Tag Archives: women

Study Hall:  Opening Policy to a Wider Range of Women’s Aspirations

29 Oct

Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less. Susan B. Anthony

Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others. Amelia Earhart

There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it. Alice Paul

Under the leadership of France this past Friday, the Security Council debated once again the merits and deficiencies of its Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda (based on SCR 1325) now in its 17th year.  As in the past, the debate included more women’s perspectives than is normally the case around the oval, where the US is now the only reliable women’s voice to be heard at many Council meetings, albeit supplemented on occasion by female diplomats from Ethiopia, France and Sweden.

If our twitter feed is any indication, this debate gets at least as much attention from the UN policy community than any other.  In the presence of a large group of WPS advocates, one diplomat after another takes the floor to plead for attention to various aspects of this still-unattained agenda – from the persistence of gender-based violence employed as a tactic of war to the impediments still blocking pathways to participation by women in all aspects of political life (including media) and, more directly germane to SCR 1325, in all peace, mediation and conflict prevention processes.

Thematic Council discussions such as this one create different levels of obligation for UN member states.  Unlike country-specific crises that dominate much of the Council’s agenda, obligations under the rubric of Women, Peace and Security are equally binding on Council members themselves.   There is no “standing above the law” in these instances as the five Permanent Council members are as responsible for national implementation of “1325” as any other member state. There is no threat of veto to hide behind during this discussion, no implied perch of moral superiority from which to judge the behavior of other states.

No, we are all in this together, playing by the same rulebook, seeking a similar relief. And yet by many yardsticks that we respect, our rhetoric on “1325” over 17 years continues to exceed our progress.   Yes we have Security Council debates, UN Women and National Action Plans; yes we have seen women squeeze through some archaic professional barriers to find their rightful places in our hierarchies; yes we have seen women taking highly visible leadership at the UN on matters such as the sustainable development goals and on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons; yes we have raised the costs for sexual abuse by peacekeepers and other UN staff; yes we have exposed some habitually abusive men within and beyond our overly hormonal entertainment industry; yes women can drive a car (more or less) in Saudi Arabia.

All good as we know; and all insufficient as we also know.   As the quotations at the beginning of this post attest, women (and some men as well) have been immersed in the gender equality struggle for a long time.  Alarmingly, we are now in what appears to be a time of situational retrenchment, unwelcome movement which is being (intentionally or inadvertently) stoked in part by a defiant national leader accused of serial acts of abuse all of which have summarily (even publicly) been dismissed as  “lies.”

Global Action has had a longstanding though not entirely untroubled relationship with the WPS agenda.  We were an early voice for the full integration of women in disarmament affairs as well as in efforts to prevent, identify and prosecute atrocity crimes. Moreover, we have been a longstanding supporter of Women in International Security in its New York and West Coast (US) Chapters, a group which seeks to give voice to the growing number of women who offer security policy and protection to communities far beyond our elite policy centers.  An overwhelming percentage of Global Action’s staff, interns and fellows have been women. And we have openly mourned the abuse of women by peacekeepers and other “protective capacities” as well as called attention to what seems to us to be the willful disregard of remarkable resumes and experiences by more and more women whom we most pointedly need — not only in our leadership but in those many challenging interfaces where decisions by our political leaders simply miss-read their intended beneficiaries, in part because we don’t have enough skilled and compassionate people asking the right questions at local levels.

But as we have noted often, being a woman is not a skill set, but rather an opportunity to see the world differently and organize – also in a different voice —  our responses to structures and behaviors that offend, including of course the structures from which we benefit and the behaviors for which we are directly responsible.  Our relationship with this WPS work is “not untroubled,” in part because it still seems too much about us, our policy clichés and institutional reputations, our bureaucratic limitations and shortcomings of political will, our sometimes too-facile ascription of our own gendered dramas as somehow instructive for others.  We work at the UN in densely political space, a place where apologies and thoughtfulness are painfully rare, where so many believe they could achieve their own “stardom” if not for the malevolence or indifference of other (allegedly almost entirely male) rights deniers and their institutionalized coercions.

There is surely more to this WPS story than makes itself known in UN conference rooms. Earlier this week, I was privileged to see an exhibition of photography by Lu Nan, an artist of stunning vision and compassion for his artistic subjects.   Part of his mounted trilogy  was focused on “everyday life” on the Tibetan plateau.  The “stars” of his photographs were men and (primarily) women, families across generations who went about their many labors (including labors of love and care) with what Nan referred to as “unstudied poise.”

Lu Nan is not one given to sentimentalizing his subjects, but he has found a way to enter the worlds of people who have every reason to keep him at arm’s length, people like the wind-swept women of Tibet who somehow find ways for themselves and their communities to lead something approaching what Nan honored as “lives of peace and transcendence.”

I’m not given much to sentimentalizing either, but while looking at the weathered faces of these older women and their extended families, I wondered who was watching their backs?   Who was advocating for their meaningful participation in a wider social and political life?  Who was honoring them for guiding the horses pulling their plows, for planting and harvesting amidst the ceaseless plateau winds, for convincing their children and grandchildren (perhaps especially the girls) that the cycles governing their lives have things to teach others, that their “fate” is not principally in the hands of state authorities, nor of first-world bureaucrats and our clever resolutions.

While it may not be literally true in all settings and circumstances — as mentioned this week by Swedish Foreign Minister Wallström — that “more women means more peace,” it is surely the case that the “poise” of women in so many contexts and settings worldwide is considerable, integral to “lives of peace,” and still mostly “unstudied.”   While we fuss in places like New York with our ambitions and our status; while we do what we can to balance our leadership teams, address security threats from state and non-state actors, and end predatory practices by our erstwhile protectors; while we make passionate speeches at the UN in part to brandish our gendered bona fides and in part to cover up our gendered policy limitations; there is still so much for us to learn from others, still so much inspiration “out there” to help us become a better version of ourselves.

We don’t have as many answers here at the UN as we sometimes like to think. With this in mind, It isn’t at all clear to me that we are paying close enough attention to the wind-carved faces of the women behind the plow, the women who daily make the case for “peace and transcendence” to their extended families and communities.  We need to look again.

 

 

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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