Tag Archives: Social Development

Forwarding Address: Enabling Escape from Desolate Places, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Feb


Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die.   Charles Dickens

The things that currently keep us busy and occupy most of our time do not necessarily give us purpose or leave a legacy.  Terence Lester

A castaway in the sea was going down for the third time when he caught sight of a passing ship. Gathering his last strength, he waved frantically and called for help. Someone on board peered at him scornfully and shouted back, “Get a boat!”  Daniel Quinn

What we fail to realize is that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place. Mike Yankoski

One of the great blessings of this job is the openings it is constantly creating for us to connect with people making hopeful change in diverse community contexts, from sustainable agriculture to art that inspires peacemaking.   Indeed, it is a priority of ours to maintain such connections with projects that correspond to each of the many issues we monitor and weigh in on at the United Nations.  The point of this is simple – to foster engagements with people and issues as they play out beyond the policy bubble in which we spend most of our time.  This constitutes a “reality check” of sorts for us.  If the people doing good work in these diverse contexts don’t feel connected to this policy space, don’t feel inspired or challenged by what goes on here, don’t care much for what we and others attempt to do here, then this is a huge problem for us, a problem of basic connectivity that we have pledged to address and don’t always address well enough.

In this context, one of our most cherished connections is with the Institute for Leadership & Entrepreneurship at Georgia Tech University where, thanks to the encouragement of Dr. Robert Thomas, I am privileged to speak to students of business and engineering at least twice a year.  The Institute houses many interesting and inspirational initiatives including a favorite of mine – models of “servant leadership” that can re-calibrate the way businesses (and other institutions) are organized, helping them to become less bureaucratic and more “horizontal” in the ways in which employees and their ideas are regarded, supported, even cherished.

At some level, this would appear to be odd connection for Global Action — an NGO that can barely meet its basic expenses — addressing students who can easily be compensated more in their first year of employment than I have ever been compensated in any year of employment.  And yet there is synergy evident here, a welcome desire among many of the young people to make the skills they have developed serve more than a personal interest, to have a greater outcome on the state of the world and their own communities than the size of their homes and bank balances — to find a purpose as well as a career.

This is never an easy conversation for even the most issue-enthusiastic students, who often have their social aspirations tempered by parental expectations and ever-ubiquitous loan payments. Moreover, with regard to the UN buildings in which we attempt to do our own work, they exhibit both intrigue and skepticism.  They are often cautiously interested in what takes place at the center of global governance but they primarily seek connections with problems a bit closer to home, problems for which their skills and aptitudes are both needed and well suited, problems which present themselves in direct ways that can sustain the interest of students and their peers, raising the hope that they might actually — someday, somehow —  be resolved once and for all.

During these lecture sessions, I generally resist telling them too much about what goes on at the UN.  It would be too easy to dwell on global problems that we try in our own modest way to address every day – from climate change and human displacement to weapons of mass destruction and the Middle East – but about which the students can currently do little.  It might be interesting to unpack the situation in NE Syria, cyber-threats to peace and security, or the US “deal of the century” on Israel and Palestine that has generated far more skepticism than support inside the UN, but it might also be a distraction from what these skillful students seem to be looking for – pathways to their own participation that can result in meaningful, tangible change.

One possible pathway to making a more sustainable world has been a focus theme this week of the UN’s Commission for Social Development — Affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness.   As many of you already recognize, housing is an issue that is fundamental to meeting our responsibilities to the Sustainable Development Goals, especially to those left “furthest behind.” It is also an issue with both local and global implications that presents abundant opportunities for practical applications of kindness and justice. From the people lining the streets of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco to people relegated to tent cities and makeshift shelters from Tripoli to Cox’s Bazar, the vast (and growing) numbers of people who have been shut out of a resource that most of us cannot imagine ourselves without should surely be a matter of our most sustained concern.

That more of us cannot find in ourselves the stamina and kindness needed to engage these “shut out” persons and others who now find themselves in “desolate places” is in part an indictment of our compromised capacity for practical compassion. But it also reflects our diminished sense of confidence that we possess the emotional and worldly skills to make deep, meaningful connections and contribute to real relief for those who have literally been “uprooted” by conflict or climate change, by abuses of rights and threats of further abuse, by sudden changes to marital or employment status, or by other personal circumstances often beyond their control.  This is challenging work, plain and simple, and it is easy to delude ourselves regarding our fitness to engage it.

And impediments to competence are diverse.   While at the Institute earlier this month, I read one of the student groups a quote from the ever-thoughtful Alison Taylor.  Commenting on the current ethical lapses of the business community, she highlights the “disconnects” that exist as corporations brand and “manage their perimeters” as a way of keeping the core of their operations largely intact. Taylor highlights the sometimes-vast hypocrisy of policies that, for instance, tout environmental commitments “while funding trade associations that lobby against climate change efforts” or employing contractors who work without either healthcare coverage or a livable wage.

These nefarious gaps between “rhetoric and action,” these efforts to defend the perimeter as a strategy to keep from having to change our “core ways” are not news to Institute students nor are they confined to corporate interests.  Indeed, it is getting harder and harder for any of us to believe that there is substance underpinning the rhetorical flourishes we encounter, whether personal or institutional.  But we must find a way past this if we are to sustain the change that we need and that a new generation of students seeks to impact.  We must commit harder to establish our credibility at core level while we find pathways to compassion and kindness and the application of skills that can turn empathy for those hanging on amidst exposed and vulnerable conditions into housing (and related) needs solved.

The issue of housing and homelessness in all its dimensions is one that should surely motivate more of our concern and interest.  It is, thankfully, an issue that seems well-suited to the skills sets of many of the young people who cross our path.  However, like many issues of this sort, response to the of a growing legion of dispossessed is an affair of the heart as much as the head, a heart of compassion and attentiveness to the staggering, existential differences that separate the conditions and life options of those with a stable home and those without one.

For virtually all of my adult years, I have been blessed with a secure apartment, functional appliances, heat (more or less) in the winter, a hot water shower, and an address where people have been able to reach me (and my guest room) reliably over several decades.  The life that I live, the commitments we make, the sometimes dubious mental health that I enjoy, the people who honor the work we do with their words and contributions, all this would be virtually inconceivable lacking these basic assurances.

Around the corner, around the world, such assurances are, indeed, woefully lacking. For those in policy but also for younger voices seeking a greater, compassion-based purpose in an often-hurting world,  we invite you to invest more in securing the stable dwellings for others that we so utterly rely on for ourselves.

Home Alone: Making Space for Human-Scale Sustainable Development, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Feb

Home is where my habits have a habitat. Fiona Apple

I think what you notice most when you haven’t been home in a while is how much the trees have grown around your memories. Mitch Albom

Home isn’t where you’re from; it’s where you find light when all grows dark. Pierce Brown

The Commission for Social Development has taken up its annual presence at the UN.  It is an outlier body in some ways that seeks to take a more holistic (and welcome) view of human well-being, beyond the metrics of consumption and production, beyond the reach of military might and trade balances. The Commission is a place within the UN where really smart people can talk about human respect and “happiness” as freely as they discuss big data and digital access.

Social development is to some degree about how people organize themselves and how certain attributes – poverty, aging and disability among them – impact social cohesion, that is the ability of people to find meaning, identity and fulfillment in the places where they live: and in the best of circumstances, to master how to thrive in each other’s presence without conflict or discrimination.

There are some delegations that seem to take this Commission very seriously including a number of the European states as well as some from the Arab region.  But others express unease with some of the agenda items for the Commission, which include a focus on poverty eradication in Africa that already has “home bases” elsewhere in the UN system. In some instances, there seems to be a concern that the “softer” tones of the Commission lead to value commitments that are perhaps not as inclusive as they seem and that some states have trouble accepting, let alone controlling.

Although it represents a bit of a departure from the hard security and even harder development concerns that preoccupy our office –including this past week ongoing sieges in parts of Syria and peacebuilding in Burundi that suffers from a lack of consensus on what is happening on the ground — I have a soft spot in my heart for this Commission.  I am especially heartened by its attempts to promote human well-being through a wider lens than the “big ticket” items of global security and climate health, though our uneven successes in these domains certainly impact prospects for each and every aspect of social development.

This lens is wide indeed. Family life seeks a home in this Commission.   So do people with disabilities.  So do people facing chronic poverty and homelessness.   So do those facing “old age” without sufficient means to sustain their remaining lifespans. So do people seeking dependable levels of social protection for their children.   So do those seeking to overcome their various addictions.  So do those seeking to open small businesses or secure micro-loans.  So do people – especially youth — seeking employment opportunities in a sometimes unforgiving market.

And so do those recognizing the growing problem of economic and social “inequality.” Indeed, at a side event prior to the opening of the Commission, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Iceland (current Commission Chair) raised the possibility of this Commission becoming the “home base” for this critical and oft-cited concern as we together gear up to meet our sustainable development responsibilities.

In speaking later in the week with a few of the NGOs around UN headquarters, it seems that there is divided opinion on how (or even whether) our expanding inequalities can find a proper seat at the Commission table. Inequalities are, to many of us, critically important obstacles to overcome if the sustainable development goals are to be achieved in anything like a timely manner. So long as wealth and power continue to consolidate, so long as people continue to concentrate on their status rather than their contributions, so long as inequity becomes the price we are willing to pay for consumer access and digital convenience, this problem will remain a most difficult nut to crack.

In such circumstances, for such a “home” within the UN system to matter it must create and then sustain that elusive balance between habit and competence.  It must cultivate the capacity to seize attention within a UN community that is largely distracted by humanitarian emergencies, ocean degradation, nuclear weapons and terrorism.   And it must have the bandwidth to address this singular, complex challenge without losing sight of the many other issues and dimensions of social development to which diplomats and NGOs attached to the Commission are rightly demanding focus.

A home, we must be reminded, can surely be a place of comfort and familiarity, but it is also a focal point of meaning and adaptability to circumstances.  Home is the place where we become who we are, creatures of habit but also creatures of competence and, hopefully, of reliability, honesty and other aspects of character as essential to healthy communities as technological access and the metrics of economic development.  Home often represents a sentimentalized attachment, but one that is tied to real human capacity, to the relationships and contexts that makes it possible for us to get through our hardest days, to push our lives to matter, and then perhaps to matter even more.

Maybe the UN doesn’t have the bandwidth for concentrated attention on concerns such as these.  Maybe the Commission is simply not robust enough to put things like inequalities on the international agenda and then ensure that these issues continue to find the spotlight they deserve. Maybe it is not yet equipped to fully assert the human dimensions of the sustainable development agenda which is now our hallowed task. Maybe the Commission will never be able of itself to generate sufficient light to crowd out the darkness of poverty, discrimination and listlessness that infect too many corners of our world and for which people are increasingly demanding relief.

The ability for any UN agency to meet the demands of a proper home – security and engagement, habit and challenge – is essential. It is important that our work here does not succumb, as duly warned by a former Chilean colleague Juan Somavia in a quote provided by our friends at Global Policy Forum, to the easy virtue of “mechanized” policies that fail to respect “the dignity and value of the human being.” Such elements are absolutely essential both to a life worth living and to the goals of sustainable development that can, once fully implemented, provide a sturdier and more inclusive platform for human well-being.   These are the elements that we would do well to pursue and that this Commission might in some near future be best suited to lead.

If the Commission can find the tools and the narratives to help us all humanize our policy tasks; if it can offer a “home base” for all aspects of social development, including the formidable challenges related to eliminating inequalities; if it can ensure that its core issues are never confined behind locked doors or, as was intimated during this week’s ECOSOC Youth Forum, used as a pretext to keep women and youth in habituated spaces rather than inspiring their full participation in the sometimes uncomfortable world beyond; then its value to the full and timely implementation of the sustainable development goals will be beyond all reproach.

Moreover, if this Commission could somehow manage to rally the full UN system to eschew an overly-“mechanized” policy dynamic, efforts beyond holding aloft – at times virtually alone — the mantle of human dignity and community well-being, then its status as a proper “home” to help all of us holistically identify and address threats to social development will be assured.

And then we will then have that much a better chance of taming the inequalities beast that now threatens to disenfranchise and de-value us all.