Tag Archives: Refugees

Site Visit:  The UN Gives Way to its National Owners, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Sep


This week marked the UN’s annual showcase, the opening of the 71st General Assembly under the leadership of Fiji’s Ambassador Thompson.   As always, the week for us is characterized by endless barricades, “secondary” passes to events, standing on street corners waiting for motorcades to pass, and numerous checkpoints – mostly monitored by NYC and UN police who generally deserve high marks for their competence and patience.

This is also the week when UN missions are frantically attempting to accommodate their foreign ministers and heads of state – accommodate but also impress.  Important matters are at stake – from the rights of refugees and sustainable development goals to ensuring climate (and ocean) health, fighting terrorism and selecting the next Secretary-General.  During this week, many pledges were made, including welcome funding for the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, wholly consistent with the widely stated need for greater UN involvement in conflict prevention and mediation.  In addition, states welcome the abundant opportunities for private, bi-lateral meetings to head off conflict, resolve trade disputes, clarify diplomatic misunderstandings, and find common solutions to compelling, cross-border challenges.

Many careers are also on the line as diplomats attempt to demonstrate to national leaders that they have been making progress on issues that matter consistent with their national values and interests.

And NGOs are a part of that demonstration.   At one “side event” after another, NGOs were present in the room, making statements and moderating panels in an attempt to both demonstrate their “expertise” to world leaders and showcase the “wisdom” of states in funding and highlighting their work.    As one might expect, there was an overabundance of some all-too-familiar voices, mostly from large, well-branded, western NGOs whose organizational footprints, in many instances, supersede their social impacts.   That so many familiar voices are recycled over and over during this UN week has a bit less to do with their social or intellectual value – which in some cases is certainly considerable — and a bit more to do with their political value to the governments that support and fund their brand.

There were exceptions of course.  On September 19, Heads of State endorsed the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in which states commit to “ensure a people-centred, sensitive, humane, dignified, gender-responsive and prompt reception for all persons arriving in our countries.”  The opening event featured a stirring address by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who boldly scolded leaders who have not done enough to prevent incitement, extremism, and xenophobia – including violations at their own hands.

But for me the highlight was a another address in the GA by Eni Lestari Andayani  Adi from the International Migrants Alliance in Indonesia, who compellingly reminded world leaders of the long years of “invisibility” experienced by so many displaced persons, and cited the dignity-compromising “nightmare” of refugees facing multiple exploitations, including forced breakups of their families.

The following morning, while the well-branded NGOs lined up across the street for their moments in front of the curtain, a small gathering of modest NGOs was meeting at the UN Church Center.  The purpose of this breakfast gathering – organized primarily by Liberato Bautista — was to assess the High Level event on Refugees the day earlier, but also to assess the degree to which NGOs like ours are currently fulfilling the role which we (those in the room at least) felt represents the best of our potential contribution.

Part of that role involves a recovery of the “prophetic” dimensions of NGO existence, calling all members of the UN community — all of us – to honor our promises to global constituents and create a kinder, fairer and more just UN structure that can accommodate the widest range of contributing voices.   This is not entirely a matter of “speaking truth to power,” as one of our “breakfast club” members put it – especially given the limitations of our grasp of “the truth” and of the UN’s institutional power as well.  But it certainly is about being attentive, exposing shallow analysis and unthoughtful policy pursuits, and ensuring that right mix of voices – not necessarily our own voices – is available to make policy better.

Eni was with us for this breakfast, a blessing that allowed us to process the Summit from the vantage point of one of its key participants.  She described in depth the process of bringing her to New York and what it was like being backstage with so many high-profile global leaders.   She seemed honored to have been given the podium at the GA, but also anxious to return to her work in Indonesia and uncertain if any of the benefits of this “honor” would accrue over time to her oft-discouraged constituents.   She took her honor in stride, but also seemed grateful for the possibility that those at our breakfast might remain her allies long after the others had returned to capitals or moved on to other concerns.

Of the many diplomatic “mantras” uttered around UN headquarters, one of the most frequent has to do with a call for more “involvement” by civil society.  Generally speaking it is unclear what this means beyond the desire to raise the profile of the groups with which states feel comfortable and to which they provide funds.   Certainly it is rare that diplomats will invest energy in helping to sort out a viable strategy to improved UN-NGO relations; indeed it is relatively infrequent that diplomats bother to know the names, identities or skills of more than a handful of the NGOs around UN headquarters, let alone the many excellent initiatives – like Eni’s – that exist worldwide.

A long time ago, a graduate school professor of mine reminded me that we teach others, especially the young, not because we are so wise and talented and kind, but because that is the mandate entrusted to us.   We do it because it is our responsibility, at least for this time.  For those of us with modest NGO brands, even more modest resources, and a bevy of logistical headaches associated with life in New York at the center of global governance, it is perhaps helpful to remind ourselves from time to time that this is the mandate entrusted to us.  When we do it well, when we pay kind attention and set up as many chairs at the policy table as we can put our hands on, we have a better chance to help create genuinely inclusive policy, the benefits of which can “follow home” all of the remarkable Eni’s of our world.

Shock Therapy:   Promoting Wider Pathways to Humanitarian Participation, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Nov

This week, I was in Michigan sitting with groups of social work students trying to find pathways to blend the community resiliency they seek to build with a policy community that seems largely disinterested in their skills and testimonies. Among other things, these students struggled with the demands of personal and familial crises, as well as the problems and opportunities that poor, marginalized, disabled persons and others experience for which few if any bureaucratic protocols are entirely relevant.  How, they wondered, do they make a different and preserve their jobs?  How do they communicate the things they have learned in their face-to-face encounters with human need to which their employers are often deaf?  How do they find ways to insert their quite considerable skills into a system that they largely believe to be under-staffed, under-funded and even under-caring?

And make no mistake about it: from the abandoned streets of Detroit to the swollen refugee camps of Lebanon, the international humanitarian system could rightly be described as under siege.  Given the carnage of Syria and Yemen, the generational poverty of Central African Republic and massive refugee flows in the Mediterranean Sea that are rewriting the boundaries of national concern, we are witnessing the evolving of a social and political challenge that is without precedent.

In briefing after briefing to the UN Security Council, OCHA’s USG Stephen O’Brien and others paint a painful picture of impeded access to sites of misery, funding commitments unfulfilled, children abandoned to their own devices, and political resolutions stalled or abandoned.   The burdens now borne by the UN and its major humanitarian partners are trumped only by the misery of so many displaced persons facing a future that seems as grim as the camps that currently hold them.

There will be an attempt to reform our understanding of and responsibility for these crises at the first Humanitarian Summit to be held next May in Istanbul, Turkey. After an extensive process of regional consultations throughout much of 2014 and 2015, a “Co-Chairs summary” was published attempting to crystallize major findings. As the summary noted, “Underlining the entire consultation was the recognition of the common value of humanity and the strong call for the reaffirmation of the universality of the humanitarian principles and upholding international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law. There was a clear call to put affected people at the heart of humanitarian action. Emphasizing that humanitarian action can never replace political solutions to crises, responsible action by global leaders is urgently required to prevent and solve crises and address root causes”

The co-chairs highlighted several themes germane to the consultations and to the core work of humanitarian assistance itself:  Dignity, Safety, Resilience, Partnerships and Finance. Attention was given throughout to helping communities utilize local skills and relationships to become better prepared for crisis response, as well as affirm and finance strategies for caring for persons dislodged by complex humanitarian emergencies occasioned by natural disaster or shocking human violence.

While not expressly named therein, these humanitarian deliberations very much mirror those  that led to the 2030 sustainable development goals – highlighting needs for reliable funding, flexible data, enabling access by host governments, and especially broad participation by diverse stakeholders. In many ways, the participation question is the heart of the matter, the need which if left unfulfilled will jeopardize any hope that we can move humanitarian assistance from response to prevention, from bureaucracy to local contexts and control.

Here in New York, there have been some interesting discussions with suggestions for the type of humanitarian action that delivers with people rather than for them, and that can take its place within a UN system devoted more and more to early political engagement to head off crises before they develop and to strengthening local capacity to deal with crises in the worst instances:

  • Create more rapid response capacity that can anticipate disasters before they materialize and build active, inclusive community partnerships that can help direct humanitarian assistance in the most productive ways.
  • Forge closer relationships with UN political affairs and special political missions inasmuch as many humanitarian crises are political in origin and their most deadly consequences might at least be minimized through robust diplomatic efforts.
  • Promote a better understanding of the security-humanitarian dynamic, including the ways in which overly militarized responses to looming crises can trigger cycles of frustration and retribution that dampen local participation.
  • Create more opportunities for locally-driven response and resiliency plans, developing and coordinating with local assets and placing them effectively and sensitively in the service of humanitarian response.
  • Curb the excessive and often de-contextualized “professionalization” of humanitarian relief, which can result in needlessly inflexible mandates that patronize local residents, instead of incorporating them as agents of response.

In Latin America, as noted often by our colleagues at Instituto Mora, there have been some significant recent successes in response to humanitarian emergencies, though propensities can still be observed to overly-militarize responses even to what are primarily natural disasters – earthquakes, typhoons and flooding.  In addition, what might be called ‘triggers of passivity’ – trafficking in arms and narcotics, gangs, etc. – also inhibit broad community participation in regional humanitarian efforts. Our Mora colleagues are now helping to promote a welcome movement away from humanitarian assistance which is not sufficiently coordinated or financed, does not incorporate local skills, or is discharged by inflexible bureaucracies that do not incorporate into their planning both the benefits and limitations of conventional humanitarian responses and their security arrangements.

While welcome changes are coming, the classic incarnations of humanitarian response are still too often slow to respond, too disconnected from humane political and security arrangements, and certainly too dismissive of local agency. This combination of discouraging factors undermines trust by local communities which we simply cannot afford to squander any longer.  We are simple leaving too many skills on the sidelines – in Mexico, in Michigan and in virtually every community seeking to do its part to preserve and restore human dignity in crisis.  We hope that Istanbul and its preparatory processes can energize responsibilities among diverse stakeholders, and above all make room for the millions of skilled persons seeking and deserving a larger role in humanitarian efforts.