An article by Chris McGreal of The Guardian offers a refreshingly in-depth and nuanced view of the world’s premier international organization. Founded, as third Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld said, “not to lead mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell”, the United Nations is one of humanity’s boldest experiments — and to many, one of its most damning failures. The product of a world devastated by war, it was designed largely to ensure a stable and peaceful international system, one that would never again fall into barbaric and wide scale conflict (a directive that its predecessor, the hapless League of Nations, had also been founded for).
Unlike the hapless League, which had lacked global support (most notably from the United States), the U.N. has managed to remain the largest global body in the world, expanding its membership to encompass most of the world’s nations, as well as an increasing number of activities and goals.
How much of a part the UN played in holding nuclear armageddon at bay divides historians. But there is little doubt that in the lifetime that has passed since it was set up in 1945 it helped save millions from other kinds of hell. From the deepest of poverty. From watching their children die of treatable diseases. From starvation and exposure as they fled wars made in the cauldron of ideological rivalries between Washington and Moscow but fought on battlefields in Africa and Asia.
The UN’s children’s organisation, UNICEF, provided an education and a path to a better life for millions, including the present UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. The UN’s development programmes were instrumental in helping countries newly freed from colonial rule to govern themselves.
And yet. In its 70 years, the United Nations may have been hailed as the great hope for the future of mankind – but it has also been dismissed as a shameful den of dictatorships. It has infuriated with its numbing bureaucracy, its institutional cover-ups of corruption and the undemocratic politics of its security council. It goes to war in the name of peace but has been a bystander through genocide. It has spent more than half a trillion dollars in 70 years.
“Like everybody says, if you didn’t have the UN you’d have to invent it”, said David Shearer, who served the organisation in senior posts in Rwanda, Belgrade, Afghanistan, Iraq and Jerusalem. He is now New Zealand’s shadow foreign minister. “But it’s imperfect, of course it is, and everybody knows that it is”, he said.
Contrary to popular belief, the U.N. is far from useless; indeed, its World Health Organization (WHO) was responsible for spearheading the first effective vaccine against Ebola. The U.N. Millennium Development Goals helped catalyze national governments across the globe to improve their citizens’ social and economic well-being. A multitude of U.N. research, covering everything from the global population to agricultural outputs, helps inform national and international policymaking. Even U.N. Peacekeeping, perhaps the most ballyhooed of the organization’s many activities, is actually comparatively more effective for mitigating conflict than any alternative (including interventions by countries like the U.S.).
Still, even for a world citizen and internationalist like myself, there is no denying the U.N.’s many faults. It is hard enough to keep any human institution clean of corruption, incompetence, and inefficiency, but imagining doing so for a group comprised of literally an entire world of special interests, cultures, and power dynamics? After all, despite an annual expenditure 40 times greater than in the 1950s, including a doubling of administrative costs just over the last decades, the U.N. still has a smaller budget than the City of New York — not a lot to work with when it comes to responding to disasters, facilitating conflict resolution, and addressing a multitude of global problems.
“There is no single institution that I found more exhilarating at its best, yet more debilitatingly frustrating at its worst, than the United Nations,” said Gareth Evans, a former foreign minister of Australia and strong critic of the way the UN is run. He said his efforts to advance reform of the UN “were about as quixotic and unproductive as anything I have ever tried to do”.
That’s a sentiment widely shared among diplomats and UN officials.
Valerie Amos, Britain’s former international development minister, described the UN as a valuable ally in delivering UK aid but lamented its inefficiency.
“There were concerns about the UN being overly bureaucratic and slow in the way it dealt with development issues. I think that’s one of the criticisms of the UN that remains until now, that since it was formed it has become bigger and bigger. Many organisations have overlapping mandates. It’s become an organisation that’s quite unwieldy in lots of respects,” Lady Amos said.
The article goes on to note several accounts from U.N. employees, past and present, who have experienced first hand the many challenges faced by the organization, both internal and external: a tug of war between wealthy and poor countries; undue influence by certain governments over particular posts and agencies; a reliance on begging governments to fund resource-strapped projects; a lack of coordination and assessment for initiatives; and a sclerotic culture of reform owing to vested special interests.
In other words, most of the challenges one would find in any organization at any level of government…but further complicated by the vast disparity of wealth, culture, language, political culture, and geopolitical interests of the nearly 200 nations involved. Again, consider how difficult a project between even a handful of individuals is, let alone tens of thousands of people representing a multitude of very different countries.
This is by no means to make excuses for the U.N. or its failings. But 70 years is not a lot of time to improve, especially given how novel the concept of international law, let alone a sense of global consciousness, remains. Humanity has a long way to go before it develops the requisite values needed to cooperate on such a large scale. Trying to get billions of people onboard when it comes to resolving a plethora of pressing challenges is no easy feat. (Heck, it is hard enough to pull off on a national scale, speaking from the American experience.)
In any case, I recommend you read the rest of the article, as it covers a pretty wide breadth of issues and obstacles facing the U.N. now and well into the foreseeable future. It ends on a somewhat cautionary note, observing that despite quite a lot of evidence of what needs to be done and how — much of it gathered through the U.N.’s own internal investigations — widespread disinterest and stagnation remain entrenched.
As our ever more globalized world continues to face mounting crises in areas like security, food supply, environment, and more, will the U.N. prove capable of stepping up to the task? As the international system becomes increasingly multipolar, will humanity manage to create an institution that can pool its vast collective resources and expertise, and coordinate an effective response to the myriad of dangers that lie ahead? The track record seems mixed at best…but then again, there has never been anything quite like the U.N., let alone the global consciousness that has emerged and grown alongside it.
What are your thoughts?