2020: A Year Like None Other, for Us and for Many

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As we head into the homestretch of this year of pandemic and political instability, it is high time to reflect a bit on work that we have been doing longer than we imagined, but also that has taken longer to achieve its various peace and security objectives than we might have hoped.

Due in part to the arrival of COVID-19, our plans and priorities have scattered to the wind like so many others: interns have returned home or huddled in their own safe spaces, meetings have taken a dramatic and often unsatisfying virtual turn, recalling for us that old Aretha Franklin song, “Whose Zoomin’ Who?” Social contacts have been sharply limited, needless deaths from infection have been swept under a rug of relative indifference, and disinformation about the pandemic has been folded into a widening worldview devoted principally to conspiracy and mistrust.  In response, we at Global Action have chosen a more provocative response, at least in the short term, as authoritarian movements in the US and elsewhere threaten both domestic democratic processes and the efficacy of the multilateral institutions with which we continue to engage. 

This has not been a good time for us individually and collectively, but COVID did not cause all of the chaos and deprivation for which it is now, conveniently we would maintain, being held responsible. The pandemic has of course served to roll back progress on some of our sustainable development obligations, including on gender equality, children’s access to education, and on food security which has been almost completely fractured in some parts of the world with almost unimaginable consequences.

But as we have seen for many years with our own eyes, the world had been suffering for some time as gross economic inequalities have expanded, ocean storms and other climate impacts have worsened, atrocity crimes have continued to be committed with impunity by both state and non-state actors, nuclear weapons continue to be modernized, and biodiversity loss continues headlong towards extinction levels with grave implications for both our already challenged agricultural sector and the integrity of the indigenous cultures who know how to protect eco-systems if we would only let them do so.

As some folks at the UN are fond of saying, COVID didn’t create our problems so much as it pulled the curtain on them, revealing us for what we have become, a people who are more gullible and self-preoccupied, less kind and attentive than we might have imagined ourselves to be. Certainly we are not all that our contemporary preoccupations with self-branding suggest we are.

Thus, it remains a core tenet of our work, one often dismissed by the policy community, that better institutions and policy commitments require us to be better people. Even within bureaucracies that shape our aspirations and emotions more than they are shaped by us, there are still corners where fertile minds and warm hearts can avoid the traps of ambition and isolation and help restore the trust of constituents who, if we would only absorb this truth and rise to the occasion, need our reassuring competence and compassion perhaps as much as ever.

In my previous “home page” communication, I called attention to some of the uncertainties around Global Action’s future. We’ve been tilting at these multilateral windmills for over a generation and, with your loyal support, we have been able to clarify issues for diplomats and offer advice and counsel to civil society leaders in other global regions. We have also mentored many young people who have taken what they’ve learned here and done things with that learning we could never have accomplished ourselves. Despite the current pandemic challenges, we continue to search for alternatives to a complete shutdown, including possible fiscal sponsorship for Global Action and the draw-down of my own, often scattered leadership and its replacement by younger, fresher faces.

I’m not one to believe that non-profits, especially small ones, should continue to exist beyond their shelf life. But the place in this world that we have cultivated has become a kind of sacred trust, a trust that has been nourished over a generation by your gifts of wisdom and treasure, a trust that has helped launch many dozens of remarkable young people into an uncertain world that needs their skills and hopefulness more than it currently recognizes.   Whatever happens over the rest of this year, we will not stop our involvement in resolving a bevy of current threats regardless of how the forms and modalities of that service might change.

But change they will. I know that one or more of the many young people who have crossed our path over the years could do something special with the many assets of Global Action that are now a bit too dependent on me, but which could surely flourish in younger hands. Even more than responding to the many emergencies on our radar, more than helping new, hopeful initiatives find their footing, putting more responsibility in younger hands will be our primary task going forward.  We have assets to protect and expand, assets which you readers and supporters have done much to help develop and share, but there is also younger leadership to invest those assets in.   It is their turn now, and we want that turn to be as kind and effective as it can possibly be.   I have little doubt that you share this aspiration.