Weekly Top 10 List: Top 10 Things the UN Does Well
Posted by Suzanne Nossel
This will take a look at the top 10 things the U.S. does well or, in a few cases, not quite "well" but at least better than any other organization out there. The approach of D-Day on John Bolton makes this as good a time as any to remind ourselves why the UN matters and some of the ways that we count on it.
1. Food Aid. This is an easy one. The UN's World Food Programme is among the most effective multilateral bodies bar none. They feed 104 million people a year in 80 countries. They feed people in war zones, natural disaster situations, health emergencies, and just plain poor countries. They've also got brilliant and creative people like Richard Wilcox and Tony Banbury (both former colleagues) on staff who are constantly trying to up the organization's game, Richard by building a futures market for natural disasters and Banbury by making sure the world delivers on its promise to tsunami victims.
2. Aid to Refugees. Also easy, because the UN High Commissioner on Refugees is another star in the UN galaxy. There were 17 million asylum-seekers, refugees and the like in 2004 who got help from UNHCR. They both help refugees directly and work to ensure that governments meet their responsibilities to these displacees. The organization got one of its first ever major bouts of bad press in February because of allegations of sexual harassment against its head, Ruud Lubbers, a former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, who was forced to resign. But nothing Lubbers did undercuts the efficacy or value of UNHCR's work.
3. Protecting Children. Although I still remember the days of holding back my pennies from their contribution boxes on Halloween because the organization was thought to be one-sidedly pro-Palestinian, UNICEF has built a reputation as an advocacy and service powerhouse, with programs ranging from immunizations to AIDS prevention to education and protection against exploitation.
4. Peacekeeping. The UN has 16 active peacekeeping missions right now, in places like Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Lebanon, Liberia and Burundi. Make no mistake: in most of those places if the UN weren't there, no one else but the marauders would be and the peace or relative peace being kept would have disintegrated long ago. The history of UN peacekeeping is checkered for at least 2 reasons: a) vague mandates and inadequate resources decreed by the countries on the UN Security Council and b) poor planning, management and capabilities. On the latter front (the only front which the UN qua UN can do anything about), the organization has made real progress based on a 2000 reform report. While holes still exist, a most-improved-player award is in order here.
5. Intervenor of Last Resort. In peacekeeping but also more broadly, the UN gets involved in messes when noone else will. The meltdowns in Congo and Liberia are prime examples. When the U.S. and Europe have no interest in getting involved, and there's no regional player with the will and capabilities, the choice is often letting slaughter and mayhem continue untrammeled, or throwing the problem to the UN. The UN deserves credit for taking on these quagmires.
6. Running Elections. The UN has quietly built an impressive capacity to run elections under tough circumstances. This was put to the test in Iraq where, due to security concerns, the organization was able to deploy only a small fraction of the staff it thought it needed, yet still managed to pull off January's historic polling. The organization has also managed successful first-ever polls in places like East Timor and Afghanistan. This Spring it was revealed that the electoral assistance division is mired in a host of management problems. But still, they seem to get the job done.
7. Reproductive Health and Population Management. The UN has built a great specialty in mother and childhood health, family planning, and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. The UN Population Fund is widely respected, and is credited with helping to drastically reduce infant and maternal mortality in more than 100 countries. Unfortunately due to its global gag rule designed to prevent health care workers from even talking about abortion, the Bush Administration has deprived UNFPA of funds needed for this vital work.
8. War Crimes Prosecution. This is a fairly new line of business for the UN. The Tribunals it has set up for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda have had their share of delays and management problems but, all in all, they are respected, have developed important case law on genocide and human rights and have provided a measure of justice that is taken very seriously by the people of affected regions. The UN is still experimenting with new judicial models for places like Sierra Leone and Cambodia. The UN deserves credit for the progress it is making in this area, another arena in which its hard to imagine any other country or body taking the lead to the same degree.
9. Fighting AIDS. The UN is the leader when it comes to the global battle against HIV/AIDS. Between the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria the UN is at the heart of every aspect of dealing with the epidemic, from heightening awareness to raising funds to making sure appropriate programs for prevention and treatment are implemented. The UN has wisely recognized that the organization itself cannot shoulder this one alone, and has set up the Fund and other mechanisms aimed at drawing governments, other multilaterals, NGOs and corporations into the fight.
10. Bringing invisible issues to the fore. Were it not for the UN, an awful lot of suffering around the world would go even less noticed and addressed than it does today. Landmine victims, Marburg fever and cholera sufferers, child soldiers, modern-day slaves, lepers and thousands of other populations beleagured by one or another either visible or obscure plight have a place to turn at the UN.
None of this is to say that the UN does anything perfectly, or that there isn't a pressing need for reform. Its hard to overlook the common theme that emerges above involving good organizations and functions that are nonetheless beset by serious and often embarrassing management shortcomings. While many of the UN's problems can be blamed on its Member States, poor oversight and lousy personnel practices are the responsibility of the UN Secretariat and Kofi Annan. Its a good illustration of how the UN's weaknesses get in the way of people recognizing the body's many strengths.
As you know, I am guest-blogging this week on Dan Drezner. Check out that site for some items that ought to be on the UN's list of strengths, but aren't, and for my best assessment of who and what is to blame.