Tag Archives: sustainable development

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

6 Oct

students-918296__340

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.

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

21 Jul

Earthrise

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

Law

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

rembrandt-van-rijn-adoration-of-the-shepherds-1339152516_b

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.

Just Desserts:  The UN Celebrates an International Justice Milestone, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Jul

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. Elie Wiesel

When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

To sin by silence…makes cowards of us all.  Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy. Wendell Berry

What if our aloneness isn’t a tragedy? What if our aloneness is what allows us to speak the truth without being afraid?  Rachel Corrie

This has been another exhausting week at the UN.   From government ministers gathered to assess progress on sustainable development goals at the High Level Political Forum to the (now) annual meeting of the African Union Peace and Security Council with both the UN Security Council and the increasingly visible and relevant UN Peacebuilding Commission, diplomats, civil society and UN staff were sprinting from one room to another, hoping to catch hopeful glimpses of a future whose contours, as of this writing, are still very much in doubt

For our cohort of interns, it was hard to make decisions about how to invest their time.  One or more seized the opportunity to meet with the over-stretched Special Rapporteur on Internally Displaced Persons, to participate in the launch of a report on promoting inclusion through social protection, to attend a humanitarian briefing on the DPRK (including discussion on the impact of sanctions) and another event focused on “resilient women,” and to listen to Kenyan Minister Kamau discuss the “blue economy” in the very same UN conference room that he once deftly steered the UN community to adopt what were to become the Sustainable Development Goals.  For the interns and despite all of the redundancies and clichés that punctuate many UN discussions, this week’s blur will likely help define their “possible,” the range of viable options for their growth, prosperity and service.

For us at Global Action who strive to blend these conversations into some semblance of policy coherence, this was a period where it was literally impossible to be in anything close to all the rooms where progress on core UN pillars of peace, development and human rights might be discovered.   We and others we spoke with over this long week were left pensive and often frustrated from a long week of listening and scrambling from room to crowded room seeking conversations that can get us beyond policy inertia and funding scarcity, conversations that can invigorate forward momentum and remind us of the stable of obligations essential to building that world of “sustainable peace” that our UN leadership is now so fond to speak about.

One such conversation occurred early this week as Liechtenstein and other states hosted an event to celebrate and inspire deeper commitments to international justice, specifically in the form of our obligations to the health and integrity of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Such events take place every year on July 17, but this one felt different, more important, even more relevant than most other years.

For starters, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute that called the ICC into existence and provided it with its marching orders – its jurisdictional scope, relationship to the UN Security Council, and much more.  The ICC by most accounts – even by those states that refuse to become parties or that fail to uphold key obligations under the Statute – has been in some critical ways a game-changer.  Though the ICC (as Australia and others reminded participants) is a “court of last resort” in instances where states are unable or unwilling to prosecute those of “their own” who commit the gravest of crimes, the ICC has also been an incubator for high-level discussions that are “shaping perceptions of justice” as well as underscoring our responsibility to uphold international law at a time when such responsibility has been wantonly ignored by state and non-state actors alike. At the same time, the Court has motivated states to strengthen their national legal frameworks to combat and prosecute the most serious violations of international law and has contributed in ways small and large to the development of special criminal courts – such as the one now taking shape in the Central African Republic – that will hopefully become essential to national justice and reconciliation, key conditions for ensuring that states which have emerged from violence have every opportunity to remain violence-free.

There was plenty to celebrate and ponder at this July 17 event, but even more this time given that this was the day when the jurisdiction of the court was extended to include the crime of aggression, a most welcome development to those committed to conflict prevention and perhaps especially for smaller states (as Andorra noted) that must rely on international mechanisms and the pressure they can exert to prevent external threats to their territorial integrity.  For its part, Brazil lamented our “long history” of legitimizing violence between and among states, legitimacy it noted which has now been called into serious question and with full legal force.

Those things which the Court still needs to work out as it moves past its 20th year are widely known.  Funding and staffing are less than adequate to the broadening scope of the Court’s work and the many horrific crimes still being committed in our world and for which ICC investigative and prosecutorial scrutiny is requested.  Despite a recent Arria Formula and other frank and conciliatory discussions, relations with some Security Council members, both permanent and elected, remain tense as the briefings by Prosecutor Bensouda on the Darfur and Libya referrals consistently make clear.  During her last brief to the Council on Darfur, Ethiopia went so far as to urge the withdrawal of the referral that resulted in an arrest warrant for Sudan president al-Bashir – a warrant which as we know has largely been ignored even by those African states which are parties to the Rome Statute.

Indeed, this has become a classic instance where security and development “progress” in Darfur –which has been recognized by the Council to the extent that a draw-down of the UNAMID peacekeeping force is well past the initial planning phase – is in danger of obscuring the massive crimes that came before.  Apparently, so long as leaders make a decent effort to clean up their messes – and there has indeed been progress in Darfur — they are no longer responsible for the grave impacts of those messes in the first instance.   This is a slippery slope, one noted by the outgoing Ambassador of Italy, who intoned that, more often than we might wish to believe, impunity “plants the seeds” of new conflict.

There is of course the additional headache that those permanent Security Council members whose footprint on ICC referrals looms large are themselves unlikely to ever face ICC scrutiny themselves.   There will surely be no referral on Eastern Ukraine or on the indiscriminate bombing that reduced places like Raqqa and Sanaa to rubble.  There will be no extension of the existing referral on Libya to include those who authorized the bombs in 2011 and who –inadvertently or otherwise – set off a frightening arms migration throughout Africa that makes mass animal movements across the Serengeti seem downright tidy.  Time and again, major power “guardians” of international law have rationalized away the damage from their own international law transgressions, often doing so in front of states and courts which have no power to prevent them from doing otherwise.

But much of the conversation this day was not about gaps to fill and inconsistencies to expose, but about the immense progress demonstrated by a Court that, as noted by the president of the General Assembly and others, has barely escaped its teenage years.  The pursuit of justice remains an often “onerous task,” as explained by Iceland, but it is a task that we can and must pursue together alongside the ICC if we are to fulfill the expectations that others have of us for justice but ultimately also for reconciliation, sustainable development and peace.

During this ICC session, the Palestinian Ambassador pointedly urged us all ”to embrace a higher calling.”  This is, of course, sage advice in all areas of multilateral policy, but surely so within the realm of international justice as a guarantor of a dependable and sustainable peace. As Argentina rightly insisted, we must continue to build the “solid ground” of justice, to renounce the “sin of silence” and bring hope and tangible relief to those victimized by both the high crimes of too many of their rulers and the relative indifference of too many of the rest of us.

Missing Ingredients:  Consolidating a Consequential UN Week, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Jul

Contract Image

Peter was, simply, what a person would look like if you boiled down the most raw emotions and filtered them of any social contract. If you hurt, cry. If you rage, strike out. If you hope, get ready for a disappointment.  Jodi Picoult

While prosperity does not trickle down from the most powerful to the rest of us, all too often indifference and even intolerance do.  Hillary Clinton

I am not surprised that the people who want to unravel the social contract start with young adults. Those who are urged to feel afraid, very afraid, have both the greatest sense of independence and the most finely honed skepticism about government.  Ellen Goodman

We may demand that the citizens of each sovereign state view citizens of other states (or even stateless people) with compassion, respect and sympathy, satisfying some requirements of “minimal humanitarianism.” Amartya Sen

This was in several ways one of the more remarkable weeks in recent UN memory, capped off by the historic agreement on the text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which will be formerly adopted in Morocco in December.  The document was negotiated under the able stewardship of the co-facilitators (Mexico and Switzerland) and was rightly hailed by Deputy Secretary-General Mohammed, President of the General Assembly Lajčák and Special Representative Arbour as a triumph of multilateralism, a way forward for governments to address and honor the challenges of migration but also the many contributions that the 258 million or so migrants in our world today can make (many already making) to our sustainable development priorities.

In other conference rooms, the UN was alive with delegations and discussions assessing progress (or its lack) on fulfilling our 2030 Development Agenda promises.   From sustainable cities and financing “partnerships,” to the right and access to fresh water, sanitation and sustainable energy, the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) held important discussions that explored gaps and celebrated successes, but also aired frustrations about the lack of progress in implementing several development goals and about the lack of transparency regarding the “partnerships” currently being proposed (few of which involve reductions in military spending) to pay for our 2030 development ambitions.

As a small office with diverse policy interests, we could cover only a few of the HLPF events (most reflecting the current interns’ interests in the right to water, African affairs, environmental care and sustainable cities).  But as is our want we remained intrigued by the “cross-over” events that remind us of the systemic nature of our development promises, the degree to which sustainable development must be pursued at multiple levels and must integrate as fully as possible both the human rights and peace and security pillars of the UN’s policy mandate.  Indeed, presentations by the resplendent UN Climate Envoy Mary Robinson as well as by Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmore and the ocean-focused, former president of the General Assembly Peter Thomson helped give sustainable development a wider lens if not always an optimistic one.

True to form, Gilmore and Thomson were particularly blunt.  Gilmore in fact went so far as to call trickle-down economics a “staggering oxymoron,” noting that the forces in the economy  exacerbating inequalities are not as “inevitable”  as we sometimes make them out to be.   For his part, Thomson underscored the urgent need to “re-establish and respect planetary boundaries.”  No categorical critic of profit (nor are we), Thomson yet wondered aloud about the value of short-and medium-term pursuit of such profit when our longer-term sustainability is under continuous assault, when our “plastic plague” shows too few signs of abating, and when we have been too slow to usher in a “new generation of stewardship” represented by our young people, stewardship that can help our markets and governments respond more urgently to growing inequalities while inspiring our consumer appetites to become less voracious and wasteful.

And as has been the case for the last couple of summers, we eagerly welcomed the release this week of Spotlight on Sustainable Development, a compendium of viewpoints assessing our sustainable development responsibilities, progress and failings produced by the “Civil Society Reflection Group” on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.   The 2018 version of the report contains a diverse array of data and commentary including and beyond the SDGs tagged for assessment at this HLPF.  What the authors (many of whom also presented during the HLPF) seemed most to have in common was a commitment to narrowing what have become almost grotesque social and economic inequalities in many regions of the world, in part through important calls to reverse our recent “privatizing” obsessions and restore more accountable municipal control over water and other essential services.

The Security Council, which at times seems a bit “tone deaf” to developments and achievements elsewhere in the UN system, also had a good week.  Despite some considerable controversy resulting in a razor-thin vote to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan (over the objections of South Sudan itself and the African organizations currently seeking to broker SS peace), Sweden’s presidency was off to a positive and collaborative start with high level discussions on children in armed conflict, on women, peace and security in African states, and on climate as a peace and security issue.

All are worthy of sustained attention by this Council, not so much to control these narratives (a persistent concern of non-Council members and many Council watchers)  but to support efforts taking place elsewhere in the UN system, and indeed in communities around the world.  Regarding climate, while some members remain a tad suspicious (the US never actually uttered the term during its Wednesday remarks) and others (such as Russia) maintain that there is sufficient policy robustness on climate in other UN settings, most agreed with the Netherlands, represented at this meeting by the Prime Minister of Curaçao, that “we are all in the same canoe, and need to collectively paddle faster than the threats that are now overtaking us.”  Such “paddling,” he insisted, must involve greater responsibility for ensuring that all UN agencies with a mandate and/or determination to mitigate climate threats, including the Security Council itself, be about those tasks as though the future of the planet depended on it.

The grandest moment for us of ths particular Council session, perhaps of the entire week, was when indigenous representative Hindou Ibrahim addressed Council members.  For Hindou and the often-vulnerable people with whom she lives and works, climate change is no abstraction.  Its impacts dominate every aspect of their lives, forcing people into adaptations that strain resources, security arrangements and community bonds. “We don’t have a choice,” she noted (raising her finger), “but you do.”  “You choose to sit on this Council.”  You must, she intoned, do more to “give the people hope.”

I caught up with Hindou later in the day and congratulated her for her courageous words, noting how much better balanced the UN system could be if there were more people like her wandering its halls and fewer people like me.  She replied that “everyone has a role to play.”  Everyone, including people with uneven skill sets and financially challenged offices; everyone, including people who have been battered by climate events that have destroyed their homes and ruined their farms; everyone, including those who have never once been invited to make a better world for others; everyone, including those who have already spent too much energy trying to convince themselves that things cannot be so very different from what they have now become.

In a week as momentous as this one at the UN was, in a building that was filled to the brim with talented and creative people, some of the most important takeaways appear to be pretty straightforward:  that those who choose to occupy seats of authority must set a hopeful bar for themselves and others that renounces both indifference to our ever-more unequal world and intolerance to our ever-greater human diversity; that our national and multilateral institutions don’t quite have the precise blend of human ingredients needed to bake some variety of the bread of life to offer to our children and those who come after; and that a mixture of “compassion, respect and sympathy” is a prerequisite for hopeful and sustainable policy, not an afterthought.

We’re getting there.