The United Nations at the cross-roads

By Chakravarthi Raghavan

In a policy paper on the future of the UN, the South Centre has called for some major reforms of the world body.

THE United Nations is at a cross-roads and 'under siege' and fundamental issues need to be tackled, needing some major reforms, says the South Centre in a policy paper on the future of the United Nations.

Neglected in some critical respects and deliberately eroded in several others during the past decades, the UN is already sorely challenged by an unprecedented number of conflicts and scale of humanitarian emergencies.

Often used as a scapegoat for the failed policies of one or more powers, the UN has by any objective standard responded well, bearing in mind how severely under-resourced it has been.

The opposition to a strong and dynamic UN, the South Centre argues, is 'political and profoundly ideological' and is largely concentrated in a few states whose establishments prefer not to strengthen a forum in which their domestic and global policies can be challenged or trimmed.

'But the UN exists for all humankind, not just a handful of member states representing a minority of the world's population. It should be said however that many of the citizens of those states have never wavered in their basic support for the UN as an organisation committed to building a functioning world community.'

Those with a purposeful and creative vision of the UN should not allow themselves to be intimidated, divided or discouraged by the nature and scale of challenges, but make determined efforts to rekindle the UN's original inspiration and inject a new sense of purposeful direction so that a strengthened UN will be able to help fulfil the aspirations of the many millions of people throughout the world.

As it approaches the 50th anniversary, the UN system finds itself faced with contradictory assessments of its past performance and usefulness, and divergent views on its future roles.

'Reductionist' view

There can be no sensible reforms of the UN system without some comprehension of the factors which shaped the values, objectives, functions and efficiency of the principal multilateral institutions currently in place, says the South Centre.

The dilemma facing its reform is that the UN has a highly unequal and diverse membership, operating in a global economic system in which many would like to see major changes while a few others are determined to maintain the status quo at all costs.

The UN's history so far has been marked by the ability of a few powerful countries of the North to exercise an overriding influence on the institutional framework and policy direction of the UN in particular by using the 'financial whip'.

'Indeed, until recently,' the South Centre points out, 'voices most heard on the subject of UN reforms have been those reflecting a "reductionist" view, following the current North fashion of trying to "roll back" government and public institutions.'

With the declared purpose of rationalising the organisation, modernising management, cutting costs, reducing waste and adapting the UN to the changing world, 'the UN would be cut down to size'.

In the process, the organisation risks being tailored in ways favouring the big powers, cutting away activities they like least. At particular risk are those activities which often give rise to dissent or which challenge the dominant economic system.

'And it is likely,' the South Centre warns, 'that reforms under this banner would thwart efforts to achieve greater cooperation and participation in the management of the world economy within the UN arena. In that event, the UN would become little more than an instrument primarily used for peacekeeping and the management of unstable or 'failed' states in the South, while the Bretton Woods institutions (BWIs) would continue to supervise the economic management of the developing countries.

Universal values

'What is at stake is the "soul" and direction of the United Nations. The UN is a universal organisation of the world's states and of their six billion people. The UN of the future must be based on the universal values which inspired its creation 50 years ago.'

Many millions in the world expect the UN to act as an agent of progress and change, and to be equipped to play an effective and leading role in improving the economic and social situation of the inhabitants of all the world's nations, not just the wealthy few, and want the UN system to deal with the growing number of complex international challenges involving development, peace and security.

Reform proposals must be tabled to provide democratically inspired and constructive alternatives so that a wider and well-informed debate take place and which may result in multilaterally accepted decisions.

Referring to the setting in which the UN was founded, the South Centre notes that the UN Charter saw political, security, economic, social, cultural and humanitarian issues to be inter-related and needing coordinated approaches and policies.

The Charter mandated the UN to tackle problems beyond those emerging in relations among nations and pursue actively a number of normative goals, including promotion of 'higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress... (and) economic and social advancement of all peoples'.

The UN was placed at the policy apex of the emerging system of international organisations _ embracing the then existing specialised institutions such as the ILO and the BWIs (which had been established a year earlier).

Hopes for a more peaceful and prosperous future were based on a set of institutions providing for a modicum of 'global governance'. But from inception this internationalist and democratic vision of the UN and its mandate had to contend with the reality of power politics.

An early manifestation of this was the decision by the major powers to keep the BWIs and the GATT separate from the UN _ a decision which had serious implications for global policy coordination and for democratic participation in important decision-making.

Global consciousness

While not fully conforming to the hopes of the most 'internationalist' of the post-war architects, the institutional framework that emerged and the policies pursued did in fact facilitate substantial progress.

Many of the hopes placed in the UN system materialised and the UN provided the political arena for and spearheaded the struggle for decolonisation of the countries of the Third World and their political emancipation.

Whatever its shortcomings, the existence of the UN as a global institution for all countries engendered a sense of being part of a global community and helped develop a global consciousness. For developing countries it engendered a feeling of participation and belonging.

During those years economic growth generated full employment and growing prosperity and facilitated acquisition of social rights in the North and steady development in many countries of the South.

Many UN bodies like UNCTAD and UNIDO were created to respond to needs articulated collectively by the developing countries and to help formulate international policies and mechanisms to improve the socio-economic situation of these countries.

High quality research and statistical work in the UN threw light on the functioning of the world economy and brought out its inequities and anomalies. These resulted in international agreements, policies and actions which became essential elements of international development and cooperation. A global development agenda emerged and became one of the key dimensions of the UN work.

But some of the South's demands for policies and actions to achieve economic justice appeared to challenge the current world economic and political relations and hence the immediate interests of the more economically powerful nations.

Efforts to translate these demands into practical UN commitments and work rarely received the enthusiastic support of the more powerful in the North and it was difficult, if not impossible, to reach consensus on proposals for international policies in the areas of commodities, transfer of technology and codes of conduct for TNCs, among others.

International cooperation to achieve macro-economic coordination was not a prominent issue and in any event, the developed countries considered them to be matters for discussion within the OECD.

But from the 1980s on, the attitude of some parts of the North to the UN began to harden and the growing disaffection could be related to the significant downturn in the global economic situation beginning in the 1980s _ largely the result of monetarist deflationary policies introduced by the North.

The actions of major powers vis-a-vis the UN have been inspired by more than the need to keep expenditure under control. There were consistent efforts to diminish key economic activities and initiatives within the UN system resulting in neutralising or undermining organisations not fully under their control.

'Today these are explicitly stated objectives.'

In particular, the South Centre points out, the UN's research, policy formulation and negotiating functions on the so-called 'hard' economic issues have been diminished and the UN has become marginalised from the main thrust of policy-making in areas such as international trade, development, finance and monetary issues. At the same time major policy matters relating to foreign investment, TNCs and transfer of technology are almost excluded from any international, let alone multilateral, consideration.

'Talking shops'

UNCTAD, with a mandate to work for world development and whose intellectual weight and capacity in so-called hard areas was widely acknowledged, has been deliberately diminished. Its ability to carry out economic and policy analysis of the required quality and quantity has been constrained and its ability to produce reasoned dissent from the broad policy line advocated by the IMF, World Bank and the WTO has been weakened. UNCTAD is now being remodelled to change the focus of its activities, while its position within the UN structure is being downgraded.

These changes reflect the G-7's aim of relegating this and other organisations to 'talking shops'.

'More ominously, the question is now being raised whether there is any need for UNCTAD at all, particularly an UNCTAD with a mandate to deal with world-wide development issues.'

Non-payment of financial contributions to the UN and associated organisations, pressures on secretariats and on personnel policies, and other tactics, including bilateral pressures on individual developing countries, are among the means used by some developed countries to exert influence and control over the UN organisations.

Serious financial crises have ensued, affecting programmes, staff morale and performance, and also the very independence of institutions.

No such constraints have been imposed on the BWIs _ which, not surprisingly, uphold the ideological approach and policy preferences of their major shareholders, the advanced industrial countries.

The BWIs have benefited from generous funding _ ironically coming from the earnings made in the countries of the South _ and have been able to expand their tasks, operations, staff and full-time consultants. As a result, the BWIs are judged to have a 'comparative advantage' over the UN in terms of their overall capacity in the field of economics, and their development research and policy work is deemed to carry greater authority.

'Thus the results of the past and present politically-motivated decisions concerning resource allocation are now used to advocate proposals concerning a formalised division of labour in the field of economics between the UN and the BWIs on grounds of so-called inefficiency and quality.'

Negative repercussions

Yet, the South Centre points out, the IMF and the World Bank _ always kept beyond the reach of democratic control _ have been deflected from their original aims and have been turned into instruments for controlling domestic policies of developing countries.

Their principal concern since the 1980s has been to try to assure regular debt service payments by indebted developing countries and to achieve this, by means of conditionality, they have imposed what the BWIs regard as appropriate domestic policies on developing countries.

The stabilisation and structural adjustment policies prescribed have resulted in a contraction of living standards and also in investment, with negative repercussions for future growth and development.

In other respects too, the BWIs have failed to act in the interests of the world economy as a whole. The economic policies of the world's leading economic powers in the 1980s, involving tight monetary but lax fiscal policies and resulting in substantial deflation, were highly detrimental to the smooth development of the world economy, besides having adverse effects on the developed countries themselves.

Socially explosive situation

'But because of the ownership and decision-making structures of the BWIs, the IMF is unable to carry out surveillance of the policies of developed countries in the interests of all UN members.'

In an increasingly complex and interdependent world, where policy choices are complex and decisions difficult to make, an economic ideology which advocates abandoning growth and development to the dictates of the market and suggests that it is in the interests of all, has attracted a number of adherents.

'But the evidence that would point to the success of such an extreme approach is highly elusive. The more fulsome neo-liberal economic policies adopted in so many developed and developing countries are resulting in major economic and social problems.. widening internal economic and social differences and, in many cases, actually worsening the situation of the poor in real terms.

'They are giving rise to socially explosive situations world-wide, within individual societies and across national borders. Moreover, such policies are also exacerbating the differences in wealth between nations, although in the process small sectors of the population in the poorer countries are becoming prosperous and part of the global affluent classes.'

Marketisation and liberalisation of the world economy, and dismantling of prudential regulations in place, have increased the difficulty of exercising economic control in any given economy in the interests of social objectives and full employment and a decent living wage or income have all too frequently been dropped as policy objectives.

Deregulation of the financial sector has had a widespread impact, with governments being overwhelmed by enormous transborder capital flows. Some of these flows are needed for financing world trade and to fund foreign direct investment.

But a very high percentage is speculative money in search of instant profit and, when subjected to such massive capital movements, even rich countries are unable to exercise control over their exchange and interest rates, and hence over their domestic prices and levels of activity and employment.

Paradoxically, while the current dominant paradigm has done so much to undermine and constrain the UN and its development-related work, the havoc being wreaked worldwide by rapid deregulation and liberalisation reinforces the case for reasserting the value of such work and the underlying objectives of the UN Charter.

The South Centre paper stresses that the debate about the future of the UN is taking place against a background of widespread scepticism about, if not hostility to, the UN resulting from false public images.

The UN is described as a sprawling and highly bureaucratised structure, which is excessively costly, mismanaged and inefficient, corrupt and with low quality staff. UN deliberations and documents are portrayed as words and paper of little value.

In contrast the BWIs are depicted as organisations of high quality and usefulness and purveyors of concrete help, and their technical papers, studies and reports as evidence of competence and dynamism. The high costs of these organisations are taken as normal.

The UN's main problems are seen as stemming from its huge membership, with a majority undisciplined and irresponsible, and this situation is contrasted with that of the 'more orderly' BWIs.

A political interest

A great deal of the UN's past performance is dismissed as of little value or simply misdirected. 'Such views are most forcefully articulated by those with a political interest in tarnishing the UN's image and the impression of failure and futility is widely conveyed by the media,' the South Centre charges.

This makes it easier to write off the UN as a body capable of working in the 'hard' areas of finance, trade and monetary arrangements and makes it easier for states who wish to do so, to argue that they should opt out of the existing modicum of collective, though hardly democratic, discipline in peacekeeping matters.

But the danger is that 'wholly inappropriate, if not dangerous, approaches to reform will be adopted and given institutional expression in the coming years', the South Centre warns.

'The UN's problems,' it points out, 'are, however, primarily political and substantive. They cannot be resolved by reforms largely confined to a management approach and mechanical transplantation of models, techniques and institutional approaches that correspond to, for example, transnational enterprises or national government.

'The UN is unique. Improvement and cost-effectiveness are certainly needed in many UN activities and departments, but the reform of the UN must also deal with the broader issues related to the roles and purpose of the UN. Its overall performance cannot be assessed on the basis of cost-benefit analysis.'

Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) from which the above article first appeared.