November 2011 Journal Letter - QUNO Geneva
Related pages: Journal Letters
Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO), Geneva
As I sit in Geneva there is much I want to tell you. I have joined the Quaker UN Office as Programme Assistant in Global Economic Issues, and find it hard to think of a more welcoming place to work. The novelty of Lake Geneva still has not worn off, and any gaps left by Yorkshire tea and Scottish shortbread have been quickly filled by Swiss cheese and chocolate.
The month of my arrival to QUNO was filled with unique opportunities. I paddled from academic conferences to NGO meetings, a Human Rights Council session and the WTO public forum, proudly reeling off my freshly learnt acronyms. A two day conference led by Ekta Parishad provided a platform for grassroots organisations working towards land rights for the rural poor. Here, ‘development’ was talked about as progress centered on social concerns and human objectives. The distribution of power, equality of wealth and preservation of biodiversity were brought forward as logical and valuable foundations for analysis. In the same week, academics gathered to exchange research on using biodiversity and economics for conservation. By speaking the language of policy makers it is possible to bring ecological concerns into mainstream decision making. Many of the researchers work closely with both ecologists and economists, creating bridges between two major disciplines.
I was impressed and inspired. But these rooms full of ideas also made me want to better understand the interactions between the various communities across the UN landscape. The UN institutions, all clumped together near the Swiss Alps, seemed far apart in the assumptions and values they live out every working day. I had imagined they would all have the same socially accepted arguments of what constitutes human welfare and wellbeing, (what exactly is it we are all striving for?). I was naive indeed. I have lived with the Karen Hill Tribe on the Thai-Burmese border and with an Aboriginal community in remote South Australia, but neither of these experiences seemed as strange or inconsistent to me as one day at the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) public forum. One workshop discussed the need to bring international human rights law into the world of trade law. There are many challenges; I feel few outside voices have yet infiltrated the WTO. It dawned on me that at some point, they may have confused the means with the end. Yes, free international trade has value in progressing countless standards of living and creating economic and social opportunities, but it is a vehicle for improving people’s quality of life, rather than an end in itself. Or did I miss a lesson? As unhindered trade and investment flows deplete the natural capital of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples, and the 500 million living in forests, the impact is not being felt here in Geneva. Here we are insulated, huddled at the centre of a policy world full of computers and disposable coffee cups.
The richly contradictory world views of economists, NGO workers, lawyers, ecologists and policy makers would perhaps create insightful dialogue for everyone involved, only not everyone is always involved. One example is QUNO’s current work on seeds and sustainability. The current intellectual property system has been founded on a very particular European-based industrial farming system, but needs now to respond to the needs of the majority of the world’s farmers in developing countries. Currently, farmers in some countries risk violating international law if they save and exchange seeds for another harvest. It is as if rights holders’ intellectual property arrived before plants’ impolite ability to reproduce. We are working to uphold a dialogue where a multitude of voices can be heard. (Last time I checked, everyone has to eat). More equitable governance of food systems will help create space for small-scale agriculture and flexible plant breeding that can respond to changing climatic conditions. Only food systems that allow farmers access to seeds will have a chance of ensuring food security in the era of climate change, as well as ensure respect of local knowledge and livelihoods.
Please do not think these are hopeless thoughts. Quite the contrary. It is impossible not to be inspired by the many people working tirelessly to achieve viable, livable alternatives to such current UN failures. It is great to work alongside people who have been striving for peace and justice for years, and I feel truly privileged to have this opportunity.
My first few months here have also strengthened my conviction that Quaker work on structural peace and economic justice - the invisible structures that govern our everyday lives - comes from a very similar place as the peace testimony. How can we think we are living out compassion and simplicity merely because our violent relationships remain hidden from view? We are separated from the victims of our global power inequities only by space. At QUNO we work towards economic relationships that value integrity, simplicity and peace. And as with peace, I often think many of the answers lie in quiet dialogue. Dialogue between these people across different UN communities, to open up to wider considerations, to create room for listening. To respond to the rest of humanity that lie living beyond all these computers and coffee cups.