The United Nations and its discontents: an academic view.

Author:Malone, David M.
Position:The United Nations at 70

For most people, reaching 70 allows them to look back on accomplishments and hopefully provides some reprieve from worrying about the future. For the United Nations, there is no such luxury.

Despite having achieved an enviable milestone, the 70th anniversary of the United Nations is coloured by dissatisfaction among Member States and the charge of unmet expectations from various quarters.

This brief essay cannot disentangle truth from perception. It aims instead to highlight key elements of the United Nations track record in its main areas of work (development, peace and security, and human rights) and to identify challenges to its global authority that it must address to survive another 70 years.

Among these are questions surrounding the future leadership and constitution of the Organization, and its management culture.


During the era of decolonization the United Nations had to support newly independent countries that had been pauperized and misgoverned by colonial powers. The legacy of this trauma produced megalomania, kleptocracy and, most often, disregard for sound administration in several among the first generation of post-independence Governments. The results in many cases were dire.

The modest efforts of the United Nations at programming are not what distinguishes the Organization in the area of development. There are two exceptions to this. First, highly specialized United Nations entities with both technical expertise and operational depth, such as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme, are leaders in their areas. Second, in fragile conflict-affected States, the United Nations and the development assistance channelled through its agencies play a vital role.

However, the greatest contributions of the United Nations to development remain arguably at the level of ideas, from the notion of targeting a campaign to end smallpox to the emergence of the concept of human development. A well-conceived attack on the Washington Consensus highlighted the need for social policies and programmes to be given equal weight alongside fiscal and monetary ones, a view now widely shared within the international financial institutions themselves. It resulted in "Adjustment with a Human Face", a formulation that originated in UNICEF.

The United Nations leadership in the area of ideas--hard-won territory--is at some risk. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) exercise, initiated at the 2012 Rio+20 Conference, has yielded distressingly expansive results, enshrined in a draft list of goals and targets (more a catalogue than a reasoned effort at an achievable plan of action) that Member States are expected to officially adopt at a summit in September 2015. When that happens, parliaments and Governments the world over may be surprised to find themselves committed to up to 169 development targets. This outcome reflects a pattern of depressingly confrontational intergovernmental debates at the United Nations on development. Even as billions have grown out of poverty in Africa and Asia, and as Latin America's social policy innovations have spread around the world, delegations in New York have mostly articulated political grievances rather than bold...

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