Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Valuing the United Nations

MELBOURNE – There is nothing like exposure to smart and idealistic young people to make jaded and world-weary policymakers and commentators feel better about the future. I have just had that experience meeting delegates to the 22nd World Model United Nations Conference, which brought together in Australia more than 2,000 students from every continent and major culture to debate peace, development, and human rights, and the role of the UN in securing them.

What impressed me most is how passionately this generation of future leaders felt about the relevance and capacity of the UN system. They are right: the UN can deliver when it comes to national security, human security, and human dignity. But, as I told them, they have a big task of persuasion ahead of them.

No organization in the world embodies as many dreams, yet provides so many frustrations, as the United Nations. For most of its history, the Security Council has been the prisoner of great-power maneuvering; the General Assembly a theater of empty rhetoric; the Economic and Social Council a largely dysfunctional irrelevance; and the Secretariat, for all the dedication and brilliance of a host of individuals, alarmingly inefficient.

My own efforts to advance the cause of UN reform when I was Australia’s foreign minister were about as quixotic and unproductive as anything I have ever tried to do. Overhauling Secretariat structures and processes to reduce duplication, waste, and irrelevance? Forget it. Changing the composition of the Security Council to ensure that it began to reflect the world of the twenty-first century, not that of the 1950’s? No way.

But I have also had some exhilarating experiences of the UN at its best. The peace plan for Cambodia in the early 1990’s, for example, dragged the country back from hellish decades of horrifying genocide and ugly and protracted civil war. Likewise, the Chemical Weapons Convention, steered through the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, is still the most robust arms-control treaty related to weapons of mass destruction ever negotiated.

Perhaps one experience stands out above all. In 2005, on the UN’s 60th anniversary, the General Assembly, convening at head of state and government level, unanimously endorsed the concept of states’ responsibility to protect populations at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes. With that vote, the international community began to eradicate the shameful indifference that accompanied the Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Darfur, and too many similar catastrophes.

What needs to be better understood publicly is just how many different roles the UN plays. The various departments, programs, organs, and agencies within the UN system address a broad spectrum of issues, from peace and security between and within states to human rights, health, education, poverty alleviation, disaster relief, refugee protection, trafficking of people and drugs, heritage protection, climate change and the environment, and much else. What is least appreciated of all is how cost-effectively these agencies – for all their limitations – perform overall, in both absolute and comparative terms.

The UN’s core functions – leaving aside peacekeeping missions but including its operations at its New York headquarters; at offices in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi; and at the five regional commissions around the world – now employ 44,000 people at a cost of around $2.5 billion a year. That might sound like a lot, but the Tokyo Fire Department spends about the same amount each year, and the Australian Department of Human Services spends $3 billion more (with less staff). And that’s just two departments in two of the UN’s 193 member states.

Even including related programs and organs (like the UN Development Program and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees), as well as peacekeeping activities (which involve more than 110,000 international military, police, and civilian personnel), the UN system’s total cost is still only around $30 billion a year. That is less than half the annual budget for New York City, and well under a third of the roughly $105 billion that the US military has been spending each year, on average, in Afghanistan. Wall Street employees received more in annual bonuses ($33.2 billion) in 2007, the year before the global financial meltdown.

The whole family of the UN Secretariat and related entities, together with current peacekeepers, adds up to around 215,000 people worldwide – not a small number, but less than one-eighth of the roughly 1.8 million staff employed by McDonald’s and its franchisees worldwide!

The bottom line, as the youngsters gathered in Melbourne fully understood, is that the UN provides fabulous value for what the world spends on it, and that if it ever ceased to exist, we would have to reinvent it. The downsides are real, but we need to remember the immortal words of Dag Hammarskjold, the UN’s second secretary-general: “The UN was created not to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell.”

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    1. CommentedL SE

      If a company is obsolete, the market loosens its regulations and gets competitors to replace it, or the company will be forced to reform. It is normal for a market to do this to make sure it stays ahead of competing markets - why not for the UN?

    2. CommentedDavid Donovan

      The question is always; who is represented? The UN is a gathering of the representatives of those who control the individual countries. It is not a representative body of the people of the world in as much as governments rule but do not represent their people.

    3. CommentedNathan Weatherdon


      Why should donors not expect to get some of their own people on staff, whether to build relations with the country, to exert influence, to support accountability for whatever the country wanted the money for in the first place, or for other reasons? Maybe they (e.g. Kenya) don't even need the Europeans to do the actual work (an incorrect assumption in too many cases, as outside help alongside capacity building truly is needed in many occasions), in which case there are still many reasons for donor countries to want to have their own people working on projects that are most strongly supported by their leadership and/or populace.

    4. CommentedJen PeiWeng

      Mr. Evans could you introduce a little bit more about “to reflect the world of the twenty-first century”?

    5. CommentedDenis Lee Onyango

      Mr Gareth while I share your sentimentalism and your passion about the 'relevance and capacity of the UN system' pragmatic concerns of staffing (quality vs quantity) and waste of resources are emerging as major issues that renders UN irrelevant. The UN is being hijacked by pseudo-careerist with blond hair which should necessitate dialogue because the ineffectiveness and waste -due to lack of accountabilty - forced upon the the idea of the UN by these careerist on apparent assumption either the employed 44,000 people at a cost of around $2.5 billion a year is cheap is baseless. Africa benefits the UN by creating poverty and hunger I feel that 50% of the 44, 000 must hail from places with experience on issues at hand be it conflict, peace issues, poverty and hunger. I dont see how 'smart and idealistic young european' out of college should run a UNDP programe in Kenya with no experience just because they belong to a donor country or the color of their eyes qualify them to better deliver when it comes to national security, human security, and human dignity. How about racism at the UN hq of Africans and Asian??

    6. CommentedJ St. Clair

      the last quote.......living on earth is hell......yes....it is....have to pay for just about everything......

    7. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      The question is always; who is represented? The UN is a gathering of the representatives of those who control the individual countries. It is not a representative body of the people of the world in as much as governments rule but do not represent their people.

    8. CommentedPeter Wickwire Foster

      A refreshing overview of an organization that achieves an incredible amount with very little. Critics tend to focus on the high profile failures, while ignoring the many significant and long lasting success of the UN.

      The UN is a political organization, a reality sometimes forgotten by its naysayers. It gives a voice to all members, even those with views and policies that the West may not like. However by giving them a voice we get to understand them better. And it is often the case that members from smaller nations may have insights that would otherwise not be heard if they didn't have the UN forum to speak.

      If we are to achieve any progress in the truly global issues that are faced today, from peacekeeping to global health, from global warming to human rights, the UN will be the forum in which the answers are found.

    9. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      The real issue is not the United Nations as a failed body, the real issue is the utter failure of the decolonialisation movement. For activists from occidental democracies it is an insult that their nation bankroll a money machine for dictatorial diplomates and listen to the views from all the banana state governments about hu-mani-ty. I always got the impression in Geneva most UN diplomates are persons on drugs. To get better governance we don't need the UN but technical incentives and prudence.