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By Gray Southon, Vice President
United Nations Association of New Zealand
From a casual observation of the international news one can easily come to the conclusion that the world is rapidly deteriorating - with election riots in Kenya and Pakistan, civil degeneration in the Pacific Islands, Islamic extremists threatening our civilisation and climate change threatening our existence. Food and water are becoming increasingly scarce threatening war, and nuclear weapons are at risk of falling into the hand of terrorists.
Yet, underneath all this is a slow but steady transformation of the international scene that is changing the very basis of the exercise of power and the way that decisions about the future are made; changes that we can use to increase the chances of a much safer and prosperous future for our children if we develop the skills and commit the resources required. In short: the world is slowly progressing towards a global alliance for common development.
This progress engages a wide range of forces and influences, including nearly all governments, a vast array of civilian organisations (usually called Non Government Organisations or NGOs) such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, World Vision and Greenpeace, and an increasing number of commercial corporations. Progress is only partial and imperfect, but when one looks at how the world has changed, even over the last few decades, one can see clear progress. One can see substantial reductions in poverty, deaths due to war and disease, and an increase in democracies and wealth. Despite the news we receive, the regions of the world in which military conflict is rare are vast, including most of Europe, East Asia and North and South America. Even in Africa the level of conflict has dropped substantially over the last few years. Human Rights, in contrast to the rights of states, have advanced enormously.
Darfur is a case in point. Compare what happened twenty years ago when Pol Pot was slaughtering his people. The international community did nothing, it ostracised the Vietnamese for stopping it, and continued to recognise Pol Pot for ten years afterwards. The preservation of sovereignty clearly took preference over the security of people. Now the same conflict is being fought on very different terms. After many years of indecision, nations have overcome their concern about sovereignty sufficiently to launch a major military operation in Darfur with the support of the African Union. We have learned from the catastrophes of Rwanda and Srebrenica, and our ability to help countries overcome their long legacies of conflict is rapidly advancing, with substantial beneficial results, particularly in Africa.
This alliance is addressing issues far beyond the prevention of conflict. In the year 2000 a 15 year program of addressing global poverty was approved by the vast majority of world governments in a forum attended by most heads of state. While this program is still far short of its goals, it has been an inspiration and a guiding force for many development programs by governments and NGOs. This program, called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), was validated and advanced in 2005 in a forum of 170 heads of state, and continues to progress.
There are many other broadly based programs promoting economic development: the rights of women, enhancement of families, development of cities, public health, agriculture and many more. These are long running programs, bringing together many interested parties and helping people to work together across countries to advance human welfare. We hear much about the Climate Change program, which is in fact a culmination of over twenty years of work to develop our understanding of what was happening, and to engage governments and other parties in responding to the threat. This program builds on the success of a parallel program which has already been successful in banning ozone killing gasses and has brought about the prospect of the reversal of the ozone depletion.
Such initiatives are often slow, complex and uneven, and beset by many problems. They are being undertaken in the context of continuing corruption, state failures, exercise of national power, political self-interest and terrorist activities. Achievements and actions seldom meet the ideals and commitments made, and motives are never pure. New problems such as resource depletion and climate change attract attention, and failures and catastrophes capture the headlines, making the broader historic shifts in global structures difficult to identify and explain. Cynics find it much more satisfying to trumpet the failures than to acknowledge the successes. It is rarely understood that we are now working with a level of international cooperation and operational capabilities that was inconceivable just a few decades ago.
Seldom recognised, it is that strange, flawed organisation called the United Nations that is at the centre of it all. Many find it difficult to conceive that a collection of self-seeking governments, many of which are basket cases themselves, working through diplomats, administering organisations run by international bureaucrats, could possibly produce something of global significance. Many see the UN as a failure because it is still far short of achieving its goals in sixty years of existence.
What the UN has achieved is that its ideals have been placed firmly on the international agenda, and it has gone far beyond these ideals to be a focus of a multiplicity of initiatives addressing common global issues. The impact of the UN goes far beyond the organisation itself, to be a guiding, stimulating and coordinating influence to an enormous number of other parties: governments, NGO's, corporations and individuals. Polio, for instance, had been almost eliminated by Rotary International working with the UN.
Furthermore, these parties are also having an impact on UN initiatives and UN forums such as the Bali Conference, and many other similar and smaller forums. These forums provide contexts in which participants can exchange ideas, influence each other and develop a possible way forward. This process provides us with a host of opportunities to be part of the action, to help the international community to achieve its goals, and for us to gain benefit from it.
Of course there is corruption, ineptitude, bureaucracy, exploitation and waste - inevitable with any massive human endeavour, especially when undertaking something as new and as far-reaching as the UN is attempting. However, these problems do not negate the contributions of the thousands of energetic, creative and constructive staff and volunteers working for and with the UN at all levels. These are the realities that we must work with, and do what we can to enhance the value coming from them.
We are fortunate to have a government that recognises the value of the UN and its associated activities, and New Zealand has made significant contributions over the years. But our politicians seem reluctant to promote this policy in public, and the government provides quite limited resources for its activities. There is much more to be done to promote the skills required at all levels in the country to work with this new environment, and to ensure that all appropriate groups are adequately tuned in to it.
It is not just a question of "doing the right thing as an international citizen" - it is a matter of our own interests. Our future depends on an effective UN. We have much to gain from being energetic contributors to international forums, and to maximise the benefit to us from them. New Zealand has the capability and the reputation to be real leaders in a world alliance for global development.