A fig leaf for the world’s woes

[Long version of essay first published in The Hindu’s blog thREAD]

Seventy years after it was founded, the United Nations continues to function on a budget lesser than that of New York City’s. Where is this global organisation headed?

Vidya Venkat


When I was a fifteen-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 – UNICEF stands for United Nations Children’s Fund, UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and so on. When I visited the United Nations’ headquarters in New York in September 2015, I got to see at first hand what happened behind the closed doors of the organisation. And it was surprising to learn just how many people, both within and outside of the organisation, had begun to feel that the UN had perhaps become redundant; and this when all the euphoria about the UN turning seventy, on October 24 (2015), was already beginning to build up.

On September 20, 2015 when I first landed in New York, early in the morning, the air was already thick with anticipation of the week’s events. 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 abbreviation) underway at its headquarters. The Pope’s encyclical on climate change, warning of dire consequences for humanity if everyone failed to act on the issue, had already attracted attention worldwide. The taxi TV installed in the yellow NYC cab I rode from the Newark airport to the hotel ran back-to-back promos on the 17 SDGs. The driver got excited when I told him that I was a journalist from India here to cover the UN summit, which the taxi TV anchor was talking about. “Oh, really? So you would be meeting the Pope, eh?” he asked with a smile. “I hope so,” I replied, sounding unsure as it was my first time in New York and the UN, and I had no idea what to expect.


Part of the reason why the world has become less interesting these days is because the internet and Google, especially, has taken away the thrill of discovering something new. Before my New York trip, I had already studied the route map from the hostel on East 44th street, where I was staying, to the UN headquarters building on 1st Avenue, near 42nd street, a gazillion times, just so that I would not turn up late to collect my media accreditation and entry pass the next day, which was the first thing on my agenda. I pretty much knew what to expect as the UN headquarters building would come into view – 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, in the UN, at the entry gate, at the security counter…


In fact, anyone who is fully convinced that the UN doesn’t matter anymore, must try and get hold of an entry pass to the UN headquarters buildings at least once in their lifetime. Once they see the hundreds and thousands of journalists, young diplomats, children (yes, children holding banners on child rights and all!) 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, they might realise that here is a great monument to world peace that so many persons, young and old alike, are simply dying to enter. My own prized media accreditation pass, that 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…

Fit for whose purpose?

No I am not trying to make sceptics look stupid by suggesting that just because there are thousands of people from across the globe queuing up to enter into the UN building in New York at any given point of time, that the organisation must after all be very useful for the world. In fact, when one looks at the really tall aims that the organisation has set for itself, like ‘End World Poverty’ and ‘Achieve Global Peace’, and then measures these against the means available for realising the same, one sees the massive gaps that exist between what the organisation promises and what it can realistically achieve.

un sdgs

“Funding of all UN system-wide activities is around US$40 billion per 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.” This is what authors Jens Martens and Barbara Adams observe in their latest briefing paper ‘Fit for Whose Purpose?’ written for the Global Policy Forum, an independent global policy watchdog. This paper by Adams and Martens became the subject of a popular discussion on the sidelines of various seminars taking place within the UN headquarters before the summit for the adoption of the SDGs took off. While speakers at the various seminars I attended spoke about the lofty goals to be adopted as part of the SDGs, away from their microphones, they indulged in worried chatter as to how they were supposed to be achieving this.

Adams observes that Member States have failed to provide reliable funding to the UN system at a level sufficient to enable it to fulfil the mandates they have given it. “Many Member States, particularly the large donors, pursue a dual approach of calling for greater coherence in UN development activities while at the same time increasing their use of earmarked funding, which furthers fragmentation,” she says, adding, “This pick-and-choose dynamic, together with ongoing financial constraints, has opened the space for corporate sector engagement. Increasingly the UN is promoting market-based approaches and multi-stakeholder partnerships as the business model for solving global problems. Driven by a belief that engaging the more economically powerful is essential to maintaining the relevance of the UN, this practice has harmful consequences for democratic governance and general public support, as it aligns more with power centres and away from the less powerful.”

An important point Adams and Martens raise is about how the UN has become increasingly corporatised. Unilever, for instance, was among the ‘sponsors’ of the SDGs, which spoke of “responsible consumption and production” and “protecting the environment” as part of the goals… The irony was stark as anyone who has been in India, would know of the controversial mercury pollution Unilever failed to clean up in Kodaikanal where it shut down its factory, which later led to the ‘Kodaikanal won’t’ protest video going viral on social media. Adams also speaks about how the symbols of the 17 SDGs adopted at the UN summit had been taken over as ‘Global Goals’ to be marketed by a London-based private firm Project Everyone. Adams asks pointedly whether the SDGs, that were painstakingly negotiated by member countries and adopted at the summit, now belong to the public or is a private good ready to be marketed for consumption.

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 in New York 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. A legal consultant I know in New Delhi, who works in the non-profit sector space, voiced similar concerns. He told me he would rather do independent consultancy work that has a direct impact on marginalised communities and helps them to secure their rights. “The UN system is so bureaucratised that it hardly offers the flexibility for innovative work, and working closely with ruling governments means that there is little scope for campaigning of an adversarial nature on controversial issues such as state-sponsored violence or labour law violations,” he said.

The reforms agenda

me and mogens
That’s me with the UNGA President Mogens Lykketoft in his office at the UN headquarters

It was no surprise that UN General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft, who took charge of the UN General Assembly on September 15, sprung up in defence of the organisation. 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. He was also upbeat about the adoption of the SDGs, which emphasise rightly on sustainable production and consumption practices globally, and said that the goals had mobilised governments to take meaningful action to end poverty and conserve environmental resources for future generations by 2030. Never mind that countries such as India – claiming to have aligned themselves with the SDGs, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised in his September 25 UN speech – are grossly underfinanced and lacking in administrative means to meet the targets set by the UN for 2030.

Despite the UNGA President’s efforts to persuade me to look at the important work that the UN was doing globally, it is hard to overlook the failures of the organisation on several fronts. The most recent example is that of containing civil strife in Syria and addressing the refugee crisis that followed. As Simon Adams of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect observes in a recent paper, the UN’s failure to arrest the Syrian civil war 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, including most recently on a May 2014 draft resolution that would have referred the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court.

It is clear that the permanent five who set the UN’s core agenda for its peacekeeping missions are grossly narrow in their focus and the UNSC ought to expand its veto powers to more countries, so that the world body can be more decisive in moments of crisis.

My visit to the UN happened only a few days after the Syrian baby Aylan’s heartrending image of lying washed ashore the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey shook the whole world. So what had the UN done to address the huge inflows of refugees fleeing the conflict zones and seeking entry in Europe? Lykketoft said that the UN was telling all its member countries to strictly follow the international refugee law and let asylum seekers enter European countries as it was their right to do so. He was also of the opinion that encouraging refugees and migrants from other countries was only going to work in favour of developed countries as refugees and migrants contribute significantly to the host economy and countries must act in their own enlightened self interest.

baby aylan
Baby Aylan washed ashore the Mediterranean sea

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. Besides the political reforms in the UN, the question of administrative reforms, to make the organisation more efficient and deliver on its mandate have also remained largely unaddressed, which has led to criticism of the efficiency with which the UN uses its available resources.

Not only this, even with the SDGs, which have been promoted with much fanfare, challenges remain in terms of ensuring that the targets set for achieving the 17 goals are backed up by indicators that allow countries to demonstrate in quantifiable ways that the goals have been met.

Listen to this Newslaundry podcast on Global Summits, where I also spoke about India’s challenges of meeting the SDGs

There is also the challenge of ensuring that the Bretton Woods institutions – World Bank and IMF – and the World Trade Organization act in a manner that is compatible with the UN’s newly adopted goals. Only a month before the SDGs were adopted, the WTO had ruled against India in a solar dispute with the U.S. India’s efforts to push for more solar power to tackle climate change and meet increased domestic power demands meant that it needed to increase the capacity of its solar panels, including from locally made solar cells, which the U.S. challenged as it hurt American businesses. India was seeking to subsidise local solar panel manufacturers which would have hurt American imports into India of the product.

Wasn’t such a move hurting the broader UN mandate of international cooperation to realise the SDGs, which included enabling countries to fight climate change? And then there is the intellectual property rights (IPR) regime as well, if often ensured that developing and less developed countries could never aspire to access the technological advances made by the West, as they simply couldn’t afford them and replication was obstructed by the IPR regime. I posed these questions before Jeffrey Sachs, during a press conference in Columbia University, as Sachs is special advisor to the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon on the SDGs. Sachs acknowledged the challenge and admitted that unless and until other major world bodies such as the WTO and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) aligned themselves with the SDGs, the goals could not be achieved. But that change, for now, is a long way to come.


UN blue

Seventy years after it was created as an arbiter for world peace at the end of WWII, it is fairly evident that the UN continues to occupy a unique space in world affairs, commanding significant attention for the issues that it deals with. We need the UN for we really have no other organisation performing the tasks it does for us today. The question really is whether people the world over will continue to respect the organisation if it constantly fails to live up to its goals. Without a genuine reform process, both political and administrative, allowing other member countries to have a say in its decision-making processes, and also contribute to the sustenance of the organisation by donating to its coffers, it remains doubtful whether the organisation will be in a position to retain its relevance. The ongoing controversy involving corruption charges levelled against the former UNGA President John Ashe too seems to have come at a wrong time, just before the organisation celebrates its 70thanniversary. Ashe has been accused of accepting over US$ 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 UNSC reforms process. If meaningful reforms do not change the UN for the better, one wonders  whether changing the colours of 150 iconic monuments, buildings, museums, bridges and other landmarks, to blue (the colour of the UN) to mark its 70th anniversary alone could enthuse people to believe in it.



So did I manage to meet Pope Francis on the day of the summit as the cab driver who picked me up from the airport had hoped I would? Let me recount to you what happened on September 25. People had started queuing up to enter the UN headquarters on 1st Avenue from 5 a.m. in the morning. I had reached at 6:30 am 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 the Pope 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 watched the Pope speak on the television set that was set up for us to watch a live broadcast. I am reminded of what a security staff with whom I tried negotiating for an entry said: “This is the UN, honey! Everyone is trying to get in all the time…”

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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