Today 24 October, the United Nations Day is being observed worldwide, commemorating the establishment of the world body in 1945. In 1971, the UN general assembly suggested that all the member states observe it as a public holiday, or more correctly, an international holiday. Although that has not become common, the day is widely observed, especially by schools and other educational institutions, government offices and non-governmental organizations. This year, Pakistan’s Prime Minister has also visited the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The UN and its dozens of specialized agencies, programmes and offices have a lot to celebrate with its member states. There are some heroes and many good workers. But there are also less good ones.

The most important task of the UN is to work for peace and a fairer world for individuals and groups. It places numerous issues on the public agenda: human rights issues; gender equality; poverty reduction, economic growth, trade and aid; mediation in wars and armed conflicts; assistance to refugees; and support to research, debate and advocacy in many fields.

Would other organizations have been able to do better than the UN? We are told not. But I sometimes wonder. I think that some things can only be done by a body like the UN, but most things can be done as well and better by others. Often, the UN must get out of the way; it does not have all the answers, and it must not speak with a know-it-all demeanor.

The UN has its own agendas, serving certain interests, including its own employees. The Security Council’s five permanent members belong to the winners of the Second World War, the UN headquarters is hosted by the world’s superpower, USA, and nobody becomes Secretary-General, or remains in the post, unless the superpower and the permanent members of the Security Council find him ‘safe’ and that he will serve their interests.

Whereas the UN works for greater equality and better living conditions for people, and for disarmament and peace, it doesn’t want major changes in the world’s power structures, and it does not want the world capitalist economic system to be challenged and changed; the Soviet Union realized that. The UN only wants to do certain things which are acceptable and within the thinking and interests of the West. True, it allows many opposite views, so that we may believe it is neutral, as long as new ideas don’t shatter the status quo drastically.

That means that the UN is not a democratic organization? I am afraid it does. It is democratic in certain Ways, but not in all. On the other hand, that is perhaps better than what is the case within most of the member states, one may say. But because the UN waves the flag and points fingers at so many countries and their actions, we have the right to expect that the UN itself is better than the rest – and better than its host country, which still plays ‘world police’ and tells others how to behave.

Sometimes, the UN stands in the way for other agencies and organizations to develop, and sometimes, other organizations and movements develop in spite of the UN. The latter was the case in the field of environmental awareness, for example, when Greenpeace started, and also when the women’s issues came on the agenda in the 1960s. Many peace organizations and movements have been ahead of the world body charged with safeguarding peace.

In the field of poverty reduction (or poverty eradication, as we are supposed to say after 2015), the UN has done a lot; the number of people living in abject poverty has gone down in absolute figures from about 1.9 to about 1.3 billion in the recent decades, although the gap between rich and poor has widened. 

But I wonder: would we perhaps have reached further if other and more militant organizations had taken the lead, notably labour unions, socialist groups and social democratic parties? Would we have seen better organizations dealing with refugees than UNHCR, servicing some but not all of the world’s high number of 45 million displaced people and being unable to find solutions for the ‘warehoused’ refugees in protracted situations living without hope?

Bob Geldof, the Irish pop singer cum political activist may have done more in creating awareness among people, especially in the West, about the unfair world order we keep up than the UN Social and Economic Council, UNCTAD, UNDP, and so on. Bob Geldof is highly respected for his anti-poverty efforts, especially in Africa. When a pop singer can do such a marvelous job, how come the UN could not do it, fulfilling one its mandate’s main mandates, along with peace? There are many wars in our time, including wars sanctioned by the UN in our next-door countries, and the ‘war on terror’ in Pakistan. The UN speaks against the drone attacks but does little to stop them. Should they not do better?

In education and the other social sectors, how come there are still some sixty million school-age children not going to school in the world, and others dropping out early. There are hundreds of millions not receiving adequate health services, not even in the field of reproductive health, not to speak of substance abuse, mental health and work-related diseases. There are terrible shortcomings in the management and planning of urban development, with slums mushrooming in the world’s growing cities, metropolises and mega cities.

It is interesting that Malala Yusafzai, yes, with her advisers, seems to be able to place education for all girls and boys higher on the agenda than all the UN agencies ever did – with their tens of thousands overpaid and overeducated staff!

In agriculture and rural development, the UN has done terrible mistakes for many decades, especially if we include the World Bank in the UN system, as we should do, since it is actually a specialized UN agency, but it has been allowed to run lose, since that is in America’s and other Western powers’ interest. The advice given, even by ‘the farmers’ own UN agency’, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been as much to the benefit of the producers of fertilizers, government tax collectors and ‘crop authorities’, as the farmers. Technological developments have rarely been made to benefit women in spite of two-thirds of the farmers being women!

Dr. Kjell Havnevik, a professor in Sweden says that it would have been better if the governments and the UN had left the farmers alone! This is based on evidence from his own thirty-year long research in Tanzania and elsewhere. Today, land grabbing is again a major problem for peasants and farms; they are yet again being pushed aside and their livelihoods taken from them. Farooq Khan, a Norwegian educated rural sociologist and gender specialist, says that the lack of management of seeds is a particularly serious problem faced by farmers and shattering food security. It is mainly in the hands of businessmen and multinationals.

Although there are many good UN offices and staff members, the effectiveness and efficiency of the UN is not good enough. Sadly, the UN conglomerate seems to toe the line of the politicians and bureaucrats at their headquarters; they don’t want to rock the boat, even if they say otherwise. And worse, they actually often help the rich to become richer, the multinationals, the private sector, the rich countries, and the elites in the poor countries.

Perhaps it would have been better if the UN agencies had got out of the way and let other organizations develop, locally and internationally? That point is my contribution to the debate on the role and function of the world body on this year’s United Nations Day – a smaller and more focused UN, with many other intergovernmental, non-governmental and especially local organizations and government offices to do the real job. Nobody can really do advocacy on behalf of those who are oppressed; true, they need high-up partners, including in the UN and the government cabinet offices. But the real fight for a fairer and more just world can only be done by those women and men who are downtrodden and oppressed themselves.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.