Tag Archives: youth

Voices Raised: Lessons from protests around the world, by Nikkon Balial

26 Nov

Editor’s Note:  Nikkon came to us via Central European University and the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program.  An Indian citizen, Nikkon has been working as an intern (for Foreign Policy Interrupted) highlighting the work of extraordinary but under-the-radar women writers in peace and security. During her limited time with us, Nikkon has thrown herself into a wide range of UN issues while keeping her eye on global trends beyond this building.  The following post is the fruit of her attentions. 

Almost half the world is seemingly out on the streets protesting their leaders, flawed systems and the failed promises. These protests may not be having the exact same demands, but they have more things in common than meets the naked eye. These protests expose the ever-increasing rich and the poor divide along with the growing gap in demands between the economically developed and under-developed countries. These protests across the world teach us lessons about the overwhelming youth involvement, changing definitions of power and contrasting demands. They prove that the lens which we have been using to analyze global dynamics must be thoroughly re-evaluated. The changing global dynamics are trying to tell us something and if we are not realizing that already, then, what are we paying attention to? The protests demonstrate the gaps and we must detect them first to begin finding solutions thereafter.

The notion of peace journalism developed by Lynch and Galtung concentrates on how the consequences of war are more important than understanding how war is actually fought. What happens after the war is over is often where coverage is most required. But what happens when civilians revolt against the state leaders? Is covering the war within the state more important or is it the consequences of the protest and the conflict, which is paramount? In most cases, they are not independent of each other. They happen together, sometimes with increased momentum and at other times leaders get lucky and the unanimity frizzles out! The world has been torn into protests recently, From Hong Kong to Chile, Guinea to Lebanon, from Bolivia to Georgia and Iraq to Ecuador. People have all united against a range of issues comprising of rising corruption, economic inequalities, democratic rights and popular resentment against leaders. The protesters have mobilized seemingly without strong leaders dictating to them. They have gathered and protested for rights they believe they deserved.

Closer to my home, what led to the protests at the Indian academic institution Jawaharlal Nehru University? The students of the institution gathered on the streets to protest the price hike at the University and demanded education to remain a public good, accessible to all. The youth leading these large protests has become a striking phenomenon across the world. Recently, in Czech Republic, the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution became an occasion to ask their Prime Minister to separate trade from politics. The protesters who were mostly students and young people, saw their populist Prime Minister as a threat to democracy and wanted him to step down. Hong Kong, even more so, demonstrates the truest spirit of the young. The youth have proven their perseverance by carrying forward the symbol of anger against Chinese control, steadily over months. These examples clearly demonstrate the perseverance of young people to want change and act towards the change. The young are flooding the streets massively, reinstating student involvement in mass demonstrations. They are relentless, committed and ready to question authorities who they believe have been unfair, across cultures and countries. The youth have remained engaged despite authority’s backlash. It is not a choice that can be exercised by the leaders in accordance with their whim and fancies.

Protests have erupted in every continent of the world. They have started with one issue and soon has used that to express their overwhelming discontent with the entire system. Some have achieved the resignation of leaders, while others have earned promise of change and reforms. But, an important lesson that came out of them is that democracy is a primary need for the privileged while social safety net policies are what people in the under-developed countries require. The difference between rich and the poor is not the only gap widening, there is also a clear demarcation emerging between economically developed and under-developed countries. The protests in the developed regions are raising their heads for democracy and the loosening of state control. In Czech Republic, people want their Prime Minister to maintain the true values of democracy. In Georgia too, the people gathered in front of the parliament to protest the parliamentarians who could not pass an electoral reform bill. Hong Kong students have demanded democratic rights, lesser control by China and their freedom of speech and expression, while the economically weak are flaring up to demand for subsidies and lower prices. They are roaring in the streets, calling out for basic resources to survive. These examples clearly show how the developed countries and economically advanced countries have people demanding for democracy, their right to assemble and their right to uphold democratic principles through governance. This is almost in contrast to the demands being made by Latin American, African and Middle Eastern countries. The protesters in Iran have risen against the price hike in petrol while Chileans have gathered to protest the hike in public transport prices, poor medical facilities and low pension rates. Much like Chile, the Lebanese people also started gathering on the streets after the introduction of new taxes by the government. Soon, the price hikes, electricity shortages and economic crisis became an overwhelming part of the protests. Inequality, inflation and the inability to afford the basic standards of living is more concerning to the people of under-developed and developing countries. Their demand for low prices, safety net systems, and subsidies are evidently visible.

Another takeaway from the new wave of protests is the contrasting use of technology. Digitalization and social media play a very significant role in the protests of today. The same technology is used in contrasting ways by leaders and the working lower middle-class masses who are protesting in these countries. Where, the leaders have curtailed civil liberties and formed narratives as per their convenience for the people to believe, the people have risen against their leaders together to protest, using the same social media platforms. Protests in Lebanon, Chile, Hong Kong have spread using social media and digital platforms. The rage has accumulated on the screens and brought the people to the streets. This impact of digitalization is bringing people of underprivileged classes in developing and post-colonial countries closer, making them stand up for their own rights.

These protests also bring to light the need to re-evaluated definitions and systems of power. The power holders in countries have remained unaccountable and pursued policies without really addressing the needs of the people. This is part of the problem of being blindly influenced by western systems and narratives. Countries like Chile, Lebanon, Ecuador have suffered for decades. Power is not static and leaders across the world cannot expect to maintain power the same way they did for decades, by following a single model and a single model of understanding policy benefits and needs. It is time for the priorities of leaders to change and change in accordance to the needs of particular countries. It is also time that they start viewing their people’s needs not with the same lens as developed countries do. Policies need to address specific concerns of local populations and not follow the principle of ‘one size fits all.’

Lastly, the protests prove that wealth and economic reforms do not have much to do with addressing inequality in post-colonial developing countries. Ecuador, Lebanon, Chile, Iraq and Guinea need policies not based on models of developed western economies but policies with safety nets and supporting benefits. Despite funds from IMF and World Bank making the economic development index of a countries rise, it is in turn doing nothing to address the problem of rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. A conflict demanding the end to class differentiation has arisen and the real vote bank, the masses, the working population, is raising their voices louder than ever before. The demand from the working class and lower middle class might not exactly be the way Marx envisioned it, but identities are being manifested on the streets to protest policies that have stripped people of their capacity to meet basic needs. Better economic models based on positive differentiation and country history need to be considered. The notion of ‘one size fits all’ has served the world no good.

In this era of right-wing leaders, autocracy and compromised human rights, it is no longer a one-sided game. Leaders may have gotten more powerful but the people in the streets are not far behind. Post-colonial structures demand a re-calibrated system with a priority on safety nets beyond the focus on rights and liberty. It is time to detect the change that the world is currently undergoing, and it will be too late for all of us unless we address these changes with greater scrutiny.

Tuesday’s Child: Leadership to Inspire Next Generations, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Jan

Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon. E.M. Forster

We must desire to see people rising in life, rather than looking for ways to contribute to their fall. Bamigboye Olurotimi

Youth and elder meet where the pressure of the future meets the presence of the past. Michael Meade

He had a courtly way of exclaiming over whatever was exclaimable in people – especially kids. Susan Cain

The UN sprang back to life this week with several key events and with the faces of diplomats and secretariat staff looking fresher and more eager than they did a few short weeks ago.

Our own interns, with one notable exception, have largely scattered, soon to be replaced by others.   Some of what took place this week would have been really good for all of them to experience, the enthusiasm of a system that has taken some lumps over the past years, led by people who are determined to make that system not only work more effectively, but work for all.

One of the things that we ask of the young people who pass through our program is that they give a good-faith effort to understand the UN in all its policy facets – from the Security Council and the work of the GA committees to specialized bodies focused on the rights of women, the care of children, the health of oceans and agriculture, the sustainability of cities, and much more. At the same time, we ask them to evaluate (not judge) the personalities sitting at conference room podiums, to interrogate which UN leadership is most believable, which is keeping his/her eyes focused on the issues of greatest significance for the planet, but also has a plan for how to enable and promote meaningful and sustainable change among the UN’s diverse constituencies.

The rationale for these requests is twofold.  First, we want interns and fellows to, in essence, rub the interests and priorities that they come to us with up against the priorities and interests of a system that is now weighing in at so many significant policy levels.  While the UN is still some ways from being a viable learning community, learning opportunities abound, both diverse and of high quality.  Indeed, in much of the 20 years of Global Action’s existence, we have “mined” the many nuggets of learning available throughout UN system – its security crises and cutting-edge side events, its pandemic responses and gender justice sessions, as the best means available for keeping our minds focused and our vision sharp.

Some of the most interesting events have also been a bit of a welcome surprise – the Arria Formula meetings organized by Security Council members outside the Council’s formal structure, the impact-filled side events such as a fall briefing on the crisis of the Aral Sea region presided over by the president of Uzbekistan, or this past Monday’s multi-stakeholder discussion on finance for development presided over by the highly-regarded and able-listening president of the Economic and Social Council, Ambassador Rhonda King.

Given the vast and high level learning opportunities that abound in UN conference rooms and to which they have access, many of our interns leave the UN with a different passion than they entered with.  They take advantage of the “front row seat” provided for them to review their potential contributions over the frustrations and opportunities that punctuate virtually every UN policy discussion.  Do I want to contribute to policy or to direct humanitarian response?  Do I want to assist with development finance, with humanitarian risk assessment, with efforts to control our hunger for new and improved weapons?

But the second aspect of this UN journey is equally important, the assessment of the many “players” in the UN system who set agendas and guide negotiations, whose voices have an outsized importance in terms of how the UN directs its internal energies and engages external audiences.

Our interns, with few exceptions, have not been successful in cultivating relationships with diplomats and UN officials that go beyond the merely “professional.”  Thus, there have been few opportunities for them to experience what we would consider to be “mentoring” in UN contexts beyond commitments to their growth and well-being available through our own office and “community of peers.”  The balances that constitute mentoring in the best sense – a combination of character and skills development made possible through an invitation to explore the struggles and successes of life “up close,” is elusive for many in this policy space.

And yet there are occasions when bits of personality leak through the formalities of UN protocol, giving all of us – but especially young people – glimpses of human agency and possibility in these challenging times.   The interns might not know in any detail what makes UN leaders tick, or more importantly, the stories that lies behind their commitments, the life circumstances that gave rise to a career of service in multilateral settings. But despite these personal limitations, they can make observations of value in a time of great uncertainty.  After all, young people are gazing towards a future that can spin in a variety of directions, some of them quite discouraging.  Does UN leadership grasp this discouragement or even share it?  And beyond discouragement itself, which figures at the front of the room truly inspire?  Who is really listening to others?  Who respects contributions beyond the status limitations of diplomatic protocol? Who are the leaders grasping the momentousness of the times, calling us to cooperatively focus our intellectual, moral, diplomatic and technical energies on the problems that threaten our existence?

This past Tuesday, two events sought to affirm the values of multilateralism, inspire stakeholders to higher levels of collaborative engagement, and focus energies on the problems of our own making that threaten to grind human progress to a halt.  The first of these was a handover of leadership of the Group of 77 (G-77) and China from Egypt to Palestine.  President Abbas made the trip to New York to appear on the dais with senior UN officials and the Egyptian Foreign Minister to affirm the importance of the G-77 to the fair and able functioning of the UN development system, integrating what is promoted here as “south-south” cooperation.    Both President Abbas and the president of the UN General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés of Ecuador, underscored the importance of the G-77 to creating conditions of greater “global solidarity” from which we can tackle poverty and inequalities, climate change and “decent work,” these and other problems critical to a healthier and more just world.

In the afternoon president Espinosa Garcés herself took center stage, outlining priorities for her term in a voice that was both resolute and thoughtful.  She cited the current “turbulent” challenges that require all member states “to reaffirm their fidelity to the values of the Charter and the enduring value of multilateralism.”  She was gracious in thanking states and stakeholders for the many contributions they are already making to a more just and sustainable world.  And she put forth an appropriately ambitious agenda for change – from “fact-based” migration governance and eliminating ocean plastics, to the full inclusion of persons with disabilities and the “common cause” of ending poverty and gross inequalities — that communicated both the scope of her concern for the planet and her willingness to use every “soft power” tool at her disposal (including the convening of a breathtaking range of high-level events) to leverage additional collaborative change.

It fell to President Abbas, earlier on this Tuesday, to remind the large diplomatic audience that “people are the real treasure of nations.” Our people (especially young people) need to be inspired to “rise in life” by leaders who demonstrate both vision and compassion, who understand the challenges of the times and more specifically that such challenges are unlikely to be resolved successfully without the urgent and respectful engagement of all of us.  On this Tuesday, the UN demonstrated to all its stakeholders, young and old alike, that it is getting that message.

Exit Memo: The UN’s Struggle to Inspire Next Generations, Dr. Robert Zuber

5 Aug

Rising Plant

The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. Barbara Kingsolver

You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming. Pablo Neruda

It’s the children the world almost breaks who grow up to save it. Frank Warren

At what point do you give up – decide enough is enough? There is only one answer really. Never. Tabitha Suzuma

A great hope fell; You heard no noise; The ruin was within. Emily Dickinson

Global Action has had another group of wonderful interns this summer – smart, engaged, funny, diverse.   Thanks to all of you who have provided support or hospitality to make it possible for them to experience all of the potential and contrariness that is the contemporary UN.

One of the questions that gets posed to them before they commence their wanderings around the building is the same one that greets them at the end – has your time at the UN made you more or less hopeful about your future?

It is not a frivolous charge.  Our interns are not here to participate in “youth events” where older people talk about younger ones as though they are the “saviors” of something or other beyond the capacity of the people who raised, educated and subsidized them.   Ours are not here to “save” but to discern, to find their place and even their passion by studying up close the institution that is still largely synonymous with multilateral progress, an institution that holds global policy conversations that could hardly be held beyond Turtle Bay, but an institution that also promises more than it often can deliver and even, at times, impedes the hopefulness that can sustain a commitment to a safer, healthier world.

My groups of interns can at times be a suspicious bunch, investing energy in self-protection and promotion that could be spent taking risks – connecting and exploring beyond comfort zones.   The world that barely bothers to welcome their adulthood, presenting issues and threats that they attempt to discern for many hours a week at UN headquarters, certainly reinforces a protective posture.   Between vicious attacks on journalists and plastics filling our oceans to unresolved violence in Yemen and Central African Republic and climate-induced drought, food insecurity and forced migration, there is plenty to suggest that the future of this generation and those to follow is likely to be a bit of a rough ride, surely rougher than it needs to be.

And so these young people who come to survey the UN policy premises with passions to identify and hope to live out “under its roof,” these young people need to know that this system is committed to more than “involving youth” in its discussions but that the governments which are the UN’s priority understand that they are holding levers to a future that they, themselves, will likely not be around to experience.   They need tangible reminders that the UN and its member states can do more – will do more – than simply kick problems down the road where solutions will only  become more elusive.

One of the venues that alternate excites and frustrates our young people the most is the Security Council, what we have described elsewhere as the most political space within a highly political building.   The issues that draw the interns to the Council chamber are often the ones most resistant to resolution, in part because of the way the Council conducts its business. Briefings are carefully composed and often drained of urgency.  Statements by Council members put the best possible face on national interest — which it is not at all clear they are seated on the Council to promote. Such statements often leave out key information, including information regarding the culpability of Council members for some of the very same security violations they are mandated to address.   The statements read in chamber are too-often redundant, more than occasionally toothless, and rarely (if ever) concede the points made by policy challengers, accept national responsibility or offer apologies.

In what is arguably the single most important room in the world, Council members too often choose to “go small,” to treat the chamber as a forum for branding national positions rather than a deliberative body with a mandate to deliver binding (and enforceable) decisions to bring the gravest threats to international peace and security to heel.

For some of the interns, this week’s Council discussion on Yemen, presided over by the UK, was their last attempt to find some reassurance that the powers presiding over this room have a plan and the commitment to “resolve” a conflict such as this one that has already claimed many thousands of victims, ushered in a catastrophic epidemic of disease and food insecurity, and where some of the world’s pre-eminent arms merchants have more than a bit of context-specific blood on their hands.

There was some good news: UN Special Envoy Griffiths, who has been given some credit for diverting a widely-feared, full-scale assault on the Yemeni port of Hodeidah, announced the launching of a Geneva-based negotiating process in the hope of ending this long-running conflict.  “We know what can work,” he insisted, noting that “relationship building is key to reaching a permanent political settlement.”

For his part, UNOCHA’s Ging ticked off elements of the ever-growing humanitarian emergency in and beyond Hodeidah while rightly highlighting the extraordinary courage of aid workers seeking to bind the gaping wounds that the international community – and especially this Council – has so far failed to stop.   “Conflict affects every aspect of life in Yemen,” Ging noted, and the impacts from the unresolved political strife, incessant (and often reckless) air attacks, and what Ging described as “harassment” of aid workers have together generated trauma and “threats to dignity” that can and might well last a lifetime.

While the interns seemed to be anticipating high-energy and urgent responses, they were treated to a bevy of subdued and even off-point interventions by Council members. The US Ambassador alleged a “new phase” in the Yemen conflict as though the recent Hodeidah port bombings were the first attacks in Yemen to raise the specter of war crimes.   Kuwait, which in previous meetings, described its national position as standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the Saudis, condemned “material losses” from Houthi missile strikes on Saudi territory while seeming to ignore the vastly larger impacts from coalition air assaults.  Other members lamented the growing humanitarian crisis as well as the extention of the conflict into the Red Sea without offering any firm analysis of its causes or suggetions for relief.

Peru did raise the grave threats to children from coalition air strikes and Kazakhstan noted the urgency of trust-building if negotiations are to have any viable future, trust which will be harder to come by as the Yemeni Ambassador was accusing the Houthis of “genocide” while denying any coalition involvement in the recent Hodeidah bombings.  Under this cloud of acrimony and half-truths, Kazakhstan’s concrete suggestion to form a “de-escalation” zone to help protect water and other civilian infrastructure from further attack seemed akin to a tiny plant emerging from an otherwise parched landscape.

Perhaps the fault here is mine for insisting that a Council meeting on Yemen would be an appropriate exit for young people who have mostly given the UN building their best attentions, who came looking for hope that this often parched policy soil can sprout new life, who came seeking encouragement to help them hold fast to their still-evolving commitments to make a better world.   For all our limitations, we try never to forget on whose behalf we are working, whose “turn” it is to clean up messes and set the world on a more sustainable policy course.  As Council members craft their next iterations of national positions on security matters, we urge greater consideration for the “roof” under which the hopes and aspirations of new generations can find their energy and inspiration.

Community Chest:  Escaping our Custodial Limitations, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Jun

Community II

Heroes were ordinary people who knew that even if their own lives were impossibly knotted, they could untangle someone else’s.  Jodi Picoult

The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people. Wendell Berry

I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort where we overlap. Ani DiFranco

As long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. Michael Pollan

The UN was a place of diverse and competing interests this week.   A contentious Security Council meeting with the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on Darfur and the withdraw of the United States from the Human Rights Council was balanced in part by positive news on efforts to develop a Global Compact on Refugees and regulate the ammunition indispensable to weapons-related violence. There was also the welcome sight of Yoga mats filling the UN’s North Lawn, persons sharing a collective moment of harmony within an often fragmented UN policy space now surrounded by a seemingly more politically polarized host country.

Much of our own time this week was taken up in discussions with NGOs and diplomats about our collectively shrinking space for access and dialogue, about the mean spirited-ness of so much of our political discourse, about the limited vision guiding our pursuits of international justice and communities safe from the threat of armed violence, and of course about the devastating rights and trauma implications of children separated from parents at the southern US border.

The weekend provided little relief from a week of difficult issues. Early this morning, while waiting for the start of the World Cup, I endured a series of commercials for cars, movies and more that, collectively at least, glorified materialism and crass violence, and reinforced the idea that the world is a fundamentally dangerous place full of evil villains who want to take what we have, interrupting our safe lives and traditional values with multiple iterations of threat.  Our only hope, it seems, is to buy our way out of trouble and, failing that, to support leaders or super heroes that will somehow keep these “dangers” out of our personal and family business.

These images can be relentless.  It takes considerable effort to avoid them and even greater effort to counteract their influences.   We have collectively accepted the “logic” of a world full of people trying to take what we have, trying to hurt and abuse us, trying to undermine the economic and social benefits to which we are “surely” entitled.   Some manage to scheme their way around this pervasive perception of trouble.  Others gather up “their own” in the psychological equivalent of the “circle of wagons.”  In either case, the reaction feeds the narrative rather than seeks to transform it.

The world can certainly be a dangerous place, but not mostly because of migrants crossing our borders but because of leadership that promises unity while preaching division, that promises peace while “arming to the teeth,” and that promises prosperity in the short term by choking off sustainable options for the children who will survive us.  This is not a problem that can be laid solely at the feet of any particular administration but rather at the feet of each of us, our deepening preference for abstraction and distraction over community and communion.  We prefer, as Wendell Berry used to say, to own a neighbors farm than have a neighbor, and we have all the tools and language we need to see such ownership as a savvy investment opportunity while failing to also see it as another nail in the coffin of communities who haven’t yet forgotten how to look neighbors in the eye and work out strategies together for their common prosperity.

The problems that we address through the UN will never be solved unless we change the terms of engagement.  We don’t apologize for our errors of speech or policy.  We don’t acknowledge the valid points of others.  We don’t take direct responsibility for the messes incurred on our watch.  There tends to be too much acrimony “on camera” and not enough vision off it.  One of the loveliest moments of this week at the UN, for instance, was when the Dutch Ambassador and ICC prosecutor walked through the Security Council after a difficult session on Darfur to a group sitting next to us – victims of Darfur violence that been brought into the UN from the Hague in part to assess and encourage prospects for justice.  The ambassador and prosecutor proceded to greet all the victims, thanking them for their presence and pledging that their quest for justice would not in any way be deterred by the Council rhetoric they just witnessed.

But such gestures are too few and far between.  In the US and some other states, we are now, according to some commentators at least, engaged in something akin to a “soft civil war,” a “war” where our relentless levels of criticism of people we barely know and policies we incompletely understand accomplish little other than harden positions and up the ante on hostility.  We know that when we are treated unfairly — criticism that crosses the ad hominem line — we tend to retreat rather than engage, to double-down on even our worst impulses rather than give in to our critics.  Indeed, a recent NY Times article that says support for the US president remains surprisingly stable, in part because people feel the need to defend themselves from what they see as a relentless assault on their social values and political choices. This is an entirely predictable result.  Acrimony against those who don’t “support” us only breeds more of the same.   And retreat can easily become the precursor to retribution, as we have seen over and over in this world.

There was a feed on my twitter earlier today from an otherwise “policy savvy” source claiming that anyone who supports president Trump on migration is “no longer human.”   I would urge this person to “hold that thought” when her adversaries make their own, similar, equally-abstract, human-denying accusations — which they will, which they are.  This goes beyond the often-empowering humor and fair-minded critiques directed at leadership to an ascription of “evil” that we are now much too quick to share, based on illusions we are too slow to own for ourselves.

The solution to the vast anger and mistrust building up in our “kingdoms of abstraction” will not likely be found in our consensus policy resolutions, nor in our public institutions, but in our communities.   When I asked a diverse group of young teens who gathered in the city hall of Arlington MA to meet with me early last week what things they were most concerned about, they mentioned a range of issues from climate change to gun violence.  They lamented all of the acrimony that they witness in the adult world (acrimony adults would not tolerate in children), all of the threats levied with and without weapons.  But mostly they wanted to find a voice, a chance to make the world they will soon inherit a bit healthier, more peaceful, even more predictable.

We talked together about the importance of “belonging somewhere,” of knowing a place and caring for a place, of allowing our senses and not our Instagram accounts to determine how we utilize our time, what we care about, how we protect and enhance the places we have come to love; but also how we share, resolve conflict, invest in others, promote mutual well-being.

When one of the teens asked me in return, “what keeps you up at night?” I responded that global challenges they did not create but will simply not be able to ignore keep me up at night: the plastics that fill our oceans, the mistrust that undermines our political discourse, the “remote” weapons that destroy from ever-greater distances, the “launch pads” for youth that so many of our communities have become, albeit with all the focus on the launch and virtually none on the “pads.”

This toxic brew of abstraction and suspicion that we have been so busy crafting is filled with potential peril for youth.  We are simply losing touch with each other, perhaps for a time, hopefully not for good.   Little positive can come of this distance. Future governments will inherit gridlock of our own making, and the next generation of adults will face the daunting task of opening the ears of people already pushed far into a corner in what might well, for them at least, have become a “diminished world.”

Thankfully, there are still moments of grace in our policy centers, still communities filled with young people determined to practice at local levels the skills and character we will desperately need at global ones.  We must not waste this opportunity to help them along.

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

689982Culture

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.