Tag Archives: Priorities

Priority Mail: Delivering on Multiple Global Threats, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Mar


A crisis is the sum of intuition and blind spots, a blend of facts noted and facts ignored. Michael Crichton 

Truth is always a turning point. Sheila Walsh

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

If we want to embrace life, we also have to embrace chaos. Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. Antonio Gramsci

The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. Edward O. Wilson

The virus teaches us that security in the end is human security. Jan Eliasson

This is a week when the “embrace of chaos” took many forms, from people on the hunt for disinfectants and toilet paper to government officials ducking allegations of incompetence and reluctantly turning over control of COVID-19 response to medical professionals who actually know what they’re doing – even if much of the medical infrastructure needed to predict and prevent outbreaks has long been eviscerated.

Indeed, we are in a period where broad public confidence in our often–medieval institutions has taken a hit, as rumors are more readily available than truth, families struggle to reassure children whose lives have been upended through school closures and social distancing, and many millions who live paycheck to paycheck, if indeed they are fortunate enough to receive a paycheck, make gut-wrenching choices between attending to the threat of virus and providing a minimal sustenance for their families.

And as we now seek to “flatten the curve” on outbreaks, we know at some level that that there is more to come, more from this particular virus but also more from other viral threats lurking in our cities, in our melting ice, in our equatorial forests. At least in the US, we have yet to face the full force of social isolation, the degree to which “touching” has become both a social violation and a medical emergency, the distancing brought on by this virus that merely compounds that already solidified through our previous economic and political choices. And all of this is being reinforced by institutions that at times seem hell-bent on suppressing the expression of our better selves, institutions which act as though they have our confidence when they actually have little more than the wary resignation we now liberally bestow on all who are not in our own “tribe.”

There is something genuinely unsettling about the sight of people standing on two-hour lines just to get into supermarkets and then yanking virtually any cleaning agents or non-perishable foodstuffs off the shelves in a particularly frantic search for wipes and masks we collectively should have known we would need and which are now needed most by the various “first responders” who have to try to referee our newly-minted panic based on (in)decisions they had no hand in making. At the same time, a  Palestinian writer recently reminded western colleagues this week that the sight of empty shelves is a common one, not only in Gaza, but in many parts of the world where violence and displacement affect wider swaths of the population than this virus is likely to do, a reminder that this deprivation that rightly unsettles many in so-called developed countries is merely a taste of what many millions of families experience on a daily basis.

Indeed, one of the potential (if preventable) casualties of this current virus is a massive breakdown of what remains of our solidarity with the parts of the world (including in our own countries) where shelves are often bare, where health care and housing are always elusive, where children are perpetually in danger of a stolen childhood.

Like many institutions at present, the UN is flying at half-mast, trying to both protect staff from infection and find a way to keep our collective eye on issues that the virus might have made worse, but certainly didn’t make disappear. Families are still fleeing violence in Idlib and northern Yemen. Ice caps continue to melt into increasingly warming oceans. Migrants continue to face intimidation in multiple forms rather than welcome mats. Children are still being deprived of liberty or recruited into armed groups. So-called peace agreements continue to fail basic tenets of inclusiveness and transparency. Biodiversity remains under threat across the life spectrum. Governments and others continue to misuse resources, including their intentional mis-allocation, in ways that bolster some interests and devastate others.

But this virus is our preoccupation now, and not without reason. Indeed, it is almost shocking to hear conversations and broadcasts, about toilet paper to be sure but also about social policy, that do not in some fashion or other reference COVID-19.  And while we hold our collective breath in the US and await a peak in infections that is almost sure to come and which will likely be confirmed by even our barely-adequate testing regimes, there is plenty of incentive – driven in part by our stubbornly “paleolithic emotions” – to block out all but what we consider to be the most urgent of matters, allowing this virus to take up too much of our collective bandwidth, providing cover for our grabbing and hoarding, our suspicions and conspiracies, our distrust and indifference.

In this context, it was a bit comforting this week to see the UN take a longer if no less urgent view, one that focuses on remaking the institutions we need and don’t yet have, institutions that are able to both respond to crisis and, perhaps more importantly, anticipate crises yet to materialize.

During a debate on Wednesday on the “role and authority of the General Assembly” chaired by Ghana and Slovakia –this at a time when expectations of UN shutdown were rampant — delegates discussed ways to make the Assembly (the most representative of UN bodies) fit to address current and future threats in a manner that better integrates and energizes the priorities, energies, skills and initiatives of global constituents. A theme that resonated throughout the conference room was the importance of (as the European Union noted) setting sharper priorities for our work, eliminating the “noise” and “clutter” of the GA agenda such that it can become more than a “catch basin” of issues, more than a producer of resolutions that (as Costa Rica maintained) are often without clear implications for constituents.

At a moment in time consumed by a strange and unpredictable virus, it was refreshing to hear the UN vet its own limitations and “blind spots” in a manner that promised better communication, clearer priorities, greater policy effectiveness and (as the UK suggested) a firmer focus on “what is most relevant to others.” Mexico noted that “we know what we mean” in this chamber, but few beyond the chamber can decipher our methods and strategies aside perhaps from concluding that such methods are not yet up to the challenges and expectations that have long been mandated for this policy space.

In a moment when people are too often avoiding each other, strategizing around each other, grabbing from each other, it felt right to hear Malaysia challenge the Assembly to “get closer to the people.” The question now is how to get closer, how to engage people without “infecting” them, how to offer reassurance without subsequently engendering cynicism? Perhaps there is some policy version of the elbow greeting now used to maintain connection without handshakes! In any event, this is not the last of the health or other crises knocking at the door. We need institutions that can warn of what seem to be an ever-present laundry list of (mostly self-inflicted) dangers, but that can also demonstrate the will (with sufficient resources) to address threats (both on and off our collective radar) at their earliest possible stages, and that can facilitate the birth of structures and their policy prescriptions that we badly need but don’t yet  have.

We also need institutions that can encourage our better selves, the “selves” that enable community sing-alongs from otherwise isolated Italian balconies, or the sharing of health supplies with perfect strangers, or enduring the current “nightmare” of food shopping to make sure that the elderly and other vulnerable persons have what they need to survive the current threat, or advocating for prisoners and the homeless whose options for fending off sickness are limited at best.

If Wednesday’s discussion was any indication, the General Assembly seems determined to be one of those institutions, one of those that can predict more effectively, inspire attentive responses, set clearer priorities, and act with greater resolve alongside a wider range of skills and voices. We will help that process along in any way we can.

Inquiring Minds:  Questions at the Heart of the UN’s 2018 Priorities, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jan


Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’  Martin Luther King, Jr.

Questions are the breath of life for a conversation. James Nathan Miller

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.  Albert Einstein

It’s another frigid Sunday at the UN, a day when (typically) the trains are not running close to properly and the most important news items of the day included a (thankfully) false missile warning for Hawaii, the dangers to youth from swallowing pods of detergent and the possibility that one of those leftover pods might be needed to “wash out” the insensitive mouth of the US president.

At the UN, it was a slow but important week – slow because of most of the missions are still catching up from the burdensome workloads of late 2017, but important because this is the time when senior UN officials reveal their plans and priorities for the year.   SG Guterres will take the floor on Tuesday to lay out the 2018 priorities of the Secretariat, though he provided an important preview this past week during the launch of his Making Migration Work for All report.  During this well-attended session, Guterres rightly called for “canons of international cooperation” that can increase opportunities for legal migration and eliminate unrealistic restrictions.  Migration is “inevitable,” the SG noted, and if something is inevitable it makes sense to attempt to “properly manage it;” this as part of a call for all delegations to negotiate “constructively” a Global Compact on Migration before the end of this year.

On Friday, the President of the General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, took his turn to outline priorities for 2018 within the UN’s most democratic chamber, underscoring the SG’s emphasis on protecting rights and maximizing benefits of migrants, those who migrate voluntarily and those many migrants pushed out of their homes by drought and other climate impacts, discrimination and human rights abuses, and of course armed conflict.

The PGA had other things on his mind as well that his office will hope to impact before turning over the gavel in September 2018:   He is seeking to focus attention on Sustainable Development Goal 6, overcoming the “indignities” that so often accompany a lack of access to safe drinking water.  He is seeking to broaden stakeholder involvement in 2030 Development Agenda implementation.  He is seeking ways for the UN to “keep up with a changing world,” including through stronger linkages between the UN’s human rights and development communities.  He is seeking to continue the process of General Assembly reforms, including institutionalizing participation by indigenous communities and raising levels of transparency regarding the process for choosing his successor.  He made a special appeal for a dramatic increase in delegate attention to the health of our oceans, the challenges of global terrorism and the threat of new pandemics.

And he seeks to elevate the SG’s “sustaining peace” initiative, including pathways to greater participation in peacebuilding by women and youth.   Lajčák affirmed, as he has done in the past, the value of a prevention-oriented peace agenda, urging the UN to act sooner on conflict threats while there is still a “peace to keep.”  Towards the end of his remarks, he also acknowledged (as well he should) threats to our multilateral system that risk “overburdening” the UN system, “drowning out” the voices of smaller states, and undermining progress towards previously agreed peace and development goals. To address challenges such as these, he urged delegations to “talk more and learn more.”

And perhaps even to ask better questions.

Despite his expressed desire to focus on the quality of goals, not their quantity, Lajčák understands that the clock is ticking, both for our planet and, more locally, for his tenure as PGA.  We are already now 1/3 of the way through that tenure, one which has successfully promoted the priorities of his predecessor, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, while seeking to inject some new urgency into a building that sometimes seems content with development and security measures that (while often impressive in their own right) offer insufficient relief for a world staring at a future that could well be characterized by wider social unrest, more missile alerts (false and otherwise), accelerated polar melting, growing insurgencies, an increasingly degraded biodiversity, and perhaps even greater erosion in the confidence that the global public places in governments and multilateral institutions.

PGA Lajčák seems to grasp this multi-faceted urgency.  He knows that the office he now holds has a limited tenure and many burdens, some related to internal UN drama and others related to the positioning of the UN’s considerable successes as a trustworthy antidote to the existential threats which daily assault the PGA and his staff.   Even in his sometimes understated way, Lajčák seemed proficient at communicating the UN’s core responsibilities in this sometimes treacherous period.  Was it enough on Friday?

We weren’t able to tell, frankly, because as quickly as it began the session was over.  By my calculation, delegations were in their seats perhaps 30 minutes for a session which had been allotted three hours.  There were (thankfully) no pre-prepared statements from delegations, no attempts to “comment” on what they heard before they heard it.  But neither were there any questions from the floor: Not a single one.

We had plenty of questions, though protocol prohibits us from asking them in these sessions.  We wanted to probe further the PGAs assertion about “quality commitments,” including how he will use the final 8 months of his tenure to press delegations to “talk more and learn more” about the global challenges for which they have tacitly accepted remedial responsibility?  We wanted to know more about how a “voluntary” compact on migration can successfully overcome nationalist resistances?  We wanted to know how a UN system can effectively prevent conflict when peace and security are often addressed in such a politicized fashion and sovereignty reigns supreme until the fires of internal conflict have burned too many innocents?   We wanted to know how a more “transparent” selection process for the next PGA would actually impact the means by which the new president would eventually be selected?   We wanted to know how the office of the PGA can be better fortified to provide system-wide leadership to address a bursting roster of global expectations?

We had questions for virtually every phrase in the PGA’s presentation, questions that sought clarification and offered opportunities for the PGA to share more of his personal concerns and commitments, to lift a portion of the policy veil for a community that recognizes the value of strong leadership from the PGA despite the impediments from an often-underfunded, one-year tenure.  But from the heads of delegations, there was only a bit of mild applause and a reach for coats and brief cases.  Questions, if at all, were left for another time.

For us, this event was a reminder that the key to “learning more” is not primarily through statements and presentations but through questions – not primarily the kind that seek to “catch” people in their errors and hypocrisies — though there is certainly a place for those — but the kind that illuminates personal and institutional commitments, and that binds questions and answers in a common inquiry to find viable solutions to the problems that plague us.   This is not about letting others (or ourselves) “off the hook,” but acknowledging that, in some real sense, we are all now dangling from the same one.

We are collectively not in that place of recognition.  For too many of us, questions are a threat rather than a blessing, a challenge to our branded narratives rather than an ocassion to examine the truths we hold, and sometimes hold in common.  More and more, we don’t ask good questions, in part because we haven’t practiced asking them in the first place.  And even when we have practiced, we don’t ask good questions because we don’t want to risk having to deal with the answers we receive.  We don’t question because we recognize the degree to which, in our sometimes aloof and self-referential policy world, questions are occasions much more for defensiveness than for exploration. We don’t ask questions at times because we don’t care enough to know and at times because we don’t want to appear in a “public” setting not to already know what a question might imply that we don’t.

But then there are those of us yearning to hear good questions, ones which are neither self-referential nor blatantly accusative but attentive invitations to explore, to collaborate, to support, to learn.  Many of us recognize the potential benefits of such questions, but we hear them too seldom and offer them too sparingly.   Thus, GAPW has made a commitment this year to practice asking better questions — more open-ended, utilizing kinder language, and based on higher levels of attentiveness to process and context.  Our hope is that such questions – from us and from others– can lead to better prospects for community learning, more honest disclosures, and even a lowering of our collective emotional guard.  Such outcomes might even pave the way for global constituents to more fully endorse UN proposals to address the many challenges that keep too many people around the world awake, night after night.