Tag Archives: sustainable development

Gold Rush: Ending the Confinement of Youth Voices, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 May


It’s going to take some time, this time. Karen Carpenter/Carole King

What a weary time those years were — to have the desire and the need to live but not the ability. Charles Bukowski

This is the age you are broken or turned into gold. Antonia Michaelis

Our lives were just beginning, our favorite moment was right now, our favorite songs were unwritten. Rob Sheffield

Youth ends when egotism does; maturity begins when one lives for others. Hermann Hesse

The adult mind can lie with untroubled conscience and a gay composure, but in those days even a small deception scoured the tongue, lashing one against the stake itself. Daphne du Maurier

This past Friday I was privileged to log in to a presentation by students of Otis College of Art and Design as part of a class directed by Gina Valona and focused on creating conditions for “inclusive governance” and “environmental stewardship” through their organization T.I.A. — Transparent, Inclusive and Accountable government for all.

Her coaching of these young people has clearly been superb, and the results were stunning. Despite the COVID-inspired disruptions, limitations and discouragements, these students created a series of hopeful projects which, if they could be funded and duly implemented, would better connect the people of Los Angeles with their natural and built environments, helping them make healthier decisions, connect more effectively with government officials, and engage a much wider array of stakeholders in the longer-term, post-COVID work of sustainability. From mobile curriculum and “Green Mapping” to design for a TIA Mascot and a Los Angeles Environmental Center, these young voices were determined to be recognized amidst the gloom of an isolating, stealth virus and an economy on the brink.

This isn’t the only youth-energized project that we come across. We have extraordinary young people passing through our joint office regularly, many working on initiatives dedicated to lifting the veil of weapons-related policies that have been  allowed to continue threatening entire societies. And we have written previously about the (#1MillionTrees2020) eco-leadership of Burundi’s Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze which actually attracts more attention on our twitter feed than any other initiative we cover.

As we surely recognize, there is plenty more where that came from: Caring for the planet and its diverse communities. Living for others.

From our vantage point there are many good reasons to lend whatever coaching and publicity we can to youth initiatives. We recognize the need for our political and social leadership to get younger, more diverse, more attentive to the values and aspirations of generations now and those to come, more sensitive to the unique constellation of obstacles and limitations – from pandemics to climate threats – that force too many young people to sit on their often-legitimate impatience rather than directing their abundant energy to more personally satisfying and socially productive ends.

From those whose early lives have been dominated by the aspirations of schooling to the even greater number of young people seeking more immediate employment opportunities to keep their families fed and safe, we struggle still to make space for young people, to exit the ride we’ve been on for some time and let the next group of younger ticket holders take their seats. Their collective clock is ticking and too many of us seem deaf to its ominous warnings, more akin to a time-bomb than a travel alarm.

The UN struggles at times to hear as well, as do many of the governments which form its membership. But this past Monday, under the leadership of April’s president Dominican Republic, the Security Council revisited its responsibilities to promote and ensure participation through its Youth, Peace and Security agenda (Resolution 2250). Among the more compelling statements was the one delivered by UN Youth Envoy Jayathma Wickramanayake who questioned whether governments are up to the challenge of creating a viable, multi-generational, change framework. As Belgium made clear, rightly in our view, if the lives of young people are to bear the scars of climate change and pandemics, hate speech and economic upheaval, shouldn’t they also be consulted?

The Youth Envoy made additional reference to the frequent media images of “irresponsible youth” while lamenting what she sees as the less frequent images of young people renouncing violence and caring for the needs of their communities. Her statement points to one of the problems with discussions of this sort, the endless struggling over stereotypical imaging that mis-defines entire groups of people, indeed in this instance, entire generations; theirs of course, but my own and others as well.

The larger truth is that efforts of young people to find their voice, to find their place, to move past the obstacles that often seem both formidable and endless – these are often very personal, even intimate struggles embodying dimensions both individual and generational. They are struggles now buffeted by pandemic distancing and economic uncertainty, but also by gross inequalities that represent a large and hostile foot on the necks of millions of young people who will never be invited to policy discussions or consulted about the path forward in this seemingly impediment rich and opportunity poor world. If this is indeed the stage of life, as it was for me long ago, where we are either “broken or turned into gold,” we have for too long accepted “broken” as the inevitable outcome for so many young people, ensuring that their often-considerable idealism and rightful sensitivity to the hypocrisy of we older folks who purport to “lead” them will be forever buried under a virtual avalanche of survival-related concerns.

At the UN on Monday, one of the most successful statements was delivered by the Ambassador of Niger, during which he pointed to the remarkable “optimism” expressed by many youth in his youngest of the world’s continents despite impacts on their young lives from violence, disease and unemployment. I have been in many parts of this “youngest continent” and have seen the talent taking shape in many forms and at many levels. I beheld as well the frustrations related to forms of economics and governance that are not making sufficient space for youth nor are they doing enough to nurture the skills and aspirations of young people, including those for whom displacement remains as likely a prospect as a university degree. How long will governments interpret youth advocacy and energy as a threat rather than an engine of social renewal? How long can this youth optimism possibly survive when the “gold” they might well become is so often ignored or dismissed by their elders?

It is surely a “weary” time for many of the world’s young people, a time when levels of trust in older folks are often lower even than levels of opportunity.   One of the blessings of youth has been, and surely remains, its varying but considerable levels of resilience, especially to disappointment.  We have all made messes in our lives, fallen out of line, suffered pain and heartbreak, sometimes self-inflicted.  Many of us have made decisions about labor and love that resulted in less than we imagined but from which we were able to move on rather deftly, to learn what we could and head out again on an uncertain, unpaved path. Many of us have boxed ourselves into corners but managed to escape their confinement and resolved never to find ourselves in such a place again.

But this time seems different, different of course from what people like me experienced long ago, but also different in terms of what is required of the youth of today. In this age of viral loads and climate meltdown, of mountains of debt and economies too strained to service them, the message to youth too often is that we expect them to remain patient while keeping their lives on hold, restraining their tongues, deferring their dreams, and socially isolating in confined spaces. It makes me sadder than I can communicate to think of so many energetic young people stuck in a starting gate with no clear sense of when the horses on which they are sitting will be released.

I know that the release will come. The obstacles will shift. The mean-spirits that dominate our political discourse will give way to kinder, more honest voices. The economic addictions that have imperiled the planet will evolve into a softer consumption. And the recognition will grow that young people are neither saviors nor narcissists, but people of varying portions of optimism, skill and energy who are often quite able and willing to help us all make the transitions we in our socially-distanced, stay-in-place realities are now so desperate to make.

But sadly, much of that is unlikely to happen as soon as it should.  The old habits and fresh challenges of the moment seem much too daunting. We must all keep working at ending the confinement of youth voices, youth potential; but also warning them honestly.

It’s going to take some time, this time.

Denial Land: Resisting the Allure of the Normal, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Mar


Life went back to normal after that, as it will do if you’re not careful. Michael Montoure

Everything was perfectly healthy and normal here in Denial Land. Jim Butcher

Maybe everyone should talk to themselves. Maybe we’re all just afraid of what we’d say. Katie Kacvinsky

People have gotten used to living a botched-up life. Jaggi Vasudev

All of us prayed for normal. But so far, normal only meant more misery. Katie McGarry

Normal is the recession of our hopes and dreams. Natalie Gibson

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. Joni Mitchell

Sitting in my little room with my little red computer, I had a conversation recently with my longtime friend and downstairs (NY) neighbor about the need to use some of this “viral time” to think about the world that will emerge at some point or other, a time to prepare for decisions we have to make about the priorities of our institutions, the health of our agriculture and oceans, the transparency of our politics, the strength of our multilateral arrangements.

As I concluded my not-so-enlightened rant, she interrupted me with a reminder: that the reform of our politics and economics is largely predicated on the type of people we want to be, the inner reform that (as we at Global Action have actually maintained for some time) must accompany structural reform; structures that can otherwise offer only promises of relief from the burdens of misery and danger that so many in our world experience, the “recession” of the hopes and dreams that so many of us have simply forgotten how to realize.

This inner reform constitutes the basis for the talks that we need to have with ourselves about ourselves.

And we need to have them as a matter of urgency.   Five years ago the UN settled on a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of a 15 year commitment to create a world that was cleaner, healthier, fairer and less violent. Joining those many who cheered adoption of the goals and targets, we lamented only that there was so little in the agenda that was focused on ourselves, the erstwhile captains of the boats that we keep steering treacherously close to the rocks despite our lofty intentions to do otherwise.

Five years in, many of the SDGs are lagging significantly behind their promises. We have given precious more than lip service to ending food security, gender balancing our institutions, providing universal health care access, and fulfilling other core commitments.   We have continued to expend vast fortunes on military hardware, some of which ends up actively fomenting misery, fear, displacement and instability on virtually all continents. We have economies that have stretched the inequalities they could otherwise have narrowed, offering more and more to fewer and fewer, and draining funds for a wide range of essential public services in too many global societies. We have undermined inclusiveness in social and political life and used technology to compromise elections rather than ensure their integrity.

And this was all happening before the COVID-19 onslaught, the immediacy of which has positioned the full implementation of our various SDG commitments even further in the distance. Adding to the trillions we have spent on military hardware and tax breaks for the wealthy, we now must spend trillions more propping up economies whose vulnerabilities have been laid bare, with little left over to effectively tackle the problems that had already brought us to a collective tipping point.

Moreover, due to the spread of COVID-19, we can no longer gather in public places to demand better of our institutions, including relatively straightforward matters such as ensuring broader access to clean water for drinking and hand-washing, or a decent education for our children.   The hopes and dreams of many millions are clearly in “recession” as rarely before and it will take more – much more – than an “all clear” signal on the pandemic from our governments for us locate the track we should have been on in the first place.

If indeed we are to board the right train going forward, we will need more implementing wisdom from our now-stretched institutions, of course, but also more from ourselves. As frightening as the current pandemic can be, the greatest test of our mettle (not to mention our collective sanity) might well come at the end of this threat, when we must decide whether to truly “leave no-one behind,” or return to the faux-comforts of “normalcy” – the resurgence of old habits — some of which are related to faith, family and community, but also those related to economic predation and pollution, of political and climate instability, of xenophobia and discrimination, of armed conflict and the evermore sophisticated weaponry with which it is waged.

We know that, especially in the West, “normal” is one of those things against which we are “privileged” to rebel until we know longer have the things that normally fill up our zones of comfort. And as we sit in our places of quarantine struggling harder than usual (for us) to procure some of what we have become “accustomed to”, unable to socialize, or find toilet paper, or even to offer a hug, the allure of the “normal” is rearing its head once again. People ask “when can we get back” to that time when we now imagine that, for us at least, everything seemed to be just dandy; how can we reincarnate that selective memory of ourselves being more or less happy and content, a time when we could walk freely in our parks, sample copious amounts of restaurant food,  and expect reasonable levels of attentiveness from our doctors and grocery clerks, some of the very people whose lives are now literally on the line for the sake of the rest of us?

In this current, romantic longing  for a return to normalcy, we’ve forgotten how much we’ve accommodated often “botched up” lives; indeed how the choices we’ve made in the name of “normal” have created ripples of misery for others – those close at hand and others far away — that we have resolutely refused to acknowledge. Most of us don’t have the skill to rescue desperately sick virus victims or enjoy access to government officials with the power to free prisoners incarcerated for political reasons and now terrified of a viral death sentence. But we can begin that conversation with ourselves about what we truly care about, the deeper values often buried under superficial habits and self-delusional memories, and to consider seriously how we are able and willing to contribute to a more sustainable world once this current threat abates.

A primary attribute of “Denial Land” is the belief that “normal” was better than it actually was, that it is something to which we should now aspire rather than something to scrutinize and revise.  The suffering that we have too-often accommodated or explained away does not need to dominate our post-COVID reality. The decision about what that reality will look like lies largely with us, based in good measure on the conversations that we are now willing to have with ourselves.

Identity Theft: Restoring Access and Dignity for Millions, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Mar

Without dignity, identity is erased. Laura Hillenbrand
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.  Oscar Wilde
Living a lie will reduce you to one.  Ashly Lorenzana
We experience ourselves our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. Albert Einstein
I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. Audre Lorde
You are a thousand things, but everyone chooses to see the million things you are not. m.k.
One of the most interesting aspects of life inside UN headquarters these days is the diversity of conversations and events focused on what the Secretary-General has designated as the “Decade of Action” regarding fulfillment of our responsibilities to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  This decade seeks to make clear that while the SDGs require us to “stop doing things” such as polluting our oceans and discriminating against migrants, it also requires us to raise the bar to ensure food security, promote the rule of law,, create decent employment opportunities and much more.
From alleviating the impacts of violence on children to the statisticians charged with monitoring progress on goals from gender to environment, the UN is indeed making a good faith effort — and must continue to demonstrate even more — to honor its unprecedented promises to bring sustainable dividends to those for whom such dividends in the past have largely been a mirage.
And yet, sitting through these UN discussions of varying levels of interest and passion, there are several trends that we frequently notice.  First, there tends to be more problem sharing than problem solving. This “Decade of Action” is admittedly still in its infancy but it has not yet sufficiently permeated the “culture” of UN conference rooms.  Parallel reforms to the UN’s resident coordinator system offer the promise of development that is more tailored to circumstance and better coordinated with national development priorities.  But at headquarters the talk is still much about the logistics of forthcoming meetings or policy guidance on actions still to be taken rather than on states inspiring other states to do more for those genuinely in danger of being left behind.
The second thing we notice is a failure to clearly articulate the ways in which parts of the UN system are still “in the way” when it comes to fulfilling our common SDG commitments.  The primary culprit here might well be the Security Council, whose half-successes on preventing and resolving conflict (see Iraq or Yemen) contribute to enormous pressure being place on UN agencies responsible for humanitarian and development assistance.  Of the looming threats in the world that have the potential to wipe away development progress and drive humanitarian need to the breaking point, the persistence of armed conflict and the trafficking and excess weapons production which provide its oxygen remain as major culprits.  Indeed it seems as though more sustained policy reflection is in order regarding the “drag” on sustainable development coming from within the system responsible for ensuring such development.
And finally we notice that so much of the policy discourse focused on SDGs comes from the mouths of persons, like myself, who surely live under threats from climate change, ocean degradation and weapons of mass destruction, but for whom the bulk of needs and access issues associated with SDG commitments do not directly apply.  Indeed, even a cursory review of the 2019 Sustainable Goals Report reveals this often gross disparity between those in danger of being left behind yet again and those, like me, who are virtually never left behind.
For instance, according to the UN report, food insecurity is on the rise in many global regions, yet my own food access is both abundant and stable.  Access to fresh water is under threat in many places, but the quality of New York City drinking water is virtually unmatched among major global cities.  There have seemingly been some significant health-related improvements in recent years — notably with regard to tuberculosis, HIV infection and under 5 mortality rates — but health care access for many millions, especially those homeless or displaced, bears little or no resemblance to the doctors to whom I have access and who find ways to keep this now-aching shell of a body intact. Millions of children lack access to schooling and adults to literacy training, but my own educational profile is unassailable.
One can go up and down the line, across all SDGs and indicators to reveal a truth that those who make development policy live in very different realities than those who seek development assistance; that we in the policy community inadvertently put on display some of the very inequalities we profess to address. This is, at least in my own context and surely for others as well, a manifestation of privilege largely undeserved, a function of skill that surely exists, but skill that has also found its points of access to opportunity and resources far beyond its portion.
One such “portion” especially caught our eye this past week during a side event hosted by the UN Statistical Commission focused on a manifestation of inequality that is largely off our collective radar but which creates uncertainties and threatens dignity at depths that most of us could scarcely contemplate — and that is the matter of identity.
Identity is something we think about often in “developed” societies, though not in the same way that its deficit implies for the quality of life of too many in our world.  In our islands of privilege, we tend to see identity largely in terms of access and attention.  On the one hand, we generally possess multiple indicators of identify — birth certificates, marriage licenses, school diplomas, drivers licenses, credit cards, passports, social security cards, home and business addresses.  On and on it goes, pieces of paper that allow us to board airplanes, cross borders, access loans and medical attention, keep our increasingly complex lives in order, and  lay the groundwork for the next levels of success and privilege.
On top of this abundance is our other identity-related obsession, the “identity” that helps us to build a brand, get noticed, make sure “people are watching” both in the sense of earned recognition and in the sense of attention more akin to celebrity than substance, attention that “eclipses” as much of the self as it reveals.  In such instances we are more likely to exercise those “muscles” of separation and distinction than of complementarity and respect. The enormous personal benefit of being identified in this world as a diplomat, teacher, designer, farmer, nurse or even an NGO, is both a manifestation of our professional success and a privilege tethered to our worldly status, in response to which we now tend too often to skew the balance between the “optical delusion” of personal pride and the larger truths of gratitude and service.
But beyond the bloated contents of our wallets and egos, let the reader reflect for a moment what it would be like to survive in a world of constant uncertainty or even displacement, without anything like a proper paper trail to help establish who you are, where you came from, who you are connected to, who (if anyone) is watching your back.  No birth records or credit cards, no forwarding addresses for your personal effects, no national documentation that might be recognized as such by another state’s officials, no way for others to “know” who you are aside from whatever words you are able to successfully exchange with strangers. And, to say the least, no equivalents of the  little “blue badges” that allow those of us privileged to have one to access UN Headquarters and its many material and identity benefits.
In the Christian tradition this is the season of Lent, a time to do more for others but also to stop doing things which cause harm to the dignity and well-being of others — all in recognition of the gifts that accrue from a sojourn of faith, gifts that we did not earn, could not earn, gifts that have been lavishly bestowed  but in response to which much is also expected. It would be especially appropriate in this season to recall the many contributions from those who have made us who we are, the unearned identity conferred on us which underpins our own dignity and which, in our view at least, should inspire a more humble and just response to the identity and dignity needs of others.
That we in our “advanced” societies and our policy bubbles are literally “saturated” with identity opportunities and resources in a world where millions literally have little or nothing to “show” for themselves is one of the more profound and cross-cutting aspects of global inequality.  During the aforementioned Statistical Commission side event, reference was made to the launch of the UN Legal Identity Agenda. As we contribute as we are able within and beyond this UN policy space to identifying and reducing poverty, food insecurity, employment discrimination and other global scourges, we pledge as well to devote a bit of extra energy to ending the identity deficits which place both service access and human dignity in perpetual danger.

Our Time: Leveraging a More Sustainable Unknown, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Feb


The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life. Jane Addams

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the groundFrederick Douglass

Is it possible that a mass is improved by the improvement of only one part and the other part is ignored?  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Every human is fated to have one moment in their lives in which they can change their own destinyTakayuki Yamaguchi

I know that it is hard for one who has held the reins for so long to give up; it cuts like a knife. It will feel all the better when it closes up again.  Sojourner Truth

In principle, therefore, the more dizzyingly diverse the images that are propagated, the more empowered we will be as a societyPatricia J. Williams

As January in New York drew to a (blessed) close, and despite rumblings regarding the spread of the coronavirus, a massive Caribbean earthquake, and the launch of a Mideast “peace plan” more likely to cause than resolve regional violence, we had to acknowledge that this has been a good week for our tiny organization.  We welcomed new interns and re-welcomed older ones; we have fresh evidence that our writing and advocacy (even our media work) is helping people in various global settings find their footing; and we have celebrated the formation of new partnerships with persons and organizations earning newly-enhanced status at the UN and with a demonstrated ability to open doors to policy and service that we could never open on our own.

The week for us was bracketed by a long interview with Global Connections Television on Monday and a Friday evening reception for younger advocates in our small, shared 49th Street office.   In between, there were numerous UN meetings on issues from the unresolved security threats plaguing Libya and the Central African Republic to discussions on appropriate measure for countering terrorist threats as well as how best to integrate our collective commitments to sustainable development and peacebuilding.

As is typical for UN conversations of this sort, the discourse in most of these conference rooms was earnest but not particularly urgent, competent but not particularly determined. Those of us who have had some time at the policy controls have presided over a period of significant successes but have also not done enough to reverse the deficits of trust that continue to plague multilateralism.  We who speak with increasingly frequency (as do current Security Council members such as the Dominican Republic and St. Vincent and the Grenadines) about the need to incorporate more youth voices into global policy continue to experience discomfort when the hands of youth reach out to share the steering wheel, or when young people wave their metaphorical tickets impatiently (often anxiously) in the hope that we older folks will recognize that we’ve used our own privilege to stay on the ride longer than the rules permit, that it is time to make the seats available for a fresher set of “paying customers.”

I get the sense that we who have been in this “business” (perhaps too) long sometimes forget what it is like to face an uncertain future, to prepare to jump into an unknown that is one part scary, one part exhilarating, regarding which younger persons know (as we once knew) that at some level we are simply unprepared to manage (let alone control) what comes next.  Will we experience the start a new war whose outcomes and consequences we can’t handle?   Will we be able to adjust to what are now virtually irreversible climate threats?  Will we have the strength of character to welcome the increasing number of displaced who are likely to show up on our shifting shores?  Do we have what it takes to ensure that “the good we secure for ourselves” can be made available to others? Can we, as Mexico and Ireland suggested this week in different UN meeting rooms, create viable action plans on peace and sustainable development to supplement what is often mere “thinking and believing” on our part?

The young people standing in line waiting for us older folks to get off the ride can’t escape the dizzying heights and unsettling tremors that they are set to experience.   That so many of our younger colleagues are still prepared to have their tickets punched for this uncertain journey is both laudable and gratifying.  As we all shared together on Friday evening, I was reminded of a favorite song, “This is Our Time” by WILD, a tune about finding the light that shines somewhere up ahead in the “open wide,” about running straight into the unknown instead of holding back – or stepping out of line altogether.  If you’ve only heard snippets of this song as background for an automobile commercial on US television, I invite you to have a listen.  In its entirety, it is a lovely reminder of the courage that life requires, now more than ever, the courage to face an “open wide” that seems as likely to swallow young people whole as to set the table for their own great adventure, the courage that we older folks have largely domesticated in ourselves and too-often sought to domesticate in those who will follow.

But as we cautiously prepare to share the controls and ultimately relinquish them altogether, we still have work to do, work to make the “wilderness” of life a bit more predictable, a bit more fair; to open up more space for innovative thinking and determined action by a greater range of stakeholders; even to enable policy relationships that can refresh the whole of the created order and not merely one or more of its constituent parts; policy to help ensure that the unknown to which young people are destined can still yield forests instead of brownfields,  gardens instead of mine fields.

In that vein, earlier this week I was honored to help a friend prepare a talk to be given on Monday focused on the human rights dimensions of sustainable development.   This linkage might seem abstract to some, but as is recognized in policy discussions from counter-terror and peacebuilding to disaster risk reduction and food security, a human rights lens is essential to ensuring that the “promise” of sustainable development results in more — much more — than development alone.   Indeed, we recognize that the sustainability of any development is clearly threatened where social and economic inequalities remain rampant; where journalists and civil society leaders face harassment and arbitrary arrest for doing their jobs; where governments feel free to divert public resources from common to restrictive uses; where impunity for abuses fuels lasting trauma and deep despair; where weapons flow like tap water from erstwhile “licit” uses to instilling terror in local populations; where people of modest means in small island states continue to bear the brunt of lifestyle choices made in the richest nations; where children are denied an education — even a childhood — via the decisions of powerful (mostly) men and women in faraway places.

These and related problems are ones to which older folks can (and must) continue to make valuable, even life-saving contributions. And, yes, we can “agitate” for a healthier planet without “clinging to the reigns” or taking up seats on rides that have long needed to be vacated for others. Moreover, we can keep ourselves open to policy and other innovations that pave the way towards solutions to pressing global problems that have largely eluded us in our own time, solutions that demand greater policy integration together with a more “dizzyingly diverse” array of active contributors.

As the first draft of this post was being completed, the bells of nearby Riverside Church were pealing, calling some to put on their clothes and come to church services, but seemingly calling the rest of us within range to make a more hopeful and sustainable future come alive, to commit to “ploughing the ground” that is ours to cultivate such that we may continue to harvest a range of metaphorical”crops” with which to maintain our own lives and share with others.

Such sharing in all its dimensions must be sure touch the lives of our “younger others,” those whose breathless journeys into the “open wide” are only just beginning.

School Break: Learning Strategies Fit for our Future, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jan


It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.  Albert Einstein

I am not a teacher, but an awakener.  Robert Frost

When the roots are deep, there’s no reason to fear the wind. African Proverb

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.  Socrates

The holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete. Paula Hawkins

I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room. Barbara Kingsolver

There is no school equal to a decent home and no teacher equal to a virtuous parent.  Gandhi

The UN had a relatively quiet week but not one without its disappointments.   A General Assembly preparatory meeting for the 2020 Oceans Conference exhibited little energy despite the urgency of ocean health in an age of melting ice caps and our self-inflicted “plastics Armageddon.”  In the Security Council a debate on the Middle East during which the US and Israel attempted to divert attention away from Palestine and towards Iran was accompanied by an Arria Formula discussion chaired by Russia and devoted to undermining the conclusions of investigators probing the use of chemical weapons in Douma, Syria.  As is so often the case, what could well have been an opportunity for “staying with the questions” of chemical weapons use became just one more political football as most members had made up their minds long before this Arria commenced and the Russians seemed determined (and largely failed) to use Douma report inconsistencies to call other chemical weapons allegations into question.

We have said this many times previously, and we say it again each semester to our new (and returning) cohort of interns – the UN represents an extraordinary learning opportunity but is not in any sense an extraordinary learning community.   We politicize questions and reporting with regularity. We rarely if ever ask the “next question” or stay with the questions on the table long enough to exhaust more than a portion of their significance. We generally fail to link the questions in one room with those taking place in others, nor do we ever examine the pedagogical limitations of the conference rooms in which our wilfull neglect of curiosity takes place, rooms that are much better suited to predictable political discourse than to kindling the flames we must light if our own and our children’s futures are to be secured.

Such pedagogical limitations within this UN space have implications for our efforts to promote SDG 5 and thus insure “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” This goal is a particular priority for the current General Assembly President, HE Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, and he incarnated this priority in an all-day, High-Level, International Day of Education event this past Friday to promote SDG 5 implementation.  In his opening remarks, the PGA made reference to the gap between current levels of school enrollment (especially for girls) and the “skills” we will need to tap if we are to successfully pursue our sustainable development responsibilities.  Enrollment gaps matter, to be sure, and the PGA made a special plea to the international community to consider how to better serve (and finance) the educational needs of all children, particularly those “trapped” within zones of conflict.

In that same vein, Japan (speaking on behalf of the Group of Friends) noted that even improvements in “basic reading skills” can have positive implications for goals such as poverty reduction ane the promotion of “sustainable peace.”   And always-thoughtful Ireland highlighted the importance of “empowerment through learning,” and its “opportunity schools” that intentionally “break down cycles of disadvantage.”

Though I probably would never have said so when I was a teenager, classrooms clearly do have a role to play in securitng a more peaceful and sustainable future.  There are skills — including those related to “literacy” in all its forms — that classrooms are well suited to develop.  And in many parts of the world, classrooms represent a welcome escape for young people, escape from the problems in their communities but also an escape from the limitations endemic to those communities.   Classrooms managed by gifted teachers (of which there are thankfully millions around the world) can help young people work around “the holes in their lives” and kindle flames that will serve youth (and the rest of us) in ways that they can sustain for much of the rest of their lives.

But as much as we might value classrooms and advocate for more and better funded schools, there are also significant caveats, some of which were raised during the opening segments of this High Level event.  Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed herself noted the prevalence of classrooms in which “children don’t learn much of anything.”  She called for a “transformation in the way we interpret and value knowledge,” noting specifically the importance of learning which addresses hate speech and extremism and that can do much to narrow technology gaps.  The DSG understood that alongside the need to place underserved children in classrooms is the larger responsibility of schools and communities together to “prepare children for the world they are set to inherit,” including those aspects of the world that they may not be so keen to embrace.

As many of Friday’s morning speakers intimated, this preparatory task is one much easier said than done.   Once we shift our focus from merely expanding school enrollment numbers to addressing those millions of other children in danger of being left behind in this “decade of action,” the complexities of our educational task become apparent.   Schooling has positive implications for literacy and poverty reduction and can help narrow some technology access gaps.  Moreover, classrooms can provide stability — a comforting routine — where it is safe for some to open their minds and even their dreams in the presence of skilled and trustworthy educators.

But classrooms have several downsides which those committed to sustainable development must interrogate.   They can be places of competition rather than collaboration where the “winners” are able to escape the confines of their communities and build their own brands in far-away places.   Moreover, classrooms are only one of the places where children can learn what those on Friday agreed are worthy pedagogical objectives. Indeed, some of the most engaging educational encounters I have experienced — in most cases through the sheer brilliance of friends and colleagues — took place not in classrooms but in prisons, around campfires, in church basements, in art museums and cultural sites, around family breakfast tables.  Indeed, if we want children to build their base of knowledge and curiosity, we have to engage more of the places (and the “teachers” who occupy them) where children seeking to learn can learn best.

As we pursue the goals and targets of SDG 4, we need to ask more questions and sit longer with the questions we pose.  Are our classrooms well-suited, for instance, to teach empathy for those in need or those with less?  Are they places that can properly promote “place-based” learning — deeping the familiarity of young people with home environments and cultures — and then encourage youth to make local changes?  Can they help young people develop “deep roots” such that they no longer need to fear the winds which they will surely encounter over what we hope are long and fruitful lives? Are they places where young people can successfully overcome their limitations and practice the curiosity that will keep them learning long after their time in classrooms has ended?

Perhaps they can, but this is unclear.  Whhat is clearer, to us at least, is that education for sustainable development requires more from each of us and will likely require even more going forward. Indeeed much of what it requires is in our hearts and minds beyond our policy matrices and spread sheets.  We  must find a way to inspire caring in an increasingly indifferent world; to promote civic engagement and conflict resolution at a time when our politics seem so degraded; to encourage doing the right thing even when no one is watching; to help others to learn and succeed rather than incessantly calling attention to our own “accomplishments;” to see more clearly the links between how and what we consume and the fate of persons escaping flood waters from our denuded forests and melting icecaps or from the toxic remnants of our polluted waterways; to prepare people for the community responsibilities and employment opportunities to come and not simply those of the present.

The “future” that we ask schools, families and other educational influences to help prepare young people for is uncertain at best and, at the very least, such uncertainty is not to be laid at their doorstep.  If it is to be truly transformational, part of this “preparation” must involve a deeper commitment to modeling by the rest of us: modeling the civic and environmental engagement that we seek to inspire in the young; modeling mindfulness regarding the implications of how we live and what we share with others; modeling an “awakening” in ourselves of empathy and solidarity that we hope to arouse in our students; modeling a commitment to solving the problems on our watch rather than running out the clock and shuffling the game along to the next generation.

If truth be told, we’re not doing particularly well in this regard.  Friday’s sesssion embraced some elements of the “transformation” called for by DSG Mohammed, but largely without an examination of the “educators” in homes and communities that have been marginalized amidst our school-focused policy obsessions as well as the diverse contexts for successful learning that we have yet to fully embrace. Such contexts can change what young people know and how young people learn, making space for those who will never be able to grasp in classrooms more than a portion of what they will need to know and experience, feel and share, if their contributions to a more inclusive, just and sustainable world are to be fully experienced and duly recorded.

A flame not a bucket.  This is the educational agenda that the SDGs call for and that will take more than classrooms and their teachers to achieve.  If indeed we are committed to providing “inclusive and equitable” education for youth (as we must), then we need also to promote the duty of older folks beyond school walls (including at the UN) to help awaken youths’ best selves.

Coaches Corner: The Quest for Generational Solidarity, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Oct


Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.   Franz Kafka

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.   Friedrich Nietzsche

I am the way a life unfolds and bloom and seasons come and go and I am the way the spring always finds a way to turn even the coldest winter into a field of green and flowers and new life.  Charlotte Eriksson

He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.  Cormac McCarthy

Adolescence is like having only enough light to see the step directly in front of you. Sarah Addison Allen

As is so often the case now, there was an interesting, if sometimes uneasy mix of ages and age-related perspectives on display at the UN this week.

In the Security Council on Wednesday, current president South Africa led a good discussion on “Mobilizing youth towards silencing the guns by 2020” featuring three presenters (ages unknown but certainly not anywhere near their teens) who gave what most considered to be masterful presentations focused on the talent residing in young people across the African continent, the skills that are being cultivated in many quarters and that are increasingly impatient to find sufficient expression.

Youth briefers from the African Union, Uganda and Kenya skillfully pointed out the condition of “wait-hood” that many African youth feel trapped within, the sense that they are capable of more than their circumstances permit, forcing them too often to “hustle” as a precondition for being recognized, accepted, encouraged.  The Kenyan Peacebuilder was explicit in seeking “proactive” youth policies that resist “containing” the energies and aspirations of youth.  Recognize the good work we are already doing, she demanded, the responsibilities we already shoulder.  In a similar vein, the Ugandan youth representative noted that, as societies, we are getting more comfortable with the “language of participation” but not as much in identifying and sharing power.  He cited a certain kind of “exhaustion” from criticizing “war mongers” rather than engaging in peacebuilding, which he now believes is the “better way.”

As Peru rightly noted during this Council session, echoing the presentation by the AU Youth Advisor, we must all move beyond the flawed narrative and stereotypes that posits African youth as either instigators or victims of violence.  And as South Africa itself suggested, we must do more to release the “cultural expression” of youth as a contribution to peace and security, understanding that the creation and recognition of beauty is essential to peaceful societies.  Several Council members affirmed the need to take account of the diverse and altogether negative consequences for youth – including the many children considerably younger than these briefers – of armed violence and the trafficking in weapons and narcotics that often accompanies it.   As the Ugandan briefer rightly noted, war “turns everything upside down.” Violence isn’t by any means limited to conflict zones, but all violence has diverse and negative implications for the health, well-being and participation of youth, as of course if does for all in communities of conflict, those who participate directly and those who don’t.

Elsewhere in the UN, the Third Committee (human rights and social development) of the General Assembly also resumed its work this week, and one welcome feature of the initial social development- focused presentations was the presence of youth voices which, in many instances, punctuated this often dry segment of delegate statements with more passionate, impatient references to a world where sustainable development is not proceeding nearly quickly enough and is often not particularly “social” regarding achieved levels of inclusiveness.

The young people who spoke in Third Committee had many good ideas on promoting educational and employment opportunities for youth and, as Mexico’s youth delegate urged, “activities that promote a “just and democratic” society without discrimination.”   The Republic of Korea’s youth delegate garnered significant attention by proclaiming that, for her at least, “looking good” is not as important as “doing good.”  That same delegate, however, cited the many social development priorities, including employment, health and “marginalization,” for which youth have many suggestions and energies for change, suggestions which are too-often “heard but not listened to” by elders.

The youth in the Third Committee, much like those in the Security Council, did not represent what you would call a “random sampling” of their generation.  The UN tends to be highly-choreographed space and the voices given the floor were forceful, well-educated, on the older side of “youth,” and confident above all else. They rightly sought greater inclusiveness for their voices and recognition for the progress they are already making but in a manner that, ironically, seemed under-attentive to other dimensions of inclusiveness, including the aspirations of those younger than themselves and the needs and accomplishments of older persons also featured in that day’s Committee discussions.

Given this, it was the youth delegate from Thailand who made the biggest impact on me of all the young representatives we heard.  Not only did she make helpful distinctions between the “citizenship education” young people need and the “something less” they are likely to receive in formal classrooms, but she also referenced her chronological peers’ social responsibility in a kind and nuanced way, highlighting the commitment to “carry the torch” of sustainable development to succeeding generations.

This “carrying” is part of what we must locate if the elusive “intergenerational solidarity” called for during the week in this Committee is to be realized.  It’s not simply about resolving the “tug of war” between millennials and their elders.  It is more a struggle for the integration of aspirations across the human spectrum, from those taking their first steps to those breathing their last breath.  And beyond chronology, to open ourselves to the needs of those not in our own social groupings, to build more common interests that open safe spaces for migrants (as Norway’s youth delegate recognized)  and those (mostly other) persons habitually further from centers of policy influence than the youth speakers at the UN could possibly ever imagine themselves being.

Tendencies exist in our world now which impede the promotion of this highly-prized intergenerational solidarity: people who talk more and listen less than they think they do; people who judge the worth of “insider” groups by their best examples, and outsider groups by their worst; people keen to make too much of their own accomplishments and too little of the accomplishments of others. There is also the trend to be plaintiffs in only a limited, personal sense for the too-many ways in which people’s aspirations and ideas have been patronized or blocked altogether by those in authority; thereby abandoning the large majority of people (of all ages) to process the unsettling reality that leadership won’t fix what needs to be fixed and won’t let anyone else try to fix it either.

And there is a trend, one perhaps more toxic than the others, to “essentialize” groups of people, to blithely assume common characteristics for “youth,” or “women,” or “white men,” or “Mexicans” that tend to sweep away – often in a self-serving manner — the distinctive characteristics, aspirations, frustrations and failures that each brings to life, the unique “light” in others that we often can’t see because we have allowed ourselves to be blinded by our own erstwhile “brilliance.”

What has been clear inside and outside of UN conference rooms is the urgent need for an infusion of young energy, enthusiasm, determination, ideas and skills (perhaps minus the over-confidence and proliferation of Instagram photos).  Equally clear is that those of us who are older need to spend more time coaching and less time lecturing, coaching for character that encourages reliability and builds capacity to rebound from loss and failure; coaching in anticipation of long winters that eventually give way to a more bountiful spring; coaching others to “carry the torch” for generations to come rather than hording it’s light for themselves and their peer group; coaching that remains conscious of the need to “change the game” such that the mistakes of one generation are not simply camouflaged by the next under some clever new costuming.

My generation hasn’t always coached well; we have sometimes resisted too mightily getting off the playing field and allowing that space to be creatively occupied by younger others. But there is still time to fix this. We must start by recognizing that, literally and figuratively, it is “their time” now, albeit with many more young still to come, some already lying in wait, anticipating their own chances to be heard.  We older folks can surely do more to ensure that this “time” is well spent; that development becomes more sustainable and that social inclusiveness extends well beyond the age, race and social class of the “usual suspects.”  At this juncture in these unsettled times, this is quite possibly the best investment we can collectively make.

Petty-Coat Junction: Deepening our Survival Focus, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Jul


Mankind accepts good fortune as his due, but when bad occurs, he thinks it was aimed at him, done to him, a hex, a curse, a punishment by his deity for some transgression, as though his god were a petty storekeeper, counting up the day’s receipts. Sheri Tepper

We dislike feeling inferior to an ideal. So away with ideals, with essences. The only ideals allowed are healthy ones — those everyone may aspire to, or comfortably imagine oneself possessing. Susan Sontag

But like infection is the petty thought: it creeps and hides, and wants to be nowhere–until the whole body is decayed and withered by the petty infection. Friedrich Nietzsche

More than jealousy or possessiveness pettiness kills love.  Marty Rubin

In a week characterized by considerable ugliness on the political front in the US and elsewhere as well as new threats of armed confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz, there was another story that penetrated our news cycle, a story that once upon a time united old and young in a gaze of genuine if temporary wonder, towards a story of courage, ingenuity and attentiveness that managed to put humans on the surface of the moon and (perhaps more miraculously) return them safely to the mother planet.

The genuinely glorious story being shared at that time wasn’t entirely as it was told.   We know now that US President Nixon was preparing a speech in the event that the astronauts ended up marooned on the lunar surface or failed to connect back with their orbiting ship.  We also know that, amidst a sea of men in shirts and narrow ties sitting in front of what for us would be oldest-school computer screens, there were remarkable (unknown) women performing essential calculations and making other contributions that kept the mission on track.

There are always so many more involved in our great human endeavors than make the headlines, people who can pay close attention to detail while keeping their gaze focused on the grand achievements we have chosen — or been forced — to pursue. We need more of these people. Too many of us allow ourselves to drown in minutiae, fussing about many things that have little connection to a narrative any larger than our own comfort and convenience. Too many others of us have somehow been convinced that “caring for the world” absolves us of the responsibility to contribute to the practical success and well-being of our neighbors and communities.

We must recognize that, despite a stunning array of human accomplishments since those days 50 years ago — in engineering and medicine, in agriculture and communications — few could only approximate the consummate wonder of that “one small step,” a step that signaled a mingling of technical competence, human determination, a grand and compelling vision, fidelity to detail, community-care and a bit of good fortune that might serve as a template for the next iterations of our sometimes great and sometimes greatly-flawed human adventure.

Leaving the conspiracy theorists aside (as we should always do), some people I know actually did feel as though space travel had robbed the moon of some of its romance, that having astronauts in thick suits leaving their footprints on lunar soil took a bit of the mystery out of a ball that in its full splendor has helped inspire and navigate harvests, explorations and innumerable human relationships.

But astronauts on lunar soil was not, as I recall it, the most powerful image from this quest.  That honor was bestowed on the image at the head of this piece, an “earthrise” that had first captured our imagination in an earlier Apollo mission, but which communicated a paradox that still haunts and inspires me – a remarkable human endeavor emanating from what appears to be a fragile blue ball, a ball that for most of our history (and from our narrow vantage points) has seemed endless, impervious to destruction; a ball that we believe could absorb our seemingly-boundless greed and overly-narrow ambitions, and continue to deliver enough bounty to sustain the needs of at least most of us, and some quite a bit beyond that.

This ball that we have so taken for granted for so long looks modest even from the standpoint of our nearest terrestrial neighbor, so vulnerable and isolated rotating in the dark void of space, appearing as though it could literally break apart through acts of violence or willful neglect.  The predictability on which our lives depend belies a blue globe seemingly now in perpetual motion, shaking and storming with a force for which we are only rarely prepared.   This “third rock from the sun” on which we have built our ambitions – both epic and petty – is less a rock in the end than an organism under great stress, one needing more care than we have yet demonstrated our capacity to provide.

Even as a youth I had  large expectations for that first “earth rise,” expectations that we could collectively temper and even cast aside our excess consumptive habits and personalized ambitions, our petty grievances and social hierarchies,  and allow it sink in just how close we are now to a “junction” where our cleverness is simply insufficient to get us past our current extinctive threats.  There is a resolute narrow-mindedness that permeates so many of our cultures now, some of which leads to overt defensiveness and hostility, other of which speaks of indifference or even of a willful disregard of both the carrying capacity of our planet and of our own creative and practical generosity.

Thus, the expectations of my youth have remained largely expectant. At the UN we just completed the Ministerial Segment of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.  As mentioned last week, the HLPF serves as a significant forum for the review of progress on several sustainable development goals, including those goals related to climate, to inequalities, to partnership, to our children.  But as the HLPF wound to a close, some of us were left with the impression that we still share too many powerpoint graphs and too few stories of human imagination.  We still place too much emphasis on what our political and economic leaders are doing (and sometimes only claiming to be doing) and not enough on the extraordinary local initiatives, nurtured and sustained by diverse communities, that are ripe for replication in these discouraging times.  There was a bit too much bureaucracy-speak, even among NGOs, and not enough on humanizing our threat responses in ways that could motivate us all to move beyond our too-small comfort zones and embrace a grander vision of a planet at peace.

Regardless of levels of inspiration towards a more sustainable world, regardless of the magnitude of our current, compelling human quest, we can of course still choose to turn our backs, cover our ears and simply walk away.  But let’s be clear:  much like with the side-view mirrors on our automobiles, the disturbing images we seek to leave behind are quite a bit closer than they might otherwise appear.


Summer Sale: The UN Shares its High Level Merchandise, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jul


Sharing your knowledge and experience without trying to sell yourself sends a greater message of engagement and authenticity.  Create Wealth Communities

The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway. Michael Pollan

Don’t burn your bridges until you build better ones.  Matshona Dhliwayo

The weeds keep multiplying in our garden, which is our mind ruled by fear.  Sylvia Browne

On a week that witnessed more bombing of civilian targets in Syria and Yemen, migration-related callousness in the Americas, and an early start to what promises to be a formidable hurricane season, the UN community gathered in large numbers to assess progress (or its lack) on fulfilling our collective obligations to the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The High Level Political Forum (HLPF), convened under the auspices of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is (for now at least) the place where development progress is assessed at global levels (this year with a focus on goals on children, climate change, peaceful and inclusive societies, partnerships and ending inequalities) but also at national level through a process of Voluntary National Reviews.   In the plenary sessions this week (and next) governments have largely proffered narratives that highlighted actions (allegedly or actually) designed to make their societies – and those others to which they contribute — more equitable, just and resilient to climate impacts.  In some instances having young people deliver those highlights added a dimension of urgency to the proceedings as these are the people who will benefit – or suffer – depending on our collective fidelity to our development promises.

The plenary sessions have been both supplemented and often even inspired by a full schedule of “side events,” most often taking the form of collaborations between (mostly larger) civil society organizations and government missions.  In these settings the deliberations were more focused and sometimes even more thoughtful, often referencing the release of reports from groups seeking both to influence the larger conversation and (at least as important to many groups) put them in position to win new or renewed funding from member states.

Some of these reports added good value, including the annual Spotlight Report assembled annually by the Global Policy Forum, a report by WaterAid that examines deficits in global sanitation (including neglect of sanitation workers), and a report authored by Kavitha Suthanthiraraj, our former international coordinator now with Save the Children Australia, looking at the underinvestment in ending violence against children in the Pacific region.  A fourth report launched this week by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime examined statistics on homicide.  While not officially a side event to the HLPF, this was one of a number of discussions held elsewhere at the UN this week (including a Peacebuilding Commission event on Chad and a Security Council review of communications with peacekeeping stakeholders) that are contributing in their own way to the general pursuit of peaceful and inclusive societies.

The blurring of important development content and salesmanship is something we’ve grown accustomed to in UN headquarters.  NGOs and UN Secretariat offices are constantly on the prowl for funds and not without cause.  Taking care of people can be expensive business and, as with the SDGs as a whole, it is important that promises to constituents made are promises kept.

On the other hand, it is also important that we don’t lose sight of the differences between selling and discerning, the ways in which we accommodate donors (especially government donors) in side events by engaging in a version of what speakers most often do in plenary – sharing the attractive parts of our stories while overlooking the warts and gaps that might create a less-enthusiastic environment for states looking to build their own brands with “bricks” supplied by the groups they choose to fund.

Unsurprisingly, it is precisely the warts and gaps we don’t acknowledge that stand in the way of fulfilling our sustainable development promises.  During the HLPF, but really year round, if you raise a policy issue with a secretariat official or civil society representative, what you will get back most often is a recitation of “what we’re doing about it,” which is fair enough at one level.   But selling and branding aside, what we really need to know is what they’re NOT doing, what they are unable to do, the gaps and deficits that require more than funding, but also require the skills and ideas, the presence and voices of persons worldwide who don’t have a say, who can’t afford to be present in sessions like the HLPF, who must accommodate policy decisions made in places like New York by people who often could often not find their communities on a map, let alone understand their specific circumstances.

As the first week of the HLPF draws to a close, these are our other, albeit-modest insights about the current process and prospects for ensuring sustainable development.

First, we want to acknowledge an insight by Barbara Adams of Global Policy Forum (GPF) at their fine event on “voluntary national reviews,” that what we need to know from states in their voluntary reviews is not only what they are pledged to do more of, but what they must stop doing altogether.   Barbara rightly took issue with the language of “acceleration,” not because we don’t need to move faster on our SDG commitments (we do) but because such acceleration implies that more activity is, in and of itself, the only path to progress.

It isn’t.  As we noted in that same session, if individuals are having problems in their lives, part of the solution is doing things differently, perhaps shifting energy to making life more fruitful for others.  But part of problem solving is putting a stop to destructive patterns, to pull the weeds as it were that impede more healthy growth.  And whether it is ending an addiction to fossil fuels, cutting back on weapons manufacturing, refusing to pawn off our  toxic waste on cash-strapped countries, or transitioning away from unsustainable agriculture, some of what we definitely need to hear from states and other stakeholders are the things they are prepared to stop doing, and stop doing now.

Second, there is a tendency at this HLPF to couple poverty reduction, the promotion of social protection floors, etc. with efforts to end inequalities.   As we also noted at the GPF side event, as critically important as poverty reduction measures are, you can’t build a bridge (including to greater equality) from only one end of a divide.  Such structures will inevitably collapse somewhere near the middle.  The point here is that if we are truly committed to ending inequalities, a high bar to be sure, we must be willing to talk more openly about wealth and its concentrations that increasingly make more and more of us subject to the whims of the super wealthy, virtually ensuring that the circumstances of those living in poverty will improve at a snail’s pace relative to the wealth accumulation of those at the highest ends of the current, vast, economic divide.

Finally, we have noted an uncritical attraction from many HLPF participants to the notion of “partnership,” based in part on the quite-right notion that our pursuit of the SDGs, including those such as hunger and climate on which our performance is far from satisfactory, requires us to do more together.  As Switzerland noted this week during one HLPF plenary session,  we need to “decentralize” efforts on all the SDGs but especially on Goal 16, allowing communities to take more of the lead on implementation. But how do we give pay more than lip service to the many voices seeking to contribute to SDG fulfillment but without the resources to get any sustained attention from delegations, let alone from some of the large NGOs whose gatekeeping around the UN has become legendary?  And do “partnerships” mean anything more than the powerful stroking the interests of others in power?  Can we find a way to affirm the basic equality which we insist upon in the “partners” that support and enrich our personal lives?

We must.   Beyond the rhetoric of this HLPF, beyond all the good reports and welcome efforts on development system reform,  we are still largely in “selling mode,” telling the part of the truth about our current efforts that will win the support of those with support to provide but in a manner that is as likely to discourage global constitutents as inspire them.  They know the ways in which conditions are threatened.   They need practical confirmation on a more regular basis that we know this as well.

Some of the HLPF side events have, indeed, offered inspiration.  In addition to the GPF event on “voluntary national reviews” and other events mentioned here, there was an event this week on “Human Rights and the 2030 Development Agenda,” an event noteworthy for both its important cross-cutting perspectives and its commitment to truth-telling.  In addition to a fine address by the president of ECOSOC Inga Rhonda King, a key intervention took the form of reflections on presentations by Craig Mokhiber, director of the New York office of UN Human Rights.  Mokhiber has earned the reputation as a “straight-shooter,” and he didn’t disappoint at this event, urging us to get beyond our limited “technocratic sauce” and embrace this current (and perhaps final) generational opportunity to “get development right.”

Mokhiber and his colleagues have much to contend with within their own spheres as threats to human rights multiply from the bombing of civilian targets to attacks on journalists and the shrinking of civil society space.  But he was still able to recognize and articulate what he called the “development scars” from a misguided paradign which for too long turned a blind eye to elite-only decisionmaking, corrupt governance, grossly unequal access to justice and widespread rights abuses, virtually ensuring that the resulting development will be anything but sustainable. Such “scars” threaten again and again to undermine both trust and skills at community level and an honest and sustained policy enthusiasm at multilateral level.

If there is a preferred outcome to this HLPF, it is that we can turn a blind eye no longer, neither to the many threats remaining to sustainable development nor to the ways in which the half-truths of our development discourse undermine both trust and progress.  In this critical moment for sustainable development progress, we must recover the “engagement and authenticity” that comes from sharing with each other and across sectors the best of our knowledge and expertise more than from selling ourselves.

Graduation Day:  Alleviating the Anxiety of Transition, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Dec

Aral II

Aral Sea 2018

Graduation can be a day on which we turn back and trace our steps to see how we ended up where we are. Taylor Mali

A graduation ceremony is where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that “individuality” is the key to success. Robert Orben

Now is the time to make sure we have the strings of all the balloons we want to keep before they all float away.  Maggie Stiefvater

The world is waiting for us to graduate from ourselves.  Shannon L. Alder

Later this month, my sweet niece is graduating from college, a bit later than she might have wished but with a diploma that will help her develop further a life with already clear contours. I’m proud of her for many reasons, one of which is that she did not wait to graduate to set her life on what already seems to be a thoughtful and responsible course.

But as with other graduates, hers is not a simple course.  Higher eduction, for many of those fortunate enough to matriculate, has become a safe and predictable womb, where everyone is roughly the same age, seems to be on a similar track, and where the consequences of missed assignments and raunchy parties are mostly kept under wraps. Unlike the world at large, especially in this overly-intrusive, cell phone-obsessed social environment, what happens on campus largely stays on campus.

But even those longing to gain some distance from the social limitatons and passive learning of many schools understand that graduation itself poses hard questions and exposes serious risks. Can we make it in the world beyond classroom deadlines and “In loco parentis” oversight?  Can we cope in a world where both safety nets and government competence are often uneven at best and hostile at worst?  Can we make decisions we can live with about the “balloons” we let go and the ones we hold on to?

There is anxiety in graduation, anxiety connected to both how much we trust the world and how much we trust ourselves.  Do we trust the current caretakers of the planet to do right by us, by others beyond our “tribe,” or by those who will hopefully come after us?  Will we find meaningful life activity that can sustain our bodies and souls while helping to reverse trends that threaten oceans and coastal health, that embolden traffickers and insurgencies, that push millions from homes they would prefer to remain in?  Do we trust that our leadership can create enough stable spaces such that many millions of young people will one day be able and willing to look back with some satisfaction at how far their talents and character were able to take them?

And it is not only young people who face graduation-related anxieties.  Nations do also.

In a fine event on the margins of the South-South Cooperation EXPO which took over large swaths of UN conference rooms this week, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs launched the “Handbook on the Least Developed Country Category.”  The discussions within the UN and the Handbook itself are both remarkable in their comprehensiveness – metrics for both defining what “Least Developed” looks like but, more importantly, ensuring  “special support measures” for states set to “graduate” from Least Developed to Middle-Income status.  Such measures include what the report calls “last-mile finance,” as well as “preferred market access” and continued entrée to the “technology bank” established to move resources and best-practices between and among the Least Developed States.

The complementary goals of these discussions and metrics are, on the one hand, to reassure states that the support to which they have become accustomed will be adjusted in a rational and, as much as possible, contextual manner, that the negative consequences of transition will be managed as smoothly as possible. But the larger goal is to ensure that states that have “graduated” do not slip back into “Least Developed” status, that states are able to maximize and manage domestic revenue, protect their resources, engage in productive and reciprocal trade relations, continue to address what the UN once deemed their “severe structural impediments,” and ultimately fulfill their responsibilities to the 2030 Development Agenda.

During the report launch, there was a bit of legitimate grousing from a couple of member states worried about context, specifically the apparent inflexibility of the three-year timeline to complete “graduation requirements.”  But it would be hard to walk away from that meeting or after perusing the report and not conclude that the UN has done due diligence in preparing states to function effectively in the international community under a “graduated” economic status.

And yet the anxiety of states is not the only anxiety that needs to be addressed.   Residents of many states, and certainly within “Least Developed” contexts, also have need of assurance.  While the quality and trustworthiness of governance was not a major concern for the report, it is a concern for many who will be affected by graduation-related decisions made largely by governments in collaboration with donors and major policy partners.   And there are legitimate trust issues directed at many governments and international institutions which become, as with college students soon to graduate, particularly acute during times of transition.

Other UN events this week principally involving Burundi (Least Developed) and Uzbekistan (Middle Income) illustrate dimensions of trustworthiness that affect more than a few states.  For Burundi, which has been seeking to transition off the agenda of the UN Security Council while remaining tethered to the UN Peacebuilding Commission, their strategy seems focused on simultaneously seeking development assistance while keeping the UN and other international agencies at arms-length when it comes to fulfilling human rights obligations, ensuring safe return of displaced persons or managing corruption.  In this, Burundi is clearly not yet on the same page as many of its donors (nor the many Burundians who occasionally debate their future on our twitter page).  The government’s argument is a bit like the teenager who demands their allowance and then insists that parents “stay out of their business,” not the best formula for trustbuilding, in our view.

As for Uzbekistan, they presided over a fine meeting this week on the Aral Sea, what was once the largest lake in the world is now reduced over the course of a single generation into what the distributed report referred to as a “lifeless wasteland” with major implications for biodiversity and human well-being. While much of the session was focused on initiatives to “restore optimism,” stimulate livelihoods and push back desertification, some spoke openly of “moving populations” who had prospered in the Aral Sea region for many generations and who had little or nothing to do with the ecological carnage that now surrounds them.  Moreover, there were no apologies issued for the delays in response, no clear assessment of the “steps” that led the Aral region from water to dust, no convincing explanation of how the “environmental consequences” of what the SG referred to as one of the great “ecological catastrophes” of our time could have escaped our collective attention for so long.

Collectively, we were tardy and even negligent on the rescue of the Aral Sea just as we have been on Syria, on Yemen, on climate threats, on weapons proliferation and a host of other issues that have serious consequences for how much trust governments – especially governments in transition – can reasonably expect from their own people. And unless we are prepared to pay as much attention to the trust dimensions of graduation as to its metrics, unless we are willing to “trace our steps” while preparing to step out again, we will continue to struggle getting states to transition their contracts with UN and funding agencies into a broader and more fruitful contract with their own people.

Back to campus, we all remember graduation speeches filled with pious declarations about the future and sometimes-ironic advice about how to get there.  Here’s another, perhaps-also-pious suggestion for individuals and states alike:  If we want to ensure progress on development and conflict, on human rights and environmental decay; if we want to ensure that developing states stay “graduated” and can build stronger bonds of trust with their constituencies; then it is important that we elevate our commitment to start on time and remain thoughtful throughout. While most of us continue our struggle to “graduate from ourselves” so to more effectively embrace an uncertain future, we must also insist that our leaders do likewise.

The Gift of Anticipation:   An Advent Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Nov


For Jim Torrens

If you come at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three.  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This present hour of joy should run at half the speed of those long hours of waiting. Albert Camus

It is desire that can live with deferral, an embrace of the God-shaped vacuum in us and a commitment to stop trying to make it full, a healthy hunger that is content to wait for the feast.  Amy Simpson

It is no exaggeration to say that the suffering we most frequently encounter is the suffering of memories.  Henri Nouwen

I was like a child leaving a gift unwrapped, the anticipation more exciting than the reality.  Karen White

We in the West have an odd relationship to anticipation.  Our current worldview is based so much on control – of circumstances, of our own brand and the narratives that define it – that anticipation for us mostly drives our anxiety.  And anxiety tends to push the envelope of self-referential aggressiveness, burying envelopes labeled “kindness” and “self-reflection” deep within our shelves.  Anxiety also tends to distort vision for both our challenging present and a more promising future, a bit like the dark lenses some of us choose to wear around town on an already gloomy day.

I have reflected a bit this week on the scene around the manger where, in Christian lore, the shepherds gathered to witness the coming of the Christ child.   Some of the greatest painters in western history have tried to capture this scene – but for me none quite like Rembrandt and his studio.  In London, in Munich and elsewhere, this precious scene and its affects are given the care and attention they deserve.  The results are neither sentimental nor quizzical.  The look in the eyes of the shepherds suggests that this dusty manger is where they belonged. The setting in which their anticipation became incarnate was surely not entirely what they expected.  But somewhere deep inside they expected the arrival of this energy, this hope, this message emanating from both beyond and within, a signal that life now stood a fundamentally better chance than was the case only one cold evening before.

Through the brush-strokes of Rembrandt, it seems clear (to me at least) that the shepherds had prepared to experience such a moment. They were not mere passers-by, indulging a curiosity, taking the antiquities-version of a selfie in case what they were seeing turned out to be “likeable.”  They were there because somehow or other they had prepared to be there.  They were in deeply moved by what they were witnessing, as well they might have been.  But they who spent much of their lives working their flocks had somehow anticipated this moment, anticipated that life could not go on as it had, that the hope represented by the manger child was one that had to be embraced and lived before it could be directly (and fully) experienced.

Were it otherwise, this scene might never have had the impact it did, an impact that a great painter and his best students could capture anew many centuries on.  Instead the effect would have been closer to “just one more baby born in a barn,” one more baby facing a life on the run, under occupation, with meager provisions and opportunities, a baby whose only option would be to line up alongside the legions already consumed by the demands of the present, including the “suffering of memories,” not the anticipation and wonder associated with a potentially renewed creation.

As most of you recognize, I spend a lot of time at the United Nations, perhaps more than my psychological and spiritual resources can manage.   And we who are focused mostly  on security threats and arrangements have also been preoccupied with the Sustainable Development Goals,  perhaps the most comprehensive and far-reaching promise that we human creatures can make to ourselves and our children — that by 2030 the world will be cleaner, cooler, safer, healthier, more just and more peaceful.

The 2030 Development Agenda has engendered many important discussions at and beyond the UN on key elements that will determine whether this promise becomes incarnate on a planet that might not be able for much longer to continue indulging our foolishness if we fail: securing real-time data and concessional funding, promoting good governance and development cooperation, ensuring inclusiveness and biodiversity.

It’s all good but, as many are whispering in the corridors outside UN conference rooms, it doesn’t yet seem to be enough.   We’re not making progress in many key areas and in some we are actually losing ground.   We’re not hitting our climate targets.  Hunger is on the rise as is nationalism-fueled discrimination.  Our appetite for weapons and fossil fuels seems at times insatiable, while our appetite for justice is easily appeased and our collective priorities seem mired – at least for the time being — in predatory economics and cynical politics.

What is the matter here?  Why are even our best efforts not resulting in better metrics?  The message of Advent seems clear on this point:  We have adjusted our policies, but so far failed to adjust our expectations, our commitments, even our appetites.  We have made our noble promises but so far largely failed to embrace —-in our energies and values — the peaceful and balanced world to which these promises point.  Too often, we are waiting for change without living the change.

Many certainly acknowledge the challenges, but too-often conclude that they have nothing to do with us or, more frequently, that we will adjust as little as possible about ourselves and our priorities, simply hoping to ride out this storm.  Ironically, perhaps, the very governments and international institutions that many now say they don’t trust are nevertheless being entrusted with the responsibility to turn this world around – largely, still, without our involvement let alone our practical commitment.

Something is clearly missing. We have this glorious blueprint for sustainable change, but few of us (and certainly few in power) have put their personal adjustments on the table.  What have those of us who work with these issues on a daily basis, who witness the current decline and the limits of our capacity to reverse it, what have we pledged to change in our own lives?  How are we living in anticipation of the world that can sustain the life which is currently under such severe threat?  How have dimensions of our participation in the current culture of predation evolved into a “healthier hunger?”

These are not snarky questions.  Indeed, the answers are more than instructive and could even be inspirational.  If the world we inhabit is not substantially different by 2030, it will be in large part because we have not prepared sufficiently for the hope that the Sustainable Development Goals represent.  As a species, we are not yet resolved to live out the promise of a healthier, fairer more peaceful world in anticipation of its eventual fulfillment.  What will the world look like if we get what we say we want?  Will it convey all (or most) of the benefits that we have promised?  And how can those benefits possibly convey in the absence of the best of ourselves–our willingness to live in anticipation of a world that, in several key ways, must look little like the current order, to recognize that this is more about us than about policy and technique, that 2030 is not the starting line for our planetary hope, though it may become its terminus?

If one searches “living in the power of the future,” one of the very first items you get back is an article about living off the grid.  Indeed, the current “grid” which holds us in its grasp is technologically sophisticated but often morally barren and mostly uninspiring.  It is a grid that demands as little from us as possible, that discourages us from thinking hard about the world to come, what that world will look like, and what it will require of us; indeed what it requires of us now.  Getting distance from such a grid, renouncing some of its uninvited power over our lives, might well be our own “manger moment.”

The baby in the hay is, for this unworthy servant at least, the place where anticipation meets incarnation, where the recognition that we simply “cannot go on this way” meets the energy and grace that can get us through to a better place. But there is no magic moment here, no point at which a world capable of sustaining our lives going forward simply appears.  The manger may represent a divine promise, but it’s one which we who pretend to hear it have never done enough to keep.  Despite our past malfunctions and sometimes anguished memories, we must do our part and do it with greater resolve.

If the world we seek is promised to arrive at 4PM then we must commit, in aspiration and in practice, to being happier and better-prepared by 3.