Tag Archives: SDGs

Shake Shack:  Mothering in an Unpredictable Age, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 May

My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it. Mark Twain

My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Motherhood was the great equalizer for me; I started to identify with everybody… as a mother, you have that impulse to wish that no child should ever be hurt, or abused, or go hungry, or not have opportunities in life.  Annie Lennox

Yesterday on my way to the office I stood on the subway near a seated mother –my guess is she was from somewhere in the Caribbean — and her young son. They were both visibly fatigued – it was early on a rainy and chilly Saturday and the boy was now becoming a bit agitated.  Without saying a word, without apparently being prompted by the son, the mother carefully fashioned a pillow on her lap and then gently coaxed the child to put his head down.  He was asleep within seconds.

Such acts as these, small but consequential, are much of what we honor on a Mother’s Day.  The comforting and feeding, the diapers and disinfectant, the telling of stories and issuing of warnings, the granting of untimely requests and the mediation of endless sibling squabbling, all of this and more in whatever form it takes is necessary for young vulnerable people of need to grow into older vulnerable people of promise.

Much mothering – whether conducted by biological mothers or “other mothers” – is intended in part to create secure and stable family environments, predictability that is still elusive for far too many children, and that now seems mostly to occur (when it does) within individual domiciles.  We know “where things are” in our homes, but in the world at large, peoples and cultures are now being tossed about as though we were living through a perpetual hurricane.

This represents part of the agony for many mothers I know. We can balance our children’s diet, tell them stories, buy them proper clothes and send them off to school, all the while holding our breath, praying hard and crossing our fingers; hoping that the center will hold long enough in these unstable times for our children to have a happy and productive adult life, that our multitude of small acts consistent with concerned parenting will somehow add up to prospects for prosperity and purpose.

But this hope, as it has for mothers across time and space, has one major caveat:  Most of what we teach our children, most of what we long for their future, depends for their fulfillment on a predictable social and security environment.  And whether or not we’ve actually ever had such a thing, we clearly don’t have that now. Despite what too many of our schools and advertisers and technological gurus need us to believe, the veil of predictability has been pulled back in so many ways, revealing a world that is shuddering if not shaking, increasingly fierce motions that are testing the nerves of both parents and the political leadership who now grace (or dis-grace) our halls of state.

Perhaps it is enough for mothers to teach what they know and hope for the best.   Perhaps that is the very best that can be done.  Or perhaps that is simply the recipe for yet another mother’s heartbreak, and another, and more after that.  Perhaps this recipe needs tweaking just a bit.

This week, in a UN building filled to the brim with talented women, three with lofty gravitas made high-profile appearances representing all three of what the UN calls its policy “pillars.” From the human rights and justice pillar was Ms. Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, who briefed the Security Council on the difficulties in securing prosecutions for crimes in Libya and also met with her “friends” group to discuss ways to eliminate state “non-cooperation” and bring more diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds into the work of the Court. UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed, the custodian of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals promises, provided an inspirational message to the “integration segment” of the Economic and Social Council devoted to meeting the “greatest global challenge” of poverty reduction. And on the peace and security front, High Representative of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, addressed the Security Council on the importance of expanding UN-EU security cooperation. Her remarkable presentation included a soft jab at the United States to both abandon its threatened withdrawal from multi-lateral engagements and to “find its own way” regarding commitments to heal our climate-threatened planet.

What all three of these remarkable women had in common this week is their vocal, passionate commitment to ensuring that our collective promises on justice, development and security will be met; that whatever can be done to calm our shaking planet will somehow become our collective priority.

They all have something else in common – they are all mothers.

I don’t know what kind of mothers they are, and I wouldn’t want to assume.  While you wouldn’t always know it from reading UN policy documents, there are thankfully many ways to be a woman, many ways to mother, many ways to nurture and inspire, many ways to mentor. Our pious certainties regarding “what mothers do,” or “what women want and need” can obscure any number of important struggles (and related conversations) on identity and responsibility.

For their part, I suspect that each of these three mothers of distinction has experienced in her own way more than a few moments of anxiety, perhaps even remorse, given that the demands of their high-order positions make absences from their children’s (or grandchildren’s) daily lives all too frequent.  Many professional women feel this, of course, immersed in meetings rather than in bedtime stories, eating on the run while children text that “daddy’s pancakes don’t taste right.”

But there is something about these particular mothers, something compelling about their vocal and pragmatic resolve to make a better world, one fit for all children not only their own.  Despite responsibilities in the world that place restrictions on family time, there remains the expectation — when their growing progeny have gotten some distance from social media addictions and raging hormones — that they will one day be able to look their children square in the eye and let them know that they did all that they knew to do to ensure a more stable, secure and sustainable world in which –collectively–their dreams and choices can continue to matter.

This is a powerful gift that, like inoculations and braces and homework, children might only be able to appreciate fully when they are old enough – and fortunate enough – to bear children of their own. There are no Hallmark cards devoted to mothers who help “stop the shaking.”  Perhaps there needs to be.

The many young people of diverse backgrounds who pass through our office each year have an eerily similar take on the world they are soon to inherit.  When I ask them if they feel prepared for all the chaotic motion characteristic of this current planetary phase, they almost always and without hesitation respond “no.”  It is difficult to know to what extent this is in response to the diverse threats they experience with us at the UN on a daily basis – wars and rumors of wars, climate change and our often tepid responses, traumatized children and families on makeshift rafts or reeling from the effects of famine. But it is unsettling that after so much parenting and so much schooling, even children of privilege feel inadequate to act on a stage that feels perpetually unsteady.

Also on this dreary New York weekend, I had a long Skype chat with a former colleague struggling in Mexico with the manifold contemporary responsibilities of being a mother – meeting her daughters’ needs, comforting their wounds and guiding their preparation for life outside the home while contributing in a larger sense to the stability of a world in which her parenting can hopefully have some impact.  Thankfully, she is finding that way, not on a global stage like Mohammed or Bensouda perhaps, but in community settings that matter and in ways that communicate – to both her children and the wider society – that there is still a sound basis for hope in our common future.

And like these three women of international prominence, the commitments of my former colleague will allow her one day to look her daughters in the eye and let them know that she also did her part – beyond the packed lunches and bandaging of scraped knees — to secure an unsteady planet.

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Future Shock:  Traumatized Youth and Prospects for Sustaining Peace, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Jan

save-the-planet-for-me

Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children, Sitting Bull

As many of your recognize, part of our task in these weekly missives is to blend events at the UN that are too-rarely blended – to help people inside the UN become more conscious of policy linkages and to help people outside the UN discern what this institution is uniquely suited for – and perhaps not so terribly well suited for.

In both aspects, this week presented multiple venues and options for reflection.

The highlight of the week was probably the 1+ days devoted by the President of the UN General Assembly (PGA) to “sustaining peace,” a welcome effort to link implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), arguably the UN’s most ambitious current project, to the promotion and maintenance of peace, arguably the UN’s most important overall mission.

The events, including a relatively uninspiring, pre-event, “brainstorming” session, attracted the highest levels of officials across the UN system.  Brainstorming is not what we do best here, but this particular session at least put on the table the notion that funding the SDGs will require some adjustments to our rapacious patterns of military spending, and that such adjustments are more likely if we can demonstrate as much capacity to prevent armed conflict as we currently expend to clean up the debris left behind in armed conflict’s aftermath.

The main “sustaining peace” event in the Trusteeship Council was devoted in part to what GA President Thompson called the “disastrous consequences” that conflict inflicts on development prospects. On his last day as chair of the Peacebuilding Commission, Kenya’s Ambassador Kamau urged capacity development for what he called a “diplomatic surge” that could help all UN member states address threats in their earliest and most manageable stages.  And Switzerland’s Minister Baeriswyl was one of several voices advocating for an end to our policy “fragmentation” so that we can impact the security and development fragility of states with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

By the end of these sessions, there was a bit more clarity on what “sustaining peace” means in theory, especially regarding the reinvestment of our energies more towards conflict prevention and less towards the rehabilitation and reconstruction that have proven so costly and with uneven consequences for human and ecological well-being.  Nevertheless, the Mexican Ambassador made his own plea – urging that we quickly move beyond “beautiful political concepts” to embrace the hard, practical work of peacemaking whose success has eluded our grasp in more instances than we are publicly willing to acknowledge.

And much of the failure of that work directly impacts future prospects for our children.

During both the main and side events on “sustaining peace,” states as diverse as Cambodia, Jordan and Andorra all advocated for education to raise levels of SDG awareness among youth.  Such education is welcome especially if it then leads to more direct participation by youth in the implementation of these diverse goals.  And indeed speakers did advocate more pathways to involvement, led by the PGA himself who noted that youth have a greater “skin in this game” since they are the ones who will inherit the fruits of our policy labors, for good or for ill.   In that context, the PGA lamented what he called the “selfishness” of too many adults that inhibits gender balancing and other hopeful prospects for his own (and for many others’) “female grandchildren.”

Indeed, the “selfishness” of adults currently takes so many insidious forms that result in long-term physical and psychological damage to our young.   At a small side event this week seeking funding pledges for a badly-needed “Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty,” a roster of UN and NGO experts highlighted the horrific and lasting impacts on children who find themselves in often inhumane, punitive detention facilities: some who have been victims of organized crime and traffickers; some who were living on the street having been separated from their families; some exhibiting clear signs of mental illness or drug dependency; some seized by government or insurgent forces during armed conflict.  These “invisible and forgotten” children include many who had already been victimized through sexual violence or recruitment into criminality, a second-helping of trauma for lives that are literally being drained of promise.

We can now only guess how many children are currently deprived of liberty in facilities that are dispiriting at best.  In this as in other areas of children’s rights, we need better data to guide our policy and focus our concern.  But what we are already able to predict is the long psychic climb that these deprived children must make if they are ever to live “healthy and constructive” lives, if they are ever to achieve their full capacity to help guide this planet through what remain treacherous waters.

As is noted often at the UN, this generation of youth is the largest in human history.   But it is also a generation characterized by deep distress in many of its sub-groupings.  When damage in the world is mirrored by — — even at times surpassed by — damage absorbed by our children and young people, both education and participation are sure to be negatively impacted by a trust- and confidence-eroding trauma that we can and must collectively do more to prevent.

The UN already recognizes its responsibility to promote “mental health for all” in part through SDG-related initiatives led or supported by several member states including Panama, Belgium, Canada, Liberia and especially Palau.  Indeed, at a UN side event this week co-hosted by the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, Palau’s Ambassador Otto reiterated his plea for mental health services and priorities, noting that it is not only in places like Aleppo and Sana’a where services are needed, but also in the midst of our own hometowns.  Otto recognizes the value of spiritual resources in mental health, but also acknowledges the longer-term threats to peace and development that present themselves when youth and families are abandoned to cope with the impacts of trauma and mental illness that, if anything, are clearly still on the rise, still represent a distressing “shock” to a collective, sustainable future.

In a not-so-charming opening gambit, the new US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley began her tenure here with a threat – that the US would be “taking names” of states that do not “watch the back” of the US and its interests.   We’d like to suggest that the “names” that Ambassador Haley should take first are those of agencies and governments that deliberately inflict – through policy and practice — traumatic damage on children and youth, thereby creating deprivations of mental health that will impede “sustaining peace” efforts long past the tenure of any of our UN offices – or national administrations.

Calling for Clarity and Constancy: The UN Doubles Back on Recent Commitments and Expectations, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Jan

Back in October 2015, under Argentina’s leadership and with the support of several other member states, the UN held a panel on Ethics for Sustainable Development.

We commented at the time on both the format and substance of a discussion that we found to be notable at several levels, including its focus on the many ways in which those who control capital flows and labor relationships have increased inequality at a time when most of us at the UN feel an urgency to narrow it.

This past Wednesday, with leadership from Panama’s Ambassador Flores, part II of this assessment of our collective ethical responsibilities to sustainable development was held.   The large and enthusiastic audience filling the Trusteeship Council chamber, including a large number of permanent representatives, attested again to the importance of the UN’s ethical responses to its own high commitments and the broad expectations thus raised.   The content of this discussion was both structural and personal, and demonstrated much overlap with the October event.

For us, such overlap was welcome as it reinforced sentiments shared by Palau, the Netherlands, panelist Dr. Bernardo Kliksberg and others, that while we are certainly capable of overcoming avarice and other forms of malice, ethics is hard, habituated work for persons (and institutions) as “complex” as we all tend to be.  Sustaining ethical behavior requires regular reinforcement and self-scrutiny even (especially) at the heart of global governance.   Unfortunately, as Dr. Kliksberg noted, we have spent too much of our collective energy “hardening our hearts” and waiting for technology to soften the blows which we have inflicted on ourselves through our generalized inattentiveness and our “speculative, unbridled greed.”  We can (and should) do a better job of cultivating our ethical nature, as noted by Liberia, but there are few short-cuts – no pills to swallow or aps to download that can keep us from having to set out on the long and often winding ethical road.

The “ethical roadmap,” cited by Ambassador Flores, is an important contribution to SDG fulfillment, but as we know from our own work with Green Map System, maps are mostly useful only when people desire to get to the places to which the maps point us.  The more thoroughly we cultivate and model ethical behavior, the more we reinforce the notion that ethics is a daily walk and not an episodic one, the more useful that ethical roadmap will become.

The Deputy Secretary-General, as is often his welcome role, sought to assist event organizers in rallying diplomats and NGOs to embrace an ethic worthy of this “unprecedented” SDG agenda.   He shared the view that the SDGs can best be understood as a “declaration of interdependence,” a declaration that privileges solidary with the most vulnerable.   We at the UN have raised expectations very high now; meeting this ambitious calling requires us to be regularly informed by those whom we seek to support.  It requires us to reach out intently, but also to reach deeply, beyond our zones of comfort to places hard to reach and even harder to address.   The “margins” we acknowledge here in New York are often safer and more “recognizable” spaces than those framing the context for families struggling at the edges of desperation.

Ethics is hard work indeed, but it is hardly without its conceptual guideposts and even its satisfying moments. Dr. Kliksberg made mention of Pope Francis’ “hallowed addiction” to addressing the needs of the poor, an addiction which seems to energize the Pope and from which our own, policy-driven, poverty-reduction efforts could learn some valuable, sustaining lessons. The president of ECOSOC, Amb. Oh Joon of the Republic of Korea, cited “access to justice” as a fundamental “leveling principle,” such leveling being a key outcome of SDG fulfillment but also a cardinal value of a newly revitalized ECOSOC that will celebrate its 70th anniversary later this week at the UN.

Despite what our current economics and politics might suggest, this commitment to “leveling” is in the best interest of all of us.  We cannot continue to plunder the planet and turn the most desperate constituencies into statistical abstractions or social media caricatures.  We cannot raise the bar with one hand and use the other to smack down people desperate to grab on.

Back in the Trusteeship Council chamber, Germany was clear on the point that “ethics is not a luxury” for 2030 development implementation.   But this net must be cast wider.   The expectations that we raise across the three pillars of UN activity all have ethical components, as does our collective behavior which sometimes falls off the proverbial “wagon” when we think no one is looking.

Someone is always looking.

As many diplomats have affirmed with a sense of well-deserved pride, this is a big moment for the world; also for the UN.  If we can deliver on our development and climate promises; if we can (as Palau noted) systematize ethics in our diverse policy outcomes; if we can better balance (as Argentina urged) our national ambitions with our commitment to inclusion, then the most vulnerable will get more of what they need, the planet will stand a chance, and the UN will have made an important statement about the indispensability of multilateral frameworks going forward.

All of these qualify in whole or in part as “hallowed addictions,” worthy in their own right of our full and ethical attention.

Treasure Hunt:  the UN seeks the means to honor the expectations it raises, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Aug

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” comes at the end of a passage in the Christian Bible that appears to be denigrating wealth but is actually warning about our over-identification with the things we own and control.  It is also a reminder that how we invest our energies and our riches says much about who we are – individually and collectively — and what we actually care about, beyond the rhetoric of our own self-definition.

This week there were other “treasure” lessons to be learned at the UN. As we know, the “need for funding” is a ubiquitous feature of virtually every UN discussion. The “world we want,” a common slogan to inspire interest in the (still awaiting adoption) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is very much related to the “world we wish to pay for.”  In one UN conference room after another, and to a degree that is unprecedented in UN history, issues from innovative peacekeeping to heart-breaking humanitarian disasters seek out willing investors.  While most of this “seeking” takes the form of overtures to wealthier governments, it is becoming more and more apparent that such investors are pulling back on at least some of their commitments.  Pledges are less and less likely to be fully honored.   And, as Global Policy Forum has recently made plain in a new report, “Fit for Whose Purpose?”, more and more UN-related funding is being diverted from core functions to earmarked projects more directly consistent with national interest.

The fiscal dilemma for the UN mirrors a potentially troubling credibility gap.  Our diverse, frenetic and largely hopeful activities at the UN are collectively raising expectations throughout the global community.  Fueled in large measure by UN-generated branding, people have come to expect that the SDGs will eliminate poverty and save our oceans and forests from devastation.   People have come to expect that the Arms Trade Treaty will dramatically reduce weapons-related violence, that peacekeeping operations will protect civilians threatened by rape and rebuild violence ravaged states, that wildlife trafficking will be eliminated and threats of extinctions averted.  Within limitations, many of these worthy goals are enhanced by UN activity, of course, but people far from UN negotiating rooms can’t always navigate the distance between text-based commitments and active, binding promises.  They can’t always distinguish between the “world we want” and the world with which we might well have to eventually make our peace.  The expectations we project from the UN are often grandiose and almost always underfunded.  And the disappointments they sometimes generate are felt widely and return to this institution the bewilderment of much of the global public.

As one means to bring expectations and resources into some balance and as a supplement to (real or rhetorical) state funding limitations, the UN is increasingly looking to “public-private sector partnerships.”  While some consideration is given to small business interests, it is the large corporations and foundations that are increasingly looked to fill funding gaps and help the UN fulfill more of its promises.   And there is reason not to dismiss the benefits of these arrangements out of hand.  However, as noted by Global Policy Forum, whether it is Coca Cola with UN Women or The Gates Foundation with the WHO, the hegemony of large entities “partnering” with an institution with whose core values and assumptions they might not be fully aligned should give pause to the many groups and their millions of constituents who will never receive an invitation to any “partner” seminars or receptions.  The UN may well be open for business, but the terms and potential benefits (and risks) of those negotiations remain among the least transparent in the entire UN system.

Are there other sources to fund ambitious SDGs that we are overlooking? Development funding from the major state donors has to compete with domestic concerns of course, but also in many cases with rapacious military appetites.   The “guns and butter” arguments that used to punctuate UN budget discussions, at least as introduced by NGOs, have largely been silenced. Weapons development and use remain major impediments to social development and environmental health, but these linkages now seem to have fallen off the policy table, swept aside by dysfunctional disarmament machinery and arms-friendly documents such as the Arms Trade Treaty and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Moreover, many advocates have invested heavily in a “peace” SDG goal 16 that barely notes the consequences of illicit weapons and doesn’t mention at all the more devastating impacts of “licit” weapons or the discouraging budgetary impacts of still-out-of-control military spending.

Instead of focusing on the most obvious (if perhaps also most taboo) source of development funding, the UN has chosen to invest its brand in these “partnerships” linking state, corporate and charitable stakeholders.  As is now being recognized, much more oversight of these ‘partnerships’ will be needed, many of which involve formidable players whose financial leverage literally dwarfs that of the countries they seek to “help.”  While we don’t anticipate signs outside the UN proclaiming “Disarmament Affairs brought to you by Bechtel” or “UNDP brought to you by Nestle” there is clearly danger that the intense product branding and generalized disinterest in those at the bottom of the consumer scale characteristic of too many large corporate entities will jeopardize more than enhance implementation of the final, adopted set of post-2015 development goals and targets.

More than ever, it seems, responsible NGOs will be characterized in part by their willingness to “follow the treasure,” and then carefully assess its implications for the UN system, even if that means temporarily reigning in some of their own branded program priorities.  Again as noted by Global Policy Forum this week, we are at a critical moment at the UN (as we are in the US and other large states) regarding the growing ability of “big money” to buy significant policy clout.  If NGOs don’t respond to the challenge of lifting this veil and keeping it open, it is not at all clear where this urgent scrutiny is to come from.

But this moment requires even more — taking a look at our own complicated relationship to money, the policy compromises and rationalizations that can occur when we willingly accept funding from states or other stakeholders, even the unwarranted branding that comes when donor states or corporations seek to promote their own grantees at the expense of other worthy (and often more diverse) stakeholders.   Moreover, as was apparent earlier this week during the Sovereign Debt Restructuring working session of the General Assembly, we are working now within an economic system characterized by shocking levels of abstraction in financial decisionmaking, rampant consumer excess, and governments content to enable economic predators as much as regulate them. Treasure, as it turns out, bears high potential for self-delusion by all “partners” – those holding the purse strings and those beholden to them.   And this delusion will have every bit as much to bear on the potential success of post-2015 development goals as the quality of the SDG outcome document.

The implications of our search for “treasure” are far reaching and not always as self-validating as we might think.   Many people, diplomats and NGOs alike, have poured their hearts into an SDG blueprint to end inequality and preserve the planet. As we move together from “the world we want” to the “world we make,” we would do well also to keep close track of the ways in which we obtain, budget and allocate whatever treasure for sustainable development is to be entrusted to us.