Tag Archives: poverty

Compound Fracture:  Addressing Poverty’s Multiple Wounds, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 May

ICRC

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.  Mother Teresa

The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. Muhammad Yunus

Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache.  Mae West

The Chibok Girls, at least 82 of them, were released by Boko Haram this week. We’ll no doubt hear much more about this, including we hope from the ICRC: the stories of their captivity, the brutality and isolation they experienced, perhaps some of the despair and frustration they felt from having spent three long years of their relatively short lives wondering who if anyone was looking for them, why it seemed that they had been so completely abandoned?

As I stare at this ICRC photo and others, there is sadness, certainly in the faces of many of the girls, but in me as well.  This ordeal is not over for them.   They are thankfully freed from terrorist control, and they will be for a time the focus of international attention and support.   But the support will fade, most probably sooner than needed, and the girls will be left with their questions for families and government officials, their recurring nightmares and pervasive insecurities, their struggles to find meaning and material sustenance with psychic impairments as severe as any physical deformity.

And they will never get their childhoods back.

Many diplomats and observers at the UN rightly insist that poverty reduction must become what India this week called the “unrelenting focus” of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Though poverty reduction per se is first in the listing of the SDGs, it is not the only SDG concern for the international community.  Climate and oceans, employment and gender discrimination, corruption and violence, health and employment all need attention and are all interlinked.   While the Security Council was away assessing the peace agreement in Colombia, the rest of the UN in New York was engaged in a dizzying array of events focused in whole or in part on diverse aspects of the poverty reduction challenge.  From global health and the health of our forest communities, to the rights of indigenous persons and the need for the UN (as noted clearly on Friday by UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed) to streamline mechanisms for better coordination of poverty responses (including its conflict prevention dimensions), the UN’s grasp of the magnitude and diversity of its poverty-related challenges seems to be growing by the week.

Though relatively few persons in the UN community have endured poverty or lived in communities of material or psychic deprivation, the UN’s current levels of interest in all aspects related to poverty reduction are thankfully more than rhetorical, even more than material. Diplomats now widely grasp the peace and security implications of a world of large and growing inequalities, disparities which rightly annoy and largely inconvenience some but condemn others to an often-disheartening life with too few options.  As populations in global regions grow disproportionately, as drought and desertification expand their reach, and as water and other resource scarcities reach epidemic levels, our ability to manage stresses related to our systems of governance and security is certainly under strain.   So too is our ability to respond to the collective psychological needs of children and other victims of violence and deprivation.

And much of that need lies beyond the headlines. I recall vividly from my time in a Harlem parish in the 1990s some of the many ways in which poverty subtly and unhelpfully diverted the attention and energies of the community.   People didn’t dare to dream too much; they largely coped – with losses of income and relatives, with often unresponsive and even dismissive government bureaucracy, with schools that seemed design to keep students in their places rather than opening doors to a better place, with drug-induced street violence that erupted almost without warning.  Coping, adjusting, shielding, standing on endless lines, cutting your losses: It wasn’t always that dire, it wasn’t the plight of the Chibok Girls or of the families fleeing violence in Mosul, but it was often dire enough, disheartening enough.

For the children of Harlem at this time, it was also the dawning of the social media age and its multiple messaging.  On the one hand, cellular technology has opened new worlds for people and helped them overcome some of the pervasive limitations of the still-applicable digital divide.  The other side of course is that the new technology represents a handy medium for keeping close track of all that some people have that others do not.   The relentless marketing by “smart” phones that seem mostly “smart” for advertisers brings a world of affluent consumption into the personal spaces of so many millions, serving as a constant reminder of what it is possible to own and have in this world and, perhaps more insidiously, invites people to assess their own lives in accordance with the prevailing standards of luxury.

For a generation of Harlem children, let alone the Chibok girls and others fleeing violence without their families in makeshift life rafts, such reminders are most likely to aggravate their wounds, to compound their anger and frustration, to grow their sense of isolation and doubt that they are worthy of love and material support in a fair, predictable and secure global environment.

For us, there has always been truth in the maxim that assessment is largely a function of expectation.  And even in this increasingly climate stressed, resource scarce and violence-riddled environment, expectations for affluence have perhaps never been higher.  Nor have the many gaps of education, income and health care separating the affluent and those on the margins been so obvious.  If “inequalities” are permitted to herald our collective undoing, if our “share and care” capacities are left buried under mounds of trauma and material envy, if we can do no better than simply manage violence and “comfort” its many material and psychological impacts, then the carnage that currently fills our media screens will only become more frequent. The cycles of destruction and deprivation will tend to spin ever faster.

A World Health Organization representative on a UN General Assembly panel this week highlighted that agency’s “no regrets” model of detection and treatment, referring primarily to pandemics such as Ebola that, like armed violence and drought, both push people into poverty and dig a deeper hole for those already there.

This model seemed like a hopeful metaphor to inspire much of our sustainable development activity. “No regrets” on ending inequalities of rights and opportunities.  No regrets on efforts to prevent armed violence, genocide and war.  No regrets on creating conditions for safe and healthy communities. No regrets on ending assaults on the dignity, confidence and psychic integrity of our children.  No regrets on our messaging to next generations that balances acquisition and almost infinite distraction with a genuine hopefulness for the future and our own deep resolve to fix what we’ve broken.

Slowly but surely, our policy communities are coming to full recognition that lonely, angry, abused, unwanted children and youth can scuttle our development agenda as surely as super typhoons and cluster bombs.  We must resolve to keep all these challenges to the human spirit together at the center of our development policy and practice.

High Anxiety:  Selling Reassurance and Resolve in the Security Council, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Nov

Saturday in Central Harlem, a group of volunteers headed by Stephanie Ali held a Thanksgiving distribution of groceries, including turkeys.  Some of the volunteers, me included, have done virtually weekly “pantry duty” for well over a decade.

Our pantry lines have been long, even in times of economic recovery.   Not everyone on the line needs the food.  What more of them need – and get – is connection and reassurance.  Connection with people they know and care about.  Reassurance that, in a world of increasing anxiety – caused in part by a confluence of external shocks and increasing feelings of powerlessness – there will be someone “out there” who is dependable when rising sea levels start to flood Manhattan streets, the economy crashes again, and our latest security sector efforts to “bully the terrorist bullies” end up restricting more freedoms than alleviating terror threats.   These people also need some reassurance that authorities entrusted to respond to these and other emergencies will keep the economically marginal at least somewhat close to their hearts.

The world around our pantry clients might be uncertain and beyond their control, but they do read the papers, they are anxious about the longer-term state of city and world affairs, and they are looking for some helpful assurances beyond the immediacy of provisions.  In its own small way, this pantry and its volunteers seek to be part of that larger assurance, week after week, year after year.

Anxiety is not the sole province of the elderly and working poor populating a pantry line.  This emotion literally flourishes inside the UN as well.  Personal anxieties are related to career, relationships and money.  And of course there is professional anxiety related to performance in a volatile security and development framework, including as we saw this week in relation to attempts to address the short and longer-term needs of Least Developed Countries and Small Island States; the challenges of ending drug and arms trafficking; the need to reform overburdened UN peacekeeping operations; the responsibility to urgently reverse damage to oceans and watersheds; the need to head off further violence (and incitement to violence) in Burundi;  and of course the responsibility to craft a proportionate and rights-based response to the recent spate of high-profile terrorist acts.

In these and other multilateral venues, policy is developed that is grounded in anxiety about the current state of global affairs while also producing residual, longer-range anxiety in global constituents.  The questions posed to us on social media are both emotionally charged and relevant.  Are policymakers up to the current complex tasks?  Do they understand the implications of their decisions for diverse communities?  Have they learned sufficiently from past mistakes such that they can say with assurance that key mistakes are not being repeated?   Are states able to process their own policy failures, social limitations and other culpabilities while also attending to grave policy responsibilities such as the ISIL menace?

On these questions, the jury is still out.   Friday in the UN Security Council, Resolution 2249 was hailed as significant milestone in Security Council cooperation on what few would argue is a significant challenge for the international community.   The resolution cites ISIL as (having thankfully deleted the word “unprecedented”) one of the “most serious threats” to international peace and security and invokes the uneasy “all necessary measures” language (without directly mentioning military action) to help “redouble and coordinate” efforts to stymie ISIL and its collaborators.

Of course, few would argue the need to vigorously address terrorism, and many here at the UN are set to welcome Tuesday’s briefing by the Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee on “Foreign Terrorist Fighters.” But it’s not as though the “fight” against terror started in earnest last Friday.  Already, there have been thousands of bombs dropped, sanctions imposed, weapons transferred, surveillance enacted, funding halted, freedoms restricted. Were these methods lacking in strategic merit or policy seriousness?  For instance, were the detonated bombs that have already (by admission of defense officials) killed more than a few non-combatants simply dropped by mistake?  And, more to the point, assuming that existing measures have not been frivolous, what assurances are there that this round of “by whatever means” responses will actually eliminate terrorist carnage more effectively than the last round of responses?

Part of the narrative of this current iteration of our now-endless terror war is that the “unjustified” nature of terrorist acts, regardless of motivation, is the only relevant precondition for aggressive responses by Council members and other states.   Unjustified these acts certainly are, by any reasonable standard, but they also did not appear out of nowhere.  And whether your origin points for such brutal violence involve the Assad regime, the unrelieved discrimination of Palestinians, the US invasion of Iraq, prior dubious Council resolutions on Libya or any other causal links of preference, such points are also not without relevance. “We” are not responsible for terror violence, but “we” are also not without responsibility for the conditions in which such violence can apparently flourish – neither for the high anxiety that policies more robust than strategic might create in constituents.

We would make the case that “all necessary measures” can (and should) be applied to our own societies as well to the terrorists.  External vigilance is needed to be sure, but also accountability is required to the norms, values and expectations that give meaning to social existence and contextualize our growing levels of “high anxiety.”  These are high bars to reach, to be sure, as they are in part the consequence of prior policies that have not met expectations, have not alleviated the suffering we all hoped they might, have not inspired confidence that we can vanquish our enemies without also assessing ourselves.

We very much appreciate the references in the resolution to international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as (thanks apparently to the Russians) to the UN Charter.   These reassurances, as helpfully underscored by Chile and others at the Friday Council meeting, are hopefully more substantive than rhetorical.   Should such references end up being marginal “window dressing” in the implementation of anti-terror initiatives, it is highly unlikely that any tribunals will be organized to investigate the resulting carnage.   Nor will future acts of terror, when and if they occur, be seen as an actionable indictment of the limitations of this particular Council resolution or what would otherwise be seen as legitimate responses to ISIL and its cohorts.

My GAPW colleagues and I spend much time in the Security Council chamber, significantly more than in any other single UN meeting room.   And we have deep regard for the tenacity of Council members and the sometimes fitful progress of this chamber on transparency and working methods, driven especially at this current moment by some extraordinary non-permanent members.  But transparency and accountability are not the same.   The Council lacks structures of accountability for its limited policy scope or errors in judgement.   There is none to hold the Council, and especially its permanent members, responsible to the standards to which they routinely attempt to hold others.

This is one source of anxiety in the longer term, the notion that prior Council actions which demonstrably failed to achieve full objectives end up having little or no consequence for future resolutions.  Indeed, if we are not accountable for our errors, there is simply no reason for others to believe that future actions will avoid similar pitfalls.  For reasons related to limited time or institutional culture, we simply aren’t learning enough from previous experience to alleviate the anxieties of those dependent on this sometimes pedagogically-challenged policy community.

During Friday’s discussion following the unanimous vote on Res. 2249, Lithuania solemnly noted, “We will have to deal with the uneasy question of how much of our liberties and freedoms we are ready to sacrifice to ensure our safety and security in a way that does not support repression.” For my part, I would prefer a bit more liberty even if it means taking on a bit more risk.   After all, liberty’s road to repression is much longer than the one defined by safety and its multiple compromises.

In any case, these are the bargains that will continue define a world wrestling with its political polarization, excess materialism and militarism, and tepid commitments to ending social and economic inequalities and giving this overly-stressed climate a chance to heal.  And we are already seeing governments and their party oppositions ravenously grasping for political space in the aftermath of the recent terror attacks; ostensibly to protect people from terrorists, certainly to protect governments from uneasy conversations about their role in helping to protect the core principles, values and aspirations of people and not merely their physical bodies.

What is apparent, in settings as widely distinct as a Harlem food pantry and the chamber of the UN Security Council, is that our efforts to alleviate anxiousness regarding current affairs must take into account the deeper and “longer” anxieties – people who have good reason to wonder what will become of themselves and their families; and why this recent, welcome show of Council unity and resolve will be able to climb over bars of policy effectiveness and regard for international law when other efforts have mostly fallen short.

Climate’s Impact on Hunger Games

18 Sep

I’m writing this on a plane returning from a week of visiting with new and longstanding colleagues working on an exciting range of security-pertinent issues as the UN seeks policy clarity and sanity on climate health this week.  From peacekeeping reform and the abolition of capital punishment to strategies for healing victims of trauma in post-conflict settings and demonstration projects in the Mediterranean to promote climate health, the range of conversations was breathtaking.   There are many fine people, it seems, who are both looking for meaningful connection to global policy and interested in the degree to which their core missions impact – and are impacted by – broad peace and security concerns.

Writing while flying is surely not the best way to advertise a commitment to sustainable futures.   My office does much less flying than in the past, and we need to do still less going forward.  Indeed, at this critical time, all of our material commitments must be carefully scrutinized.   As heads of state and concerned citizens converge in New York this week for climate discussions, it is clear that too many of us who accept the logic of climate change still resist the urgent lifestyle reform which that logic would suggest.

This next week’s key climate deliberations will take place alongside another core UN commitment – to the endorsement and implementation of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  While diplomats have been reluctant, in part for good reason, to resist a stand-alone peace goal, there is wide recognition within this SGD process that armed violence has a major negative impact on development, and certainly on the types of development that can enhance climate health rather than accelerate the opposite trend.

These two major UN engagements certainly have points of convergence, but perhaps none so much as with the alleviation of poverty.   This clearly is a core issue for SDGs though vast obstacles remain related to debt, speculative finance, unfair trade practices, lack of access to markets and security for rural workers, a lack of public participation in national policies that have poverty implications and much more.

But one of the obstacles to poverty eradication is the degeneration of our climate itself.   Climate change is held more and more responsible – rightly in our view – for increased human migrations, food insecurity, the lack of access to potable water, and many more complicating factors.   And all of these features of our contemporary social condition – and more where they came from – have security implications.   The search for water increases the physical vulnerabilities of the seekers, especially women.   The control of water and related resources creates cross-border tensions and limits essential access. Shifts in rainfall dramatically impact crop yields and threaten local food security, shift internal migration patterns and further imbalance global trade agreements.

On September 20, Global Action will participate in a workshop on “Poverty and Peacemaking” at Princeton University.   Our specific panel will deal with food security issues.   In my 12 years running a food pantry in Harlem and in our work at GAPW with women farmers in Cameroon and elsewhere, there are several important things to communicate to the Princeton audience, including:  the impact of an increasingly sick climate on agriculture; the core insight that human security is not possible without food security; and the perhaps too-obvious insight that food security itself is severely undermined by conflict and armed violence, including conflict motivated by conditions of a deteriorating climate.

Indeed, one can make the case, and I will seek to make it at Princeton, that food security and other dimensions of physical security are intertwined at several levels.   In neighborhoods defined by heavy narcotics use and even heavier gun fire, a full refrigerator is only one of the security reassurances needed for families to break out of poverty and participate more fully in building stable and sustainable communities.

Security, we hasten to add, is as much a feeling as a condition.   There are metrics of various competencies pertaining to gun violence, child abuse, narcotics use, rape, domestic violence, etc.   There are statistics to measure welfare levels, average income, educational attainment, and more. But in the end, it is how you feel about your life and community that has the most to do with levels of personal commitment and engagement.   We choose to participate in poverty alleviation or peacemaking based on how we feel about conditions, prospects for meaningful change, and options for participation; certainly more than on how our community is tracking statistically.

During my many years in a Harlem parish and food pantry, I was sometimes called to help clean out the apartment of a deceased neighbor when there were no family members able or willing to do the job.  Often we found evidence of great hoarding, including many cans of pantry food.   In some instances, the food was piled to the ceiling with apparently no plans for it to be consumed.   Those cans represented security of one sort, a sort that is indispensable to community life.   But food issues represent only a start towards development that is fully participatory, context and gender specific, and integrative of many security concerns.  Full spectrum security must be our peacemaking goal, not merely a slice of security.

Especially this week, we must be mindful of the ways in which the grind of poverty is directly influenced by climactic imbalances.  As our climate deteriorates, more fields will lie barren and more communities will embark on new and more desperate migrations.  No matter how comprehensive and well-intentioned our MDGs, climate sickness might well make poverty harder to alleviate than ever before.

What happens this week in New York is no game, no mere diplomatic exercise. It’s time to step up, to feel the desperate urgency that many millions of people around the world just can’t shake as their crops wither and weapons proliferate around them. Indeed, it’s quite a bit past time.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Challenges to Youth Development and Opportunities for Poverty Eradication

25 Jul

Although the morning session was quite disappointing at the Youth High-Level Panel, the afternoon session on challenges to poverty eradication and development was significantly more focused and valuable. Ms. Irina Bokova from UNESCO provided good background on the role of youth development for the MDGs.

I also had the chance to go to a side event on the role of social technologies for development. There was mention of an initiative co-sponsored by UNESCO and the ITU (UN agency for information and communication technologies) called the Broadband Commission for Digital Development. This commission explores how access to broadband internet is important to social and economic development. There is also a particular working group focused on youth. I thought this was a really interesting connection to development and timely considering our focus on social media as well as world events (i.e. the Arab Spring).

As one of the speakers at the side event made clear, in order to mobilize change through social media and new technologies, two things are necessary: connectivity and content. Broadband provides the connectivity and youth can provide the content.

 

-Katherine