Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Empowering the Peoples in Their United Nations

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Empowering the Peoples in Their United Nations

Article excerpt

Opening the Dumbarton Oaks conference which began the shaping of the United Nations Charter, US Secretary of State Cordell Hull said, "No institution will endure unless there is behind it considered and complete public support." Fifty years after the founding of the UN, the need for building such support is evident. To do so involves both increasing public understanding of the UN and making changes in the UN that would earn it greater support. In what follows I shall offer twenty recommendations along these lines.

My first recommendation is that we be conscious of a problem that has long affected support for the UN: when someone says "the UN", it is not self-evident what he or she is really talking about. The UN is as amorphous and difficult to analyze as national governments and national perspectives on the world multiplied 185 times. It is infused with all the cultures and bears all their accumulated burdens and syndromes.

The greatest of these syndromes is the North-South abyss. The most dangerous frontier in all human history is the line between the Southern majority of humankind and the Northern minority. Its bearing on the issue of "a more effective UN" was vividly illustrated during the Gulf crisis and war in 1991. When orthodox opinion in the North was hailing the "rebirth" of the UN in that crisis, there was outrage and despair over it among the majority of humankind in the South. This divide pervades everything at the UN today.

Overall, the UN system comprises 16 separate organizations in a planetary type of system: around a central organization, the United Nations, independent agencies gravitate, linked to it by special agreements. This planetary system has at its core, on the one hand, an international civil service headed by the secretary-general, the world's chief public servant, and, on the other hand, the national representatives of member-governments at the UN and its agencies. At a minimum, therefore, when talking about "the UN" one must be clear whether the reference is to the secretary-general and the secretariats or to the sum (or the conflict) of the policies of governments in the forums of the UN system (in which case what one is often really talking about are the policies of a handful of so-called major powers).

But even this is an insufficient distinction, because governments often disunite themselves in the United Nations, expressing one policy in the UN at New York and the opposite in the governing bodies of agencies. Let me give one concrete illustration.

The colonial empires denied their captives the educational capacities that set the Western world in progress. In 1960 Ghana had only 95 university graduates among over 9 million people. (The same ratio would have given Britain only 600 graduates; and it is instructive to contemplate where Britain would be 35 years later had that been the case.) To meet this enormous problem, the UN Development Programme and UNESCO trained more than a million teachers between 1965 and 1985, over half of them in developing African countries. But the same donor governments that fund UNDP authorized the International Monetary Fund - supposedly also part of the UN system - to require the same developing African countries to slash their payrolls for new teachers by as much as 30 percent. That is certainly not coordination; it is the destruction of development. How can we make the UN "more effective" if its longest-established and best-endowed member-governments cannot coordinate their own policies?

My second recommendation thus reflects what Finland said in the General Assembly in 1993: "The best gift member-states could give the United Nations for its fiftieth anniversary would be more coordinated and coherent national policies towards the UN and the specialized agencies." When they manage to coordinate their policies, members do fulfil their commitment under the Charter to make the UN "a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations" - and often achieve marvelous things. …

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