Tag Archives: power

Power Strip: Opening Spaces for Accountable Governance, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Jan
They joined hands.  So the world ended.  And the next one began. Sarah J. Maas
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Martin Luther King, Jr.
If people get hungry they will eat their rulers. Protest Banner on the Streets of Beirut.
Take the power to love what you want in life and love it honestly. Susan Polis Schutz
Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.  John Steinbeck
Power changes everything till it is difficult to say who are the heroes and who the villains.  Libba Bray
On a snowy afternoon in New York, I tried to find an appropriate image for the heading of today’s post, an image of power that was not linked to destruction or subjugation or any of the other dystopia/rescue fantasy images that we so often link power with now.
I failed. Image after image I consulted was devoted to superheroes vanquishing one thing or another, skyscrapers under construction that block the sun, weapons firing and smokestacks smoking, all symbolizing conquest or “progress” that seemed predictive in their own way of a world hurdling towards its own reckoning.
I could hardly find any image that close to signified what our little Global Action tree tries to convey — the preservation and abundance of life, a bit of shady respite from the numerous coercive elements, a place of wisdom and reflection to help sort out the chaos of our inner and outer lives.  And so, this tree that many have found confusing or misleading, an image that has perhaps strayed a bit far from the hard security origins and purposes of this now middle-aged non-profit, our “tree” is the best symbol I could find to discuss a dynamic that has become vexing to some and hopeful for many.
I speak here about the slow, inexorable, sometimes painful shifts in global power, a dynamic that is hardly linear and is replete with its own inconsistencies and hypocrisy; a movement which we find encouraging at several levels but which is also generating significant, even violent resistance in many quarters of the globe.
In setting after setting, people are taking to the streets and demanding a voice on governance, on women’s rights, on climate; resisting in many instances the slide into authoritarianism and its style of leadership which insists that the restraints which they advocate for their political adversaries simply do not apply to themselves.  These power grabs are often encouraged and enabled by much of the populace, especially people who have long felt disrespected and neglected by their erstwhile “democratic” leadership and who believe, though probably without cause, that association with power harboring a pretension to absolutism will convey absolute benefits for themselves and their “tribe.”
This form of association with power seems more closely aligned with fear than any other single emotion.  And to be sure there are plenty of reasons to be fearful given the range of future-compromising global threats that we at the UN seek to mitigate on a daily basis.
But there is more for us to consider, beyond the polar melting, terror attacks and doomsday fortresses. Egged on by numerous forms of media that understand well our almost genetic attentiveness to car wrecks — metaphorical and actual — we are being fed a steady diet of images that drive larger wedges between already distant community interests.  We who already live too often in bubbles beyond the direct impact from what offends us or makes us uncomfortable are increasingly convinced that people are “coming for us,” coming for our families, coming to compromise our dignity yet one more time, coming to corrupt our children and immobilize their breadwinners, coming to impose their will on us in ways that merely patronizes our faith and values, that offers only a path back to an “old normal” and then discriminates (sometimes fiercely) against any who seek to fashion new social options.
And yet in the midst of this externally-motivated fear, in the midst of all the mistrust currently masquerading as enlightenment, the anger that only pretends to have a larger social purpose, there are signs of movement that can make the world more sustainable, more inclusive, even more democratic.
Just on our twitter feel this week, we have been regaled often by the determination of people to shift global circumstances without waiting for official permission.  Perhaps the best example came courtesy of Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze, a young person from Burundi who has been organizing tree planting (#GreeningBurundiProject) with other young Burundians as a practical contribution to climate change.   But more than that, he is enabling participation by young people in the future of his country, a country compromised in recent times by governance issues and human rights abuses, by electoral-related violence and the related exclusion of ethnic groups not aligned with the interests of the dominant political party.  The trees now being planted in Burundi thus herald a country that is slowly, inexorably becoming greener, but also we must anticipate, more inclusive and accountable to diverse citizen interests.
Another example spoke directly to this age now dripping with anti-Semitic venom. A touching video was re-circulated this week of Sir Nicholas Winton being honored by the many (now-adult) children he once rescued during the Holocaust, a remarkable process of rescue about which he remained silent for almost 50 years of his life.  For me the video was a moving reminder that the people who defend the defenseless and protect the innocent — from Auschwitz to Haiti and South Sudan — may not be “perfect” in any conventional sense, but they are incarnating the capacities that we possess in greater abundance than we have recently shown, capacities to re-weave our “garment of destiny” and also re-fashion human relations (including on power) in ways that can inspire rather than compromise our collective survival.
In its own cautious manner, the UN is also feeling some of the pressure to invest more in democratic accountability and move away from “consensus” structures that still freeze patterns of committee memberships and leadership in ways both gender-restrictive and Euro-centric.  Aside from the pervasive and well-documented (by us and others) determination to reform the Security Council, there were several events this week that underscored still-subtle but visible shifts in UN power dynamics.  For instance, the leadership handover of the Group of 77 and China from Palestine to Guyana was a chance for the UN to demonstrate the value of what Azerbaijan referred to as the “unity” of developing states, countries that represent the majority of UN membership but have yet to create a base of power that can ensure viable, inclusive, sustainable human security for more of the world’s peoples.
But they’re trying.  Earlier in the week the General Assembly took up a resolution opposed by the US and most European states, to expand what is known as the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ).  The resolution sponsored by the G77 sought to redress geographic imbalances in the Committee which have remained stubbornly in place for many years.  Despite budgetary implications in a time of fiscal limitations, G77 members affirmed in this resolution that inclusiveness long-deferred simply must be addressed, that the struggle to re-imagine and then incarnate power at the UN was worth the temporary fiscal inconvenience.
Closer to home for us, we continually honor the young people who grace us with their presence and who are ready and willing to share their skills and talents in ways that are neither competitive nor sentimental, that are not about grasping power but about shifting how we understand it’s functions and limitations, about ensuring that policy discussions more actively seek out the direct involvement of the people most likely to be impacted by policy decisions too often taken “on their behalf.”
These are relatively small windows towards broader participation, but (like our tree) they are symbolic of changes that seem to be pushing up through what are still relatively narrow openings.  At the briefing this week on preparations for the next G20 Summit convened by the president of the General Assembly, Germany and others noted the almost unimaginable concentrations of financial and political power in the hands of a few countries that control 90% of global wealth while being responsible for 80% of global emissions. This prompted fresh calls by member states for eliminating gross inequalities as well as fears from Japan and others regarding the potential of our under-scrutinized and rapidly “digitalizing economy” to increase inequalities even further.
The current march of political and economic power consolidation that many now largely accept as inevitable or even take for granted is now showing welcome cracks. But we will need plenty of courage and wisdom to widen those openings further and insist that the power structure that emerges is more inclusive of diverse aspirations, more enabling of mutual interest, more transparent and trustworthy, more devoted to planting trees than producing arms, more prone to joining hands and setting in motion a world in which we can all contribute, all participate, all survive (and perhaps even thrive).
This is neither a “soft” nor sentimental plea, but rather a realistic one.  If we have learned anything from this age of unaccountable governance and hegemonic economics, it is that where legitimate demands are repeatedly ignored, illegitimate demands are soon to follow.