The United Nations celebrated its 75th anniversary last week. It is an opportune time to reflect on the organisation’s major contributions as well as some of the challenges it faces.
The UN’s achievements over the years are numerous. It has facilitated major multilateral agreements, promoted peace-building, and prevented a nuclear face-off during the Cold War period. It has also initiated several ambitious global goal-setting projects on climate and sustainable development.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Paris Agreement to combat climate change and adapt to its effects and the 2030 Agenda with its accompanying 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are illustrative recent examples in this context. The UN has also tried to promote the notion of universal human rights – the idea that there are certain moral principles that almost all societies value or should value.
The recent Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the World Food Programme, moreover, illustrates the important contribution the UN has made to responding to humanitarian crises in many parts of the world.
For much of its existence, the UN General Assembly in particular has been considered by developing countries to be an important global arena to voice their grievances. This is in contrast to the UN Security Council, which only has one member (China) representing the developing world. Apart from the complaints of inadequate representation in this influential organ, many developing countries want the UN to be even more active in advancing their needs and demands for economic development and poverty reduction.
Some of the recent criticism of the organisation has been directed at the slow progress of the SDGs and the UN’s inability to boldly confront major world powers on issues ranging from climate change and development finance. Indeed, some critics highlight the geopolitical divisions that have adversely impacted the effectiveness of the UN and point to the recent spat between the United States and China over funding of the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a case in point.
Still others point to the institutional “sprawl”—the proliferation of UN agencies, funds, and programmes in recent decades—which has undermined the organisation’s effectiveness. Certain member States have often used this argument to justify cuts to the UN budget.
But is there really an alternative to the UN? And what would the world have looked like had we not had the UN? This is where some scholars like Ramesh Thakur have recently argued that the UN is both an idea and an organisation. Thus, while much of the criticism has been on the organisational aspects, the idea of one global entity working for world peace and development remains appealing to many.