If you ever wondered what the UN was for … now you know
The Second World War left Europe, Japan and vast parts of the world in ruins. On June 25, 1945, 50 countries adopted the charter of the United Nations. Its complex governing system consists of the General Assembly and the Security Council, with five permanent members supplemented by 10 others on a rotating basis. The permanent members were the victors of the war: Russia, China, France, the US and the UK.
The UN’s mandate is “to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, achieve international cooperation, and be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations.”
The organization has 193 member countries and two observers, the Vatican and the state of Palestine. It also has 17 specialized agencies, among them the United Nations Development Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Labour Organization and (very importantly these days) the World Health Organization.
The UN has been criticized time and time again for its unwieldy bureaucracy and complex processes. There is certainly validity to those criticisms, and reforms to address them are underway. Several countries are in arrears with their payments, many of them less developed economies. Others, namely the US, have the funds but withhold payment for political reasons.
So far so good. Angela Merkel had a point when she told the German people last week that COVID-19 posed challenges not seen since the Second World War. The infection ravages all continents with no regard for whether people are rich or poor, or whatever circumstances they live in.
The WHO has proved its mettle in these trying times, issuing warnings that were sadly not heeded by many, which led to a quicker spread of the outbreak.
The UN was born out of the devastation left by the Second World War and despite all its faults has proved its value — especially in times such as these.
Containment of the virus depends in large part on hygiene, which is easy in OECD and other developed countries with easy access to water and sanitation. It is harder in countries where this infrastructure does not exist, for example in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. This is where the UNDP and other aid-related UN organizations come in.
Nowhere is the situation more precarious than in the refugee camps of this world, where all the commonly known precautions such as social distancing and washing your hands are all but impossible. Here it is particularly important that the UNHCR can do its work without hindrance.
Charities such as the Red Cross, Save the Children and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation matter too. However, charities depend on donations from the public, who will tighten their belts in the face of the impending economic downturn, if not depression. The charitable foundations of the ultra rich depend on their personal priorities and largesse — which may also decline in line with the dwindling value of their portfolios. These charities are in parts well organized, but nothing can substitute for the international apparatus consisting of as many experienced and battle-hardened international civil servants as the UN has at its disposal.
Former banker turned philanthropist Michael Milken appealed last week to the American public, government and industry to stand together to prevent, treat and cure COVID-19, to educate people about the virus and care for those affected, and to ensure financial stability. I would add to this that it is the UN and its specialist organizations who have the wherewithal to implement this message on a global scale and in an impartial manner — obviously supported by nation states and charities.
In that sense it is important that we take care of the UN. The WHO has shown its worth time and again over the past few months. There is room for all to cooperate, and it makes sense to do so under the aegis of the UN. The organization was born out of the devastation left by the Second World War and despite all its faults has proved its value — especially in times such as these.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources