Tag Archives: sustainable development

Bucking Inevitability:  Putting Technology in its Place, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Oct

Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. Gertrude Stein

Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road. Stewart Brand

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity. Albert Einstein

I have spent a good bit of this past week in the community of Georgia Tech, a university whose rise in quality and prominence is mirrored by the city of Atlanta of which it is a prominent part.

I come here in part at the urging of Professor Robert Thomas and in part because I get to speak to – and with – some very talented students (including former interns) who ply their wares in fields far removed from my own but in no way irrelevant to what we and others try to accomplish in New York.

It is not irrelevant because, of course, the skills they now cultivate are essential to fulfilling our sustainable development promises.   These are people who can design sustainable cities, not just talk about the need for them.  These are people who can help create funding strategies that might actually support healthier oceans and gender-balanced schools.  These are the people who can engineer transportation systems that can reduce both emissions and rider frustrations.

It all sounds quite positive.  What could possibly run this train off the tracks?

To answer this fairly, we should take a step back.  Earlier this week at the UN, Kazakhstan sponsored an event that focused on technological advances and their impacts on weapons systems and disarmament prospects.  Among the presentations was one focused on the increasing speed with which (hypersonic) missiles will be able to find their targets and the knowledge and response deficits that this speed helps create.  The scenario was painted of leaders having to take action without definitive knowledge about the payload or intent of the incoming threat, and the sometimes grave mistakes that can proceed from such “decision-making on the fly.”

As is the case in some of the more intimate UN “side event” discussions, the train of thought moved in even more productive directions, inspired in part by a comment that much of what technology demands, in domains far beyond military defense, is rapid response.   In the personal realm, for instance, we tend to react immediately and at times thoughtlessly to the messages on our smart phone; we respond to email messages at a rapid fire rate in an attempt – usually futile – to keep those messages from dropping on our screens past the point that they are visible enough to prompt action. We feel the urgency to “get back to people,” those hostile or not, before we have thought through the longer-term implications of our shorter-term communications blasts.

And it’s not just our smart phones that are motivating responses that lack a concern for the longer-view. Indeed, the demand for short-term gain, for instant investor gratification has become something of a hallmark of our modern economic system.   Despite the obvious threats that our economic choices can unleash, we continue to make “business decisions” without considering the impacts on prospects for our children – the stable, secure and healthy environment that we all could do more to ensure and in which they might find productive and socially-useful pathways for talents that have often come at the considerable cost of time, effort and even tuition.

At the UN where we sit each and every day, such a stable environment is at best a patchwork of possibility. Success in Colombia and Liberia is offset by new patterns of misery in places like Syria, Myanmar and now Cameroon.   Determination on sustainable development is contextualized by armed violence that destroys community infrastructure and saps hope.  Progress on global migration governance is stifled by governments erecting walls of all sorts and even inciting otherwise generous souls to turn their backs on forcibly displaced.

And there is another alarming back story to our current technological preoccupations, a second, discouraging dimension of “dual-use.”   The dual use of our common policy discourse is unsettling enough – technology that appears to serve civilian uses but is actually a platform for more military-friendly applications.  Here we are thinking of space-based, communications technology that covers for military intelligence gathering, or drones that can deliver consumer packages and annoy neighbors but are equally well-designed to deliver remote-controlled explosives.

But “dual use” has another dimension, one that the engineering and science majors working on grant-related research often come to understand well.   In the US as with many other parts of the world, the major “investor” in research and development are Departments of Defense.   As a result, initial applications following successful research are often military in significance.   Consumer applications come later, often in the form of new products that can generate significant revenue and are frequently presented (and accepted) as some form of inevitable imposition, akin to death and taxes, and invoking a similar sense of resignation.  Are we really clamoring for driver-less cars?   For robots that make products we no longer have the revenue to purchase? For yet another generation of phones that rob us of self-directed skills, stoke our narcissism and anxiety, and fill our heads with other peoples’ nonsense? For computer applications that reveal all sorts of juicy tidbits about other people that we really have no business knowing?

This is dual use with an unsettling twist.  The military establishment gains the benefit of the skills of many of our brightest minds and the rest of us get the shiny dregs in the form of too many products and “services” of convenience for which “desire” and “need” have been relentlessly stoked; that can violate most of what remains of our privacy; and that can increase the complexity and anxiety (and ecological footprint) of our lives more than bring us closer to a sustainable future.

Needless to say, not all of the students I am with this week choose to take on the implications of this dissonance.  Some prefer to stay in their labs, their DNA fully intertwined with their technology, letting the world take care of itself.  But if you probe a bit, there are cracks even in this narrative, cracks occasioned in part by the unlikelihood that any of the real-world implications of technology carefully developed will stay, at least to some degree, in the hands of its developers.  Indeed, few of the academicians who teach engineering or technology and who make chunks of their living from grant-related research in these areas have any illusions regarding their ability to control the consequences of their research beyond the confines of their labs.

Fortunately, there are many other young people who are questioning this inevitability-producing system, who demand more control of the implications of their labors, who seek ways to use their considerable skills to make a safer, saner, more predictable world for all, having an impact greater than simply developing technologies to service military objectives and line the pockets of their consumer counterparts.

Technology has proven itself to be what Einstein and others have long predicted – a great blessing on the one hand, a potentially toxic and dis-empowering addiction on the other. We have showered our technologists with well-deserved admiration but also with excessive deference.  We too often treat technology like some approaching tsunami, something we feel compelled to watch from an unsafe distance and for which we are largely unprepared as the water reaches threatening levels.

We must find ways to do more than manage the technology that is positioned to “flatten” us, more than merely “give way” to its seductive allures.  Later this week at the UN, we will attend an event entitled The Future of Everything – Sustainable Development in the Age of Rapid Technological Change. But we know this already: that any such “future” must be characterized by a deeper commitment to get better control of technology’s “pace,” to ensure that any future innovation has more than a “puncher’s chance” of being placed in the service of a safer, healthier and more equitable world.

There was a story this week that the person who created the “Like” button for Facebook decided to delete Facebook altogether from his “smart” phone. Whether or not this is some “declaration of independence,” I have no way of knowing.  The issue is not whether technology is good or bad.  The issue is who controls its development and application, to what ends, at what pace, to whose benefit.   These are questions fundamental to sustainable development, to the inclusive well-being of global citizens, questions that we have barely begun to pose.

If we don’t get the answers we need, we must rethink the inevitability of this current technological wave.  My hope and sense is that there is a new batch of clever young people open to doing precisely that.

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Reform School:  The UN Seeks to Fix What and Where it Can, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Sep

Reform School

In our view, successful reform is not an event. It is a sustainable process that will build on its own successes – a virtuous cycle of change. Abdullah II of Jordan

Someone recently asked what keeps me up at night.  My answer was simple:  Bureaucracy. Fragmented structures.  Byzantine procedures.  Endless red tape.  UNSG Guterres

Don’t marry a man to reform him – that’s what reform schools are for. Mae West

The security and access barriers are starting to come down, the celebrities have left the building and motorcades are less numerous by the day, indicating the immanent end of this year’s High Level Segment at the opening of the 72nd UN General Assembly.

And what a time it has been: Yemen’s president now insisting on a military solution to an already gut-wrenching conflict; another typically slow and tepid response by the international community to Myanmar military abuses of Rohingya; insults hurled at each other by the US president and the North Korean (DPRK) Foreign Minister in which the specter of an “inevitable” attack was invoked, rhetoric mirroring provocations occurring in real time, with real deadly weapons, across the Korean peninsula. At the same time, leaders from Eastern Europe and the Caucuses called attention to still largely-ignored security concerns and the reluctance of Russia to address them forthrightly. And support for the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) was being questioned (mostly by the US) and potentially undermined behind closed doors.

On the plus side a staggering array of events took place in UN conference rooms – from torture prevention and ocean care to Yemen relief and financing for development –often in parallel and generally with too few participants beyond the myriad officials accompanying their Ministers and Heads of State.  A Security Council resolution demanding justice for victims of ISIL abuses in Iraq was highly regarded and another Council session on peacekeeping reform added value – including what appeared to be some Russian openness to a Minsk-focused peacekeeping mission for Ukraine — despite a bit of an “off the rails” statement by the US Vice President which merely highlighted the political and logistical complexities associated with attempts to make already-stretched peace operations simultaneous more security efficient and cost-effective.

Not surprisingly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) received vast attention from state officials and other UN stakeholders, mostly in a sincere effort to move our collective implementation commitments and energies from the current stroll to more of a full-out sprint.  Most all key aspects of what we now call the 2030 Agenda received ample attention – finance, data, national strategies, private sector engagement.  One of the matters left unaddressed, unsurprisingly, is how we use sustainable development policy to inspire people to modify their eco-footprint, change their habits, interrogate their “needs” for comfort and consumption, do our fair part to build a world that is not only fit for children but fit for their children. That the UN – this particular week and every week – generally fails to blend policy norms with personal commitments to change and modify life habits from its norm entrepreneurs makes the sales job with the global public that much more difficult.  If those closest to sustainable development norms and their various states of urgency don’t particularly feel the need to adjust their lifestyles, it becomes harder to make the case why any of us should do so.

But even more that the SDGs, the preoccupation of the week seemed to be on strategies for UN “reform.”   UN SG Guterres laid out his recommendations to address those “things that keep him up at night” and received much rhetorical support from states and others for his efforts. He outlined administrative reforms to bring service back to the bureaucracy, suggested adjustments to the way in which we deliver development and humanitarian assistance, and offered new tools and ideas to move our peace and security architecture to a more preventive space. Included here are more robust mediation resources, more effective early warning, and (we hope) a broader consultative role for the Peacebuilding Commission and Support Office beyond the post-conflict configurations that have largely defined (and restricted) their role.  We must do more, he as noted often as part of his “sustaining peace” initiative, to get out in front of conflict and, where such strategy fails to prevent, to ensure that any peace arising from the ashes of conflict is sustainable and lasting.

Guterres also acknowledged the degree of difficulty in any UN reform process, one of which is related to reform’s end game.   If the objective, as the US and some other states suggest, is to create a leaner, more cost-effective structure, this is a relatively easy if painful objective to pursue.  The large contributors pull parts of their funding commitments altogether and place much of the rest into earmarked programs that essentially remove discretion from UN leadership.

But if the objective of reform is more along the lines of helping “the UN to better meet today’s complex and interlinked challenges,” then we need to examine priorities and impediments beyond tightening our collective fiscal belts. Money is not always the answer to global problems; but the demands currently being placed on the UN system in the areas of social and economic development, migration governance, humanitarian response, peacekeeping, conflict prevention, human rights, gender violence and much more will require more (not less) of the very same “predictable funding” that the Security Council is now examining seriously with regard to SC-authorized, African Union peace operations.

In the often-sordid environments of reform schools, the emphasis is too often on reform-as-punishment.   “Beating the devil” out of children was a common phrase in my childhood, and apparently the devil was believed to have established quite a productive beachhead within many reform school residents.  “Reform” positioned as a stand-alone, dehumanizing, cost-obsessed project can certainly seem like an institutional Tsunami – jobs are threatened, programmatic relationships are severed, expectations for assistance and relief are dashed.  But the point of reform in UN contexts should not be about punishing an erstwhile ineffective bureaucracy but inspiring the system to ensure, as the SG has noted, that “we are positioned to better deliver for people” and uphold the values in our Charter.   This is the only reform objective worthy of our time and support.

There are many ways in which we can help make this UN system more accountable to constituents, and more inspiring to all who work within its walls.  There are still under-utilized capacities including the Office of Genocide Prevention and the Peacebuiling Commission.  There are “byzantine procedures” to change that might offer a predictable environment for some delegations but that equally reinforce the system’s endless rhetorical replication that dulls the senses and even obscures the best of the changes that our constituents long for.  We can even do a better job of recycling our waste!

There is also an urgent need to address the persistent power imbalances at the UN both inside and outside the Security Council, imbalances that at times seem as entrenched as distrust in a troubled child.  As Guterres has noted, “We don’t need to hear more from the SG.  We need to hear more from the large states that have imposed their will on the UN system, and especially on its peace and security priorities, for too long.”  What we especially need to hear is what these large powers are willing to change, to adjust, even to renounce, in order to make the system they seek to “reform” function in a more inclusive and accountable manner, a system that might actually be able to stop the violence as effectively as it now cleans up messes left in violence’s aftermath.

If “reform” of the UN is to matter to the world, if it is to be about anything more than cost-cutting and control, then the full UN system – including its largest and most powerful states — must reinforce its full commitment to address the urgent and difficult circumstances that plague our planet and endanger the future health and well-being of all our children.  The remainder is mere posturing, using “inefficiency” as an excuse to impose national will on multi-lateral affairs. It is this will to impose, more than any bureaucratic or budgetary excess, that endangers that “virtuous cycle of change” that UN reform could otherwise become. The SG was right to place this responsibility where it most belongs.

Peace Day:  Turning Aspiration into Inspiration at UN Headquarters, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Sep

Evola

Without peace, all other dreams vanish and are reduced to ashes. Jawaharlal Nehru

It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. Martin Luther King, Jr.

You cannot find peace by avoiding life. Virginia Woolf

September 21 is designated each year by the UN as the International Day of Peace.  Given the centrality to the UN’s mission of eliminating war and armed violence,  mediating and protecting peace agreements, and otherwise “maintaining” international peace and security, one might imagine that the entire UN building would be given over to inspirational discussions and hopeful commitments under this rubric.

Well, sort of.  For this is also the week that heads of state make their way to New York to represent their countries in a range of high level discussions on issues related to the tools, stakeholders, funding sources, and aspirations that we are ostensibly (and hopefully) to address as a global community.   While the primary purpose of many heads of state is to address the General Assembly, there will also be opportunity for an array of bilateral meetings and more general program gatherings on topics relevant to peace and security ranging from peacekeeping reform and human trafficking to ocean health and “south-south” cooperation for sustainable development.  And to show more tangible support for the millions of migrants forced from their homes and communities by violence, discrimination, drought and other threats to peace, dignity and social inclusion.

As is the case every year, this week serves as a reminder that while UN diplomats are skilled at developing global norms, the decisions needed to turn norms into peace-promoting actions, aspirations into inspirational practices, are mostly made in national capitals.  So too are the decisions to adopt arms treaties and security-related resolutions without teeth, to turn the power of state security-sector capacities against civilians, to jeopardize in a myriad of ways the global interest in the name of national interest.  In that light, one can only hope and pray that global leaders will see fit to lobby each other – and by extension instruct their UN ambassadors – to do more to resolve ongoing crises in South Sudan, Myanmar, the DPRK and Yemen; to reduce arms production and not simply control its flows; to turn away from weapons technology that abstracts the processes and consequences of killing; to endorse reformed UN peace and security architecture that replaces downstream coercion with upstream mediation, conflict prevention and early warning; to double down on international justice and reconciliation as viable means to end impunity for high crimes and restore citizen faith in governance.

It is noteworthy that the UN decided to honor this international peace day –with both a youth summit and the annual observance held at the Peace Bell — on September 15, prior to when global leaders were set to gather in our neighborhood.   With all due regard for the youth representatives who chimed in from New York and Bogota, it seemed like an opportunity missed not to have presidents and prime ministers get to join hands in solidarity with the UN officials who now labor for peace under difficult political and bureaucratic circumstances.  A photo op to be sure; but perhaps one with more influence and staying power than some of the interminable images this week as heads of state climb to the GA podium in an attempt (sometimes futile) to convince us that they are already doing everything needed to solve global problems, and that circumstances in their countries (or in the world) really aren’t as dismal as they seem…

Global Action, like many NGOs around UN headquarters, has a strong vested interest in how these global leaders assess and support their country’s UN presence.   In such a political and (now) overly branded environment as this one, it is nevertheless relatively easy to spot disconnects between the policy priorities emanating from missions and those from foreign offices.   One of the reasons that we value multi-lateral policy spaces is that it does bring out progressive impulses in delegations that might not play so well at home.  Those same impulses, however, can at times mask domestic concerns that would do well to receive more concerted international attention:  the delegations for instance that champion “peace” in UN conference rooms while their capital counterparts are laying plans to bomb civilians, arrest journalists, suspend constitutional freedoms or otherwise undermine the rule of law.

We also have a vested interest in promoting full spectrum policy engagements that can contribute to the resolution of concrete threats inflaming larger existential worries such as climate warming, another world war, or the death of the oceans on which we all rely. To the extent we (collectively) are able to do so, we need to make peacekeeping and atrocity prevention more reliable and less political.  We need to make better use of the UN’s growing peacebuilding expertise including moving it from its current, post-conflict ghetto into a broader, prevention-oriented, consultative role with states.    We need to invest more stakeholders in the “worldly tasks” of violence prevention, conflict mediation and environmental care – inclusive stakeholders operating well beyond the remit of states, corporate interests and erstwhile “experts.” We need to endorse in practical terms the peace and security implications of all obligations under the 2030 Development Agenda – from education and gender equity to healthy forests and sustainable cities – not only the targets listed within Sustainable Development Goal 16.

And we need to insist in every conceivable forum that resolutions and treaties to manage weapons flows must overtly support the goal of reductions in weapons production.   Despite our normative efforts, the world remains awash in weapons that enrich traffickers and arms merchants while emboldening criminality and insurgency.  States that encourage weapons production while simultenously endorsing efforts to end weapons diversion need to rethink the implications of those commitments without delay. The more weapons we produce, the more will escape even our best efforts at management and control.

As the International Day of Peace approaches, we are keenly aware of intractable conflicts in places like Central African Republic and Libya, but also of hopeful transitions to peaceful futures in places such as in Liberia and Colombia.  We are aware of the many unheeded resolutions emanating from the UN Security Council, but also of capacities within and outside the UN system based on the premise that “maintaining” international peace and security implies more skillful proactivity and less coercive reactivity – more attentiveness to the smoke rather than waiting for the fire.

Whether we like it or not, the global public tends to judge us here on our peace and security effectiveness – not how many victims of violence we assist so much as how successful we are in stopping violence in the first place. This is the standard which the current UN leadership has overtly endorsed.  We will be anxiously listening for openings from global leaders that will help all of us plot the next preventive path.  We will be anxiously listening as well for commitments from these leaders that we can use to help inspire more inclusive, global peace participation – integrating inspiration from diverse issue advocates and from peace-oriented artists such as Lin Evola — and renew at least a bit of global confidence in the UN’s commitment and effectiveness regarding its (more urgent than ever) core peace and security responsibilities.

 

 

 

 

Ode to Inspiration:   The Challenges of UN Leadership on the Run, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Sep

Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration. Robin S. Sharma

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation. Simon Sinek

One of the trickiest aspects of our (mostly self-authorizing) mandate is the assessment of the contributions of outgoing presidents of the UN‘s General Assembly.   Part of this is a function of timing – with three months to prepare and only one year to implement, the gap separating the end of the institutional honeymoon and the crossing of the institutional finish line is thin indeed.

The accelerated pace at which this office must attempt to make its mark is made more complex by the sheer volume of policy activity for which the office of the president is responsible.  On more and more matters of global governance, including at times matters directly affecting international peace and security, the full General Assembly membership is demanding a voice and expecting the president to enable and magnify that voice.

And finally there is the nature of leadership itself.   More and more, it seems, everyone in our overly-schooled cultures is now presumed to be a “leader” in some fashion or other.   This leadership “saturation” has many implications, not all of them problematic, but one troubling implication is the reticence of erstwhile “leaders” to agree to be led by others.   The “herding cats” analogy is probably overused, but the “forging of consensus” which is such an important component of modern leadership is made more complex in a setting where so many of us “know differently” and so often  claim to “know better.”

Into this cauldron of expectation and impediment stepped Fiji’s Peter Thomson, elected president of the UN General Assembly on June 13, 2016 in the closest of votes over Cyprus Ambassador Mavroyiannis.  In his acceptance speech, and with the personal humility and Hollywood-quality voice to which we have all become accustomed, he cited this “great moment” for the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (SIDS), pledging to keep their voices and their issues –especially ocean health and climate impacts – at the top of his agenda.   He also pointed to the critical need to ratchet up our engagement with all Sustainable Development Goals – perhaps the most important promise that the UN has ever made to its global constituents. He subsequently pushed to ensure that all aspects (even the controversial ones) of what is now known as the 2030 Development Agenda – national ownership, inclusive participation, reliable (real-time) data, predictable finance – received urgent and adequate consideration.

His catholic vision was embraced by many of the top diplomats in the UN system who lent their own expertise and leadership to a range of issue critical to the future of the planet, from climate impacts and migration governance to human trafficking and improving modes of participation for women, youth, indigenous people and other persons whose skills and aspirations have spent far too much time already isolated on our global margins.

All the while, a core focus was maintained on the alleviation of global poverty as well as on the implementing health of the UN system itself.   In the latter instance, Thomson and colleagues understood that as the demands on the UN grow and resources remain problematic, it is essential that key UN bodies encourage clear, efficient and scandal-free expectations.   Though it is fair to quibble (as we have done ourselves) over priority reforms for the UN system, the attention of the PGA and other top diplomats to how the General Assembly does its business – and how the office of the president enables and facilitates that business – has been most appreciated.

The abiding question for us here, beyond the specifics of policy investments, is what lessons of leadership can be gleaned from the Thomson presidency?   We would like to suggest the following.

  • Keep focus on the most urgent crises: While there has been over the past year a bit grousing from the disarmament community about Thomson’s level of commitment in this area, for the most part he has invested the energies of his office on the crises that are most likely to undermine human dignity and threaten our common future.  He has recognized, as we all should, that it is important to keep the kitchen clean but less so when the house is burning.
  • Keep relevant issues and issue stakeholders connected: While there is much talk at the UN about “eliminating silos,” we continue to allow bureaucracy and politics to stifle broader policy responsibilities. Connecting the policy dots has been a hallmark of our office’s work for over a decade. Having a president who has been so visibly committed to full spectrum policy engagements, including and beyond SDG goals and targets, has been highly encouraging, both for the UN and the world surrounding it.
  • Be present: This president brought exceptional personal energy to the UN system.  With help from his policy advisers and speech writers, he was seemingly everywhere in and out of headquarters.  My interns often found it remarkable that he could make his presence felt in so many diverse policy settings, sharing relevant remarks both humble and impacting, but also lending credibility to UN discussions that might otherwise have remained in the policy shadows.
  • Promote hope and agency in others: In many ways, Thomson’s signature achievements were a function of his devotion and loyalty to the people and leaders of the small island developing states.  Their voices have rarely enjoyed the volume and resonance that they have over this past year. But beyond the SIDS, welcoming and growing participation by women and indigenous peoples was high on the president’s agenda.   And our young people – the largest generation in human history — were consistently invited to the UN by this president in a manner that was inclusive without being patronizing.  He was able as few are to recognize the skills and energy of youth and endorse their urgency and even skepticism; all while reminding them that they still have much to learn and that there are generations behind their own for whom we will also need to find productive and participatory spaces.

In remarks shared at one of the many high level events he has sponsored over the past year, Thomson concluded this week’s Culture of Peace dialogue with the following: “Let us work to build bridges of understanding amongst our people; to create environments that foster inclusion and mutual respect; to develop education systems that teach harmony; and to raise children and grandchildren who will safeguard a global culture of peace. “

Amen, Mr. President.   During one short and frenetic year, you and your office have set a high bar for Slovakian Foreign Minister Lajcak who is set to take over your duties. Indeed you have raised the bar for all UN leadership as they seek to rally the skills and energies of this system needed to clean up our messes, eliminate our habituated discrimination, armed conflict and wastefulness, and fulfill our urgent policy promises to those next generations now looking anxiously over our shoulders.

Community Watch: Localizing our SDG Responsibilities, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Apr

If the government is big enough to give you everything you want, it is big enough to take away everything you have.  Gerald R. Ford

I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.  Will Rogers

If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

This past week, we were privileged to welcome Ms. Thalassa Cox from the office of the Solicitor-General of St. Lucia.  Thalassa has come to explore the UN, but also to learn what we are hopefully well-suited to teach – what the UN can and cannot do well, and how best a small state government can participate in (and in turn influence) global policy in this highly-complex and often self-referential institution.

And what a week it was for her to come.  The Security Council took on South Sudan, Syria and especially North Korea, in the latter instance drawing an oval punctuated with Foreign Ministers, some of whom (especially the US) seemingly determined to “act” instead of talk, but without a plan for managing the (perhaps dire) consequences that an as-yet-undetermined plan of action might itself create.  At the same time, the General Assembly was deeply engaged in its own revitalization, including its sponsorship of major upcoming discussions focused on human migration and the health of our oceans. The Peacebuilding Commission endorsed a peacebuilding plan for Liberia that can serve as a model for other states emerging from conflict. The Committee on Information met to review how the UN tells its story and in which languages it chooses to tell it.  And the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues brought splashes of color and moral resolve to the UN, including the presence of women in tribal costume holding their babies, reminders both of our collective, gendered responsibility to “First Nations” and, in the case of the babies, of precisely on whose behalf we do our policy work.

After years in this multilateral space, I am convinced that a more regular presence of persons representing different human abilities and cultural contexts — and their babies — would help us make better policy, and become better people as well.  People wearing headdresses or in wheelchairs, people walking with guide dogs or facing unique forms of discrimination; these and more come from families and communities with their own dreams, some of which can occasionally find expression at the UN, but others of which are even larger and more poignant than what we can routinely appreciate in this space.  

Also this week, in a mid-sized conference room and under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council, the Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA) met in session to explore, among other matters, the role of local governance in the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  While we have covered a bit of CEPA in past years, we were gratefully present for more of the discussion this year, in large part due to Thalassa’s enthusiasm for the learning which the diverse CEPA experts were well-suited to provide.

As we have mentioned often in this forum, the SDGs represent a promise that we have made to the economically poor, the politically marginal and even to generations yet to come; a promise to define and implement a plan to level the social, political and economic playing fields, to eradicate persistent poverty, to empower women and cultural minorities to kick open doors to participation, to remove the dangerous masses of plastics and other toxins poisoning our oceans, to preserve our dwindling biodiversity and fresh water access,  and to create structures of sustainable production and consumption that can help reverse climate change and create desperately needed jobs for youth and families.

This grand promise holds direct and compelling implications for peace and security.   In our view, if we can collectively make our “best faith” effort on the SDGs, our chances of “sustaining peace” will improve dramatically.  But if our effort falls short of “best” then the crises that now overwhelm our existing peace and security architecture will only grow in numbers and complexity.  Moreover, and given our stubborn reliance on ever-more-sophisticated military arsenals, what is left of our credibility on conflict prevention and peace will likely have eroded as well.  Serial promise breakers are generally not highly sought after as conflict mediators.

We and our office colleagues often ask what else is needed if the promises of the SDGs are to find a satisfactory fulfillment.   The UN is working hard on appropriate stakeholder arrangements, on predictable funding (including increased and corruption-free domestic revenue), on comprehensive data and robust technology transfers.   All of this is necessary, though none by itself is sufficient.

What else is missing?  Some clues were offered by CEPA itself, which included the quite sensible notion that, as important as global norms can be, the promises embedded in the SDGs must attract large numbers of local champions if they are to succeed.  Such “champions” can provide context-specific remedies for habitats in need of restoration, lifestyles that need to be healthier, economies that can better respond to local consumer needs, schools that promote knowledge of hometowns and not only of other towns – even government officials who can back commitments to “open, inclusive” governance with specific measures to protect media and information freedom, promote access to justice, and guarantee fair and competent government services.

As the Moroccan expert in CEPA made clear, there is a need to “decentralize” our approach to the SDGs, not so much because the largest structures of global finance and multilateral governance are deemed serially indifferent, but because constituents in real danger of being “left behind” by behemoth institutions can more easily be identified and their development needs addressed through responsive local structures. In addition, from our own vantage point, such decentralization points the way to perhaps the most essential and largely missing ingredient in SDG implementation; the willingness of people worldwide, in areas rural and urban – including right here at the UN – to “up our game” in response both to immediate crises “created on our watch” and to warnings of disasters that would, if not prevented, weigh so very heavily on the skills, resources and dreams of future generations.

Local government can and does have its own limitations regarding accountability to the public and its financial obligations, as well as to genuine openness and fairness.  As obsessed as we sometimes are by globally-impacting events emanating from places like Washington and Beijing, there is plenty to watch and report on at local levels as well, some of it equally frightening and/or even at times a bit humorous.  But fear and laughter aside, unless we can improve at local levels standards of government transparency and inclusive service delivery; unless we can enable citizen-centered governance where people have a role to play and not just a complaint to lodge; unless we are willing to defer to local testimony regarding who actually remains “left behind;” then the SDGs will remain an elusive promise at best.  And the conflict potential emanating from a damaged planet and its chronically disappointed people will continue to grow.

In the often “nomadic” world of global diplomacy it is relatively easy to lose sight of local rhythms, those that promise social progress and others that impede it.   Despite the relatively small audience for its UN deliberations, CEPA is helping pave the way for closer and more effective SDG interactions among all levels of government, while continuing to insist that efforts at local level to eradicate poverty and fulfill other SDGs offer the most direct, most personal “diagnoses.” Moreover, as CEPA certainly recognizes, local initiatives are best suited to encourage and unlock opportunities for people from diverse cultures and with wide-ranging capacities to contribute directly to the fulfillment of a large and complex SDG promise, a hopeful dream for a better world that we simply cannot afford to ignore.

City Harvest, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Mar

Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.  Lewis Mumford

A city isn’t so unlike a person. They both have the marks to show they have many stories to tell. They see many faces. They tear things down and make new again.  Rasmenia Massoud

I was in Atlanta, Georgia part of this week speaking with student groups at Georgia Tech University, mostly about their uncertain futures and the promises represented by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development made to their largest-in-history generation.

The students were mostly attentive, if at times a bit underwhelmed.  They’ve heard promises from older folks before of course, including the promise that if they do what they’re told, get good grades, stifle their passions, and defer their dreams — perhaps forever but certainly until their mountains of educational debt can be fully serviced — things will ultimately be well for them.

This generation of students can be a skeptical lot and not without reason.   Despite our insistences even those with “elite” educational backgrounds have already experienced a dearth of employment options, working long hours, doubling up on housing, sacrificing any semblance of a social life for the sake of success that is anything but guaranteed.   Many of these young people avoid the mainstream news; but the issues that underscore the need for the 2030 Agenda in the first place – the security and ecological threats we have introduced into our world, the genies we have released to wreck their signature havoc – remain very much on their minds.

Theirs are largely “first world problems,” many would admit.   Fulfilling professional goals and personal expectations might prove elusive, but these young people aren’t going to starve or die from the failure. And at some level, they seem to understand that in a world of growing inequalities, their needs will likely be addressed well beyond minimum levels.  They might not hit the jackpot, but they have skills and flexibility; they can choose to revise their trajectories with a reasonable chance of finding meaning and perhaps even a measure of abundance.

But they also know that things can and must get better. While most were no doubt skeptical about some of the promises embedded in the 2030 Agenda, some expressed interest in its ambitions and in the capacities needed to turn this promise – this one above all of the others – into a predictable blueprint for their common future.

This won’t be an easy chore. We made brief mention of the precarious health of our oceans; the accelerating extinction of global species; the stubborn pervasiveness of discrimination against women and girls; the crippling poverty we have every means and still-too- little intention to eliminate; the corruption that bleeds societies of domestic resources and stifles public trust: the staggering employment deficits that we must overcome commensurate with this generation’s size and the impacts of human migration and ever-more-sophisticated robotics; the urban settings set to house the dreams and aspirations of so many millions more young people while housing and employment remain in crisis, and while current residents struggle with pollution, substandard transportation and green space as rare as a bargain Manhattan apartment.

It’s a large and formidable list, a testament both to the depth of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves and the genuine willingness of the international community to face – without sugarcoating — the challenges of the next 15 years.  What the students wanted to know more about is how to move goals and targets beyond rhetoric.   What are all of us prepared to do – and change – with our institutional structures and personal commitments in order to make this happen?

In that vein, mention was made of efforts underway to reform taxation and end corruption; to eliminate trafficking in weapons, narcotics and persons that inflame risks to violence; to create viable indicators of the full 2030 performance based on data that is robust, flexible, context-specific, and able to help us track risks and trends beyond “snapshots” of the present.

And we must do this and more while taking the shifting needs of cities – the settings where so many of this current generation of young people will choose to find their way — fully into account. Among the many helpful resources available to participants in this week’s interesting UN Statistical Commission was a UN publication entitled “The World’s Cities,” This summary report provides a brief look at urban growth during the period defined by the 2030 Agenda; the “megacities” continuing their expansion and the many other cities on the cusp of joining their ranks, especially in what some still refer to as the “global south.”  The report makes plain that people will continue to pour into urban areas such as Bogota and Bangkok, Mumbai and Lagos; and when they arrive they will need housing for their families, reliable transportation to seek and sustain livelihoods, places to educate themselves and their children, even guidance on managing the complexities of a new urban home.

These ”mega” cities and many others are places of growing diversity that almost defy existing data;  places of ever-growing complexity of social groupings, expectations, aspirations;  most often including growing social and economic inequalities as well.  Cities worldwide are demonstrating their capacity to become breeding grounds for violence or hubs of cooperative innovation.  They can help us manage our ecological footprint or push us over the climate threshold. They can exacerbate existing social divisions or help to forge a more hopeful, sustainable consensus for “lovers and friends” in keeping with the 2030 Agenda goal of “peaceful and inclusive societies.”

At one point towards the end of one of the presentations, the professor in charge (a good friend) asked me what I was currently most concerned about in this world?  I answered then as I usually do, speaking not so much about threats to the planet as the status of capacities within ourselves.  Do we have what it takes to get through this rough patch?  Are our pathways to social and political participation sufficiently fair and inviting?  Do our often violent and consumption-laden lifestyles posses the wiggle room to change the ways we invest our energies and resources?   Are we ready to join this harvest of potential of which we must take advantage, despite the metaphorical thin soils and unpredictable rains that gave rise to it?

Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is so much potential still to be realized in even our often-chaotic and overly impersonal urbanized settings.   If we have the most comprehensive and widely disaggregated data; if we have the necessary buy-in from local and national stakeholders, if we have governments and international institutions willing to do what is needed to restore public trust; if we have more dependable and transparent sources of domestic and other funding; then this next period in our collective history will surely yield a more abundant harvest.

But will the harvesters be many or few?  Will we have the hands (and brains) we need to gather and organize the best of what is now available to us for future use?  Will our talented young people sit passively on the sidelines and hope the raging storm won’t ruin too many crops, or will they help us harvest the best of what is now in the field and then plant some new and even better seeds?

We have a case for involvement to make to these people, but we must seize more of those precious and previously squandered opportunities to inspire them to life projects that are larger than their careers and social media feeds.   Our urban areas – many bursting at the seams – are the places most of this generation will choose to call home.  If we can make that more convincing case, then an efficient, equitable and passionate care of urban spaces, a core objective of the 2030 Agenda, might well become among this generation’s most notable contributions.

A Discouraging Word:Violence and its Multiple Impacts, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Sep

The only shameful thing about mental illness is the stigma attached to it. — Lindsay Holmes

Last evening, on my way to a birthday party, I stopped by the World Trade Center site.  The powerful “9/11” spotlights were turned on, helicopters circled the area, and many loud banging noises could be heard in the neighborhood. While watching the spectacle, I had striking flashbacks of people jumping out of windows of the old Twin Towers because staying put on melting upper floors had ceased to be an option; also of responders urgently rushing up stairways that ultimately became their graveyards.

But I also thought about the thousands upon thousands of bombs that have fallen since “9/11,” the uncounted masses whose homes and shops will never be rebuilt, whose losses will never be formally commemorated; countless families who have barely known a moment of stability or peace for the past 15 years.

We in the US have been victims; we have created many as well. Violence in too many forms preceded 9/11 and violence in too many forms has defined its wake.

Such diverse forms and manifestations of violence always find a place on the agenda of the UN community: even when we fail to guarantee refugees safe passage; even when efforts to eliminate nuclear tests go up in flames; even when conflicts rage like wildfires that have long-since jumped the control line; even when abuses are committed against civilians by their erstwhile protectors; even when hospitals are bombed with weapons sold by countries that had previously pledged seller’s restraint.

There were many UN events this past week with implications for peace and security, for societies that no longer have to calibrate the staggering costs of violence (including their deep emotional wounds) that threaten every hopeful impulse.  Two for us stood out.

On Tuesday, the General Assembly help what is now an annual debate on the Responsibility to Protect norm for addressing genocide and other atrocity violence, placed on the UN’s agenda at the 2005 World Summit. “R2P” as it is known has attracted significant interest from many UN member states as well as from a handful of “loyalist” NGOs who were well represented at the debate, what one person described (with a hint of irony) as something akin to a “family reunion.”

Despite high regard for the norm and for addressing what Bolivia referred to as the “repugnant” crimes to which the norm points, this discussion brought many fault lines to the fore, based in part on the recognition (as described by Slovenia and others) that 11 years on from the World Summit the world is still facing widespread misery and displacement instigated by state and non-state actors.  The questions (and frustrations) were evident throughout. Brazil wondered about our habitual response to coercive responses that endanger the very persons we are trying to help.   Vanuatu wondered why states sit idly by waiting for the Security Council to act when there is much conflict prevention that even small states can promote.  Spain wondered why the UN’s promises of a “culture of prevention” remain essentially unfulfilled.

And yet amidst the frustrations, there were signs of positive life. Several states (and USG Dieng) called (as we have also been doing for years) for RtoP to find life through a regular, formal General Assembly process that allows states to (as noted by Panama) engage a wider range of stakeholders, but also to examine the political and capacity gaps that impede effective implementation. We also need (as noted by the Netherlands on behalf of the “Group of Friends”) more regular briefings to the Security Council by USG Dieng and (soon) ASG Simonovic, requiring both a more active, determined secretariat and a less “tone deaf” Security Council when it comes to its response to early warnings.

DSG Eliasson confessed during this meeting that when we look around the world, it is hard not to be discouraged. We just can’t go on like this, he implored. Indeed, we cannot.  The longer the violence festers, the longer people are denied relief and justice, the longer we fail to develop (as noted by Rwanda and others) strong institutions to help us face our conflict prevention and protection responsibilities, the longer we attempt to mask the truth about protection promises unkept, the deeper discouragement is likely to become.

Such deep and painful emotions were also the backdrop of a special event sponsored by Palau (with Canada, Belgium and UNDESA) on “Mental Health and Wellbeing at the Heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”  Palau’s Ambassador Otto, a trained physician himself, has taken a special interest in SDG 3 which links “mental health and wellbeing” to what some might consider as the “self-inflicted wounds” associated with non-communicable diseases, including narcotics and alcohol addictions.

Amidst the “earth balloons” and children chanting “happy people, happy planet,” there were sober matters to consider. ASG Daniella Bas underscored the particular mental health concerns of disabled persons.  Canada addressed the social isolation characteristic of so much mental illness, but also called attention to the pervasive mental health challenges affecting migrants and refugees.  Micronesia’s newly-installed, Ambassador Chigiyal, called attention to the stigmas that impact care for the mentally ill, citing examples from her own “family focused” country. And many diplomats and practitioners raised the specter of the trauma, including from indiscriminate use of weapons, that we should do more to prevent and for which our capacities for remediation and restoration are still largely deficient.

But more than this, we should think harder about what is needed at the level of policy to help stave off the effects of trauma and related illness that impede human and community development.  Beyond addiction, we are moving towards full recognition of mental health impacts from being unable to protect our children from harm or abuse, from having our livelihood disappear, from being betrayed by people in our “inner circle,” from being unable to stop violence that threatens everything in our community of concern. These and other examples point towards two features of a mentally healthful life – trustworthy human connections and the ability to impact events in the world, large and small.  Without meaningful connection and viable agency, life is simply too isolated and unpredictable to sustain mental health.  Too many of us in this world struggle mightily to find protection from harsh winds that we simply cannot control, and too often we struggle alone.

Ambassador Otto’s introductory remarks summed up perhaps the most important insight from this event, reminding us that “the heart is a great enabler.” Indeeed, implementation of all our development commitments and all our preventive and protective responsibilities must be animated by something deeper than the need for clever and well-crafted policy.  We must learn to empathize more actively with lives incapacitated by armed violence; we must do better at preventing and protecting against its devastations.  While doing this, we would do well to place greater emphasis on encouraging more personal connection and social participation as antidotes to the isolation and impotence from which so much discouragement in this world currently proceeds.