A fig leaf for the world’s woes

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Seventy years since its founding, the United Nations continues to fund its programmes with a budget smaller than that of New York City's. What exactly is it hoping to achieve?

When I was a 15-year-old schoolgirl preparing for my All-India UN Information Test, knowing the United Nations well enough meant remembering all the expansions for all the abbreviations that the numerous UN agencies stood for. Fifteen years on, when I visited the United Nations’ headquarters in New York in September, I got to see first hand what happened behind the closed doors of the organisation with those abbreviated agencies with their long and complicated expansions.

On September 20, when I first landed in New York, the air was already thick with anticipation of the week’s events. The world was still reeling over the image of Syrian child Aylan Kurdi lying washed ashore on Turkey's Mediterranean beach. Pope Francis was going to be the chief guest at the UN General Assembly summit for the adoption of the SDGs (or Sustainable Development Goals, another one of those complicated ‘UN’-type abbreviations) underway at its headquarters. My cab driver got excited when I told him that I was a journalist from India here to cover the UN summit. “Oh, really? So you would be meeting the Pope, eh?” he asked with a smile. “I hope so,” I replied.

Thanks to Google tools, I pretty much knew what to expect when I reached the UN headquarters building — a tall glass-exterior building, flanked by the East River on one side, with a row of colourful flags of UN member countries stacked on its entrance gate. But there was one thing that Google, or anyone else for that matter, could not have prepared me for: the never-ending queues that I confronted nearly everywhere I went.


There were hundreds and thousands of journalists, young diplomats, children (yes, children holding banners on child rights and so on) and all the concerned citizens of the world jostling with one another in one common unending queue for hours together just to get into the building. My own prized media accreditation pass, which promised me an entry into all the UN buildings, came into my hands after waiting in two separate queues, one for the security clearance and another for collecting the pass itself, comprising 300-odd people from some 50 countries for more than five hours.

At the end of it, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is the organisation that some feel has become redundant. Yes, truth is, even amid all the euphoria about the UN turning seventy, on October 24, one couldn’t miss the questions about the organisation’s track-record and relevance.

One such discussion was happening right within the UN headquarters, on the sidelines of the various seminars. This particular discussion took off from what authors Jens Martens and Barbara Adams observe in their latest briefing paper, titled ‘Fit for Whose Purpose?’, written for the Global Policy Forum, an independent global policy watchdog.

The authors point out, in the paper, that the funding for all UN activities is around $40 billion every year. “While this may seem to be a substantial sum, in reality it is smaller than the budget of New York City, less than a quarter of the budget of the European Union, and only 2.3 per cent of the world’s military expenditures.”

That’s not going to be good enough to deal with the tall goals of ending poverty or achieving global peace. The fallout of this funds issue, as Adams and Martens raise in their paper, is the increasing corporatisation of the UN. Unilever, for instance, was among the ‘sponsors’ of the Sustainable Development Goals, among which are “responsible consumption and production” and “protecting the environment.” The irony in this won’t be lost for anyone who knows of the mercury pollution Unilever failed to clean up in Kodaikanal, a fallout of which was the ‘Kodaikanal won’t’ protest video that went viral.

Likewise, Adams also speaks about how the symbols of the 17 such goals adopted at the UN summit had been taken over as ‘Global Goals’ to be marketed by a London-based private firm Project Everyone.

On the other hand, the funds crunch in the UN has also meant that staff members within the various UN agencies are being retrenched, leading to disgruntlement among permanent employees. In fact, the buzz in UN circles around the time of the summit was about an unpaid UN intern in Geneva being forced to sleep in a tent as he had no financial support.

A source working in UNICEF I spoke to in New York told me that the very nature of how the UN functioned — high on rhetoric but low on follow-up action — has meant that staff looking for meaningful avenues for humanitarian work were moving to smaller NGOs and activist organisations that allowed them to do more impactful work.

On top of all this, the organisation has already been under fire for its failures, the one most recent being the continuing strife in Syria and the refugee crisis that has followed. Simon Adams of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, in a recent paper, says UN’s failure in this regard is because Russia and China, who are part of the ‘permanent five’ members of the UN Security Council, have on four separate occasions employed their vetoes to block action in response to mass atrocity crimes in Syria.


The organisation has also been hit in another way, with corruption charges being levelled against the former UNGA President John Ashe. Ashe has been accused of accepting over $1 million from a Chinese businessman, and according to news reports the revelation has vindicated India’s suspicion regarding China’s efforts to stall the UN Security Council reforms process.

It didn’t surprise me that the UN General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft sprung to his organisation’s defence. During an informal chat at his office in the UN headquarters, overlooking the East River, the former Danish politician told me that the UN is the only organisation in the world which undertakes global peacekeeping work at its current scale. Its peacekeeping forces, comprising over one lakh personnel — troops, police and military observers — are stationed in 16 conflict-hit regions across the world. Lykketoft drew attention to the UN’s programmes for vaccination that have saved the lives of millions of children in poorer countries where governments cannot afford public health care services at scale.

However on the question of the much-needed reforms in the UN Security Council itself, Lykketoft was circumspect. He doubted whether the reform process, although initiated by the outgoing UNGA President Sam Kutesa, would go through while his term lasted.

Lykketoft was also upbeat about the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, which governments globally adopt in their agendas so as to end poverty and conserve environmental resources for the future by 2030. But then, I thought to myself, aren’t countries such as India, while claiming to have aligned themselves with these goals, grossly underfinanced and lacking in administrative means to meet the targets?

As I came out, I began to wonder if, without a genuine reforms process, the UN will be able to retain its relevance in today’s world.



On September 25, people had started queuing up to enter the UN headquarters on 1st Avenue from 5 a.m. I reached there at 6.30 a.m. and after a two-hour-long wait in the queue, made it to the second security check gate, beyond which lay the entrance to the viewer’s gallery of the UN General Assembly Hall where Pope Francis was to commence his speech. The gallery was already full and no more journalists could be accommodated.


So, about fifty print journalists and news anchors (whose accompanying cameramen alone were let in) were stuck in the security checkpoint outside the UN General Assembly hall and could only watch the Pope speak on the television set that was set up for us.

I tried my best to get in. I have come all the way from India just for this, I told a security person, who just replied, “This is the UN, honey! Everyone is trying to get in all the time.”

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