Tag Archives: youth

A Distant Dawn: Sustaining Agency in Disconsolate Times, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 May

Deep Web 2

But there is nothing more beautiful than being desperate.  And there is nothing more risky than pretending not to care.  Rachel C. Lewis

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. T. S. Eliot

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. Carl Jung

One of the blessings of this small office – indeed perhaps the only real reason to keep it open – is the extraordinary range of people who regularly grace it.  Scholars and diplomats, policymakers and activists, people from all over the world come for a bit of conversation, advice on how to navigate the UN system, or to share ideas for projects or publications that can open more space for productive policy engagement in the global community.

Many of these visitors are young people, young not only by my standards (which more or less includes everyone now in existence) but young in the sense of being on the cusp of challenges and responses that will be “momentous” for their own lives at least and quite possibly also for the planet as a whole.

Thankfully, if tentatively, most of our visitors seek a larger version of momentousness; they have bills to pay and obligations to family to meet, but they also want their lives to matter in a broader sense.   They come to offices like ours (and to the United Nations) in part to test their skills, in part to assess the state of the world, in part to see if and how they can best direct their energies so they can sustain both their livelihoods and the health of the planet on which those livelihoods ultimately depend.

So they walk through UN security, passes in hand, and they sit and they listen.  Some of what they hear is interesting; some is hopeful. Some makes them wonder if the (mostly older) people who manage the global community and dominate policy discourse inside and outside the UN are committed enough – perhaps even desperate enough — to change what needs to be changed, fix what needs to be fixed, such that peoples and cultures worldwide can survive the current gloom and even thrive once a fuller light finally returns.

The verdict on all of this is mixed. This week alone, our current group of young people participated in UN events as hopeful as the redesign of cities and the promise of new technology for sustainable development and as troubling as the acidification of our oceans, sexual violence in conflict zones, the abuse of children in detention facilities, and the implications of diminished funding for Palestinian and other Middle East refugees.

Perhaps most disturbing of all was a Security Council Counter-Terror Directorate (CTED) briefing on ways to prevent terrorists from acquiring deadly weapons.   The event focused in part on the so-called “dark web,” a largely invisible part of the internet devoted to promoting clandestine access to all kinds of illegally trafficking goods, including of course weaponry.   This excellent event (as are virtually all CTED briefings) was almost a metaphor for our times:  helpful strategies to combat access to weapons and funding by terrorists and other “spoilers” while failing to note other hard (and relevant) questions – including those related to the quality and potency of our governance structures and the reckless enormity of our collective weapons production. In the end, there was for our interns a lingering sense that the dark and ominous forces seeking to undermine what remains of our social order seem to be moving more nimbly than those seeking to stop them.

Though this is clearly belaboring the obvious, current global circumstances are more than a little overwhelming.  There are so many needs to be met, so many issues to interrogate, so many tensions to resolve, so many “fires” to manage.   There seems to be darkness of one sort or another lurking in every corner, layers below layers,  making it both difficult to trust the light but also one’s own ability to help shine light on those dark places (in the world and in ourselves) that threaten even the best of our treaties, resolutions and other policy responses to global threats.

One of the challenges of befriending and mentoring younger people in this space is how to modulate the input, pointing out hopeful signs without over-selling them, sharing the occasional dis-ingenuousness of our multi-lateral system without reinforcing cynicism, introducing them to the full “truth” about our current unsettled circumstances without motivating them to “abandon ship,” to retreat into narrower career and personal interests that are more “bite-sized” and then convincing themselves that “bite size” is all they can handle.

Sometimes the UN does the little things to help us make this “sale.”   Other times not so much.

This past Friday, the UN hosted an event on “Investing in African Youth” that offered some promise that the aspirations, skills and frustrations of some of the young people from this largest-ever generation on our youngest global continent would help inform our policy direction.   The event focused on the African Union Roadmap on Harnessing the Demographic Dividend, based on the contention that “a peaceful and secure Africa requires an empowered generation of youth.”

While voices of such “empowered” youth did eventually take the stage – one in particular was particularly “put off” by the proceedings – the opening panel had already drained the room of much of its energy.  One after another, older persons (mostly male dignitaries) had ignored the call for brevity to such a degree that this panel alone set the schedule back by a full 80 minutes!

When it was finally time for younger voices, they were all on yet another tight leash, having now to share their views in an “august” UN setting while also compensating for older people who, quite frankly, had abused both their positions and the protocols of their “pulpits” in ways that are simply too common in UN conference rooms.   As a result, we were honoring youth by stifling their voices; we were collectively admonishing ourselves to listen to younger people while dominating their space, stealing their time, blunting their opportunity to make their case and not simply air their impatience.

Watching with us this past week was Lin Evola, the founder of the Peace Angels Project which (among other things) has mastered the art of reuse – in this case transforming the metal from used weaponry into compelling and hopeful images.   While she was with us, Lin took copious notes which she turned into drawings that represented the vast disturbances of the week, the crises we have yet to resolve.

The central focus of the drawing Lin contributed to Global Action was of people – including young people — standing mostly emotionless behind barbed wire, surrounded by warnings of famine, violence, forced migration and abuse.  For me, and for the current and past interns with whom I have already shared the drawing, the irony was apparent.  People bearing the brunt of crises, but lacking agency; people whose legitimate voices have been isolated, even barricaded; people who can barely adjust to the storms that surround them, let alone contribute to minimizing global shocks.

Such all-too-common constraints on human agency are, for me, more frightening than the dark web, more disturbing than any Security Council briefing.   When we overwhelm instead of support; when we allow others to slip blithely into complacency or cynicism; when we stifle the energies and voices that can help us reach the dawn, we are merely extending the reach of our own collective darkness.  If they are to locate and sustain their own agency in these difficult times, the many talented people — young and not-so-young — who pass through offices like ours need and deserve better from the rest of us.

City Harvest, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Mar

Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends.  Lewis Mumford

A city isn’t so unlike a person. They both have the marks to show they have many stories to tell. They see many faces. They tear things down and make new again.  Rasmenia Massoud

I was in Atlanta, Georgia part of this week speaking with student groups at Georgia Tech University, mostly about their uncertain futures and the promises represented by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development made to their largest-in-history generation.

The students were mostly attentive, if at times a bit underwhelmed.  They’ve heard promises from older folks before of course, including the promise that if they do what they’re told, get good grades, stifle their passions, and defer their dreams — perhaps forever but certainly until their mountains of educational debt can be fully serviced — things will ultimately be well for them.

This generation of students can be a skeptical lot and not without reason.   Despite our insistences even those with “elite” educational backgrounds have already experienced a dearth of employment options, working long hours, doubling up on housing, sacrificing any semblance of a social life for the sake of success that is anything but guaranteed.   Many of these young people avoid the mainstream news; but the issues that underscore the need for the 2030 Agenda in the first place – the security and ecological threats we have introduced into our world, the genies we have released to wreck their signature havoc – remain very much on their minds.

Theirs are largely “first world problems,” many would admit.   Fulfilling professional goals and personal expectations might prove elusive, but these young people aren’t going to starve or die from the failure. And at some level, they seem to understand that in a world of growing inequalities, their needs will likely be addressed well beyond minimum levels.  They might not hit the jackpot, but they have skills and flexibility; they can choose to revise their trajectories with a reasonable chance of finding meaning and perhaps even a measure of abundance.

But they also know that things can and must get better. While most were no doubt skeptical about some of the promises embedded in the 2030 Agenda, some expressed interest in its ambitions and in the capacities needed to turn this promise – this one above all of the others – into a predictable blueprint for their common future.

This won’t be an easy chore. We made brief mention of the precarious health of our oceans; the accelerating extinction of global species; the stubborn pervasiveness of discrimination against women and girls; the crippling poverty we have every means and still-too- little intention to eliminate; the corruption that bleeds societies of domestic resources and stifles public trust: the staggering employment deficits that we must overcome commensurate with this generation’s size and the impacts of human migration and ever-more-sophisticated robotics; the urban settings set to house the dreams and aspirations of so many millions more young people while housing and employment remain in crisis, and while current residents struggle with pollution, substandard transportation and green space as rare as a bargain Manhattan apartment.

It’s a large and formidable list, a testament both to the depth of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves and the genuine willingness of the international community to face – without sugarcoating — the challenges of the next 15 years.  What the students wanted to know more about is how to move goals and targets beyond rhetoric.   What are all of us prepared to do – and change – with our institutional structures and personal commitments in order to make this happen?

In that vein, mention was made of efforts underway to reform taxation and end corruption; to eliminate trafficking in weapons, narcotics and persons that inflame risks to violence; to create viable indicators of the full 2030 performance based on data that is robust, flexible, context-specific, and able to help us track risks and trends beyond “snapshots” of the present.

And we must do this and more while taking the shifting needs of cities – the settings where so many of this current generation of young people will choose to find their way — fully into account. Among the many helpful resources available to participants in this week’s interesting UN Statistical Commission was a UN publication entitled “The World’s Cities,” This summary report provides a brief look at urban growth during the period defined by the 2030 Agenda; the “megacities” continuing their expansion and the many other cities on the cusp of joining their ranks, especially in what some still refer to as the “global south.”  The report makes plain that people will continue to pour into urban areas such as Bogota and Bangkok, Mumbai and Lagos; and when they arrive they will need housing for their families, reliable transportation to seek and sustain livelihoods, places to educate themselves and their children, even guidance on managing the complexities of a new urban home.

These ”mega” cities and many others are places of growing diversity that almost defy existing data;  places of ever-growing complexity of social groupings, expectations, aspirations;  most often including growing social and economic inequalities as well.  Cities worldwide are demonstrating their capacity to become breeding grounds for violence or hubs of cooperative innovation.  They can help us manage our ecological footprint or push us over the climate threshold. They can exacerbate existing social divisions or help to forge a more hopeful, sustainable consensus for “lovers and friends” in keeping with the 2030 Agenda goal of “peaceful and inclusive societies.”

At one point towards the end of one of the presentations, the professor in charge (a good friend) asked me what I was currently most concerned about in this world?  I answered then as I usually do, speaking not so much about threats to the planet as the status of capacities within ourselves.  Do we have what it takes to get through this rough patch?  Are our pathways to social and political participation sufficiently fair and inviting?  Do our often violent and consumption-laden lifestyles posses the wiggle room to change the ways we invest our energies and resources?   Are we ready to join this harvest of potential of which we must take advantage, despite the metaphorical thin soils and unpredictable rains that gave rise to it?

Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is so much potential still to be realized in even our often-chaotic and overly impersonal urbanized settings.   If we have the most comprehensive and widely disaggregated data; if we have the necessary buy-in from local and national stakeholders, if we have governments and international institutions willing to do what is needed to restore public trust; if we have more dependable and transparent sources of domestic and other funding; then this next period in our collective history will surely yield a more abundant harvest.

But will the harvesters be many or few?  Will we have the hands (and brains) we need to gather and organize the best of what is now available to us for future use?  Will our talented young people sit passively on the sidelines and hope the raging storm won’t ruin too many crops, or will they help us harvest the best of what is now in the field and then plant some new and even better seeds?

We have a case for involvement to make to these people, but we must seize more of those precious and previously squandered opportunities to inspire them to life projects that are larger than their careers and social media feeds.   Our urban areas – many bursting at the seams – are the places most of this generation will choose to call home.  If we can make that more convincing case, then an efficient, equitable and passionate care of urban spaces, a core objective of the 2030 Agenda, might well become among this generation’s most notable contributions.

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

4 Sep

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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.

School Daze:  The UN Struggles to Identify Education that Matters, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Aug

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It’s mid-August in New York, and I and many other have struggled this weekend with indoor “sleeping” temperatures hovering around 90 degrees.   I’m also dealing with massive amounts of dust, willingly blown in all directions by my strategically placed fans, complements of a construction project next door.

For many young people, August heat portends the immanent start of another school year.  For some of these youth (including me decades ago) school is a place of boredom and even conflict. For other young people (and virtually all of their parents) the return to school is a return to normalcy – the prospects both of intellectual challenge and a re-emerging, viable, family routine.

Tragically, for many around the world, school remains mostly a distant vision.  For Syrian refugee children, for earthquake survivors in remote regions of Nepal, for children dodging bombs in Yemen or insurgents in the DRC, school represents the faint hope of stability and possibility; the yet unfulfilled promise of inclusive and peaceful societies in which their contributions —including their engagement with civic responsibilities — are valued and encouraged.

Last Monday, the UN held a discussion on Indigenous People’s Right to Education in recognition of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.   There was much of value in this session, including an admonition by ASG Thomas Gass to decouple indigenous education from any “backhanded” assimilation narratives. Also noteworthy was the UNPFII Chair Álvaro Pop’s reminder that indigenous education must maintain as its core objectives the dismantling of remaining colonial vestiges in order to create “better local democracies.”

But for the three of us in the room from Global Action, the “star” presenter was Ms. Karla Jessen Williamson, an Inuit from Greenland now teaching in Canada.  It was Williamson who most clearly defined the challenge with “schooling” from the standpoint of indigenous culture – that the higher up the educational chain indigenous youth go, the further they tend to get from indigenous linguistic and thought forms.  Others on the panels lamented the linguistic and other local losses that are absorbed when indigenous youth travel long distances to educational institutions, only to struggle at times with both the training methods themselves and the values embodied in those institutions.

Williamson additionally highlighted educational benefits including skills for “self-governance” of Arctic peoples and the respect they should rightly demand from “down south” governments, but these were raised with softer edges.   As with other speakers, she honored the “suffering” of those ancestors who made it possible for her (and others) to speak in a place like the UN.  She also expressed her educational preference for “inner imagination,” a preference which she did not have the opportunity explain at length but one which clearly sees education at its best as the full and dynamic expression of a whole culture more than a specialized, highly-cognitive pursuit within a distinct social institution.  It suggests an education that is about the contexts through which we can grow and change, that upholds the values of honoring and appreciating, and is not only about the worldly tasks that define our budding careers.

In indigenous cultures and beyond, school and learning are not synonymous and it is unhelpful to see them as such.  Many personal and institutional roles carry an educational responsibility, albeit one not tied so tightly to career and employment options.  People “learn” about the world through diverse sources, many persons, institutions and agents of culture.  When a comprehensive social pedagogy is undermined, when “school” becomes the sole arbiter of what a culture transmits to the young, when adults abdicate responsibility for education to specialized (and increasingly expensive) institutions,  more than “inner imagination” is in jeopardy.

As the primary institution of global governance, the UN has its own “teaching” responsibility, sadly much of which takes the form of campaigning and branding, trying to “sell” political agendas rather than helping people understand more about the current state of the world and their responsibilities in it.   We throw around words like “empowerment” as though we have any clarity about its criteria – how we know it when we see it, how that generic (and overused) term can possibly have any relevance outside of the specific political and social contexts in which people find themselves.

Moreover, we too often address young people as though they are our “saviors” more than our successors, leading them to believe, in the name of (rightly) encouraging youth participation, that they are already perfectly formed, already prepared to take us places the rest of us ostensibly can’t take ourselves, already able to confront grave planetary challenges on their own merits, already “sufficient” to life in all its (increasingly) virtual and non-virtual elements.

Even in the august Security Council, security policies are sometimes promoted as though it could not possibly be otherwise, policies that are willfully detached from the consequences of their precursors– successful and often not — and that try to equate the political interests of one or more states with resolutions to address the interests of those suffering a wide variety of conflict-related abuses.  Here as well the point seems too often to be how to “convince,” not how to enlighten or reflect. Neither teaching nor leading, it seems.

The UN is primarily political culture, and so it isn’t surprising when discernment yields to political considerations.   But when such discernment devolves into outright hyperbole, into a denial of complex realities we should well be clever enough to grasp, few will get what they need to flourish in learning; our inner lives will suffer; general levels of trust in the veracity of our foremost institutions will shrink.  People will listen less often, in part because of our collective authenticity deficit.

During a UN youth event on Friday devoted to “sustainable consumption” and poverty reduction, ASG Thomas Gass in his own modest manner attempted to get the audience to be more mindful of the “ethical” compromises and sacrifices represented by the clothing we purchase, the food we waste, the phones we clutch as though our very lives depended on them. However, in the back of the conference room where I was seated, young people were busy on those very same phones, snapping pictures for their Instagram accounts, planning their weekends, texting like the world was about to come to an end, doing only what many kids now routinely do.

Their energy and confidence can both be infectious, but there is still so much for them to learn – about the world and its current challenges, about gadgets and their limitations, about the deep and sometimes scary wonders of their “inner imagination.”   This is education by diverse stakeholders and cultures that the UN would do well to assume a larger role in ensuring.  This is education the potential of which schools themselves can only partially fulfill.

Those Hazy, Crazy Days of UN Summer:  Coaching our Common Future, Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Jun

This is perhaps my favorite time of year at the UN.  The days are long which make it possible to work hard and still find time for summer recreation. The pace of policy is furious, from the protection of civilians in conflict and the rights of persons with disabilities to eliminating illicit arms flows and securing adequate housing for the world’s homeless.  Moreover, during this season ours and other offices are filled with the eager and sometimes bewildered faces of younger people seeking a place at an overflowing (if sometimes undercooked) UN banquet.

Some of these young people have come to us before, but come they do year round with great talents, high hopes, and strong and direct links to cultures and communities far from New York – Cameroon and El Salvador, Afghanistan and France, Korea and Nigeria. They make their way here through word of mouth, to renew previous positive experiences, or through affiliations such as the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program.

They also represent diverse professional backgrounds, from journalism to engineering.   Some come to refresh their passion, others to find it.   But all understand the perils of the times and all seek to find ways to be more than spectators to the grand and sometimes horrific events that will shape their lives beyond personal technology, wedding vows and alma maters.

They are remarkable, each in their own way, and each in ways at least somewhat different than they have been defined by families and schools.   They share what they know with each other. They embrace values of attentiveness and hospitality. They are kind to security guards and café staff.  They accept the profound and almost unimaginable intellectual challenge of wrapping their heads around a system as complex and bewildering as the UN tends to be.

They are collectively more than we have the capacity to handle, and less than we have the responsibility to nurture and befriend.   We can’t do enough for them, but we try to do enough with them.

To be with this diverse group of people is to stare an uncertain future squarely in the eye.   How, they ask, can we care for ourselves and the world?   How do we fulfill the expectations of families and teachers and at the same time respond to urgent needs and circumstances that they have come to know in so many UN conference rooms?

The UN as many of you know does much with youth, a term which it loosely defines and which tends to prioritize packing large and enthusiastic rooms rather than inspiring deep personal connection.  Though we admire settings where large numbers of youth gather to communicate a common conviction, Global Action doesn’t have what it takes to pack a room.  But we can and will do more to keep personal connections alive, to help establish both the passion and the capacity to sustain the long journey towards a sustainable peace and planetary healing.

I often say to our colleagues that “it’s your turn now.”   I’ve had my turn.  My generation has had its turn.  We’re still in the game, but hopefully more as coaches than as competitors.   Whether we like it or not, our time on the pitch is running out.  Essentially, we’re now on “stoppage time.” It’s a younger persons’ game, summer or not.

And so this week a group of talented and eager people will fan out across the system – to treaty bodies and Security Council briefings, to elections in the General Assembly and discussions on sustainable development priorities in the Economic and Social Council; even to negotiations on transitioning non-self-governing territories (yes, they still exist).

And they will move through the building with kind and attentive looks on their faces, deeply concerned about the contents of their future — the impacts of migration, deadly droughts, and mass shootings — but also grateful for the opportunity to, in whatever way they are able, push the world in a more hopeful direction.

Last Friday, one of our younger colleagues from Georgia Tech University penned a blogpost in which she (as a soon-to-be engineer) shared her UN experiences and made a case for why people from careers far beyond the domain of international affairs should spend time in UN conference rooms.   Cathy (Xin) confessed to “haziness” and frustration in those “crazy” policy rooms, to be sure, but also lauded the means to stretch minds and extend worldviews, to see a bigger picture together with the many constituent parts that must function in sync if we are to survive this current, treacherous moment.

Of course, we at Global Action wish for far less global heartbreak, and we will do whatever we can while we’re here to clarify and then ease any complex policy transitions.   But in this challenging race, the current leadership has run about as far and fast as we can.  At least from our perspective, it’s probably time to pass the baton and then spend whatever energy we have left coaching the runners from the infield.

The Company We Keep: Discerning the Human Faces and Impacts behind the UN Policy Curtain, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Jun

As I write, this is World Environment Day as well as the beginning (Monday) of the holy season of Ramadan.  The latter is an opportunity for Muslims (especially) to separate for a time from the demands and distractions of the world, to “recover themselves” and their spiritual moorings.  The former is an opportunity for us to reflect and act on the many ways in which we continue, in part via those same demands and distractions, to undermine the capacity of the planet to support the life on which we directly depend.

This was a short work week in New York, but the UN for its part managed to offer up a menu of significant discussions that offered opportunities to bridge gaps between the policies we craft in this place and our levels of concern for the people responsible to implement such policies or who find themselves (for better or worse) on their receiving end.

This past Friday, the Security Council under France’s leadership took up the matter of conflict-related sexual abuse and human trafficking.   In that “open” meeting featuring the Secretary General and his SRSG Zainab Hawa Bangura, more than a few states were able to get beyond the data and threats to reflect on some of the ways that they can add value and draw closer (and genuine) connections to the needs of those affected by conflicts that, as Nigeria noted, we should do more to prevent in the first place.  In this context, it is important to note efforts by the UK, Angola and other states to highlight the responsibility to address local stigmas that tend to heap ridicule and shame, thereby magnifying the abuses that women and girls already endure within conflict settings.   Other states pointed to the deep traumas that conflict related abuse creates, with the Netherlands smartly urging states to consider ways to more effectively “accompany women and girls in their recovery from abuse.”

For its part the General Assembly held a useful all day consultation on conditions for and ways to prevent the “radicalizing” of children and youth, an issue that President of the General Assembly Lykketoft  wished “we did not have to discuss.”  DSG Eliasson commented on this “sad subject,” reminding the audience of mostly diplomats that “youth are subjects, not objects.” Therefore, he urged us to work with youth to resolve threats of extremist recruitment and not plan around them.

At the same time, as USG for Children and Armed Conflict Zerrougui noted during this session, we must do more to “drain the swamps” we have created, swamps full of enticements for youth, but swamps also characterized by “toxicity” emanating both from a loss of hope in a better future, and  from international responses that are too much about the military and too little about restoring family and community connections.  Young people will be responsible for this world soon enough and several delegations noted that we must do what we can now to ensure that their transitions to leadership and responsibility are secure, hopeful and inclusive.

But for us, perhaps the most interesting and personal engagement came during a meeting with NGOs and the Heads of the 10 UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies, committees of independent experts that monitor implementation of the international human rights treaties that define this pillar of the UN system and its core responsibilities to global constituents.  This monitoring is an essential confidence-building measure in a UN system that – excluding the Security Council in its best moments – has few ways to enforce state compliance with previously agreed principles of state conduct.

We were invited to this meeting because of our long and fruitful relationship with Paris-based FIACAT in its work to promote the abolition of torture and capital punishment around the world.   The meeting was chaired by Argentina’s Fabian Salvioli with whom we have had good but sadly infrequent contact over the past few years.

There were some probing questions posed to the Treaty Body heads by the relatively few NGOs in attendance, given the reality that the UN’s human rights system is not yet functioning in the way that encourages full-confidence by global citizens.  At this meeting, Salvioli acted mostly as facilitator, but his and other interventions were important – urging more clarity, specificity and follow-up regarding NGO interventions and recommendations and in languages to which Treaty Body members have ready access.   But he also noted, as did others of his colleagues, that their prior discussions with states were too often acrimonious, with accusations of bias in the interpretation and application of Human Rights treaties topping off what sounded like a lengthy listing of state complaints.

For our part, we wished to reinforce the pragmatic concerns of NGO colleagues – especially regarding the growing problem of government reprisals against human rights defenders – but our primary concern at this meeting was with the “quality of life” of those tasked with upholding state rights commitments.  It is clear to us, surely to others, that the task of managing Treaty Bodies is needlessly difficult.   Budgets and staffing are fragile.  Reporting is politically complex and often draining. States are sometimes resistant, even hostile, in part because they don’t really understand what Treaty Bodies do, why they are deemed essential to maintaining the quality of so many human lives (not to mention the credibility of the UN system).  Nor do states understand the largely voluntary sacrifices that these Treaty Body leaders make (partially in honor of the sacrifices of so many advocates in the field) to keep this essential but highly challenging system working and improving.  In many ways, this is a labor of love — and not nearly enough of that love is returned.

In the aforementioned GA discussion on youth and extremism, the Mayor of Rotterdam (NL) noted that the question we should be asking is not “who is to blame” for situations in the world but who is to take responsibility? Being the responsible party is becoming a bit of a lost art, but there are still many places in our societies, including within the UN, where people are able and willing to look beyond immediate policy tasks and statements to take the temperature of the systems of which they are part, the leaders tasked with maintaining and improving those systems, and the many people worldwide whose lives are needlessly undermined when we fail to make honest and thoughtful improvements in the systems they have come to rely on.

Early last week, the Security Council convened to renew the sanctions and peacekeeping (UNMISS) activities in the still-fragile state of South Sudan.  During that discussion, the South Sudan Ambassador made an appeal to all who seek a better life in his country and all who support the current transition in his country to more fervently seek “reconciliation and forgiveness” in response to many years of a violent and “bitter past.”

This appeal implies intensely personal work, sharing stories of pain and longing that are not to be “used” for partisan political purposes; accompanying the victimized, the betrayed and the simply-weary; and providing more tangible support to those who labor on behalf of a more just world.  Thankfully, behind the “policy curtain” is a wealth of human capacity, even empathy, that we are only now starting to tap and that promises to shorten the distance from bitter to reconciled.

The Young and the Restless:   Seeking a Wider Gaze at UN Headquarters, Dr. Robert Zuber

17 Apr

It was a chaotic and, in some ways, historic week at the UN with major sessions on the threats of terrorism, data-related work by the Commission on Population and Development, special discussions on “drugs and the death penalty” and “the rule of law” (the latter with a focus on children and juveniles), the release of the UN World Water Development Report, assessment of the peace and governance implications of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, and of course unprecedented “interviews” of eight candidates for the position of UN secretary-general moderated by current General Assembly president Lykketoft.  (For background on the interviews, including candidate “vision statements,” visit http://www.un.org/pga/70/sg/.)

Amidst all these high level events were a few more “intimate” discussions that raised issues significant for us and other non-governmental organizations. For instance, this past Tuesday, Ambassador Laura Elena Flores Herrera of Panama headlined a breakfast discussion on “Rethinking the Role of Civil Society in an Evolving UN System,” The breakfast was co-sponsored by the Baha’i international community (probably the most generous of the NGOs around UN headquarters) and the International Movement ATD Fourth World (one of the more “grounded” groups around these parts).

Ambassador Flores Herrera has been a breath of fresh air since assuming her current post in late 2014 and she had some important things to share about the ever-shifting role of NGOs in the UN system.  While (rightly) praising NGOs for their contributions to cementing the 2030 development agenda, she also urged a “widening of our optics” when it comes to partnership building within and beyond our common policy community.  Many of our existing partnerships, she noted, have been disappointing at best, leading some to now distrust the whole notion of partnership building altogether.

Of course none of us can solve global problems alone, not even the largest government or the most well- funded and heavily-branded non-governmental entity.   The question isn’t whether we will have partnerships, but who will they be with and on what terms?   Will they be defined more by generosity and respect or competition and predation? Will they open space for others or shut down helpful alternatives to our often narrow agendas?  Will we as NGOs continue to answer the call when governments (often cavalierly) request more civil society involvement, or will we yield the floor to those many groups worldwide who have important things to share and little opportunity to do so, in part because we in New York so often take up more than our share of policy space?  Is our commitment to a diverse and thoughtful engagement with our system of global governance sufficient to overcome our “duty” to impress our funders and imprint our brand names in every possible conference room?

In sorting through these and related questions, the Ambassador’s notion of “widening optics” was most helpful.   It calls to mind our collective attention deficits, our apparent need to share our own “positions” when we could be serving as the eyes and ears of a vast, rich policy community that, for no particularly good reason, will never be invited to sit in the places we do. It calls to mind our emotional limitations, the deficits of transparency and clarity that we tolerate in ourselves all while critiquing this in our institutions and those who run them.   It calls to mind cognitive dysfunctions that manifest themselves as hyper vigilance around mission statements and policy preferences while willfully ignoring other policy urgencies attached to those preferences, not to mention the many communities worldwide still desperately seeking policy relief.

And it calls to mind our collective discomfort with having our assumptions challenged by new and perhaps even “naïve” voices, persons young and old who perhaps do not represent UN policy interests but, in their own way, are perfectly fine representatives of human interests, interests that as most of us recognize are now facing considerable strain.   These are the voices that can at least begin to reboot some of our acquired UN habits, reminding us that a deeper engagement with these strains on the world generally lies beyond the limits of our organizational preoccupations.

Two stories this week illustrated this “reboot” for me:

The first involved a New York City middle school girl whose class, thanks to a colleague of ours, came to visit us this week, ostensibly to hear about issues in Asia.   The group wasn’t particularly interested in Asia as it turns out.  They were kids – mostly distracted, peer and smart-phone preoccupied, and seemingly so anxious about their lives.  At the end of our session, the girl came up to me and asked if she could make a YouTube video with Global Action.  About what, I asked?  “I want to teach people how to love,” she replied.   When I mentioned to her that it is perhaps less important to teach about love than to practice it in the world, she agreed but said, “I want to do this anyway. I think it matters.”

The second story came about during the question and answer portion of the Secretary-General candidate-interview with UNESCO’s Irina Bokova.   After fielding many, mostly predictable questions from diplomats, a boy (perhaps 16) from Brazil appeared on the video screen behind the dignitaries and asked, “If you aren’t selected for the job, how will you continue to help change the world? Will you still care about us?”

At that point, delegates sitting in that UN chamber let out a collective but muted chuckle.  The diplomats, as it turns out, are pretty anxious about the world as well, and they have all lived through their share of disappointment. But most of them, I gather, continue to believe that a “position of prominence” is needed in order to make change.  You must become the head of a mission, or UN office, or large NGO in order to make a difference.  The boy apparently didn’t care much about that. Indeed, he was suggesting something else:  that what we really need to make change, even more than fancy “positions,” are big hearts, flexible minds, and a passion to leave the world in better shape than we found it, no matter what obstacles – self-inflicted and not — lie in our path.

Teaching others to practice love better.  Persevering through inevitable failure and disappointment to help heal the world.  These reminders from sometimes restless youth are surely outcomes we would associate with a widening optics, reminders that point to the true, core metrics by which we govern and assess the value of our work in the world, even more than large funders or professional recognition.

Doing more and better than we can ever be compensated for or even recognized for, keeping our eyes open, our brains engaged and our hearts generous – this is perhaps more than anyone could ask of us. But it is also less than we will need if we are to contribute – fully and successfully — to a world that a girl from Manhattan and a boy from Brazil can truly believe in.