Reinvigorating The UN? – OpEd
Whatever corner of the world one happens to live in, the most pressing issues of the day affect everyone. Pandemics/epidemics and the environmental emergency; war and terrorism; poverty and food insecurity; overpopulation and the displacement of persons. Such crises cannot be limited by borders or controlled by nation states; no government or corporate power can manage them. They are interconnected global issues and they require a coordinated global response.
Drawn together by economic interest or shared geo-political concerns various allied groupings and regional alliances exist in the world. While such assemblies present the possibility of nations unifying, self-interest, ideology and partisanship dominates the approach of many governments’ to global problems: achieving consensus is rare, and consistent implementation of agreements even more so. And with the rise of tribal nationalism in recent years, led by major nations like America, Russia and China, the space for cooperation and unity has been further eroded, the major issues of the times ignored, or in many cases enflamed.
The United Nations: What now?
In addition to highlighting a range of social inequalities the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasized the need for nations to work cooperatively in response to global issues, under the coordinated stewardship of an international body. One that is free from political ideology is non-partisan and works to build the broadest level of consensus.
Established in 1945 at the end of World War II, The United Nations (UN), with its range of 15 specialized agencies is the obvious body to take on such an expanded, essential role. Not by adopting powers of governance over member states. But by being invested with a new status based on the recognition that certain issues demand unified strategic action and the understanding that the future of individual countries rests upon the health and stability of the whole.
Like all global organizations the UN is imperfect and reforms are needed, but it represents a high point in human achievement and the world is a richer place for its existence. Since its inception million of people have been fed, educated and cared for by UN agencies. Its overall aim is, “the maintenance of international peace and security.” However, with member states pursuing their own ideologically fuelled agenda’s and with limited or no influence to tackle the underlying causes of conflict, this has proven impossible. One of the most significant accomplishments in the history of the UN is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in 1948. It includes the right to not be enslaved, the right to free expression, the right to food and shelter and the right to seek asylum from persecution.
Despite the fact that many of the rights expressed remain unrealized the existence of the UDHR is crucially important, establishing a clear set of rights for every human being in the world. And, as we move into a new time, the UDHR could serve as a guiding template for systemic change, in particular the rights outlined in article 25, which states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
Within the UN there are a range of relevant departments concerned with the global issues outlined, agencies that are overflowing with expertise and people of goodwill. But whether it’s the UNHCR (working with refugees), the WHO or the UN Environment agency, all to often their efforts to act for the benefit of those they serve are inhibited by the power exerted by the 15-member Security Council, in particular the permanent five (P5), by the self-centered short -term approach of member states, lack of funding and a somewhat ambiguous world role.
Agents of Change
At the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO works to bring about “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health… physical, mental and social well-being.” And much has been achieved in the 70 years since it was set up. But in developing regions (where nations cannot fund health care adequately) access to medical support is extremely limited and, as in countries where health care is not (freely) provided by the state, the quality of treatment received by patients is conditioned by their economic status. The agency has been criticized by some, most notably President Trump (who has now withdrawn US funding), for failing to act quickly enough over Covid-19. Certainly mistakes were made. The worldwide response to the virus, however, should have been coordinated by the WHO; consistent methodologies followed – while being adapted to specific populations – with clear messages and detailed scientific information. Instead, nations turned within and formulated their own approach.
Together with the IPCC, UN Environment has potentially the most important role of any UN agency. But their aim to encourage partnership in “caring for the environment” is frustrated by the forces of commercialization and the consumer obsessed way of life relentlessly promoted by corporate governments and followed by the mass of humanity. Governments are fixated on ‘growth’, and ‘caring for the environment’ is a secondary consideration, if considered at all. “Reducing food insecurity and rural poverty” is the concern of the UN food agency (UNFAO). Around 2 billion people in the world are estimated to be ‘food insecure’, of which, just under a billion ‘don’t have enough to eat’. The world is vastly overpopulated; common estimates suggest that the planet can comfortably support 3.5 – 4 billion people, but currently the global population stands at 7.8 billion. There is however food enough for everyone; starvation and malnourishment are fundamentally problems of poverty and distribution, not over-population, although this is a significant issue which is having a devastating impact on the natural environment.
Peace, hunger, displacement, environment, health care, every issue is interconnected, one impacting on the other. All arise from and are intensified by the all-pervasive unjust socio-economic system. Everything and all areas of life have become commodified and commercialized, including the natural environment, food, health care and education. No money no food, no cash no health care, no income poor or non-existent education and sub-standard housing. As a means of organizing the socio-economic life of humanity, promoting human wellbeing and environmental health it is utterly deficient, detrimental in fact. And whatever bailouts and stimulus programs are concocted to mop up the Covid economic spillage it is a system in decay; a vessel running on empty, propelled only by the momentum of the past.
Key to overcoming the global issues here outlined and bringing about socio-economic change is the introduction of sharing, together with a reinvigorated expanded United Nations. Most people and many nations are poor, or poorly off, but the world is rich, overflowing; it is an abundant world and everyone is entitled to benefit from its collective riches.
Sharing as a principle of living needs to be planted in all areas of life, a unifying seed of goodness infusing all systems and modes of living. This will require the establishment of a new UN agency (‘The United Nations Office for Sharing (UNOS)’ perhaps) and eventually the dissolution of the Security Council, which is currently the most powerful arm of the UN.
The new agency would design systems of sharing and oversee the equitable distribution, firstly of food and water, then, through a massive volunteer program, of other resources that are held collectively, including knowledge, skills, creativity. Sharing is an extraordinarily potent quality, both an action and an attitude of mind. It is an expression of trust and an acknowledgment of our oneness, it encourages cooperation and cultivates trust, and when there is trust much can be achieved between individuals and groups. It a vibrant force for good and its time has come.
All countries are deficient in some areas, but as humanity begins to function as a World community, the needs of everyone can be met; all that is required is that we acknowledge the needs of all and learn to share. And although the current systems work against such commonsensical ways, through the application of creative thinking and goodwill, coordinated by a revitalized unifying UN, much can be achieved.