As I learned today, not all the important Copenhagen events are taking place in the security-controlled, internationally manifold acreage of the main conference site. This morning, I traveled half a dozen stops down the metro away from the Bella Center to participate in the COP15 Humanitarian Day. Cold, in a tent, and with no more than a few dozen observers, the start of the event was sadly symbolic of the plea of the very subjects the day was devoted to (especially given the context of the state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar spectacle of the main COP site).
The plastic picnic tent venue was, however, made up for by the company. On stage was Robert Glasser, Secretary General of Care International, John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, Eric Laroche, Assistant Director General of the WHO, and Bekele Geieta, Secretary General of Red Cross/Crescent. Each gave a brief talk about the effect of climate change on vulnerable populations and the ways in which their organizations are responding to these new challenges.
The unification of these leaders under one tent was remarkable --not only in the sense of their prominence and commitment to tackling some of our greatest humanitarian challenges, but in the sense that they were all crowding together on the stage in freezing temperatures, speaking to such a small crowd. A cynic might say that this event was truly representative of humanitarian efforts in general (with, or without respect to climate change). Great minds and passionate hearts marginalized to the fringe speaking to a committed few while the masses are absorbed by the glitz and glam of big industry (energy), big government (delegations), and the buying and selling of interests on the floor of the main event (COP negotiations). An optimist, however, could say that this was a testament to these leaders’ resolve in championing their causes and engaging with those who are inspired by their work. Upon finishing their talks, each came off the stage and casually offered themselves to questions and conversation with the audience, dissolving any distance that may have been established by their presence on the podium.
To be honest, my brief interactions here were not entirely fulfilling, nor were they universally inspirational. They did, however, help me understand the human dimension of leadership in these organizations. Like the “evil-doers” in the political world and industry, the “do-gooders” of these groups must work within constraints to do their jobs the best way they know how, prioritizing projects and interests based upon their best information to maximize the positive outcomes for their institutions. Sometimes, or perhaps often, this might mean letting an intriguing idea fall to another who they think may have better resources to manage it. I mention this because I think it very easy to become disillusioned with an organization or individual for not prioritizing the interests we feel so evidently relevant and important to their presumed mission (e.g. the negative health impacts of climate change). The face to face contact, however, has helped me recognize the value in cutting those who we so idolize some slack, while digging deeper to discover our own imperatives and highlighting the causes we find most meaningful.
With round the clock negotiations debating the semantics of a document that will likely not have any legal binding power anyway, one cannot help but feel that the value in this event, for the majority of those in attendance, and certainly for myself, lies not in the actual creation of an internationally recognized text, but in the understanding we can find in new experiences and the imagination of a world outside ourselves.
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