Tag Archives: United Nations

Curiosity Call: Stretching Policy and Personal Assumptions, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jan

Kid Questions

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.  Bertrand Russell

Curiosity takes ignorance seriously, and is confident enough to admit when it does not know. It is aware of not knowing, and it sets out to do something about it.  Alain de Botton

Ask yourself three questions and you will know who you are.  What do you believe in? What do you hope for? But most important – What do you love?  Paulina Simons

Don’t question if the world is real; question if your thoughts are. Marty Rubin

As the UN prepares for its 75th anniversary and its decade of action on sustainable development, many are likely in this time of massive fires and human displacement to question both the pace of UN reform and the robustness of the UN’s commitment to implement all of the promises embedded in the 2030 Development Agenda.  And, as we creep ever-closer to a reckless Middle East military confrontation (check out the crowds at Suleimani’s funeral earlier today), many are also questioning the ability of the international community (especially the UN Security Council) to serve as an effective mechanism of conflict prevention rather than as a mere channel for acknowledging newly-escalating tensions.

Such questioning in our view is well within bounds.   It is important that the UN Is held to account for its promises as with other institutions including small NGOs such as our own.   We have all taken on important commitments to enhancing food security, mitigating the devastation from climate change, ensuring peace and security, and much more.  Such commitments were willingly embraced and it is right and sensible to question the resolve of our erstwhile leadership at times when goals get bogged down or otherwise fall woefully behind schedule. A case could surely be made that we are now living through such a time.

That said, the quality of our questions also leaves much to be desired, to our leadership for sure, but also to persons closer to home.

We tend to know just enough about the people whose lives and work we encounter to label them and stick them in boxes of our own making.  We know what they “do” for a living.  We know something about their relationship status and political biases along with a few characteristic habits – often the ones that mostly annoy us.   In such a social environment, we increasingly tend to interpret questions as intrusions on what remains of our privacy, or as judgments on our lack of physical or professional perfection, in part because the questions we are asked, when others even bother to ask them, seem intended to expose rather than explore, to satisfy some prurient interest rather than enhance connection, to promote and amplify an-often limited knowledge base rather than offer invitation to build a base together broader than we could ever build alone.

When was the last time that any of us were asked the kinds of questions that made it more possible for us to explore rather than define, to connect rather than defend?   When was the last time we were asked questions that created safe-enough spaces for curiosity and vulnerability, that allowed us to seek together what we don’t know rather than recite what we already know (or rush to consult our phones as some ultimate authority, thereby abandoning the questions altogether that phones alone can’t process)?  And when was the last time we asked questions ourselves that didn’t house a distinct (and unspoken) agenda and that embodied a commitment to listen to the answers no matter how difficult or challenging those answers might be?

I thought so.  Of the attributes of a rich and connected life that we refuse to practice, asking good questions has become, for too many of us, the top rung in an increasingly lengthy chain.   Our collective curiosity increasingly extends little beyond the fact-checking that can be spewed out by Siri.  Our collective questioning increasingly extends little beyond information that we can “use,” including use against each other.

And yes there is a UN angle on all of this.   Our statement-rich policy environment is shockingly void of questions, certainly of the open-ended variety and mostly (where they exist at all) deeply embedded in our policy accusations.  We read statements and then consult our cell phones to see if we get any tweaks on our twitter feed.  We’re not interested much in what others have to say, in part because we’re heard it all before, and in part because nothing we hear is likely to change what we have to say going forward– or more precisely what our governments or organizations allow us to say.

In the absence of authorization to the contrary,  our questioning in this policy space is infrequent and confined to filling gaps in policy briefings.  It is much less about enabling the curiosity to explore and examine the consequences of our policy choices, to look more closely at our mandates and mission statements and ask ourselves, “if we get what we say we want, how will people be affected?”  Who will be helped or hurt?  And what adjustments need to be made in how we do our business (including a reality-based examination of current and future threats) such that the helping is maximized and the hurting minimized?

A reader might be tempted to assume that such curiosity-based questioning is deeply affirmed and encouraged within the policy community.   But this assumption also needs to be interrogated.  It is easy enough to believe that those pulling the policy levers have your best interests at heart.  It is harder to believe that there are problems and challenges, sometimes most easily perceivable at local level, that are mostly (and sometimes intentionally) invisible to decision-makers.  Those of us who are blessed to sit in these discussions on a daily basis know how impenetrable policy bubbles can be, how dismissive they can be of the evidence and testimony that can complicate the job of policy but can also enrich and extend its products.

Clearly we need to ask better questions of our leadership but also of others in our more immediate orbit, questioning not only the “what” but the ‘why.”  We need to know more about how people do their work in the world, how they overcome challenges and limitations, how they arrive at the opinions that drive their decisions; but even more how they believe, hope and love and what all of that means for the “reality” of their practical decision-making.  And others need to know these things about us.

This past week, a medical practitioner I frequent (and like a lot) said something to me along the lines that “I have known you for years and I don’t really know what you do.”  He assumed that the problem was all about my failure to disclose. That’s surely part of it.  But the other part was about his unwillingness to raise his own level of curiosity, to embed that curiosity in the form of questions, and then allow me the space to respond.

This allowance is something we simply don’t do enough for each other.  We need to make more time to move beyond what people “do” to the larger questions of why they do it and what it takes for them to do what they do.  We need to take our own “ignorance” more seriously,  even our ignorance about the people in our more immediate environments whom we claim to “know well.” In that light, we would do well to “hang more question marks” on all the things we take for granted or that we imagine we already know, the things that we accept because we are too busy or distracted, or because we convince ourselves that we can’t do anything about them anyway. We need to make more space that would allow others in and around our lives to reflect on and share more of their nuances and multiple dimensions.

Here’s to a more curiosity-filled 2020.  In this difficult time for the world, we need every heart and brain engaged beyond the immediate and apparent.

 

Future Shock: Returning What We’ve Stolen from Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Jun

Stolen 3

Misfortune threshes our souls as a flail threshes wheat, and the lightest parts of ourselves are scattered to the wind.  Danielle Teller

In increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us, not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss. John Irving

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

I hate that I stopped believing in things I didn’t even know were matters of belief, like justice and fairness. Or honesty. Or the promises people make to each other. Sue Halpern

My hearts ached with a pain I could not describe. I wondered if I were dying. I felt not sadness. I felt pity. For myself. For us all. We were children no longer. And we never would be again.  K. A. Applegate

This past Friday near the UN, John Burroughs kindly lent us his office patio for what has in the past year become a bit of a custom for us – welcoming a gathering of interns from the organizations with whom we once shared office space and with whom we still work.

Amidst the refreshments in a welcoming space shrouded in green just a few minutes walk from the UN, this gathering is pitched as an opportunity to make some acquaintances and perhaps even friends, but also to ponder “what just happened” at a UN which doesn’t always make the best first impression (or second for that matter) but which challenges our minds, hearts and patience literally by the hour.

This week, various members of our patio group took on policy options in diverse UN conference rooms – from peacekeeping in Somalia and the impact of plundered natural resources on international peace and security to the endless challenge associate with financing for development and the ability of UN managers to take a firm stand on sexual exploitation and abuse. Some also attended an extraordinary event this week hosted by Norway and Jordan focused on violence from “right wing terrorism,” and the often-shocking levels of weaponry and internet space enabling this largely unchecked threat.

All of this is important at multiple policy levels and was occasionally quite eye-opening for the interns.  And some of these experiences were raised during our patio time.   But the interesting parts were less about what the UN was doing and more about how it was doing it, the impressions that these people, some of whom had been in the building less than a week, felt initially about their presence in this center of global governance. Was it different than they imagined?  And did this “difference” make them more or less hopeful for the future of the planet?

For many it WAS different than they imagined in several ways, small and large: being relegated to the far reaches of conference rooms; having to enter the main building with the tourists rather than with the officials; watching diplomats reading prepared statements that had most all passion and urgency wrung out of them; a lack of apologies for policy mis-steps or even acknowledgements of mistakes made or valid points made by others; long meetings that resulted neither in specific actions nor even in a consensus to act that would be more about the promise of change than the promise of lunch.

No, the UN does not seem to make these interns particularly more hopeful about their future, at least not at this early stage of their engagement. Of course, what they conclude now will modify over time. They will become better “adjusted” to the way the UN does its business, the subtleties of diplomacy and diplomatic language that often result in meaningful (if not always timely or sufficient) movement on pressing global issues.

Hopefully, they will also cultivate their own means of feed-back to the UN system of which they are now a part,  a system that continues to grant access and privilege, albeit at times grudgingly, to young people who have (like myself and most of the rest of us) not “earned” it in any substantive sense.  We are where we are, not because we are so intelligent, or brave, or wise, or determined, but because (as I like to say) we’ve collectively been around so long they’ve mostly forgotten we don’t completely belong.

But belong we still do and, like it or not, the system of which we are now a part has done little to confront state leadership that, as the remarkable youth “messenger” Greta Thunberg says often, has literally “stolen our childhood,”  has refused to make the changes drastically or quickly enough to stave off the longer-term prospect of a climate-related extinction, let along the poverty, discrimination and violence that jeopardize millions of children in the shorter term.  The faces of too many of today’s children – locked in cages, trapped under rubble, suffering in the harvest fields, at risk of violence while simply seeking water or firewood – are not the faces around our patio table.  Ours are the faces of privilege, faces with “adult” opportunities to add voice to policy at its global center, to insist (if only they will) that the damage done to those who will co-inherit a planet drowning in plastic and mistrust, melting away our ice caps and eroding our resolve to promote justice and honor our promises, can and must come to a stop.  We can’t afford to further jeopardize those who might well ascend to leadership in societies now pushing away from each other, erecting more barriers than we can dismantle and calling very much into question the cooperative spirit that is our best hope for change.

Of all the UN-related voices that come to us through twitter, email and other online sources, perhaps my favorite comes courtesy of Marta Santos Pais, the Special Representative on Violence against Children.  Despite the enormity of her assigned duties, despite the willingness of too much of the international community to use children’s lives as geo-political pawns which are then justified in the name of dubious ethnic “supremacies” or of erstwhile larger global visions that turn out to be merely mean and petty, Pais soldiers on.  And she does so while regularly sharing the most hopeful photos of children from diverse and often challenged backgrounds, children mostly seen smiling, holding hands and sharing portions of the “lighter side” of themselves, children waving their arms playfully from the classrooms that offer them another way forward, children peering longingly or quizzically into the camera lens as though ready to whisper to anyone close enough to hear, “we need a chance too.”

Indeed they do.  We live in a time which (wrongly in my view) seeks to extend childhood for the mostly-privileged almost into middle-age — putting off the “pity” associated with an inevitable and largely irreversible casting aside of childish ways — while our policies impose bewildering amounts of pain and deprivation on other children that they will do well to heal, even in part.   In looking around the patio table at the remarkable people assembled there, I recognize in them some of what I don’t recognize often enough in their peers (or my own for that matter) – the willingness to take a deep and hopeful breath, to accept the responsibility associated with their training and privilege, to renounce residual vestiges of cynicism even as unresolved shocks to our future multiply, and to find common cause with those (like Greta) younger than themselves who are (and not without cause) quickly losing patience with the rest of us.

It is past time to acknowledge what our greed and indifference have been stealing from our children and pledge to return to them what was implicitly promised when we brought them into this world.

Endgame:  Enhancing Trust in the UN’s Complex Strands of Truth, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 May

Brands

At the least, we should leave flowers; at the least we should leave songs. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

The Dreaming is now. The Dreaming is always; forever.  Kate Constable

The purpose of any ceremony is to build stronger relationship or bridge the distance between our cosmos and us.  Shawn Wilson

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.  Philip Pullman

We live in a fragmented civilization with fragmented indoctrinations.  Talismanist Giebra

This was another breathtaking week at the UN.  From nuclear weapons and Syrian reconciliation to depleted fish stocks and the “re-deployment” of the UN development system, seemingly every available conference room was tied up with one policy urgency or another.

There were three other events this week that might seem disparate on the surface, but which are related to questions about means and ends regarding how the UN both communicates its own messages and also allows those who communicate differently to “have their say” in an appropriate and respectful manner.

These events were the plenary of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Committee on Information and the annual event promoting safety and protection for what has become (at least beyond the celebrity journalists who now fill our airwaves) a largely besieged journalistic community.

The Indigenous Forum took up a number of issues that have dominated prior events and that still resist resolution, including inclusion of indigenous languages at national level, modalities for full participation in the work of UN entities, land and water rights (including protection for those who defend those rights), health care (including attention to youth suicide rates) and respect for what many referred to as “indigenous knowledge.” Such knowledge highlights a way of relating to our decreasingly-biodiverse natural order that is more intimate and more interactive than our data-driven and abstracted policymaking. Our UN policy spaces have conferred on us the option of simultaneously “branding” our urgency regarding theis current “extinction moment” while turning at least a partial blind eye to the “business as usual” that props up our own lifestyles but endangers all that deign to come after us.

In the Committee on Information, the issue of languages was again front-and-center.   There has been a movement afoot for some time to within the UN to ensure both the full use of all six “official languages” and to increase sensitivity to those forced to learn one of these languages (primarily English) in order to be able to communicate in a wide range of diplomatic functions and participate fully in UN deliberations.

We fully support this movement.  An English-obsessive environment such as exists at UN Headquarters places undue pressure on UN interpreters but also opens undeserved pathways to participation for essentially monolingual persons such as myself who can barely order meals in another language let alone function without interpretive earphones in the complex policy environment of the UN.  And the commitment to function in all of the official languages of the UN is more than a matter of national or regional pride, more even than upholding the UN Charter.  It is about making space for different ways of knowing the world, the nuances of reality that are largely couched (and sometimes obscured) in the English that dominates this policy space; nuances which bear potential in all languages (certainly including indigenous ones) to cut through our measured bureaucracy-speak and give people stories and metaphors that are suggestive rather than definitive, that enable dialogue rather than merely instruct or even coerce.

This brings us to another core agenda of the Committee related to how the UN “sells itself” and its activities to governments and global constituencies.  While not all delegations are comfortable with what often seems like nothing more than a sophisticated UN branding exercise, few are willing to make the case for truth-telling, for communicating not only what the UN does (which is considerable to be sure), but also what it does not do, what it fails to do and, perhaps most importantly, what it is not well equipped to do.  Here we advocate again contextualizing our narrow “truth zones” to identify the promises made and not kept, but also to highlight the (too many) times we have willfully raised expectations beyond what the system is prepared to fulfill.

A cursory review of US (and now most other cultures) reveals that our current  obsession with branding ourselves, our products and our corporate and career interests has abandoned a more balanced and context-responsible outreach to a veritable feeding frenzy of (at best) half-truths designed to win followers and cultivate “rooting interests.”  What is true, as we have said before, is essentially what you can convince others to be true, obsessing on “facts” at one level but mostly only the “facts” that help make our cases.  And we cleverly avoid context, including the “context” that implicates us in the illusions that have given rise to our current crises.  Indeed, our many hours each week in UN conference rooms indicates that a failure to acknowledge the “contributions” we make to the very ills we are mandated to resolve constitutes a major impediment to the fulfillment of globally-essential tasks that no amount of positive branding can erase.

Collectively, we mostly now assume that we are being manipulated in the public sector to such a degree that it no longer piques our interest, at least on the surface.   We trust less and less of what we are told, but the implications of a so-called “information environment” that at its best now “informs” with willful selectivity remains largely unexamined.  Information, more and more, is a subset of our addiction to entertainment, often celebrating individual and corporate self-promotion, certainly enabling the epidemic need to have our biases and limitations confirmed rather than challenged.  To the extent that any of this is part of what the call for better UN “branding” implies, we need to study the implications for trust and truth more carefully.

And finally, we were present (as in years past) in the annual commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, a time to recall the many journalists worldwide who face harassment, prison, even death for sticking their noses (and their cameras) in the middle of illicit activity that people in power are all-too-willing to punish in order to keep private.  While the president of the General Assembly rightly lauded journalists for “holding up the mirror” to society, for telling the stories that no one else will tell, and for confounding the rumors that proliferate in this world, Lebanon’s Ambassador also lamented the “hyper-partisan” environment that we have created for ourselves, an environment that turns mirror-holding into a potential capital offense and provides cover for agendas that only barely (if at all) reference the “public interest.”

Perhaps the best address at this event came from the African Union’s Ambassador Mohammed, who advocated for “conflict-sensitive” journalism supported by international efforts to pursue the truth that can keep our policies on a steady and humane path.  The key here for me is the “pursue the truth” aspect, which I understand as the best available information set in the broadest possible human and policy contexts.  If we at the UN cannot achieve this level of truth-telling, if we cannot find the means to issue statements and tell stories that seek to enhance and inspire rather than recruit and isolate, we will in the end only strike more blows to our own credibility. As Warren Hoge noted at the same event, part of our essential (and courageous) task in this time of threat from authorities of all stripes remains to “debunk falsehoods.”  A good place to start, for we in the media and policy communities alike, would be with our own.

As many of you know, Avengers: Endgame (which I likely won’t see) has been breaking the internet for weeks complete with its staggering box office success in the US and in other countries.   For those who chalk this up to our endless search for the next big distraction, you might be missing half the point. It is also, I suspect, part of a deep and largely unfulfilled yearning for stories, stories that compel attention and invite people to dream, stories that connect people to larger realities than their ordinary lives ordinarily permit, stories that bridge the ever-widening gap between “our cosmos and us.”

I would prefer to have more of those stories coming from places like the UN.  But do we know how to tell them? And do we have the courage to ensure that the UN plays its part as an antidote to the “fragmented indoctrination” that defines our times?

Money Matters:  An Easter Reflection on the World We Don’t Yet Have, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Apr

Make the World Better

A fine glass vase goes from treasure to trash, the moment it is broken. Fortunately, something else happens to you and me. Pick up your pieces. Then, help me gather mine.  Vera Nazarian

Be aware of the place where you are brought to tears.  Paulo Coelho

With age, gone are the forevers of youth. Gone is the willingness to procrastinate, delay, to play the waiting game.  Joe Wheeler

Change won’t happen because everyone wishes it happens. It happens only when people decide that we’ll never stop digging until we find our gold.  Israelmore Ayivor

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

On a rare spring weekend when the end of the Christian Holy Week and the beginning of the Jewish Passover coincide, I was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, a place where I did ministry many long years ago.

Amidst the beautiful choral interludes and reflections on crucifixion – a practice which we would now unhesitatingly characterize as torture – a member of the clergy read a long prayer, known as the “Collects.”   Half way through, I heard something that piqued my interest beyond the beautiful petitions that I had once come to know intimately.

We pray for the “members and representatives of the United Nations.”

I don’t know if I technically fit that description, but I do know that many people have “prayed for me” over the years, most to highlight things I was doing that they didn’t like or those times when I was leading myself –or others – astray.   Occasionally I was also “prayed for” in the hope that I would somehow reach my “potential,” would get beyond the childish ways that I dragged far too long into adulthood and assume the responsibility that my education and privilege would suggest and my peers had a right to demand. Mostly in my case, unfortunately, people seemed to assume that they were praying for a “lost soul” rather than for the rapid completion of my somtimes-jagged path towards maturity.

It was in this second sense that this prayer for the UN was intended, “that they may seek justice and truth, and live in peace and concord.” No lost cause here, but rather the fulfillment of an essential and even planet-healing potential.

Surely, this is one hefty solicitation, one which the UN and its diverse stakeholders have yet to reach.  We have, in fact, been a bit too complacent as respect for the rule of law has become an endangered species.   We have too-often replaced jargon and bureaucracy-speak for honest discussion about the future we want and, perhaps more importantly, what stands in our way.   We have allowed politics to taint our primary responsibility to prevent conflict and maintain the peace.  We have refused to play fair in matters of finance and trade thus pushing smaller states into client relationships that force “bargains” that are anything but grand.

At times, the great privilege of working in this policy space for the sake of all life on this stressed planet gets buried under orders from capitals and home offices, and by a “bubble” culture that allows those of us who should know better to believe that the good we are doing is somehow good enough.  Despite frenetic UN activity, despite the many global challenges that rightly find our way into our reports and conference rooms, there is as the Collect goes “too-little health in us.”  As we have noted often, beyond the inspiration of these holy seasons, institutional reform must be accompanied by personal reform; in this instance, the courage to crawl out from under our respective mandates and insist that the good the UN and its member states already do evolves into the good that the times demand.

Such a struggle of potential was on display in several UN venues this week, including a mostly compelling Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) session with Sri Lankan officials on progress made in the realms of development and justice.  As many of you know, the often-horrific violence from earlier this century that officials have already done much to overcome, reappeared this weekend in the form of a series of deadly bomb blasts that tore through churches and hotels.  This is no time or place for second-guessing, but it is worth noting that during this PBC, while the Sri Lankan Finance Minister lauded the “cultural diversity” of his country and praised PBC and other international support for this “maturing democracy,” he and others from the government harshly referenced the “extremists” who pronounce “unfounded criticism” of government development and reconciliation efforts, including the pace of accounting for those still “missing” from the long war. Clearly, the political “co-habitation” envisioned by the Minister in the PBC session still has many miles to go.

And then there was the Financing for Development Forum organized by the president of the Economic and Social Council, Ambassador Rhonda King.  Four days of packed programming, including numerous side events, examined options (with varying degrees of effectiveness) for financing the 2030 Development Agenda, an agenda both daunting and indispensable if we are to emerge from our current malaise of distrust and apathy and forge a healthier, fairer, more secure world.

We were not present for many of the plenary discussions which we were thankfully able to follow through the Global Policy Forum and other of our policy friends.  Some of the side events held greater interest for us, including on “gender-lens impact investing,” on “financial inclusion for the forcibly displaced,” and a hopeful, humble discussion led by El Salvador on creating “feminist foreign policy.”  But the plenary discussions we were able to follow revealed some interesting fault lines on development financing. Some (like us) continued to point out that, despite some success in increasing domestic revenue streams through tax policy reform and the elimination of state corruption, global financial investment is still heavily tilted towards those with incomes, with collateral, with infrastructure already well into development.  Moreover, as noted by several NGOs, the international trading system is similarly skewed towards those states with power and leverage to set the rules.  As some states and civil society worried, the current fiscal ledger for the 2030 Agenda leaves too many inequalities intact, too many skills and voices stranded on the margins, too many waiting for someone to help them “pick up the pieces” before they can move forward.

For all of the well-meaning talent gathered in the Trusteeship Council chamber, it was quite possible to come away from the discussions wondering if this UN commitment is headed in the direction of too many others, a commitment led by people who know well how to “manage” this development race but who apparently have little enough stomach to do what is needed for all of us to reach the finish line.

As the four days of financing for development talk ended, both hopeful and cautionary tales were shared. The eloquent Zambian Ambassador who co-facilitated the draft outcome document eventually approved at this meeting, cited the “beautiful commitments” of the SDGs for which there is surely “enough money in the world.” Without citing bloated defense budgets or other untapped funding sources, he made plain that “we can fund the SDGs if we really want to do so.”  He was followed by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed who cited 2030 Agenda funding gaps “larger than we had anticipated” while warning against any hint of abandoning yet another promise, this truly grand promise of sustainable development which is tethered to peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, the respect for rights and the rule of law, the nurture of our children and care of our oceans, and ultimately (as she well noted) the vitality and credibility of the multilateral system itself.

We return to the prayer of this holy weekend, a prayer to remember where our collective treasure truly lies: in justice and truth, in peace and concord.  This is the agenda for which delay and procrastination are no longer an option.  This is the gold for which we must never stop digging. This is the place of responsibility and service that must “move us to tears” until our jobs are finally done.

Bad Optics at the UN, by Rex Collins

19 Apr

Editors note:  For the past couple of months, New Orleans native Rex Collins has provided attentive commentary on a range of UN processes largely through his twitter feed:  .  Rex came to us, as have many excellent interns over the years, through the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program.   It’s been valuable for us to “see” the UN through his eyes, as the following post attests. 

In January I attended my first UN event as a Global Action intern: a Peacebuilding Commission meeting to elect new chairs and outline the 2019 work plan. As PBC members presented their aspirations for the new year, I carefully took notes; I was shadowing my new supervisor, Dr. Robert Zuber, and I wanted to make a good impression. But a few hours into the meeting, Dr. Zuber caught me off guard with a simple question: what’s missing? I had no idea, so I was relieved but embarrassed when he quickly revealed the now-obvious answer. Women, said Dr. Zuber. He was right. Almost two hours had passed, and not a single woman had presented a statement. The newly-elected PBC chair eventually recognized the first female presenters of the meeting–the EU representative followed by the Irish ambassador–but only after more than a dozen men had shared. Pardon the expression, but the optics were not great. After witnessing this unfortunate display in the PBC on my first day, it has been surprisingly easy to spot similar scenarios at the UN–scenarios that the outside viewer would perceive as awkward or contradictory to core UN values. In fact during my last two months at the UN, this concept of ‘bad optics’ has emerged as an inescapable, recurring theme.

The next time I observed ‘bad optics’ at the UN was just a week after the PBC meeting. I was sitting across from Dr. Zuber in the Vienna Cafe, checking my emails and enjoying a banana. When I finished my snack, Dr. Zuber asked for the peel so that he could bring it to a composting facility later that evening. This request puzzled me; surely the eco-conscious UN provided compost bins in its dining areas. But when I surveyed the cafe, there were none to be found. This was a surprising revelation, considering the UN recognizes composting as a viable tool for climate action and sustainable development. The UN SDGs website even encourages “average” people to compost in a subsection labeled “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World.” The UN advocates for composting and evidently thinks it requires minimal effort, so it would only make sense for the headquarters building to enable staff and guests to responsibly dispose of their compostable waste. But instead, the options are: 1) stuff briefcase with food scraps to be composted later, or 2) dump food waste in super convenient trash bin. Sure, it’s possible that many of the diplomats, security guards and interns opt for the former, but my guess would be that a good majority take the easy way out. I mean, I know where my banana peels would end up if Dr. Zuber didn’t take them off my hands every day. It’s embarrassing that in the same building where member states affirm their national commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the hallways and dining areas are filled with misplaced banana peels and apple cores, just waiting to burn in landfills and release more harmful gasses into the atmosphere. Not a good look.

A more consistent example of ‘bad optics’ that I have encountered at the UN is low attendance at events that should definitely have high attendance. In February, for example, the General Assembly kicked off the International Year of Indigenous Languages. The event was an opportunity to celebrate indigenous populations and the new 2019 Year Theme, but several delegations apparently had better things to do. Dozens of empty chairs and unclaimed placards lined the floor of the GA Hall. I was clearly not the only one who noticed, because the president of Ecuador began his own statement by criticizing the member states that skipped the meeting.

Other events at the UN have suffered from an embarrassing lack of participation by diplomats and other UN stakeholders. This was the case for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed last month. You would think a General Assembly meeting to honor victims of intolerance and prevent future discrimination would draw a sizeable crowd, but I was literally the only audience member in the balcony for a good portion of the event. To be fair, the GA Hall is a difficult room to fill, but the scale of the venue made the weak turnouts all the more visible and embarrassing in both cases. Besides, these events did not end up on the UN’s biggest stage by accident. They embodied themes that the UN prioritizes, at least on paper, so it looked pretty bad when so few people bothered to show up.

So why do optics at the UN matter? Sure, these instances can simply be awkward (e.g., the Russian ambassador highlighting the “femininity” of female colleagues in front of the predominantly male Security Council on International Women’s Day), but they can also have real consequences. For example, the cases I’ve observed reflect what some would see as a pattern of UN hypocrisy that can turn off onlookers. Students, civil society and other observant guests will likely take note of missteps like the gender imbalance in the PBC or the missing compost bins, potentially leading them to question the UN’s commitment to its own principles, including on the 2030 Development Agenda. Furthermore, ‘bad optics’ can be discouraging –for the indigenous guest speaker addressing a half-empty General Assembly, or the young woman and aspiring diplomat waiting too long to hear another woman’s voice. Such displays leave UN stakeholders feeling neglected rather than included or empowered. Finally, these instances normalize bad habits. Employees are more likely to disregard composting altogether when they witness coworkers trashing food waste on a regular basis, and delegations may become inclined to skip events when they see others doing the same.

Sometimes, whether we like to admit it or not, appearances do matter; when the UN appears to take shortcuts or break its own rules, it can lose credibility, alienate its audience and reinforce damaging practices. Optics aren’t everything, but the community of the United Nations would do well to take them more seriously.

Value Clarification: Recovering Norms that Bind the UN Community, Dr. Robert Zuber

6 Jan

un-charter-newspaper

Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.  José Ortega y Gasset

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Ralph Waldo Emerson

If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention.  Dorothy L. Sayers

To value gold over water is to value economy over ecology, that which can be locked up over that which connects all things. Rebecca Solnit

Perhaps at no time in the 20 years of Global Action’s existence have differences of opinions about the value of the United Nations been as sharp as they are now.

Some continue to idolize of the UN as an indispensable presence on the international scene, an institution that, as attributed to former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, may not “bring us to heaven” but might be the only existing setting that can “save us from hell.”

For others, especially in this age of nationalist resurgence, the UN has become little more than a relic of the 20th Century, a place of stodgy protocol and undeserved privilege, where elites with excess ambition and little decision-making authority craft texts that few states actually abide by and that add too little practical value.

As a small organization that gratefully spends much of its life energy in UN conference rooms, we take what we hope is an attentive and reflective “third rail” approach to the UN.  We appreciate the expanding scope of UN policy interests as well as the time and effort that diplomats expend in keeping the UN properly funded, seeking to better-balance the power of states inside and outside of the Security Council, and ensuring (as best they can) that those who represent the UN in the field are properly protected and equipped, but that they are also held accountable for behavior inconsistent with mission values, priorities and mandates.

And we always recall that the UN is far more than its headquarters machinations, far greater in its scope and application than the ability of any one NGO to scrutinize.  Its peacekeepers, humanitarian workers, experts in promoting food security and pandemic response; these and many more are the lifeblood of the UN system, the reason that many frustrated over UN failures especially in the peace and security realm still cling to the hope that UN Charter values can become more deeply embedded in the culture of its members, can help guide all states on a path to a world that “values” the dignity and well-being of all citizens, that affirms in practical terms the cooperation that the challenges of climate, weapons, migration and more demand and that the UN should be well-placed to promote.

But this hope now displays frayed edges for many and not entirely without reason.   As I tried to explain in a recent interview with Global Connections Television, albeit clumsily, we are living through a “thin skinned” age, a time when many governments and individuals believe themselves to have earned the equivalent of a “plenary indulgence” shielding them from criticism or constraint, asserting their sovereign right to do pretty much what they want without judgment or indeed without consequence.

Such indulgence is toxic enough when asserted by individuals, but for governments it is discouraging at best and gravely dangerous at its worst.   Moreover, it is potentially life-threatening for a UN system that, at some level, must be able to bind its members to the values embedded in its Charter, values which are not always as straight-forward as some claim but which constitute a hopeful promise of sorts to global constituents who seek in multilateral engagements the capacity to hold individual states accountable for internationally agreed norms in ways that their citizens in (too) many instances simply cannot.

We have long taken the view that the “culture” of the UN which plays out in various conference rooms and political processes must itself better promote the norms and values which give hope to constituents and allow them to maintain faith in a system that has not always justified that faith.  The UN will never be perfect any more than its stakeholders will, and that includes tiny organizations like ours.  But the UN does have an obligation, we believe, to keep our collective eye on the prize, a world that has safely backed up from the brink of “hell” currently inflamed by existential threats from climate change, pandemics, plastic-filled oceans and weapons of mass destruction.

This is certainly no easy agenda.  As we on the NGO side are reminded all-too-frequently, the UN is largely what its member states want it to be.  And frankly it is not always clear to us that UN member states are uniformly and sufficiently interested in preserving the health and integrity of this system, a system that most all would affirm the value of (even if only to keep tabs on their adversaries) but where commitments to preventive maintenance are relatively rare.

Here are some of the practices we have witnessed by UN member states (you know who you are) that are both increasingly commonplace and undermining of the integrity of a system that, frankly, cannot tolerate any more shocks to its global reputation:

  • Articulating lopsided and self-interested versions of the “truth” that obsess on issues of national interest while ignoring relevant contexts
  • Demanding that smaller states abide by rules and obligations that seem not to apply in the same way to the more powerful states and their allies
  • Asserting that agreements negotiated under UN auspices are legally (or normatively) binding and then choosing to simply walk away from those that no longer suit national interests
  • Insisting that the UN has a role to play in assisting the internal capacity of states but has little or no authority regarding the internal behavior of states
  • Speaking (even in the Security Council) from the sole vantage point of national interest rather than investing more thought in how to promote the “best interests” of the system
  • Proclaiming the importance of the “liberal international order” without being transparent about the ways in which states – including the so-called guardians of that order – have undermined trust in its institutions and objectives
  • Advocating the presence of NGOs while blurring the distinction between merely “having a voice,” and actually “having a say”
  • Refusing to acknowledge mistakes and misjudgments while harping on the failures of others

One of the ceremonies I have long been intrigued by are those “renewals of vows” that are most often experienced in the context of marriages but which could certainly be arranged for member states and other stakeholders through the UN General Assembly.   As we have advocated previously, opportunities to publicly reaffirm the values and objectives of this system could encourage and energize global constituents while hopefully causing states that play loosely with the UN’s normative framework to reconsider their approaches and realign national values with those of the Charter.

Whether our various mistakes in language or judgement are “made in error” or “by intention,” it’s past time for us – all of us – to get back on the same page, or at the very least to acknowledge that there is a “page” to which we are all ostensibly accountable, indeed to which we must all be more attentive. If the UN is to avoid becoming another “dead institution,” another pious incarnation of a rapidly-diminished liberal world order, we need to work harder on improving the “culture” of the system itself – not just what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for all.

If we fail in this, prospects for resolving the challenges of climate, weapons, oceans, migration, pandemics and more – challenges that bind us all (whether we like it or not) and require more cooperation and trust than we currently exhibit – will be severely impaired.  And whatever history will eventually be written about us –our priorities, preoccupations and attentions– will surely not be kind.

Bully Pulpit:  Eliminating the Coercion we Enable, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Oct

 

  Romero 4

You aren’t those words. You aren’t the shouts and names. You aren’t the awful things spat at you like flavorless gum. You aren’t the punches or the bruises they cause. You aren’t the blood running from your nose. You aren’t under their control. You are not theirs.  Salla Simukka

They could give a number of reasons for why they had to torment him; he was too fat, too ugly, too disgusting. But the real problem was simply that he existed, and every reminder of his existence was a crime. John Lindqvist

Maybe you never considered yourself a bully, a batterer or an abuser before, but maybe you are — to yourself.  Bryant McGill,

Decades ago, George Orwell suggested that the best one-word description of a Fascist was “bully.”  Madeleine Albright

Though the headline event of the UN’s week was probably the announcement that Nikki Haley will step down as US Ambassador to the UN, the six committees of the General Assembly were now fully in swing as diplomats seek to consolidate gains from High-Level discussions recently held and resolutions previously adopted, while forging new paths to address ever-evolving development and security threats to agriculture and oceans,  children and indigenous persons.

This is also a time of many side events, smaller group discussions that focus on topics important to the UN but less appropriate for larger plenary settings.  Unfortunately, these side events often take on the character of “sales meetings” as UN secretariat officials and NGOs show off their reports and their expertise, hoping to carve out a large niche for the issues they represent and, hopefully, interest those funding states in attendance in writing new (or larger) checks to support their work.

Given this “sales” dimension, too many side events are primed to miss the mark, featuring too many “authorized” voices and seemingly operating on the assumption (false in my experience) of vast gaps in expertise between the speakers and audience.  Rarely is there sufficient time for discussion despite virtually every moderators promise to host an “interactive dialogue.”  In most instances, there is barely time left over for reflection of any kind.  Everyone with relevant policy or funding incentives has seemingly pushed their way on to the agenda for the “show and tell” that most side events represent.

But every once in a while there is an event that both ticks the boxes and tickles the imagination, raising issues that are both under-represented in the UN and have broader social and policy significance, bearing implications beyond the immediate report event and its targeted implications.

Such occurred this week at the launch of Ending the Torment,  an excellent report on bullying in schoolyards and cyberspace, with a discussion moderated by the SRSG on Violence against Children Marta Santos Pais, one of the most consistently kind, thoughtful and determined of all the special representatives.  The focus on her remarks – and of the report – is on bullying, the sort we mostly associate with “mean girls and boys” taking out their frustrations and insecurities on each other and, as Pais noted, eroding trust and social cohesion in ways that breed the “social isolation” that is now a virtual epidemic among adolescents, especially in the “west.”  As the UNICEF representative to this discussion noted, too many children dread the start of school each year, not (solely) because of teachers and homework, but because of the violence, intimidation and even loneliness that is likely to punctuate their return.

Another relevant thing about bullying is its implications for so much of what goes on – often behind the scenes – in the “world of adults,” including in our multilateral institutions.   The bullying we do in this policy spaces like the UN, for instance, is perhaps more subtle than what takes place by children in schools (and requires some rather intense scrutiny of UN processes in order to expose and address it), but it exists nonetheless.  We, too, practice forms of coercion that lie beyond our mandates and the limitations imposed by international law. We, too, employ levers of power to coerce and cajole, to remind states and peoples that the world can still be as unfair and unrepresentative as they had long-suspected it was.

The passive aggressive mode which is perhaps our singular specialty here at the UN only occasionally conveys its own coercive underbelly. We don’t talk much about the intimidation embedded in our own policy processes, nor do we take sufficient steps to ensure that member states (especially the major powers) are called out for their bulling beyond the walls of the UN.  In states like El Salvador for instance, bullying by large states, corporate entities and, at times, the El Salvador government itself have long conspired to shed innocent blood, endanger water supplies, denude forests, enable corruption and block inclusive political participation such that only a few could be considered to “have a say” of any consequence.

The “bully pulpit” which former US president Teddy Roosevelt helped to make famous, was considered by him to be a positive development, a way to ensure that he would always “have a voice.”  But people like Roosevelt – and like me for that matter – always seem to find our platform.   If we are serious about ending the scourge of bullying in our multilateral institutions as well as in our schools, we need to ensure a much broader (and hopefully safer) access to existing pulpits.  The voices of the entitled, demanding the microphone over and over when there are so many valuable human perspectives left unacknowledged, can bully in the places where diplomats congregate as they do in the places where young people congregate.

The “solutions” to bullying are elusive, as many speakers at this UN event noted.  In this current “deficit of kindness” moment, where “difference” is exploited for policy gain as it is so often bullied and otherwise humiliated within schools and communities, we need to get back to some very basic truths about how attentive we are to each other, how much respect we are able to demonstrate beyond our rhetoric. As Greece noted during the UN session, we adults must return to “teaching with our practices,” showing children that we are willing to listen, to de-center our views and prejudices, to recognize that the bullying in our playgrounds is simply the mirror image of the multiple forms of coercion that permeate our family and civic life.  Mexico reflected that as bullying seems to be on the rise in our time, especially prevalent in social media, we need to forge a “sensitive and genuine alliance” among all age groups more than we need rigid censorship.  The internet is now the medium-of-choice for our often anonymous and cowardly attacks on each other; but we adults, we officials and erstwhile leaders, we provide the fuel that makes bullying efforts resonate within our children’s increasingly battered psyches.

I am in San Salvador this weekend in part to encourage local participation in the sustainable development goals. But even more I am here to do my small part to celebrate the legacy of Archbishop Romero, once assassinated and now canonized in Rome but never forgotten by the people who grew to cherish his vision for the transformation of human and material conditions. So many in this country grew to embrace Romero’s own transformation from a conservative ecclesiastical caretaker to someone who lived the “good news” of a world still able to dream that all could have enough, a world where humiliation and coercion have been effectively stricken from the human lexicon.

The now sainted Romero had his “bully pulpit,” but he did not bully.  He had a secure space to share his voice, but he was committed to promote the voices of others.  His own status was secured, but he understood that the God he referenced was mocked by a world where some had so much and many others so little.  The thousands who filled the streets of San Salvador in the name of Saint Romero last evening – drum beating young people, indigenous mothers holding their children, people waving support from the stalls in the markets, reporters and photographers by the dozens almost not believing their eyes – were calling out a country that has been bullied for too long and celebrating Romero’s vision for a more just and sustainable world that their many footsteps, hopeful chanting and creative imaging helped bring back into focus.

If we want to end bullying by young people, it will take more vigilance from parents and teachers, more open-ended discussions with young people about their anxieties and fears.  But beyond that it will take a demonstrated commitment from all of us to end our own aggressive and self-serving policies and passive- aggressive manipulation of circumstances, renouncing the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of bribery and coercion that keep too many nations and peoples, minority groups and persons with disabilities, facing a pervasive if worn double threat – the half-hearted attention of the policy community and the full-hearted scorn of too many of their peers.

One of the songs erupting from the groups of marchers who took to the streets last evening to celebrate and pray, to honor and discern, was one about a small bird that, once it learns how to fly, never loses the skill.  Too many of us in these times, it seems, have serially-neglected to flap our wings.  The energy on the streets of San Salvador last evening was a challenge to all those who bully, to all who use their power and privilege to manipulate and coerce, that we will never again mute our voices or misplace our vision, that we will never again overlook our capacity to fly.

Green Acres: Diverse and Rural Voices for Sustainable Security, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Mar

WCAPS

Distrust and caution are the parents of security. Benjamin Franklin

You cannot achieve environmental security and human development without addressing the basic issues of health and nutrition. Gro Harlem Brundtland

We spend our time searching for security and hate it when we get it. John Steinbeck

Only in growth, reform, and change, paradoxically enough, is true security to be found. Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The UN building has been almost completely given over these days due to the thousands of women who have come to the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).  Given our substandard March weather this year, the main UN buildings have seen especially long lines for food and other essentials as well as overflow crowds for most of the side events held inside (and in some cases outside) UN buildings.

The focus for this CSW has been “rural women,” an important topic for us and some of our core partners, but also a bit of a conundrum given the largely urban origins of most stakeholders at UN Headquarters.   With some exceptions, we don’t come to this policy community from the farms, or the hilltops, or the swamps.  We tend not to deal with rural matters much unless there are tragedies to be addressed, humanitarian aid to be delivered or protection to be organized.  The rhythms of rural life are largely not our business, nor our interest.   We rarely see rural communities as opportunities for learning, places that can help us recover a more personal and place-based antidote to the anxieties, distractions and disconnects of urban living.

The problems noted by this CSW are real enough as people in too many parts of the world face violence and discrimination, abuse and displacement, drought and inattentive governance.   In other (non-CSW) discussions this week,  we were privy to Security Council struggles to enact a sustainable cease fire across Syria,  General Assembly efforts to negotiate a “global compact” on safe, orderly migration, and commitments by the Economic and Social Council to navigate the extraordinary financial obligations that our commitments to the Sustainable Development goals have incurred.  And the Peacebuilding Commission laid out a plan for long-terms security – health, economic, physical and developmental – as the peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL) prepares to draw down at month’s end.

All of these discussions have implications for at least some of the rural women who were ostensibly the focus of this CSW but who were largely confined to “their own” events without getting a broader sense of the capacity of the UN or, indeed, the amount of time and energy that is already invested here on issues of importance to women, including and beyond the women who occupy this policy space.  This CSW was not a “prophetic moment” for those of us who spend our long days in the UN, though it might have been otherwise if there was more attention paid to the full scope of rural women’s aspirations and experiences beyond the heartache, beyond the very-real victimization, even beyond the narratives of those fortunate enough to be in New York to “represent” rural interests.

Rural life itself is not a problem; it has its unique vulnerabilities and challenges, it sometimes suffers patterns of discrimination that are off the radar of media and their elite constituents, but neither does it seek to conform to many of the political and cognitive biases of our urban centers.  Nor is it without plenty to teach the rest us about the changes we need to make and the risks we need to take in our own contexts.

As frustrated as my all-female, non-white cohort has sometimes been with what they see as the redundancies and risk-averse solidarities of this CSW, there were some notable exceptions among the copious side events devoted to trafficking, #metoo and the general problematizing of rural contexts.  Among these was an excellent event focused on the role of women in building a sustainable peace for Libya, a country that has barely and only fitfully recovered from the 2011 security fiasco that removed Gaddafi but left a middle-income country in virtual ruin.  That a higher profile on Libya peacebuilding should be accorded the women who presented at this event (and their peers back home) would not be challenged by any who were in their immediate audience.

Another hopeful, security-related event was held a bit off-campus, but was not at all off-point.   Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, a longtime friend of our office, has founded a new organization, Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) dedicated to expanding both the dimensions of national security and the people who have impact on security definitions and priorities.  The CSW event that WCAPS hosted, “Redefining National Security,” brought together a diverse group of women of color with a range of experiences and views on how notions of national security are evolving (or not) to embrace a range of new and largely cross-border concerns, many of which (as is well-known to CSW delegates) impact women’s lives disproportionately.

This was a room of skilled women of who were determined, passionate and thoughtful; determined to have a say in the security-related definitions and policies that impact all our lives, passionate about “changing the global community landscape,” and thoughtful about their “takes” on security and the need to constantly listen, constantly invest our ideas with the people for whom security is not primarily equated with our bloated military apparatus, but rather spans a range of worries related to climate change and pandemics, cyber-crime and food security.  Despite the lofty positions held by some of the speakers and their obvious respect for one another, there was a refreshing absence of “like mindedness” in the room.  The levels of participation they seek for themselves and others regarding the most pressing security issues of the day require more than gender solidarity; they require a commitment to personal growth and risk as well.

We don’t know where all of these growth-oriented conversations are to be found, but we know that they exist and are deserving of our thoughtful support. There appears to be as yet no #metoo to encourage such growth, nor are there sufficiently reliable pathways yet proposed to locate and sustain the fully inclusive policy platforms that have eluded so many rural women, so many women of color, for so very long.   But they are coming.

As several minister-level panelists noted during a CSW side event on rural women in the Arab region, their region’s rapid urban growth is causing many problems for rural women seeking to maintain attention on their needs and aspirations, including increasing the “distance” between themselves and the (mostly urban) centers of policy influence.  Where can we find rural women, Arab and otherwise, in the midst of regional and international discussions on women’s rights and women, peace and security issues? Indeed, where are the openings for rural voices, male and female alike, to provide guidance on what “security” really means, in all its dimensions, through all of its challenges?  How can women who, in the words of panelists, are often neither recognized nor appreciated for all their burdens and responsibilities enter into spaces where their legitimate grievances are merely the opening gambit for a larger discussion about the minority who apparently “belong” in the club and the many millions (male and female) who are still forced to wait beyond the ropes?

If women of color can help us all to embrace and grow a larger and more inclusive security framework, and if rural women of all backgrounds and their communities can have greater impact on the personal and social dimensions of that framework, we will be well on our way towards the sustainable peace and security that we and (soon) our children long for.

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.

Sizing Up an International Icon from my Youth, Shengyang Li

5 May

Editor’s Note:  Shengyang served as an intern this spring with GAPW.  A citizen of China, Shengyang came to us from the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program as have a number of interns over the past few years.   Shengyang took a keen interest in many aspects of the UN’s work, including in the Security Council under China’s April presidency.  His interesting reflections on his experience (lightly edited) at the UN appear below. 

As a child, the education I received about UN is generally similar to how it describes itself to the rest of the world: the UN is the guardian of world peace, solver of the world’s problems, one of the most important organizations in the world. Other than we were taught few specific about UN activities. This deficit became clearer after we learned about the history of the League of Nations, the predecessor of UN and generally deemed a failure in the eyes of the world and its historians. I happened to have had the honor of learning the history of the League of Nations in both the Chinese educational system and the UK A-Level system. I noted that both ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ forms of education agree that our children should understand that the League of Nations failed, memorize why it failed, and note  that its successor, the UN, is doing its business differently and thus has been more successful. Still, nothing much was taught about how the UN actually does that “business.”

It was not until high school and my experience in the Model UN (MUN) club that I was provided more than a glimpse of the UN’s role. In retrospect I was not very happy about that lens, mainly because it was distorted: the nature of MUN portrayed the UN as more about state competition than an actual simulation of the challenges and opportunities regarding how the UN addresses global problems.  I encountered  a similar lens when I entered Bard college, so my perspective did not change greatly. This is not to say  that I have never heard negative comments about the UN’s potential, as there are many floating around in real life or on the internet. In fact, most of the negative comments I have heard are quite extreme, saying that the UN should cease to exist since it does little good in the world. Although some aspects of this frustration have merit, most are simply too extreme to be considered seriously.

Thus before I joined UN-based Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict (GAPW) as part of an internship program from Bard College, my understanding of the UN remained more or less stagnant. Therefore, when I actually started my internship, I was both very excited and had no clear idea of what I was seeking or what I should be expecting.  I’d been told to pay close attention to the processes in UN conference rooms and to note down whatever was most worth reporting, including things that I felt might be contradictory or otherwise out of place. In other words, listen carefully for subtleties, and provide the most fair and accurate feedback possible

The first time I was able to recognize a full-fledged, subtle UN confusion was only weeks after I started this internship. It happened in relation to a panel focused on the inclusion of indigenous people and their issues. During that meeting a frequent sentiment was shared that the UN system should be more open to groups of indigenous people that are autonomous with a viable political structure, instead of opening more space to indigenous advocacy groups that act more like NGOs. It seemed like a reasonable suggestion to prevent this particular UN process from being flooded by activist agendas. A related sentiment widespread in the room suggested that indigenous representatives should concentrate on meetings and events ‘that are within their area of concern.’

These two sentiments seemed appropriate enough and were all mostly agreed by all delegates in the room. But after the meeting, I recognized an inconsistency: if we are to welcome at the UN those indigenous groups that tied to legitimate governments, then suddenly every topic that the UN is concerned about should be applicable to those groups as well. Water stresses? Arms flows? Gender discrimination? Income inequality?  SDGs? Are any of these topics (and others not mentioned) not an area of concern for legitimate representatives? Also, by using phrases like restricting indigenous groups to only participate in events “within their area of concern,” the UN was essentially forcing groups to focus on/fight for more narrow policy agendas. Isn’t that exactly the job of most NGOs? This interesting paradox was probably not intentional. Still, it reflects something that shouldn’t be there and was apparently not noticed by anyone participating in the discussion. What troubled me a bit is the realization that there are surely delegates and diplomats, not only observers like me, who noticed such logical fallacies, but chose not to point that out, or to even reiterate the error. People inside the system are often not willing to talk about an easily detectable inconsistency, or are simply too preoccupied to even notice things going wrong that might easily be corrected.

This was the first “Eureka” moment for me inside UN headquarters. The rest of my experiences I learned through my daily coverage of various UN meetings and events. I had been informed by my mentor of the importance of paying attention to who is not present, what is not spoken. Things ranging from an absence of an expected briefer to long and arduous statements that went on about past achievements and future expectations without solid plans or methods of implementation, even to the increasing number of ‘closed meetings’ in the UN buildings. I think I gradually understand what that means. There will always be things important to be discussed but that aren’t handled with proper urgency due to a variety of reasons (some intentional and political), and it is crucial that we notice what those reasons are and why things happen the way they do.

So overall, what did I learn from my time at GAPW? What should be my takeaways after only 3 months of trying to comprehend this system? Personally, I would say that one of the most valuable lessons I have learned is that just like other entities in the world, the UN is no stranger to branding, even boasting. And in this case, this branding can be somewhat useful; : people are taught from their childhood that the UN is a great institution, and it would be a huge burden to the UN if it ever fails to strive for the most positive image possible in the public eye.

Another key lesson I learned during my stay is the realization of the true function of organizations like GAPW. A Chinese idiom goes: “The bystanders always have better clarity than the insiders.” This assumes that the ‘bystanders’ are close enough to the center to see what is happening without getting completely caught up in it. This is what we at GAPW do according to my understanding: to study UN processes like an interested bystander but then provide “insider” advice to diplomats with the goal of helping the UN fulfill the tasks and aspirations that the world has entrusted to it.

A final interesting point about my experience is that before starting my internship, I was told by my mentor that many students before me have changed their interest or area of focus as the result of their UN exposure. I told him then that it probably won’t happen to me, but when I look back, I realized that my perspectives and interests have in fact changed a bit. Before GAPW I was fascinated mostly by diplomacy between states — so-called international politics — and little else. I cannot say that I have lost interest in those aspects, but now I have learned that there are so many other fascinating and important policy options for the world that need attention and that I had not truly considered before, from climate change and inequalities to gender balance and violent extremism.  These issues all form a connected web that will decide the fate of humankind’s future.

And what makes it more interesting for me is that all these UN policy issues require consensus, which gets us back to the good-old diplomatic formula that the UN and member states struggle to achieve every day. The multi-faceted learning experience I gained at the UN through GAPW is destined to leave a huge impact on me, and for which I am genuinely grateful.