Tag Archives: women

Shake Shack:  Mothering in an Unpredictable Age, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 May

My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it. Mark Twain

My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Motherhood was the great equalizer for me; I started to identify with everybody… as a mother, you have that impulse to wish that no child should ever be hurt, or abused, or go hungry, or not have opportunities in life.  Annie Lennox

Yesterday on my way to the office I stood on the subway near a seated mother –my guess is she was from somewhere in the Caribbean — and her young son. They were both visibly fatigued – it was early on a rainy and chilly Saturday and the boy was now becoming a bit agitated.  Without saying a word, without apparently being prompted by the son, the mother carefully fashioned a pillow on her lap and then gently coaxed the child to put his head down.  He was asleep within seconds.

Such acts as these, small but consequential, are much of what we honor on a Mother’s Day.  The comforting and feeding, the diapers and disinfectant, the telling of stories and issuing of warnings, the granting of untimely requests and the mediation of endless sibling squabbling, all of this and more in whatever form it takes is necessary for young vulnerable people of need to grow into older vulnerable people of promise.

Much mothering – whether conducted by biological mothers or “other mothers” – is intended in part to create secure and stable family environments, predictability that is still elusive for far too many children, and that now seems mostly to occur (when it does) within individual domiciles.  We know “where things are” in our homes, but in the world at large, peoples and cultures are now being tossed about as though we were living through a perpetual hurricane.

This represents part of the agony for many mothers I know. We can balance our children’s diet, tell them stories, buy them proper clothes and send them off to school, all the while holding our breath, praying hard and crossing our fingers; hoping that the center will hold long enough in these unstable times for our children to have a happy and productive adult life, that our multitude of small acts consistent with concerned parenting will somehow add up to prospects for prosperity and purpose.

But this hope, as it has for mothers across time and space, has one major caveat:  Most of what we teach our children, most of what we long for their future, depends for their fulfillment on a predictable social and security environment.  And whether or not we’ve actually ever had such a thing, we clearly don’t have that now. Despite what too many of our schools and advertisers and technological gurus need us to believe, the veil of predictability has been pulled back in so many ways, revealing a world that is shuddering if not shaking, increasingly fierce motions that are testing the nerves of both parents and the political leadership who now grace (or dis-grace) our halls of state.

Perhaps it is enough for mothers to teach what they know and hope for the best.   Perhaps that is the very best that can be done.  Or perhaps that is simply the recipe for yet another mother’s heartbreak, and another, and more after that.  Perhaps this recipe needs tweaking just a bit.

This week, in a UN building filled to the brim with talented women, three with lofty gravitas made high-profile appearances representing all three of what the UN calls its policy “pillars.” From the human rights and justice pillar was Ms. Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, who briefed the Security Council on the difficulties in securing prosecutions for crimes in Libya and also met with her “friends” group to discuss ways to eliminate state “non-cooperation” and bring more diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds into the work of the Court. UN Deputy-Secretary General Amina Mohammed, the custodian of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals promises, provided an inspirational message to the “integration segment” of the Economic and Social Council devoted to meeting the “greatest global challenge” of poverty reduction. And on the peace and security front, High Representative of the European Union, Federica Mogherini, addressed the Security Council on the importance of expanding UN-EU security cooperation. Her remarkable presentation included a soft jab at the United States to both abandon its threatened withdrawal from multi-lateral engagements and to “find its own way” regarding commitments to heal our climate-threatened planet.

What all three of these remarkable women had in common this week is their vocal, passionate commitment to ensuring that our collective promises on justice, development and security will be met; that whatever can be done to calm our shaking planet will somehow become our collective priority.

They all have something else in common – they are all mothers.

I don’t know what kind of mothers they are, and I wouldn’t want to assume.  While you wouldn’t always know it from reading UN policy documents, there are thankfully many ways to be a woman, many ways to mother, many ways to nurture and inspire, many ways to mentor. Our pious certainties regarding “what mothers do,” or “what women want and need” can obscure any number of important struggles (and related conversations) on identity and responsibility.

For their part, I suspect that each of these three mothers of distinction has experienced in her own way more than a few moments of anxiety, perhaps even remorse, given that the demands of their high-order positions make absences from their children’s (or grandchildren’s) daily lives all too frequent.  Many professional women feel this, of course, immersed in meetings rather than in bedtime stories, eating on the run while children text that “daddy’s pancakes don’t taste right.”

But there is something about these particular mothers, something compelling about their vocal and pragmatic resolve to make a better world, one fit for all children not only their own.  Despite responsibilities in the world that place restrictions on family time, there remains the expectation — when their growing progeny have gotten some distance from social media addictions and raging hormones — that they will one day be able to look their children square in the eye and let them know that they did all that they knew to do to ensure a more stable, secure and sustainable world in which –collectively–their dreams and choices can continue to matter.

This is a powerful gift that, like inoculations and braces and homework, children might only be able to appreciate fully when they are old enough – and fortunate enough – to bear children of their own. There are no Hallmark cards devoted to mothers who help “stop the shaking.”  Perhaps there needs to be.

The many young people of diverse backgrounds who pass through our office each year have an eerily similar take on the world they are soon to inherit.  When I ask them if they feel prepared for all the chaotic motion characteristic of this current planetary phase, they almost always and without hesitation respond “no.”  It is difficult to know to what extent this is in response to the diverse threats they experience with us at the UN on a daily basis – wars and rumors of wars, climate change and our often tepid responses, traumatized children and families on makeshift rafts or reeling from the effects of famine. But it is unsettling that after so much parenting and so much schooling, even children of privilege feel inadequate to act on a stage that feels perpetually unsteady.

Also on this dreary New York weekend, I had a long Skype chat with a former colleague struggling in Mexico with the manifold contemporary responsibilities of being a mother – meeting her daughters’ needs, comforting their wounds and guiding their preparation for life outside the home while contributing in a larger sense to the stability of a world in which her parenting can hopefully have some impact.  Thankfully, she is finding that way, not on a global stage like Mohammed or Bensouda perhaps, but in community settings that matter and in ways that communicate – to both her children and the wider society – that there is still a sound basis for hope in our common future.

And like these three women of international prominence, the commitments of my former colleague will allow her one day to look her daughters in the eye and let them know that she also did her part – beyond the packed lunches and bandaging of scraped knees — to secure an unsteady planet.

Traffic Circles:  Addressing the Loops that Fuel Conflict and Undermine Dignity, Dr. Robert Zuber

19 Mar

Enslave the liberty of but one human being and the liberties of the world are put in peril. William Lloyd Garrison

Do something wonderful; people may imitate it.  Albert Schweitzer

This week at the UN was a bit of an “odd coupling” with legions of blue Smurfs showing up to promote the Sustainable Development Goals while Washington added to the UN’s funding anxieties and Pyongyang created new nuclear proliferation headaches.

It was also the first week of the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a massive (and in our view too often un-strategic) gathering that, in its best iterations, reminds us of the still-unfinished work of gender justice as well as of the many areas of policy and practice which are yet to become “women’s business.”

One area that has long been “women’s business” – as both advocates for change and tragically more often as victims of abuse — is that of trafficking.   This week, both in the context of a CSW side-event and in the Security Council under the UK’s leadership, the UN attempted to steer a more hopeful path that promises genuine forward momentum on this stubborn scourge beyond our conventional cycles of response.

The “complexities” of trafficking – so described by one inspiring Somali activist — were very much on display this week.   Diplomats and NGOs called attention to the multiple (and as Egypt and others noted) mutually-reinforcing networks that traffic in weapons, narcotics, cultural heritage and, worst of all, in persons themselves.   For his part, UN Secretary-General Guterres made additional reference to the “shine of some skyscrapers” in our cities that were dependent on “forced labor.”

What all these violations have in common of course is their assault on human dignity, putting persons in what many of us would deem impossible situations and then offering options going forward that are likely to accomplish little other than snuff out the last vestiges of self-respect.   This creates a pattern all too familiar and all too insidious – people risking (and too often finding) unacceptable vulnerability in an attempt to escape conditions of unacceptable vulnerability.

At CSW, it was noted again and again the degree to which trafficking and the “modern slavery” that so often follows in its wake constitute “money making machines” for transnational criminal networks, terrorist groups, unscrupulous government officials, and others simultaneously skilled in exploitation and dismissive of human value (and especially the value of women and girls) beyond their own limited circles of malfeasance.

The complexities of modern trafficking have contributed to responses that seem more like endless circles of frustration than pathways to progress.   This week at the UN, diplomats and NGOs alike commented on the degree to which armed violence creates breeding grounds s for trafficking in all its dimensions.   In the Security Council, Panama made linkages between armed violence and child marriage.  Nigeria noted the conflict-related misuse of captured girls as “baby making machines.”  In more general terms, the European Union cited the “spillovers of insecurity” that are caused by armed conflict and which very much include the enabling of hard-to-address trafficking networks.

At the same time, others in the Council made clear that the inequalities and vulnerabilities of societies create conditions ripe for human slavery and trafficking, but also for the perpetuation of armed conflict itself.  As Greece explained, trafficking in all its aspects remains a major factor in sustaining the “economy of war.”  And Bolivia was (as they have been since they joined the Council in January) insistent that the pervasiveness of inequalities is symptomatic of a larger systemic problem — that our economics and politics privilege competition over dignity, acquisition over equity.  We humans have spent too much of our collective history “taking what we want” even if it means (as it often has) lowering the threshold of our common humanity in the process.

Around and around we go – conflict fueling trafficking networks which exacerbates existing inequalities and discriminations which creates (as Morocco noted this week) new breeding grounds for conflict.  It is a cycle that frustrates, a loop we cannot easily escape, a ride from which we cannot seem to dismount.

But there are strategies afoot to help us fortify what Pakistan this week referred to as our “spasmodic” responses to the violence and criminality of trafficking. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime is doing its part to help strengthen domestic law enforcement and border controls.  Ireland and other states are actively exploring ways to improve legal accountability at national and international levels as one means to prevent future abuses.   UN Women and many of the participants of CSW are holding up the gender dimensions of abuse and insisting that policy accommodates each and every one of them. The Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee is helping to disrupt the financial incentives for trafficking networks and undermine their internet-based recruiting.  At the same time, at least some of those Council members understand that trafficking response must involve all relevant UN stakeholders; that one UN organ cannot presume responsibility for an issue that takes so many forms, impacts so many development and security processes, traumatizes so many global citizens.  All are initiatives and insights worthy of “imitation.”

But the Council (together with the Peacebuilding Commission and other stakeholders) can take welcome leadership in one additional area. This week, UK Ambassador and current SC president Rycroft cited our collective duty to end the “instability” in which trafficking thrives.  Much of this instability, we would argue again, is a function of the armed violence that flares up and drags on in so many global regions.  With threats to UN funding looming, with assaults on human dignity seemingly as pervasive as ever, with so many illicit arms fueling so much unaccountable criminal violence, the Council must become smarter and especially more proactive in its security responses.   As Indonesia noted well this week during the debate, fresh efforts directed towards a more upstream “de-escalation” of conflict threats would be the ideal next step.

The Importance of Importance:   The UN General Assembly Reasserts its Cross-Cutting Value, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Sep

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UN Photo

One of the things I marveled at during my months (long ago) as a hospital chaplain in Harford, CT was the ability of emergency room medical staff to perform “triage” on incoming patients.

The principle is simple in the abstract if not in practice:   In a system under constant stress, professionals must be able to distinguish quickly between patients requiring urgent attention and those who can wait a bit – albeit often uncomfortably – for their turn at treatment in the hope that full health can be restored.

This “triage” is hardly confined to hospitals; parents make these judgment calls all the time, sequencing the lives of children so that they get more of what they need when they need it, especially during times of urgency.   And of course many of these judgments point down a life-long road – sealing the relationship linking healthy diets, prompt health care, home reading and other nurturing activities, and the promotion of future self-directed adults able to contribute much to families and communities.

The UN has its own versions of “triage” though the public face of this is largely confined to Security Council meetings where “matters of importance” take place, including assessments and responses to threats that literally leap on to the front pages of our media.  There are, indeed, matters of gravity punctuating the Council agenda – Syria and Yemen are only the most notable – and the Council is learning again about both the potential and limitations of its policy solidarity.  Thankfully, Council members are also spending more time in the field – as we write this, they are in South Sudan – in part in an attempt to better grasp some of the practical consequences of their sometimes inadequate decision making to maintain (or restore) peace and security.

What the Council has most in common with emergency rooms and families is the expectation of relevant potency.   While hardly omnipotent, the decisions of ER doctors and parents are clearly binding within their “areas of jurisdiction.” For its part, the Council is one of the few modalities within the UN that has a mandate to “make states do things” that they might not do otherwise.  While the effectiveness of Council responses has been and should continue to be challenged, the assumption reflected within the Council’s mandate is that if states do not abide by its resolutions, more or less coercive measures may well follow – sanctions, travel bans, peacekeepers or even overtly military operations.

For many people, this coercion is a critical dimension of “importance.”   If we can’t make governments and other entities abide by rules of law and conduct, if we can’t force states to keep their treaty or resolution promises, then “triage” is little more than the creation of a priority list for institutional impotence.   What good, for instance, is it to create (as the UN is seeking to do this week) massive ocean refuges beyond national jurisdiction in an attempt to heal the seas if there is no trusted mechanism of enforcement – if there is no “ocean police” to ensure that fish stocks are not depleted, biodiversity is preserved, plastics and toxins are not carelessly dumped into increasingly compromised waters?

But it is not at all clear to what degree the UN’s use of coercive tools have actually modified the behavior of recalcitrant state and non-state entities.   Moreover, it seems to us, as it now seems to many UN member states, that there are many “soft power” options that have been – and remain – largely underutilized in this institutional space – tools such as mediation and good offices, to be sure, but also what we might call the “power of importance,” the resolve that comes from knowing you are placing priority on the most urgent matters with the most far-reaching consequences.

We don’t get many compliments in this office (few of us at the UN do) but the kindest remark ever paid to us was by a diplomat who noted, “You folks always show up for the most important discussions.”   For us this year, “showing up” has largely meant following the exhausting itinerary of the president of the 70thGeneral Assembly (PGA), Denmark’s Mogens Lykketoft.  This PGA has run a marathon during his year of service, refocusing and empowering the General Assembly while offering (even insisting upon) tangible support to other key UN functions, including the Financing for Development mandate of the Economic and Social Council  and the peace and security mandate of the Security Council.   He has lent the support of his office (and his personal presence) to a host of issues on the UN agenda that must stay firmly on our collective radar – pandemic threats, the rights and well-being of migrants and refugees, our urgent climate challenges, the political participation and employment of the world’s largest-ever generation of youth, the elevation of peacebuilding skills and architecture, the healing of our oceans, the transparency of the current Secretary-General search and its full inclusion of women candidates, the end to discrimination against disabled persons, indigenous women and far too many others.

We have few if any quibbles with the PGAs triage.   With or without the power of formal coercion, he has focused the attention of the GA on the issues about which we will learn to cooperate more fully or perish more rapidly.

And he saved some of his time and energy to focus on his own office – its needs in relation to the extraordinary expectations now placed upon it. Part of this has involved exposing the hypocrisy of a system that demands more and more of its key leadership without the funding commensurate with those responsibilities.  Lykketoft recognizes the advantages of coming from a wealthy country anxious to subsidize his success.   Other PGAs have not been so lucky.  Others have had to cut corners and make deals, often in ways that sow suspicions.   Plugging the institutional gaps in the system closest to the PGA is both a gift to his able successor (Fiji’s Amb Thompson) and to our collective ability to sustain interest in the most important policy priorities which the PGA and his VPs have energetically highlighted.

This past week the PGA hosted a “culture of peace” event in Trusteeship Council.  It’s a bit of a “mushy” topic, to be sure, but the event did underscore the diverse responsibilities of peacemaking beyond the control of weapons and coercive responses to wrongdoers.  It also gave UN officials and others the opportunity to share some of what drives their commitment to this place and keeps them energized to fulfill its multi-lateral potential.  From Nicaragua’s insistence on poverty reduction priorities and Italy’s call for youth inclusion to Malaysia’s urging of political moderation efforts and Indonesia’s call to find pathways out of “fragility,” many states welcomed this space for the kind of deeper reflection that keeps our policy deliberations on track, the kind of reflection on which good policy triage depends.

Also during this event, Tunisia’s Nobel Laureate Wided Bouchamaoui noted that, despite the slow pace of change, we must keep our focus on the reform that “alters destinies,” a reform that requires humility, the renunciation of despair and a commitment to concrete outcomes. Albania directly referenced Mother Teresa, warning that “we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”  On a similar note, SG special adviser David Nbarro, a key architect of the UN’s Ebola response and now focused on the Sustainable Development Goals, reflected that “human beings can respect themselves better as they learn to respect others better.”

These contributions are not a substitute for good policy, but they reference attributes of the human experience essential to good “triage,” keeping our eyes and energies fixed on matters of urgency in these gravely challenging times. We thank PGA Lykketoft for his year-long lesson on what truly matters.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place:  The Decisions Mothers Must Make, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 May

In many communities on this Mother’s Day weekend, people worry about whether their children will remember them with flowers or chocolate, whether they will still appreciate their sacrifices, whether the sentimentality of this occasion will translate into genuine gratitude, real recognition.

But today in other parts of the world, as this week’s Security Council meeting on violence perpetrated against medical facilities underscored, mothers also wonder if the hard and often painful decisions they have had to make for the sake of their children will pan out – if the hospitals to which they take their children seeking safety and healing will somehow become their gravesites; if the rafts on which their families have boarded and for which they have mortgaged their material futures will set their children on a new life course or literally drown every ounce of their potential.  At this meeting, Council members themselves were rightly deemed complicit by both the ICRC and MSF in at least part of this pattern of displacement and carnage; but lost in the inevitable blame game that accompanies our long and gruesome conflicts are the many decisions that mothers make in an attempt, sometimes wholly in vain, to protect children from dangerous circumstances that lie fundamentally beyond their control.

And the pain that comes from trying to be a nurturing, protecting mother when so many options are blocked, so many decisions fraught with peril, is by no means confined to the realm of geo-politics.  I was in a middle school in Edmonton, Canada this week at an “attendance board” meeting convened by an old friend of mine.   Across from the board sat a mother – with responsibility for three children while living in a modest hotel awaiting housing that might take many months to clear – and her 9th grade son, a quiet boy with a limited interest in school who had apparently just recovered from gall bladder surgery.

The board members were kind and attentive, asking the right questions and doing their best to keep the mother and son engaged.  But the looks on their faces, looks I have seen so many times in the Harlem parish in which I used to work, communicated palpable discouragement.   The mother had clearly been through this routine before, perhaps many times, based in part on life decisions that she made for herself and her children, decisions that turned out to be — at best– only partially effective. Her somewhat stunned and subdued presence at the attendance board signified many things, one of which was likely a painful doubling back on the hard choices she felt she had to make to give her struggling children a fighter’s chance.

Mothers (and their mates if they are so endowed) make many hard decisions over the course of a child’s life, some of which bear unforeseen consequences, others of which are beyond their innate capacities of control or discernment.  The women riding the seas with children on substandard “life” rafts or appearing for the 10th time in front of well-intentioned social workers don’t love their children any less than other mothers; but they certainly live with the daily, grim reality that they cannot fully protect them, nor nurture them to full health, nor always guarantee them predictable nutrition or education.

There are smaller rocks and softer “hard places” than these to get trapped between, to be sure, but all carry with them the burdens of life as it wasn’t intended to be.   Many mothers report that they can barely remember a time in their life when they weren’t mothers.   When their decisions end in painful or even ruinous circumstances for children, that nightmare is equally persistent.  It is more difficult than we might imagine to make the “right” call for children (or even for ourselves) when bombs are flying, crops are failing, schools are crumbling, abuses are pervasive, living allowances are at a premium.

We need to do much more, in policy and practice, to support all who spend too much time living in those spaces between the rocks and the hard places, mothers trying to make the most out of bad options and then living with the painful (and almost inevitable) compromises for their children.  Today, as all days, we should recall the many millions of mothers who have little say in policies – many still shockingly gender/social class exclusive — that routinely result in conditions that disrupt the pursuit of family normalcy and often dash their collective dreams.

Indeed, as we give in to the duties of today’s mostly sentimentalized ritual, it is important to recall the human costs of our inadequate social and security policies, pausing as we pick up the flowers or the restaurant check to recall the plight of mothers who must bear the brunt of finding safe passage for children in some of the roughest seas of my lifetime.

Money Ball:  The UN Navigates Investor Expectations and Urgency for Policy Innovation, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Feb

This past week at the UN, in the shadow of the Commission on Social Development, a modestly attended but most suggestive event highlighted what is an increasingly perplexing conundrum for policymakers and their donors:  finding the proper balance between fiscal accountability and program innovation.

The event was actually a joint meeting of Executive Boards of diverse UN agencies including UNICEF, UNDP and UN Women. All agency heads and participating diplomats wrestled with, as the Secretary General put it, the task of remaining ‘fit for purpose;’ learning as much as we can from our failures but doing so without neglecting established patterns that have already yielded positive results.   While flexibility is to be praised, the SG noted, innovation must never be seen as an end in itself.

The dilemma of innovation is hardly unique to the UN:  Sports teams, entertainment corporations and many other businesses struggle with the dual demands of ‘staying fresh and relevant’ while satisfying the expectations of their investors.   But there is so much on the line at the UN, so many lives potentially impacted by policy decisions that can err on the sides of recklessness or caution. Given this, the willingness of senior UN officials to both interrogate their failures and offer new ideas to address stubborn development and security patterns with the potential to foment social unrest (as cited by the ILO’s Torres at a separate event) was most welcome.

The stakes in this discussion are higher than they might at first appear, and the SG’s remarks are one starting point.  The largest state contributors to UN operations are responsible to their own local constituents who are in some cases coping with economic crises at home.  But even those supportive of government assistance to UN programs seek assurances (as Japan has urged in several UN forums) that funds dispersed are used for the purposes intended.   Beyond this caution, Zambia urged more attention to ‘predicting’ failure caused in part by a lack of policy attentiveness to social and political context.

If states are not provided the assurances they seek, there is risk that donations will dry up further, or in the case of small states like Zambia that the trust issues lingering with respect to some UN agencies will grow larger.  In either case, the ability of the UN to deliver on its promises – from fulfilling SDGs to drying up sources of illicit arms – will be compromised.  Unlike the private sector, UN officials have hands that are tied a bit tightly by state interests, especially by the largest donor states.  But some of this ‘tying’ as Denmark noted has positive value – insisting that innovation in policy never be divorced from issues of cost effectiveness.  Clearly it is important to avoid throwing money at problems recklessly; but it is also important to think creatively beyond the matching of the most obvious short-term needs with the most immediately available resources.

It seems more and more apparent that currently funded policy and implementation strategies employed by the UN and its partners continue to lag behind both global challenges and response opportunities.  For all our good and reasonably well-funded efforts, we have not yet found the means to eliminate terror threats or gender-based violence, reduce weapons flows, stem chronic unemployment, or reverse the melting of the polar ice caps.  And it is equally clear that money, for all of its potential benefits, can have a negative impact on the innovation we still desperately need.   We see this in the NGO community all the time, where access to funding is as likely to breed caution as creative engagements with UN objectives and working methods. But even at senior Secretariat levels, funding impacts loom large, or at least larger than might be optimal for the development of more innovative approaches to longstanding planetary challenges.

As UNDP’s Helen Clark noted, it might not be funding per se, but rather the assessment of results that funders rightly require that leads to ‘risk phobia’ among some leaders, a sentiment echoed by UNICEF’s Anthony Lake.  While important, “results” can be like puzzle pieces essential to a fully completed puzzle but not to be equated with it.  There are formidable challenges afoot that require creative, if humble engagements beyond piecemeal measures.  And while there are certainly financial risks attached to creative innovation, we need to be reminded, as UNICEF’s Lake noted, that there are also staggering costs from NOT innovating.  It is widely recognized that we already throw too many of the world’s resources at problems that have already proven resistant to our standard working methods and operating procedures.   We would thus do well to share more openly the potential benefits and risks of our innovative policy options; not only with over-stretched donor states but especially with their increasingly anxious constituents.  And, as UNDP’s Clark noted, we should do more to create systemic ‘safe space’ for innovation, inviting the innovation-minded to leave the margins and find a place closer to the center of policy formulation.  Sports franchises and other corporations shrivel in the absence of such space.   International policy also suffers when innovation has no safe space to test assumptions and offer alternatives.

Some of this need can be addressed through greater institutional investment in creative policymaking that reassesses resources and their modes of application.  As one step in that investment, UN Women’s Lakshmi Puri floated an idea that we have also advocated previously – the need to promote the UN as more of a ‘learning community.’  This ‘community’ would not only take account of the SG’s urging that we learn more from our failures, but that we also take heed of opportunities to learn more from each other – including updates on current challenges, and how we might respond – and respond differently – if we are to one day fulfill the trust placed in us to bring ‘big’ matters such as climate change, atrocity crimes and weapons proliferation to successful resolutions.

Clearly we need to be more open to innovation in light of the evolving needs of constituents who, at the end of the day, constitute the core of our mandate.   UNOPS’s Grete Feremo noted with some irony that only small children seem immune from ‘change resistance.’   And UNICEF’s Lake noted that we who set the agendas for global policy must learn to ‘leave our egos and even our logos’ at the door.

This is wise, if elusive counsel.   Needless to say, the UN was not chartered to protect bureaucratic turf or provide employment opportunities for diplomats and NGOs.  It was chartered to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war (and, we might add, other threats to human security).  To ‘win’ at this ever-more critical responsibility, we must spend wisely but also learn sincerely and innovate constructively.  We cannot continue to stifle policy innovation while the global challenges we are tasked to address continue on their own, dangerous, evolutionary path.

The United Nations’ Annual Adventure

29 Sep

It is the Sunday after a long week of Heads of State, Foreign Ministers and a wide variety of other stakeholders all seeking to keep the UN on a positive, hopeful, practical trajectory, despite a myriad of global crises.

Side events on issues from the situation in Central African Republic to the abolition of child marriages occupied the attention of diplomats and select non-governmental representatives.   And then there was a most dramatic climate march as well as a media worthy presentation by Emma Watson on the need to encourage more male ‘champions’ for women’s rights.

The opening of the General Assembly corresponded with the re-opening of the General Assembly building.   While we have come to appreciate the North Lawn Building greatly, most participants in last week’s events seemed to enjoy the upgraded amenities of the new GA space, not to mention the reopening of the basement café. Guards and other UN personnel generally did a fine job of getting people in and out of meeting rooms and on and off crowded elevators.

It is not yet apparent how many compelling, new commitments were made this week by leaders.  There were, of course, some interesting ideas floated by civil society and governments – ideas that in our view still require more urgent scrutiny to minimize the possibility of unintended consequences.  We have already written about our cautions elsewhere on this blog with regard to both ‘veto restraint’ and the inclusion of a ‘peace objective’ within the post-2015 development goals.

There were many other things that happened this week that piqued our interest and even conveyed glimmers of hope that we can actually move confidently and urgently towards a holistic engagement of strategies to address some stubborn global emergencies.

  • At an event focused on nuclear disarmament, Brazil, Costa Rica and others properly highlighted the need for more investment in Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zones. At the same time, Chile called for the “delegitimizing” of nuclear weapons doctrines.
  • At another event focused on the death penalty, we were encouraged that so few states sought to defend their use of capital punishment. The President of Switzerland and Prime Minister of Italy made strong and convincing presentations exposing the fallacies of the death penalty.  At this same meeting, the office of the new High Commissioner for Human Rights launched the fine resource, “Moving away from the Death Penalty.”
  • In the Security Council, a US-led, co-sponsored resolution on foreign fighters passed unanimously, but Argentina’s president also noted the increasingly complex nature of terrorism and wondered aloud whether the Council’s responses are keeping pace.
  • In another Council meeting focused on ISIS, Luxembourg joined with other states in reminding members that (France’s reference to the ‘throat cutters’ notwithstanding) we are not going to solve deeper problems in the region through the application of threatening rhetoric and military power. In a similar vein, Rwanda described the ‘unbearable consequences’ that occur when the Council fails to use all available tools to maintain peace and security.
  • At an event on the role of education in the prevention of genocide, states noted the need to educate adults as well as children about the dangers of hate speech and other incitements to violence. Spain in particular spoke about the need to address conflict at its roots and noted its own, sustained advocacy work on behalf of more mediation resources.  For his part, USG Adama Dieng underscored the urgent responsibility to prevent incitement rather than waiting to address its consequences after the fact.
  • At a breakfast discussion focused on Women and Land, Ethiopia noted that land rights are tied to other rights and urged adoption of a holistic gender framework.  This sentiment was echoed by UN Women and other states in attendance.  It was also affirmed that land ownership by women lifts their general status in a variety of helpful ways.
  • At a ministerial event on Peace and Capable Institutions hosted by G7+ states, South Sudan highlighted the profound negative impacts of armed violence on fulfillment of development objectives, but wondered aloud about the wisdom of having a stand-alone ‘peace goal’ in the SDGs rather than, as others including the Prime Minister of Timor-Leste noted, a broader, more inclusive recognition in all SDGs of the importance of peaceful societies to development.
  • At a Sustainable Land Management event, New Zealand and others highlighted the degree to which restoration of damaged land constitutes a viable peace and security concern. During the same discussion, Germany highlighted some hopeful restoration initiatives while depicting hunger as one of the great “scandals” of our time.

There was so much more of note both within and beyond our hearing, of course: more hopeful statements, more missed opportunities, more rhetoric divorced from viable implementation strategies, more reminders of the connected, multi-dimensional crises that define our time.

All of this made up the past week at the UN, a highly political space that is often most effective at creating global norms to support change enacted at national and local levels.  It is at times like this when the need to simultaneously honor and demystify UN processes becomes apparent.  There are so many critical issues, including climate change, child soldiers and gender violence, that would have far less traction globally were it not for the UN’s sustained involvement.  On the other hand, the ‘talk shop’ reputation of the UN is only enhanced as a week’s worth of traffic-clogging motorcades and massive security bills result in modest outcomes as likely to disappoint public hopes as to inspire them.

As the barricades come down, the working-level diplomats resume their pride of place at UN headquarters.   Now is the time to take the most compelling suggestions from this week and turn them into strong resolutions that can leverage meaningful change.  We’ll be there to observe and reflect.

Dr. Robert Zuber

Avoiding Inter-Generational Gender Traps

14 Aug

As many readers of this Blog already know, the primary preoccupation of GAPW is with the ‘gender dimensions’ of UN policies – from peacekeeping and disarmament to youth leadership and social development.   Together with program partners at UN headquarters and in many communities and countries worldwide, we are convinced that efforts to promote women’s full participation in political and social life, as well as ending impunity for gender violence (which itself constitutes a significant barrier to participation) are key to both effective international security and the promotion of sustainable development priorities.

A gender lens is also valuable in approaching the Fourth session of the Open Ended Working Group on Aging.  It is true, as a brochure distributed by the Subcommittee on Older Women notes, that “older men and women both face age discrimination but older women also face cumulative effects of gender discrimination throughout their lives, including less access to education and health services, lower earning capacity and limited access to rights to land ownership, contributing to their vulnerability in old age.”

But there are other vulnerabilities for older women which are cultural in origin, and which may constitute the ‘final frontier’ of gender discrimination.  In my years of providing faith-based counseling for communities of largely older women and in my current work characterized in part by providing mentoring options for women working at UN headquarters, it is clear that older and younger women remain disconnected, that most younger women do not have older women who are not their mothers as ‘accompanying elders’ in their lives and, perhaps most relevant in this context, that younger women are not prepared (and indeed are largely ignoring) the long term, “cumulative” effects of all aspects of this subtle gender discrimination, but especially those aspects that are embedded in cultures that value physical beauty over character and worldly riches over connection.

Despite the dramatic anxiety that too often accompanies women in the early years of their life journey, these women often believe that they can alleviate some of the implications of anxiety and develop a competitive edge by ‘purchasing the surfaces.’   In this context, that means spending lots of energy on the things that win approval of peers and family members – focusing on enhancing physical beauty, having a clearly articulate career path, finding a mate and engaging in conventional family life.

None of these are problematic in themselves, perhaps aside from their implications for the lives of many women as they age.  Eventually, the wrinkles cannot be hidden, the hair greys, joints ache more often, life partners become more sporadically attentive, children move to distant cities, skills that defined a career are supplanted by new technology in younger hands.

In other words, the things of their youth that made these women ‘valuable’ in the eyes of their societies (and often in their own eyes as well) begin to slip away, sometimes slowly, other times with a speed that would shock a gazelle.

Many older women report feeling ‘invisible.’   The world’s attention has flowed elsewhere.   And sadly and unacceptably, respect and appreciation, including too often from younger women, flow away as well.

When that happens, the capacity for generosity is compromised.   The capacity to communicate hope through the aches of aging is undermined as well.  Prospects for life-giving connectivity are reduced to peer groups that are sometimes more restricted than the relationships of school – needlessly age and class specific.

In such circumstances, women are the losers.  Indeed, we are all the losers.    The ‘cumulative’ effects that lead too often to social isolation, feelings of ‘invisibility’ and other psychic deficits are, especially in western societies, undermining respectful and dignified engagements with the ‘last years,’ years that we are all destined to face and for which we are so often emotionally and materially unprepared.

As important as the Convention proposed by delegates to this Working Group would be, these psychic deficits cannot be addressed solely by recourse to resource-focused policies.   This is a problem that will more likely be solved through a robust, multi-generational engagement, an engagement that requires older women to be transparent about the ‘traps’ that they fell victim to in their early years, and younger women who are demonstrably less and less content to rely for their self-worth on things they will surely lose long before their life cycles have run their course.

This ‘final frontier’ of gender discrimination is deeply embedded and too rarely interrogated.   As we lobby for more health, employment and education options for aging populations, we should commit to expose the cultural ‘traps’ that keep too many younger women anxious and too many older women invisible.

Dr. Robert Zuber