Tag Archives: sustainable development

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.

Health Bar:  Ensuring Vitality for Sustainable Development, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Jul

dayoffriendship

We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.  Kurt Vonnegut

Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Wendell Berry

A sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. Pema Chödrön

What drains your spirit drains your body. What fuels your spirit fuels your body. Caroline Myss

One of the things that we have noticed (with gratitude) over this past year about the UN policy agenda is the emphasis on health—not only on leveling access to health care but on indicators and implications of health for both our sustainable development and peace and security responsibilities.

As the ECOSOC High Level Political Forum prepares to convene on Monday, governments and NGOs will convene in large numbers from all directions to review progress on some of the most important Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – from clean water access and sustainable energy to reversing desertification and biodiversity loss, and sustainable production and consumption.  Through plenary reviews of national SDG progress and a remarkable series of policy-focused side events, the HLPF will provide the opportunity for all of us to assess the degree to which what is arguably the most comprehensive and urgent promise the UN has ever made to future generations is being properly honored.

Recent weeks have seen UN discussions on a range of health-implicated policies, from efforts to end tuberculosis to the expanding global crisis of access to safe drinking water in an era characterized by both diminishing supply and growing privatization. In the past few days alone, the UN has seen interesting events and negotiations focused on universalized health care, the role of “cooperatives” in increasing healthy food security, and an “interactive hearing” on Thursday in preparation for the third High-Level Meeting of the General Assembly on Non-Communicable Diseases.

At first glance the “non-communicable” disease focus might seem a bit trivial stacked up against Ebola, tuberculosis and a host of other pandemics – potential and actual – made more frightening by the increasing inefficacy of our antibiotics.  But we know that there are numerous and deadly health threats that we don’t “catch” from others but which we routinely impose on ourselves and our neighbors – the diabetes tied in large measure to our processed diets and immobility; the toxic substances that collect in women’s mammary glands and create breast cancer emergencies; the impediments to clean water access in our “privatizing planet” that sicken and suppress children and their caregivers; the substance addictions that ruin relationships and drain the spirit of resolve.  The environmental burdens we impose in the name of “progress,” the “lifestyle” choices we make in what are often futile efforts to overcome fear, anxiety and isolation – this and more has led increasingly to the ironic circumstance of longer lives characterized by only episodic vitality and enthusiasm for living.

Indeed, one of the takeaways from the interactive hearing was the degree to which “health” in our time is largely a matter of overcoming our battered spirit, our psyches filled with anxiety and remorse, our political climates of recrimination and repression, our propensity for inflicting violence that solves few problems but ensures lasting distress.  We are living through a moment where our already besieged spirits are under fresh assault.  And few medical professionals are now prepared to deny the impact that our collectively impaired mental health is having on our physical vigor.  Those seemingly growing numbers (including of our children) who suffer from depression or trauma are less likely to practically cherish their physical well-being.  Where the web of health is damaged, all aspects of vitality seem to be called into question.

Another of the many take-aways from the hearing had to do with the role of health professionals and private sector entities tasked with providing what we ostensibly require to overcome health threats – the doctors and nurses who bind wounds and diagnose deeper sickness, and the pharmaceuticals that provide us with the chemicals we need to overcome (but not necessarily prevent) health impediments.  As one might predict, there was considerable and sometimes heated discussion about the imprecise and shifting lines connecting regulation and innovation, connecting the need for companies to turn a profit and the needs of communities for life-saving generics, connecting  investments in high-tech therapies with (more human-effective) investments in prevention.   And of course the lines connecting the need for “evidence-based” health commitments with the fact that, as more than one expert noted, the available evidence in some instances is pointing in diverse directions.

There are clearly some trust issues to overcome amidst all of this uncertain balancing.  In one of the sessions, a professor from Rwanda challenged the sometimes facile articulation within and beyond the UN of the “public-private partnership model,” noting that while better “quality control” over agricultural and pharmaceutical production is important, the current preoccupation in some quarters with diets and other “lifestyle” issues is likely an over-reach. Such a preoccupation, she noted, tends to just “put the blame on the people.”  What she called for in addition was a greater commitment to transparency and broad public participation regarding government health policy, to lift the veil on the mostly off-camera “public-private” dealings that can saddle communities with medicines they don’t particularly need at prices they can’t afford.

If “leaving no one behind” is to be something more than the tag line for this HLPF, we must consider what keeps us vital in these challenging times, what make us not only able to benefit from sustainable development but allows us to participate fully and energetically in building a more sustainable world.  In this second and critical dimension of SDG implementation, the role of good health cannot be over-stated.  It is truly one of the blessings of life to be able to early rise from sleep and feel healthy enough to help take on some of the world’s problems, perhaps even ease a few burdens for others.  If the SDGs are to achieve their full promise (and there is really no planetary alternative to doing so), the vitality of the world’s peoples – our personal connectivity, “humane ideas,” uncontaminated environments and other indicators of well-being — must be better assured.

Health is a core dimension of sustainable development that the UN seems well-suited to address, and we strongly encourage its continued focus.  In its absence, woes of body and mind will continue to sideline too many of the skills, passions, ideas and connections needed to ensure a more peaceful and sustainable future.

Treasure Hunt: An Advent Reflection on Pathways and Resources, Dr. Robert Zuber

3 Dec

Advent Image

For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last. Frederick Buechner

Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other- things that are of no real consequence- the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer

To be human is nothing less than to be caught in the great congested pilgrimage of existence and to join ourselves freely to it in the face of the evidence of its never-ending troubles.  Eugene Kennedy

For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.   Matthew 6:21

I’m not usually asked to write things by others – more likely asked NOT to write things, actually.   But there was one recent exception – a valued colleague asked if I would comment on an important, recent NGO discussion on the “perils and challenges of a shrinking UN budget.”    Since it is also time for my annual Advent letter, I will attempt to conflate the two responsibilities.  (You might want to consider a stronger cup of coffee before proceeding further.)

At the UN, much of the constriction just alluded to is based on threats from the current US administration and some other donor governments, officials seeking a leaner system that can do “more with less.”  As we know, this often translates into “doing less with less,” a problem for an institution that is being pulled in a variety of challenging policy directions and is having more and more difficulty taking care of basic expectations to staff and constituents on top of evolving concerns related to issues as diverse as autonomous weapons, forced migration, mass climate incidents, ethnic and disability-based discrimination, species extinction and pandemic threats.  Our global community – even those parts that don’t much trust us here in New York – simply has no viable recommendation to offer for how we might, together, ever make it “home” to a world of peace and well-being without the UN’s occasionally clumsy – and now also funding-challenged — efforts to clear away some of the debris that inhibits our collective progress.

There are challenges as well for those of us who labor in UN confines, and not only for the institution itself.  Some of those have clearly “seasonal” references.

My profound admiration for the late Dr. Bonhoeffer notwithstanding, my own take on this season of Advent is less about “killing time” in a confined space waiting for some divine (or human) power to turn the lock, and more about discerning what we plan to do – and with whom we plan to do it – in order to bring this current, difficult and confining sojourn finally to an end.

Like many people with far better excuses for this neglect than I have, I don’t spend enough time in reflection or –if you prefer –prayer, in Advent or any other season.  I don’t spend enough time simply dwelling with myself – the good and uglier aspects of that – figuring out both where I want to go but, more importantly, where I want to invest my treasure and with what values?  Moreover, who do I wish to stand alongside, and for which causes and objectives shall we together stand?  How can we best point out the many structural and, at times, self-imposed obstacles that litter our path home without sounding shrill, or mean, or even self-righteous?

Beyond such self-analysis, the reflection time of Advent allows me to take at least partial stock of all the people in my life who matter, some of whom are facing their own trials of health or meaning,  others of whom now finding themselves killing time in mostly hopeless spaces with no obvious exit.  When I reflect — when I pray — I remember all the people I am usually too “preoccupied” to think about in the ways that they deserve. And in my best moments, I recall that capacity to care about people in practical ways commensurate with the genuine value they can and do add to my life (and my world).

Advent for me represents a time of longing, of the hope that the heavens will open revealing the way out of the tiny rooms in which we have, sometimes willfully, restricted ourselves.   But it is also a time for planning what we will do once our full release is secured, and with whom we will walk ahead on a path towards greater inclusiveness and equity.

For many of us, this planning and walking clearly has something to do with money.  In an expensive and economically skewed city such as New York, those of us who work in this UN vineyard have to pay attention more than we wish to the financial implications of our respective missions.   It is difficult at times to live with simplicity and generosity beneath a bevy of shining towers saturated with moneyed interests but with little or no concern for what we are attempting to accomplish with and for each other in the realm of global policy.  It is even more difficult to share this space in the way we should with the many stakeholders worldwide who can effectively “check” our elite realities but can’t foot most or all of the bills associated with their presence here.

The UN, as already noted, has many of its own fiscal laments, sometimes substituting slogans and scheming for thoughtful reflection on what are often utterly daunting program and funding tasks.   One of those slogans relates to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) tag line of “leaving no-one behind.”  I have written previously about this once game-changing but now tired and overused formula that now represents an aspiration likely to exhaust our collective energy, probably also our powers of attention, certainly our currently available (and perhaps even projected) resources.

UN budget challenges, including the preference by some states for greater austerity and “earmarked funding,” have indeed been complicated by the ambition of the SDGs but also by the global events that make fulfilling these goals so essential to our very survival.   More and more attention is now being paid to addressing the massive price tag associated with our sustainable development promises, including through commitments to end state corruption, solidify domestic revenue streams, and integrate the so-called “private sector” in what must become a fully transparent and rights-based manner.  Military spending, much to our chagrin, remains an obvious and largely “off limits” source of potential SDG revenue.

Along with SDG-related imperatives, there are now frequent, UN-sponsored “pledging conferences” focused on forcibly displaced persons facing deprivation and trauma, the victims of discrimination and armed violence that we have done less-than-enough to prevent, the stranded and water-logged residents of coastal areas battered by storms made worse through our collective climate negligence.  A shockingly high percentage of funds pledged for disaster and humanitarian relief are actually never honored while the humanitarian and environmental crises-of-our-making seem continually to evolve.

It would seem appropriate at this point to apply some iteration of the biblical reminder regarding the links between our treasure and our heart to UN policy contexts.  To paraphrase:  where our treasure is withheld or withdrawn, where it is beholden to institutional politics more than to people, thus might well our hearts be hardened.

And there are NGO dimensions associated with current budgetary challenges.  Every time I walk into the UN, a place where I spend an average of 9 hours each day, I cost the UN money.  The security officers whom I often greatly admire, who are the “face” of UN hospitality, and who are often not treated with sufficient respect by diplomats or NGOs, are paid to make sure that people like me and my interns/fellows don’t trespass on diplomatic prerogatives, don’t get off the elevators on the wrong floor or sneak into closed meetings.  Moreover, we don’t pay for the earplugs we use in UN conference rooms; we don’t pay for the electricity or the wireless that allows us to communicate UN deliberations to the outside world; we don’t pay for any of the access passes I and my colleagues liberally bestow upon others; we don’t pay for the literature we collect and then stack up throughout our office.

And so part of the discussion about UN budgets must focus on the benefits (sometimes begrudgingly) enjoyed by offices like my own but, even more, about the financial limitations that even now impact the ability of others to sit where I sit – those many “outlandish creatures” worldwide who have every reason to insist on their place in this policy space, on their ability to “add value” in ways that I can only pray we do as well.  In a time of abundant and mean-spirited austerity threats, including towards the UN, there is little reason to believe that important and hopeful voices will find their way out of the spaces where they have for too long been confined and into UN conference rooms where “what they know” can and must inform “what we do.”   Little reason, that is, unless we commit more of our treasure to making that happen, to insist that our (still-intact if shrinking) institutional privileges are available for them as well.

For unless we all make more time for reflection on both our commitments and our own privilege, unless we are fully prepared to use whatever treasure is at our disposal to reach as far as we can to connect with those in need of both justice and a voice – and then stretch a bit further still – we are more likely to remain as “toothless plaintiffs” towards a system already well into its embrace of what Global Policy Forum calls “selective multilateralism.”  Our road home to a place of inclusion and equity is littered with debris that we have often scattered ourselves – our self-preoccupations and excessive material interests, our numerous distractions and competitive suspicions.  Ours is indeed a “congested pilgrimage,” albeit one we maintain (at least for now) the power to de-clutter.

Some of this business about sustaining multilateral policy space is about funding, specifically about a fair, predictable, transparent and depoliticized balancing of resources and expectations. And some is about reminding governments and other international stakeholders that their often-furtive and restrained financial commitments in the face of global crises tell us much about the size and health of their collective heart. But some of it is about us as NGOs as well:  our willingness to use opportunities — including the reflection space of Advent — to interrogate the promises we keep, the value we contribute, the conflict we prevent, the voices we enable—commitments that we must “own” each and every day regardless of the current health of our organizational balance sheets.

As we lobby for a sane, sufficient and promise-oriented allocation of resources based on something akin to what NGOs often refer to as “full funding” of the UN, we would also do well to ensure that our own treasure is fully engaged — that the self-reflection encouraged in this season begets some newly-minted, heart-felt and tangible commitments to inclusive access and a sustainable peace for more of the world’s people.

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.