It was Dag Hammarskjöld, the tragic third 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.
“Like everybody says, if you didn’t have the UN you’d have to invent it,” said David Shearer, who served the organisation in senior posts in Rwanda, Belgrade, Afghanistan, Iraq and Jerusalem. He is now New Zealand’s shadow foreign minister. “But it’s imperfect, of course it is, and everybody knows that it is,” he said.
As the UN marks the 70th anniversary of its founding this autumn, those imperfections – and how the UN addresses them – have come to the fore as the organisation struggles to define its role in the 21st century.
Tensions between western governments, which see the UN as bloated and inefficient, and developing countries, which regard it as undemocratic and dominated by the rich, have rippled across the organisation as ballooning costs drive the push for reform.
Even accounting for inflation, annual UN expenditure is 40 times higher than it was in the early 1950s. The organisation now encompasses 17 specialised agencies , 14 funds and a secretariat with 17 departments employing 41,000 people.
Its regular budget, which is agreed every two years and goes to pay for the cost of administering the UN – including mouthwatering daily allowances which result in many of its bureaucrats being far better paid than American civil servants – has more than doubled over the past two decades to $5.4bn
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