Tag Archives: rural life

Green Acres: Diverse and Rural Voices for Sustainable Security, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Mar


Distrust and caution are the parents of security. Benjamin Franklin

You cannot achieve environmental security and human development without addressing the basic issues of health and nutrition. Gro Harlem Brundtland

We spend our time searching for security and hate it when we get it. John Steinbeck

Only in growth, reform, and change, paradoxically enough, is true security to be found. Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The UN building has been almost completely given over these days due to the thousands of women who have come to the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).  Given our substandard March weather this year, the main UN buildings have seen especially long lines for food and other essentials as well as overflow crowds for most of the side events held inside (and in some cases outside) UN buildings.

The focus for this CSW has been “rural women,” an important topic for us and some of our core partners, but also a bit of a conundrum given the largely urban origins of most stakeholders at UN Headquarters.   With some exceptions, we don’t come to this policy community from the farms, or the hilltops, or the swamps.  We tend not to deal with rural matters much unless there are tragedies to be addressed, humanitarian aid to be delivered or protection to be organized.  The rhythms of rural life are largely not our business, nor our interest.   We rarely see rural communities as opportunities for learning, places that can help us recover a more personal and place-based antidote to the anxieties, distractions and disconnects of urban living.

The problems noted by this CSW are real enough as people in too many parts of the world face violence and discrimination, abuse and displacement, drought and inattentive governance.   In other (non-CSW) discussions this week,  we were privy to Security Council struggles to enact a sustainable cease fire across Syria,  General Assembly efforts to negotiate a “global compact” on safe, orderly migration, and commitments by the Economic and Social Council to navigate the extraordinary financial obligations that our commitments to the Sustainable Development goals have incurred.  And the Peacebuilding Commission laid out a plan for long-terms security – health, economic, physical and developmental – as the peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL) prepares to draw down at month’s end.

All of these discussions have implications for at least some of the rural women who were ostensibly the focus of this CSW but who were largely confined to “their own” events without getting a broader sense of the capacity of the UN or, indeed, the amount of time and energy that is already invested here on issues of importance to women, including and beyond the women who occupy this policy space.  This CSW was not a “prophetic moment” for those of us who spend our long days in the UN, though it might have been otherwise if there was more attention paid to the full scope of rural women’s aspirations and experiences beyond the heartache, beyond the very-real victimization, even beyond the narratives of those fortunate enough to be in New York to “represent” rural interests.

Rural life itself is not a problem; it has its unique vulnerabilities and challenges, it sometimes suffers patterns of discrimination that are off the radar of media and their elite constituents, but neither does it seek to conform to many of the political and cognitive biases of our urban centers.  Nor is it without plenty to teach the rest us about the changes we need to make and the risks we need to take in our own contexts.

As frustrated as my all-female, non-white cohort has sometimes been with what they see as the redundancies and risk-averse solidarities of this CSW, there were some notable exceptions among the copious side events devoted to trafficking, #metoo and the general problematizing of rural contexts.  Among these was an excellent event focused on the role of women in building a sustainable peace for Libya, a country that has barely and only fitfully recovered from the 2011 security fiasco that removed Gaddafi but left a middle-income country in virtual ruin.  That a higher profile on Libya peacebuilding should be accorded the women who presented at this event (and their peers back home) would not be challenged by any who were in their immediate audience.

Another hopeful, security-related event was held a bit off-campus, but was not at all off-point.   Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, a longtime friend of our office, has founded a new organization, Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) dedicated to expanding both the dimensions of national security and the people who have impact on security definitions and priorities.  The CSW event that WCAPS hosted, “Redefining National Security,” brought together a diverse group of women of color with a range of experiences and views on how notions of national security are evolving (or not) to embrace a range of new and largely cross-border concerns, many of which (as is well-known to CSW delegates) impact women’s lives disproportionately.

This was a room of skilled women of who were determined, passionate and thoughtful; determined to have a say in the security-related definitions and policies that impact all our lives, passionate about “changing the global community landscape,” and thoughtful about their “takes” on security and the need to constantly listen, constantly invest our ideas with the people for whom security is not primarily equated with our bloated military apparatus, but rather spans a range of worries related to climate change and pandemics, cyber-crime and food security.  Despite the lofty positions held by some of the speakers and their obvious respect for one another, there was a refreshing absence of “like mindedness” in the room.  The levels of participation they seek for themselves and others regarding the most pressing security issues of the day require more than gender solidarity; they require a commitment to personal growth and risk as well.

We don’t know where all of these growth-oriented conversations are to be found, but we know that they exist and are deserving of our thoughtful support. There appears to be as yet no #metoo to encourage such growth, nor are there sufficiently reliable pathways yet proposed to locate and sustain the fully inclusive policy platforms that have eluded so many rural women, so many women of color, for so very long.   But they are coming.

As several minister-level panelists noted during a CSW side event on rural women in the Arab region, their region’s rapid urban growth is causing many problems for rural women seeking to maintain attention on their needs and aspirations, including increasing the “distance” between themselves and the (mostly urban) centers of policy influence.  Where can we find rural women, Arab and otherwise, in the midst of regional and international discussions on women’s rights and women, peace and security issues? Indeed, where are the openings for rural voices, male and female alike, to provide guidance on what “security” really means, in all its dimensions, through all of its challenges?  How can women who, in the words of panelists, are often neither recognized nor appreciated for all their burdens and responsibilities enter into spaces where their legitimate grievances are merely the opening gambit for a larger discussion about the minority who apparently “belong” in the club and the many millions (male and female) who are still forced to wait beyond the ropes?

If women of color can help us all to embrace and grow a larger and more inclusive security framework, and if rural women of all backgrounds and their communities can have greater impact on the personal and social dimensions of that framework, we will be well on our way towards the sustainable peace and security that we and (soon) our children long for.

City Harvest:  Seeking a UN Urban Agenda That Deepens our Rural Connections, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 May

This week the UN Security Council was on mission in East Africa, the General Assembly was focused on AIDS and Migration, and the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues concluded another round of UN-based advocacy.  The rest of the building was taken up with preparations for the UN Humanitarian Summit (now underway in Istanbul) and with aspects of trade, development and “south-south” cooperation relevant to the fulfillment of our general obligations under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Perhaps the most important of these were discussions took place under the aegis of UN Habitat on a Draft Document towards a “New Urban Agenda” that will help guide the Habitat III convening scheduled for later this year in Quito, Ecuador.

The rationale for another major gathering on cities is difficult to refute.  As the document’s introduction makes clear, our global demographic continues its rapid shift towards urban areas.  Predictions now are that, by 2050, as many as 70% of global inhabitants will reside in cities making urbanization “one of the 21st century’s most transformative trends.”

These meetings were largely upbeat, highlighting significant improvements in the quality of lives of urban residents since the UN first took up the challenges of cities in the mid-1970s.  Delegations were generous in their acknowledgment of the technological, economic and cultural innovations so often characteristic of cities.  As mostly urban dwellers themselves (even when not serving in New York) delegates seemed grateful for the opportunity to do their part to enhance the longer-term quality of urban settings.

As we know, cities are places of cultural and ethnic diversity; they also, as UN Women duly noted at a related event this week on “Movements of Refugees and Migrants,” provide places of hospitality and employment opportunities for migrants who often find within cities both a base line acceptance along with a community of ex-pats to help ease what can often be a frustrating and lonely transition.  Cities are magnets for the underemployed and dispossessed, but also for the entitled and ambitious.  Cities allow people to redefine themselves, to test their skills and talents, to become something other than what had been “planned out” for them by others.

But cities are also places of distraction and suspicion.  They breed anonymity and emotional disconnection.  City residents are so often found staring into tiny smart phone screens rather than seeking out what little sky lies beyond the tops of buildings.  People in cities become more comfortable with the insides of transit stations than with farmlands or watersheds.  They are part of increasingly relentless, market-driven environments with vast options for consumption and entertainment far beyond those found in other settlements.  And there are times when an endless range of options makes it difficult to make – and hold fast to – any decision, be it about consumptioin or more personal matters.  Sometimes there are so many tempting dishes on the menu it takes many frustrating minutes to figure out just what you want to order.

In our work with environmental mapping (Green Map) we have noted, time and again, the growing impact of human and technological innovation on urban living, offering pathways to make such living more convenient and helping to solve infrastructure related problems that were previously resistant to change.  But we have also noted the degree to which peoples’ (even basic) knowledge about their urban environment is flimsy and compromised.  While advances can regularly be cited related to urban poverty reduction, protecting wildlife habitats, enhancing food security, expanding waterfront access, and “greening” our energy use and modes of transportation, too many urban residents continue to “go small,” seeing mostly what is on the screens right in front of them instead of grasping the issues and connections that that will give us the best chance to move beyond still-current threats to the longer-term achievement of sustainable urban living.

Part of what we need to see now is that larger picture that Peru and others provided during the Habitat discussions: In addition to attention to things like the preservation of cultural heritage and fortifying disaster preparedness and relief in this unsettling time of climate fluctuation, Peru also cited a critical need to enhance urban-rural connections, including a renewed respect by city dwellers for the lifestyles and livelihoods of a shrinking rural populace.

This last agenda is easier said than done.   Until and unless there is a crisis of access (or until we need a vacation break from our urban chaos), city folks too often tend to take rural areas and their inhabitants for granted.   Collectively, we don’t think much about the ways in which our food is grown and produced.  We don’t worry much about the security and sustainability of our reservoirs and watersheds.   We don’t pay much attention to the people who mine our minerals, maintain our cross-country roads or bury the cables for our internet upgrades.   And we almost willfully ignore the lifestyles of people – indigenous and not – who choose to reside beyond the bright lights of cities, people who resist joining the throngs seeking opportunity, security, convenience and endless distraction in urban settings.

Changing this dynamic portends benefits for many, including those who still reside in rural areas and whose issues are often buried under an avalanche of city-focused policy and city-obsessed media.  What is now required, as the Food and Agricultural Organization noted during the South-South discussions, is a new form of cooperation on matters of vital, common interest, a new way (as the “New Urban Agenda” document referred to it) of “conceiving urban-rural linkages.”

This “conceiving” must go beyond rivers and melons to embrace common efforts to reduce our eco-footprint and create reciprocal and tangible regard for diverse lifestyles that reflect important aspects of our human character.   As we cannot flourish without urban innovation and diversity neither can we flourish without deep connections to the land and its biodiversity which surrounds us, or to the people who live with and cherish such connections.  As Cuba noted this week, sustainable development cannot be achieved without the active participation of global “south” countries, but neither can it be achieved in the absence of the skills, care and wisdom of their diverse rural peoples.

A representative of one of those rural peoples – the Sami – came to the Indigenous Forum this week seeking (as did others) redress and reconciliation for what was termed policies of “forced assimilation.”  Whether we like it or not, in an age of climate-related famine, weather-related disasters and widespread armed violence, much of what is driving urban growth feels a bit “forced” as well. We urge Habitat III to do everything possible to continue on the path to make urban centers thrive.  But city life can be vital without being inevitable.  Preserving, enhancing and respecting the “rural option” should be understood as being in the best interests of urban dwellers and constitutes a major objective for those tasked with defining urban interests.