an unusually busy week at the UN, with the Commission on the Status of Women and its focus on economic empowerment; two other important General Assembly dialogues on oceans (SDG 14) and climate (SDG 13); Security Council ministerial events on conflict in South Sudan and the protection of Cultural Heritage from terrorist trafficking; a special event to recall the moral darkness of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; and preparations for Monday’s opening of a conference to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.   While we were directly engaged with these and other events this week, we do understand that there are times at the UN when our metaphorical logs simply get saturated, when the volume of issues, options and injustices simply overwhelms our responsibility to be in all the rooms where our skills and attentiveness are needed.

But this particular GA session was about access to water, our most indispensable and (now) threatened resource, an issue that is as cross-cutting as the gender discussions that were happening in rooms below us, as grave an impediment to peace and security as the machinations of ISIL, as potentially existential a threat to our common survival as our most powerful weapons and damaged climate.  As our largest sources of planetary fresh water melt into the sea; as what remains of our domestic water supplies become ever-more subject to corporate hijacking and cross-border struggle; as water inequalities become even more pronounced than those involving personal incomes; as scarce coastal fresh water is contaminated, more and more, by climate-induced rising sea levels; the threats to agriculture, to public health, to security, to life itself continue to grow.

You might think that a conversation on such matters would have warranted a bit more attention, certainly from the communities that have formed around the UN to promote gender justice, sustainable development or international peace and security.   The photo leading this post tells a somewhat different tale.

Fortunately, the diplomats seemed to have a handle on at least some of the urgencies at hand.  For his part, PGA Thomson emphasized the implications of our current water crisis for all three core UN policy pillars.  The UN Secretary-General’s water Envoy made his own strong case for why water deficits must be understood as primary peace and security concerns.  The event’s co-chair, Ambassador Bogyay of Hungary reminded delegates that “acting now on water is a matter of human dignity, justice and survival.”  Both Brazil and the European Union specifically highlighted the gendered dimensions of our water policy, citing the degree to which water access burdens excessively impact the health, nutrition and safety of women most often responsible for water gathering tasks.  And the Holy See, ever blunt, made clear that “unresolved water issues are a likely cause of future war.”

Other experts and delegations highlighted the dramatic impacts of water in our evolving, climate-damaged reality: severe drought in some areas such as Somalia; severe flooding in others such as in Peru; both posing grave challenges to the health and food security of families and communities.  In response, Slovenia called on more effective “early warning” to help us anticipate water-related disasters.  Vietnam, Kazakhstan and other states urged greater regional and international cooperation and, in some instances, more robust forms of water governance to help states head off what Guatemala called “tragedies from water misuse.”   For his part, PGA Thomson linked all measures for such water governance to ongoing reviews of the overall effectiveness of the UN Development system.

To our mind, the event left dangling some important considerations related to the funding of capacity support as well as the most cost-effective structures to keep states fully focused on their collaborative water challenges.  Moreover, we agree with Cuba that protection of water resources would more effectively be grasped as an integral part of a more generalized responsibility to “protect the full richness of nature,” including our forests, oceans and wildlife.

But the urgency of our expanding water crisis – including its gendered, peace and security dimensions – thankfully very much survived the morning.   As Ambassador Bogyay reminded the gathering, “there is no life without water.”  Thus, failure to cooperate on water “is simply not an option.”  Hopefully such cooperation will not struggle to fruition in conference rooms with vast empty seats symptomatic of the insufficient attention of the UN’s NGO community.

The Sounds of Silence:  The Current UN DSG Makes an Enduring Appeal on Human Rights

11 Dec

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. Desmond Tutu

As the holiday season approaches, the UN is racing to a year-end finish line characterized by significant transitions and activity across all three UN pillars.  The activity has been intense, ranging from a new General Assembly resolution to help resolve the Syria carnage and efforts to sharpen our financial and communications tools to combat terrorism, to discussions on how to improve global taxation policies and ensure political participation for migrants and refugees.

So, too, have been the transitions.  On December 12, the UN community will witness the oath of office administered to António Guterres as the next UN Secretary General.   And, if current rumors are to be believed, the Deputy Secretary General post will soon be offered to Amina Mohammed of Nigeria, a woman of great substance who worked tirelessly in her previous UN iteration to bring the Sustainable Development Goals to fruition.  Guterres, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and Mohammed will hopefully make a formidable team, especially regarding core UN responsibilities for sustainable development, humanitarian assistance and refugee protection.

These two will step in for the current team of SG Ban Ki-moon and DSG Jan Eliasson whose joint UN legacy will surely be assessed at length over the coming years.  The departure of SG Ban has garnered most of the UN’s attention to date and so I would like to focus a bit here on some recent contributions of the Deputy Secretary General, a man in possession of one of the most storied careers ever to have played out within UN confines, a career that has greatly shaped how the UN understands its responsibilities to promote human rights and build sustainable peace.

For the past 4 + years, my various groups of diverse interns and fellows have often commented on the DSG’s special appeal.  He uses his voice to full effect, not as a battering ram, but as a way of reminding delegations and NGOs why we’re here in this policy space, why it matters that we’re here.  He understands the need to inspire as well as to contextualize – helping all of us to recognize that our lofty ideals and values cannot be taken for granted as we so often do, cannot become the equivalent of tiny candies we sprinkle on top of an ice cream cone that is slowly melting before our eyes.

My office colleagues have also understood that the DSG is much more than a cheerleader for the UN Charter that he claims to always carry in his coat pocket.  Eliasson well understands the complex and anxious times that we find ourselves in, citing in recent remarks at NYC’s Roosevelt House the “fear factor” that must be forthrightly addressed, the anxiety that too often results in “us vs. them” scenarios and the suggestion of quick, blame-filled solutions to problems that are clearly more systemic in nature.

We acknowledge that the rhetoric of human rights can and has been misapplied by many –by those elites unconcerned by violations beyond their neighborhoods and media of choice; by those who overly-personalize rights to mean “doing what I want to do” –mostly without consequence; by those rightly passionate about the protection of their own rights but indifferent to those suffering from other discriminations.   We ourselves know too many people who utilize the language of “rights” in much the same way that children in my old neighborhood once used the language of “cooties” – creating artificial distance based on fears real and imaginary rather than pathways to human communion.   As Eliasson noted recently at Roosevelt House, we must all recommit to creating a trustworthy, positive narrative about our common humanity, a narrative that has clearly been misplaced amidst our pervasive social grievances, cultural distractions and populist passions.

If the current wave of populist politics has taught us anything – and the jury on this is still out – it is that we have not suitably “sold” populations on a “common” system of values, laws and commitments that ostensibly has the best interests of all at heart.  These persons have not been “sold” in part because we have not always lived up to the high expectations of policy leadership.  Despite the efforts of the DSG and many others, we have not properly supported the UN’s human rights pillar nor highlighted its many practical achievements; we have bestowed selective outrage on horrific tragedies like Aleppo while keeping our policy distance from other horrors, such as in Yemen.   We have reached deeply into some communities desperately needing a dignity boost while overlooking that dignity is a common aspiration, a common need, a common pursuit.  If populists are suspicious of our “universal” values, as the DSG has maintained they are, it is in part because we caretakers of those values have been careless about their application – “politically correct” perhaps, but much too political in any event.

Human dignity, as Eliasson affirmed recently at a UN side event hosted by his native Sweden, is indeed that irreplaceable “starting point” for our peace and development commitments.  If we cannot find the means and the will to hold each other in higher regard; if we cannot uphold those facing particular discriminations without also rushing to demonize those allegedly doing the discriminating; if we cannot speak up for the rights of strangers in the same way we support those in our tightest social circles, then prospects for peace among nations and peoples, as well as for sustainable human development, will remain in serious jeopardy.

These current “trying times” will not be resolved solely by getting our accounts in order or through pious proclamations of universal values.   We will all need to raise our game: to accompany others on their search for dignity; to stand up and speak out for others in times of great need; to advocate for fair access to education, economics and politics; and above all to pay more attention to each other such that – as Eliasson recently urged – when we come across something gone wrong, we can and will “act early.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamental document defining the UN community’s human rights commitments, remains as a powerful testimony to our common responsibility to each other.  But as Eliasson noted at Roosevelt House, the ills to which the Declaration points are “largely still with us.”  If we want that world envisioned by the Declaration, we will all need to sound off and sound wisely.  The “silent treatment” is simply not a remedy adequate for what now threatens us.

Our new SG Guterres, building on the longstanding efforts of Eliasson and so many others, has already proclaimed that “human dignity will be the core of my work.”  But if dignity is to prevail, this will take more than the SG, more even than fair and competent international institutions.  This will require all of us to replace the “sounds of silence” with voices of compassion, attentiveness and care.  As with the UN and its new leadership, this is likely to become our defining moment as well.