Myrdal and the Economic Commission for Europe

By Jolly, Sir Richard | UN Chronicle, March-June 2009 | Go to article overview

Myrdal and the Economic Commission for Europe


Jolly, Sir Richard, UN Chronicle


Myrdal served as Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) for 10 years (from 1947 to 1957). This period was the most dynamic of the six decades of ECE and built on the three major pillars of Myrdal's leadership.

The first was the central importance of research to a UN organization--research that needed to be from a "free and independent scientific agent, which approaches the problems and reaches and states its findings, guided only by the inherited and established standards of the profession, without sideward glances at what would be politically opportune". Shortly before he left, Myrdal wrote: "There are few things in my life that I feel so proud of as having had a role in building up and defending this tradition of independent truth-seeking in an international secretariat." *

Myrdal's second pillar was a set of three principles for practical cooperation among member Governments. First, he pioneered the idea that confidence-building must start with small steps. In other words, to tackle big and general problems in their technical aspects, divide these wider problems into their composite parts, so clearly stated and defined that government experts can usefully and effectively discuss them among themselves and seek agreement on practical solutions, ensuring that endless discussions of general considerations are avoided. Second, Myrdal followed the principle that having no meeting was better than having a bad one. This avoids the frustrations of delegates, wondering why they have bothered to come to a United Nations meeting. Third, he tried not to bring issues to a vote in the working organs of the Commission, therefore allowing interested Governments to develop international instruments that others can eventually adopt.

Though these principles were developed amidst the tensions of the cold war, and the divides between West and East Europe, they still have relevance today. …

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