Myths, realities and challenges ahead for the UN

Myths, realities and challenges ahead for the UN

Remarks by Kul Chandra Gautam

at Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University, UK

2 October 2018


It is a real privilege to be back at IDS Sussex – a great temple of learning on development studies. 

I was here 5 years ago in April 2013 and gave a talk on the topic of “A Nepali Enigma: Why Communist Ideology is still Popular in Nepal”. Today I will not speak much about Nepal.

My presentation is entitled: “Myths, realities and challenges ahead for the United Nations”.

I am thankful to Sir Richard Jolly for arranging my visit to IDS again. Well-known to you as a former Director of IDSand a distinguished development economist, Sir Richard has been a great mentor and colleague of mine from our time together at UNICEF in the 1980s and 90s.

When I was here 5 years ago, Sir Richard showed me a nice little exhibit honouring Hans Singer, one of the early economists employed by the United Nations. Hans was a student of the famous economist John Maynard Keynes and a professor and researcher here at IDS. His ideas had a great influence on the early economic and social policies of the UN. 

I envy you all – students and teachers at IDS – as you are the proud inheritors of the legacy of such great intellectual giants as Hans Singer, Dudley Seers, Richard Jolly and many others. 

Today, I propose to speak to you about some common criticisms as well as many real achievements and challenges ahead for the UN and multilateralism in this era of two contrasting realities:

a) On the one hand, an unprecedented consensus on what should be the key development priorities for the world – in the form of the Sustainable Development Goals approved unanimously by all Member States of the United Nations. 
b) And on the other hand, a wave of populist ultra-nationalism that derides global and multilateral institutions and approaches to tackling major challenges facing humanity.  

On the positive side, never before did we have such universally agreed development agenda as we have in the SDGs. 

We had some ambitious goals before. Old timers will remember that the UN had the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Development Decades in the 1960s, 70s and 80s with many ambitious goals. 

Several major UN summits in the 1990s, starting with the historic World Summit for Children, agreed on many ambitious goals for children and development, environment, population, food and nutrition, gender equality and women’s empowerment, culminating in the Millennium Development Goals. 

But all these goals were seen as incomplete and somewhat sectoral or parochial – quite short of being universal.

Some of these goals agreed at the UN were contested or not supported by the World Bank and IMF. 

Some were seen as relevant only for developing countries and not for the whole world. Most goals were seen as dealing with rather soft social sectors and not with hard economic realities involving infrastructure development, international trade or the global environmental concerns. 

For the first time ever, we now have the SDGs – comprehensive, applicable to all countries, largely considered evidence-based, costed and considered affordable – though requiring strong political commitment. 

Add to it the Paris agreement on climate change – and there you have a truly global agenda for development. 

But precisely at a time of such unprecedented consensus on a global development agenda requiring global solidarity, we now see a wave of populist ultra-nationalism rarely seen on this scale since the end of the Second World War and the founding of the UN. 

If the Cold War undermined the initial functioning and effectiveness of the UN, the current wave of populist ultra-nationalism seems to pose a similar threat of unraveling the whole architecture of global institutions and multilateral framework for problem solving.

The Cold War lasted almost 5 decades. It distorted the world’s development priorities. It sucked big chunks of resources away from human security to military security, particularly among the Big Powers and their surrogates. 

And yet, those 5 decades after World War II, saw the biggest strides in human development. The series of Human Development reports published since 1990 by UNDP show steady and dramatic progress in all dimensions of human well-being. 

Granted, even as we solve some old problems, some new ones arise. 

We managed to eradicate or tame such ancient diseases as small-pox, polio, measles, goiter and guinea worm that killed or debilitated tens of millions of people every year. But new diseases never known before such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola came to threaten us. 

We abolished slavery, drastically reduced forced labour, child labour, child marriage, and made many forms of violence, discrimination and exploitation based on gender, race and religion unacceptable. 

But new forms of exploitation have emerged or expanded – such as the modern slavery of trafficking, pornography, children’s addiction to the virtual world of digital games and all kinds of cybercrimes unimaginable to our ancestors. 

Thus, in the march of human civilization, it seems every time we move two steps forward, we slide one step backward. But let us remember and celebrate that, on balance, the world ismoving forward, making great progress for humanity.

I appeal to all of us to remain undaunted by occasional backsliding and remain determined to overcome every retrogression. 

I quote in my memoir the late Jim Grant of UNICEF who used to argue that more progress was made for the well-beingof humanity – as measured by indicators such as maternal and child mortality, life expectancy, access to education and other basic services, as well as the steady progress of democracy and human rights in the last 50 years of the 20th century than in the previous 500 years.

In all of this progress, the UN system has played often a supportive, and at times decisive role.

In that historical context, I wonder how long will the current wave of ultra-nationalist populism and challenge tomultilateralism last?

It appears that the Brexit vote, the “America First” chest-thumping and similar trends in Hungary, Turkey, Italy, and even in such bastions of progressive internationalism as Holland and Sweden, is largely triggered by the anti-immigrant ethos

Large-scale immigration is one aspect of globalization that challenges the comfort zone and sensibilities of many nativists among us. 


But I have a gut feeling that though frightening and seemingly very serious at the moment, this will not be a lasting phenomenon judging by the trends of contemporary human history. 


Why do I say that? Because globalization is here to stay with us – warts and all – even as we try to harness its positive elements and prevent the negatives. 


We all love the benefits of globalization. We want to travel around the world. We want the latest gadgets  whoever made them, and wherever they are made, preferably at the cheapest price. 


We want our children to have the best education and health care whoever maybe the provider of such services. We enjoy tasting the foods of different countries, watching football at the World Cup and other games at the Olympics. 


We want instant access to information about whatever strikes our fancy. We will not tolerate any attempt to deprive us of that instant access under any pretext, including nationalism. 


From time to time, there will be Big Brother type of attempts to control, “guide” and manipulate us, but we will rebel and those attempts will fail.  


A by-product of globalization has been the rapidly increasing inequality in the world, whereby a few people have amassed huge wealth and influence, while millions remain in relative poverty, deprived of basic services and opportunities. 


In a world of the revolution of rising expectations and ready access to information and travel, migration is part of that eternal human quest for greater opportunity for progress that people all over the world aspire for themselves and theirchildren. 


Migration can be disruptive. It can cause discomfort. It needs to be managed, but it cannot be avoided. We cannot have a world in which there is free movement of everything – goods and services, knowledge, ideas and technology, but not that of people. 


Just like managing climate change and global warming, managing migration and harnessing it for the greater good of humanity is likely to be among the greatest challenges for policy makers in the 21st century. 


The other great challenge, of course, is that of the proliferation of destructive armaments, not just of nuclear and chemical weapons but the possibility for easily manufacturing, transporting and unleashing miniaturized weapons of mass destruction with the help of modern technology and artificial intelligence. 


None of these problems can be solved by building border-walls and unilateral approaches. These are what are known as problems without passports. Only a robust multilateral system of global cooperation and solidarity can hope to solve such problems. 


After the horrendous experience of two World Wars, our forefathers and mothers had the wisdom to create a framework of international organizations, with the UN at its centre, to tackle such problems. 


We need to build on, refine and improve these institutions, not to dismantle them in the pique of our naïve, nationalistic or overly idealistic dissatisfaction with their imperfections. 


Those of us who have worked inside the UN, and those who have studied it as academics, researchers and analysts can certainly point to the UN’s many imperfections, and areas that need to be fixed and revamped. 


Let me start by listing some of the commonly cited critiques of the UN – and the myths and realities about them. And then I will go on to discuss what I consider to be the real shortcomings that need to be fixed. 


Some of the common charges levelled against the UN are that:

 It is just a talk shop and does not produce any results
 It just produces papers
 UN bureaucrats are over-paid and under-worked
 UN is powerless and no longer relevant
 It is dominated by the US and other rich countries
 And its corollary – it is controlled by Third World countries with a majority in the UNGA 


All of these are cheap shots – not completely untrue but largely unbalanced and misleading. 


One could conveniently replace the UN by national governments and parliaments and many of the charges would apply to them in some measure. 


The most common misperception about the UN is that some people think or expect it to act like a world government – with a lot of power, authority and resources to solve the world’s problems. And they are disappointed when the UN seems incapable to quickly resolve the issues of war and peace, human rights and development challenges.


Some people have a very idealistic perception of the UN. They think that the UN must be always guided by very high moral and ethical standards. And they are disappointed when all kinds of unholy compromises are negotiated at the UN.


The UN sometimes seems to apply double standards – one set of standard for the rich and powerful countries, and another set for small, poor and powerless countries.


This leads some people to think that the UN is just a tool of the Big Powers – particularly the 5 Permanent Members of the Security Council with veto power.


Some even accuse the UN of being an agent of America, currently the most powerful country in the world. On the other hand, many Americans think that the UN is an anti-American organization, dominated by Third World countries that have a majority in the General Assembly.


So, you see, there are very different perspectives on what the UN is or what it does and does not do.


All the examples I just mentioned are partly true, but not wholly accurate. The truth, the reality, is often more complex, and not so simple or black and white.


Having worked at the UN for 35 years, I have seen the best of the UN and the worst of the UN, from inside as well as outside. Based on that I would make the following observations.


Idealism vs Reality


The UN is probably the most ambitious and idealistic institution ever designed by humankind that has now lasted for more than seven decades.


When you read the Preamble of the UN Charter, it reads like a manifesto to create heaven on earth.


It speaks about “We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small”.


What a beautiful dream!


But we all know that in reality, the UN has many flaws, and it certainly has not lived up to the ideals contained in its Charter.


Yet, I happen to think that the UN continues to be one of the greatest inventions of humanity, and it is an indispensable organization for global governance in our times.


If the UN did not exist, we would surely be trying to create it anew.


Let us remember that like all of us, as individuals, families, institutions or nations, the UN is not perfect.


In the past, it has acted unwisely at times, and failed to act at all at other times.


We live in an imperfect world. And the UN cannot make it perfect.

But it can, it has, and it must continue to make the world a better place.

Better – not perfect.


At its best, and at its worst, the United Nations is a mirror of the world. It reflects both our hopes and convictions, and our divisions and disagreements.


But on balance, with all its imperfections, the UN has made an enormous contribution to the well-being of humanity in its seven decades of existence.


UN’s Achievements


Let me mention briefly, some of the UN’s major achievements and successes.


The UN helped prevent the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and the American allies from turning into a hot war, by providing a roof under which the two super-power adversaries could meet and engage.


We are disappointed that today the UN is having a hard time resolving the horrendous humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen,Myanmar, Sudan and elsewhere. 


But let us not forget that over the past several decades, the UNmounted over 200 peacekeeping operations; protected millions of civilians, and contained local conflicts from becoming regional or global wars.


Over 300 international treaties and conventions have been negotiated at the UN, setting international standards and norms to reduce conflict, to protect human rights, and to regulate the conduct of governments on issues ranging from the protection of the environment to preservation of our cultural heritage.


The UN remains second to none in its experience and leadership in coordinating humanitarian action during natural disasters and many man-made conflicts.


The UN’s work in setting global norms, international standards, and helping developing countries has more profound impact in our daily lives than most of us realize.


Its role extends from providing technical assistance in science and technology, agriculture and industry, trade and commerce; to health and education.


The UN provides policy advice on development planning; protection of human rights, and prevention of human wrongs.


But why don’t we hear more about all these good things that the UN does?


Unfortunately, good news is rarely reported on the front pages of our media. Sensational bad news tends to dominate the headlines. So, we do not hear much about UN’s successes, but its failures are widely publicized.


When there is an accident or a natural disaster that kills a few hundred or thousand people, it becomes a major headline that all of us hear about.


But the fact that the UN and its agencies, like WHO and UNICEF, helped eradicate smallpox that once killed three million people every year; or reduced cases of polio which used to cripple half a million children every year by 99 per cent; and similar other spectacular achievements are easily forgotten.


Because of mass immunization, safe water supply and other health measures, partly supported by the UN system, today’s children are much healthier, live a longer life and are better educated than their parents and grand-parents.


But these are not headline news because they do not happen as one event, but as long processes. To understand good news, you have to look at trends over time. To understand bad news, you just need to watch the headlines.


We need the UN and a multilateral approach to tackle what we call ‘problems without borders’ or problems that travel across frontiers without a passport or a visa, like climate change, drug trafficking, terrorism, epidemics and so on.


No one country or group of countries, however powerful, can tackle such problems alone. It is these problems that remain at the centre of the UN’s activities.


The UN is especially helpful for small and poor countries, because working together at the UN they have much stronger bargaining power than working alone.


But big and powerful countries also benefit from the UN, because the UN umbrella allows them to play a partnership role rather than a patronising one which is no longer acceptable in this day and age.


For its good work and achievements, the UN and its various agencies have won 13 Nobel Peace Prizes. No other organization can claim such honour.


Scholars like Sir Richard Jolly who led and co-authored a 17-volume intellectual history of the United Nations have documented how many ideas and concepts pioneered by the UN have been a driving force in human progress. Those ideas have set past, present, and future international development agendas. They have led to initiatives and actions that have greatly improved the quality of human life. 


But the UN cannot rest on its laurels. Like everybody else, the UN too must reform and transform itself to play a fuller role in confronting the challenges of human survival with dignity in the 21st century.


In my memoir book I point out some of the structural flawsand weaknesses in the UN’s governance and management that need to be reformed.


I argue that the biggest reform that the UN needs are in fourspecific areas – which are also the hardest to achieve.


1. Democratizing the UN:


The UN is supposed to promote democracy in the world. But its strongest organ, the Security Council is structured in a very undemocratic manner, with its 5 permanent members enjoying veto power.


There was some logic to this arrangement when the UN was founded 7 decades ago. But that logic is no longer valid now.


There have been many proposals for the reform of the Security Council. My own favorite proposal is one by Singapore’s former ambassador to the UN Kishore Mahbubani. 


He proposes a “7-7-7 formula” whereby there would be three categories of the SC members: 

a) 7 permanent members with limited veto powers (Brazil, China, India, Nigeria, Russia, USA and EU); 
b) 7 semi-permanent members without veto powers from among the world’s “middle powers” (I suppose the post-Brexit UK would fit in this category); and 
c) 7 non-permanent members from among all other countries. 


However, it should be noted that the composition and powers of the Security Council cannot be changed without the voluntary concurrence of the existing 5 veto powers. So, we need highly enlightened leadership in those countries, and a sustained global movement to bring real democracy inside the UN itself. 


Besides the reform of the Security Council, another reform that is urgently needed to democratize the UN is to change the system for the selection of its executive leadership. 


Currently, the Secretary-General, heads of major departmentsand leaders of most UN agencies, such as UNICEF and UNDP as well as heads of the World Bank and IMF are selected based on an informal understanding among major power blocs at the UN and IFIs. 


Some of these posts are considered “reserved” for certain nationalities based on historical realities that are now outdated. As a result, the caliber of leaders appointed to these positions is uneven and unpredictable. 


A more open and transparent process could ensure world-class leaders in these important positions. 



2. Responsibility to Protect:


Many countries, especially those ruled by authoritarian regimes, hide behind their sovereignty to oppress their people, and even to deprive them of humanitarian relief in emergencies.


When governments are involved in massive violations of their citizens’ human rights, and are unable or unwilling to protect them from humanitarian disasters, they should not be allowed to get away with such crimes against their own people.


In 2005, a Summit of world leaders at the UN General Assembly agreed that the international community has a “Responsibility to Protect” vulnerable people if their government is unable or unwilling to protect them.


The UN and other regional political groupings must be empowered to delicately but forcefully implement the concept of “the responsibility to protect”, but without applying different standards to different countries.


3. Prioritize Disarmament and Development:


The main purpose of the UN, when it was founded was to prevent wars and promote peace. But today, the world is armed to the teeth. We spend $1.7 trillion per year on military expenditures. That is more than $125 billion a month, or $4 billion every day.


Millions of deadly small arms are traded freely in the world’s arms bazaars and are circulating freely in our neighbourhoods.


Even in times of great worldwide financial crisis, the world seems to find plenty of money – and no shortage of justification – for grotesque amounts of military expenditure.But when it comes to providing basic services for people’s health, education, employment, and social protection, people are asked to tighten their belts and defer their demands.


The world today needs a powerful civil society movement championing progressive disarmament in all countries calling for non-violent, civilian-based human security.


If I were allowed one wish to amend the Sustainable Development Goals, I would do so in SDG-16: to promote peaceful and inclusive societies. I would add that the very first indicator of that goal would be for each country to reduce its military spending by 50 percent by 2030, with countries like Costa Rica that have abolished their army getting a world champion award. 


Drastically reducing military expenditures and correspondingly increasing investment in human security and sustainable development must command the highest priority in the coming decades.


3. Changing the UN’s financing system 


As elsewhere, money and military power often talk louder than democratic norms or treaty obligations in the realpolitik of the United Nations. Major contributors to its budget sometimes wield undue influence in UN decision-making. 


For the past seven decades, funding of the UN’s core budget and peace-keeping operations has been based on an internationally negotiated system of assessment of each country’s “capacity to pay”. But from time to time major contributors threaten to cut off their funding if the UN does not do their bidding. 


The Trump administration is the latest to arbitrarily de-fund UNESCO, UNFPA, UNWRA and several other UN agencies that did not conform to its unilateral demands for “reforms”. 


Even certain middle-powers like Qatar and Saudi Arabia use their “checkbook diplomacy” to influence UN decision-making.  


To avoid such threats and unholy influence of major donors, the former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme had made a very creative proposal way back in 1985. He proposed that no country should be asked or allowed to contribute more than 10 percent of the UN’s overall budget. 


This would result in a significantly reduced US contribution and influence in running the UN. The shortfall resulting from the reduction of US share can be easily filled up by modest increases in contribution by other OECD countries and by the large emerging economies of the world.


Today financing for development landscape is changing rapidly. Many UN activities benefit from private sector financing and philanthropic foundations. 


Many NGOs rely increasingly in cloud-sourcing and crowd-funding as well as different modalities of public-private partnerships. 


Harnessing such possibilities and exploring the utilization of schemes like the Tobin Tax and resources generated from the global commons should be seriously explored to liberate the UN from the perpetual threats of arbitrary cuts by its current major donors.




If we can achieve these 4 big reforms, many other lesser reforms would follow, and we would help the UN to live up to its full potential.


But even with such constraints and limitations what the UN is able to achieve is remarkable indeed. 

In my memoir I recount many concrete examples of how at its best, with visionary leadership, committed staff and supportive governments and civil society, the UN as a whole and its various entities like UNICEF can achieve extraordinary results. 


Richard Jolly’s 17-volume intellectual history of the United Nations chronicles many success stories refuting the simplistic and spurious charge that the UN is just a talk-shop or paper-producing factory. These accounts show that only multilateral approaches can solve the world’s most intractable problems that no single nation, no matter how powerful can solve alone. 


I was at the UN General Assembly last week. One of the oft-quoted headlines that came from the UNGA was Donald Trump’s statement saying: “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism”.


But that was one of the lonely voices at the UN. The dominant theme expressed by many leaders was the opposite – how we need stronger multilateralism to solve the world’s most pressing problems. 


I would commend to you all to watch and listen to the most inspiring speech at the UNGA this year by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden.


Her strong defense of multilateralism giving concrete examples of why we need it reflected the spirit of the rest of the UNGA than Donald Trump’s remarks which were intended for his domestic audience. 


The march of human civilization is not a straight line of uninterrupted progress. It is often two steps forward and one-step backward. But the overall trend is forward movement. 


I sincerely believe that the world is moving from primordial tribalism to nationalism and globalism. Not the other way around that a Trump, a Duterte, an Erdogan or Victor Orbanor the Brexit movement represents. 


Multilateralism is here to stay. But a key question is multilateralism in whose terms? 


Will it be the multilateralism guided by the ideals of the UN Charter, of what we consider liberal democracy and respect for human rights and equity as universal norms? Or will it be the multilateralism of business transactions, and of crony capitalism devoid of the ethos of a humane, just and egalitarian society?


Increasingly, I see China and other Asian countries playing a more dominant role in global governance. There is nothing wrong with that, as it brings back better balance in global governance that was overly dominated by Western countries and values for the past few centuries. 


I find it really encouraging that more and more young people in the world today increasingly see themselves as global citizens. If we can prevent the growing economic inequalities in the world from driving young people to alienation and extremism, we have an unprecedented chance to build a more prosperous and egalitarian world than any earlier generation in human history. 


I am convinced that we do have a fighting chance to achieve that – and institutions of good global governance like the UN have a vital role in such noble mission.


Thank you.