Detractors often call the United Nations (UN) a “talking shop” of 192 nations where, it has memorably been said, “no issue is too small to be debated endlessly”.
But the real UN, almost invisible to the general public, is the action-oriented UN. This real UN feeds 90 million people in more than 70 countries—forming a thin blue line between hungry people and starvation. It wipes out debilitating diseases such as smallpox and polio, and vaccinates 40% of the world’s children. It provides $2 billion annually in emergency disaster relief and maintains the second largest army in the world—a global peacekeeping force of 120,000 men and women who go where others can’t or won’t go.
In my travels, often to the world’s most difficult places, I always try to meet the faces behind these facts and figures. At a film festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, US, I recently introduced a few of them to Hollywood screenwriters and directors who wanted to learn more about the UN.
One was a young Canadian woman from Unicef, the UN agency dedicated to the protection, well-being and rights of children the world over. Her name: Pernille Ironside. Her job: to go with a small team into the eastern wilds of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). There she confronts warlords and demands that they give up their “child soldiers”—boys, and sometimes girls, as young as eight or 10 years old— who have been recruited or kidnapped to fight in the country’s long-running guerrilla wars. Often as not, she succeeds. Over the past few years, the UN mission in the DRC has secured the release of 32,000 of an estimated 35,000 such children. Pernille hopes to win back the rest by the end of this year.
Another was Kathi Austen, a UN arms trafficking expert who has spent much of the past decade tracking illegal weapons smugglers operating in the DRC and other conflict zones across Africa. Partly as a result of her dogged efforts, the alleged leader of one of the world’s largest trafficking networks, Viktor Bout, was recently arrested on terrorism charges in Thailand.
Ishmael Beah, a Unicef advocate for children affected by war, told of his life as a child soldier during the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone. Thanks to a UN rehabilitation programme, he not only survived but thrived, eventually finding his way to the US where he attended Oberlin College and wrote a best-seller about his experiences.
A young woman from Sierra Leone, Mariatu Kamara, told her story as well. At the age of 12, rebels killed her parents and, as happened to many thousands of other children, cut off both her hands. With the UN’s help, she too survived. She is now living with an adoptive family in Toronto and going to college. She returns periodically to her homeland to share her story and raise awareness about the work Unicef does around the world.
In my job, I meet many other faces of this real UN, seldom so famous but no less selfless or dedicated. Indeed, our most important work is often the least visible.
Visiting West Africa this spring, I saw UN teams in Liberia struggling to help the government restore the most basic social services after years of war: electricity, water, sanitation, schools. In Ivory Coast, I met UN advisers helping a nation divided by conflict to hold elections and usher in an era of genuine and enduring democracy.
In Burkina Faso, just south of the advancing Sahara desert, the UN has been bringing diesel generators to rural villages without power. The machines are used to grind grain, alleviating hunger; they can recharge cellphones, allowing farmers to be in touch with regional markets and help them decide what and when to plant. Usually, these small enterprises are run by women’s collectives, giving them new authority and status in their communities. Through such small actions, we change the world.
Sometimes, I wonder how it is that I, growing up as the poorest of Korean youngsters in a village destroyed by war, not always knowing where my family’s next meal would come from, could one day be part of this noble enterprise.
As for the Talk Shop on Turtle Bay, site of UN headquarters in New York, let us remember that talking sometimes achieves things, too.
It’s the talk that put UN peacekeepers on the ground in 18 countries on four continents. It’s the talk that raises the money and mandates the programmes that feed so many of the world’s hungry. It’s the talk that marks the world’s first steps towards dealing with climate change, the global food crisis and a daily array of humanitarian crises.
The convening power of the UN is the ultimate “soft power” on the globe.
©2008/The New York Times
(Ban Ki-Moon is secretary general of the United Nations. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org)