• The United Nations has saved millions of lives and boosted health and education across the world. But it is bloated, undemocratic – and very expensive.
The United Nations has saved millions of lives and boosted health and education across the world. But it is bloated, undemocratic – and very expensive.
By Chris McGreal, The Guardian
It was Dag Hammarskjöld, the tragic second UN secretary general, who had it best. The United Nations, he said, “was created not to lead mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell”.
The kind of hell Hammarskjöld had in mind was not hard to imagine in the wake of world war and Hitler’s extermination camps, and with the atom bomb’s shadow spreading across the globe.
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.
Jan Oberg comments:
There is no doubt that the UN is in need of radical reforms and better management. It is necessary – but also a little bit too easy, perhaps – to criticize “the UN”.
The reason is that it must be remembered that the UN will never be better, more effective and professional than its member states want it to be. That was pointed out by its first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, and it is as true today as when he said it.
Since the wars in Yugoslavia, the authority and the capability of the UN has been undermined systematically and the organization has been side-lined even where, one might assume, it could have made a substantial difference such as in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. Hardly anybody ever mentioned UN peace-keeping and UN-peacebuilding there.