Tag Archives: Questions

Curiosity Call: Stretching Policy and Personal Assumptions, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jan

Kid Questions

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.  Bertrand Russell

Curiosity takes ignorance seriously, and is confident enough to admit when it does not know. It is aware of not knowing, and it sets out to do something about it.  Alain de Botton

Ask yourself three questions and you will know who you are.  What do you believe in? What do you hope for? But most important – What do you love?  Paulina Simons

Don’t question if the world is real; question if your thoughts are. Marty Rubin

As the UN prepares for its 75th anniversary and its decade of action on sustainable development, many are likely in this time of massive fires and human displacement to question both the pace of UN reform and the robustness of the UN’s commitment to implement all of the promises embedded in the 2030 Development Agenda.  And, as we creep ever-closer to a reckless Middle East military confrontation (check out the crowds at Suleimani’s funeral earlier today), many are also questioning the ability of the international community (especially the UN Security Council) to serve as an effective mechanism of conflict prevention rather than as a mere channel for acknowledging newly-escalating tensions.

Such questioning in our view is well within bounds.   It is important that the UN Is held to account for its promises as with other institutions including small NGOs such as our own.   We have all taken on important commitments to enhancing food security, mitigating the devastation from climate change, ensuring peace and security, and much more.  Such commitments were willingly embraced and it is right and sensible to question the resolve of our erstwhile leadership at times when goals get bogged down or otherwise fall woefully behind schedule. A case could surely be made that we are now living through such a time.

That said, the quality of our questions also leaves much to be desired, to our leadership for sure, but also to persons closer to home.

We tend to know just enough about the people whose lives and work we encounter to label them and stick them in boxes of our own making.  We know what they “do” for a living.  We know something about their relationship status and political biases along with a few characteristic habits – often the ones that mostly annoy us.   In such a social environment, we increasingly tend to interpret questions as intrusions on what remains of our privacy, or as judgments on our lack of physical or professional perfection, in part because the questions we are asked, when others even bother to ask them, seem intended to expose rather than explore, to satisfy some prurient interest rather than enhance connection, to promote and amplify an-often limited knowledge base rather than offer invitation to build a base together broader than we could ever build alone.

When was the last time that any of us were asked the kinds of questions that made it more possible for us to explore rather than define, to connect rather than defend?   When was the last time we were asked questions that created safe-enough spaces for curiosity and vulnerability, that allowed us to seek together what we don’t know rather than recite what we already know (or rush to consult our phones as some ultimate authority, thereby abandoning the questions altogether that phones alone can’t process)?  And when was the last time we asked questions ourselves that didn’t house a distinct (and unspoken) agenda and that embodied a commitment to listen to the answers no matter how difficult or challenging those answers might be?

I thought so.  Of the attributes of a rich and connected life that we refuse to practice, asking good questions has become, for too many of us, the top rung in an increasingly lengthy chain.   Our collective curiosity increasingly extends little beyond the fact-checking that can be spewed out by Siri.  Our collective questioning increasingly extends little beyond information that we can “use,” including use against each other.

And yes there is a UN angle on all of this.   Our statement-rich policy environment is shockingly void of questions, certainly of the open-ended variety and mostly (where they exist at all) deeply embedded in our policy accusations.  We read statements and then consult our cell phones to see if we get any tweaks on our twitter feed.  We’re not interested much in what others have to say, in part because we’re heard it all before, and in part because nothing we hear is likely to change what we have to say going forward– or more precisely what our governments or organizations allow us to say.

In the absence of authorization to the contrary,  our questioning in this policy space is infrequent and confined to filling gaps in policy briefings.  It is much less about enabling the curiosity to explore and examine the consequences of our policy choices, to look more closely at our mandates and mission statements and ask ourselves, “if we get what we say we want, how will people be affected?”  Who will be helped or hurt?  And what adjustments need to be made in how we do our business (including a reality-based examination of current and future threats) such that the helping is maximized and the hurting minimized?

A reader might be tempted to assume that such curiosity-based questioning is deeply affirmed and encouraged within the policy community.   But this assumption also needs to be interrogated.  It is easy enough to believe that those pulling the policy levers have your best interests at heart.  It is harder to believe that there are problems and challenges, sometimes most easily perceivable at local level, that are mostly (and sometimes intentionally) invisible to decision-makers.  Those of us who are blessed to sit in these discussions on a daily basis know how impenetrable policy bubbles can be, how dismissive they can be of the evidence and testimony that can complicate the job of policy but can also enrich and extend its products.

Clearly we need to ask better questions of our leadership but also of others in our more immediate orbit, questioning not only the “what” but the ‘why.”  We need to know more about how people do their work in the world, how they overcome challenges and limitations, how they arrive at the opinions that drive their decisions; but even more how they believe, hope and love and what all of that means for the “reality” of their practical decision-making.  And others need to know these things about us.

This past week, a medical practitioner I frequent (and like a lot) said something to me along the lines that “I have known you for years and I don’t really know what you do.”  He assumed that the problem was all about my failure to disclose. That’s surely part of it.  But the other part was about his unwillingness to raise his own level of curiosity, to embed that curiosity in the form of questions, and then allow me the space to respond.

This allowance is something we simply don’t do enough for each other.  We need to make more time to move beyond what people “do” to the larger questions of why they do it and what it takes for them to do what they do.  We need to take our own “ignorance” more seriously,  even our ignorance about the people in our more immediate environments whom we claim to “know well.” In that light, we would do well to “hang more question marks” on all the things we take for granted or that we imagine we already know, the things that we accept because we are too busy or distracted, or because we convince ourselves that we can’t do anything about them anyway. We need to make more space that would allow others in and around our lives to reflect on and share more of their nuances and multiple dimensions.

Here’s to a more curiosity-filled 2020.  In this difficult time for the world, we need every heart and brain engaged beyond the immediate and apparent.

 

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

14 Jan

Questions

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.