Today United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will mark the launch of UN Ideas That Changed the World at the UN headquarters in New York. In the capstone volume of the acclaimed United Nations Intellectual History Project Series, co-authors Richard Jolly, Louis Emmerij, and Thomas G. Weiss draw upon the findings in the other 14 books in the series and assess the development and implementation of UN ideas regarding sustainable economic development and human security.
Before the book launch at the UN, I spoke with UN Ideas co-author Richard Jolly about his book, the United Nations Intellectual History Project Series, and his career with the UN. Jolly is Honorary Professor and Research Associate of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex and co-director of the United Nations Intellectual History Project (UNIHP). He was an Assistant Secretary General of the UN, holding senior positions in UNICEF and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for nearly 20 years. Jolly is also architect of the widely-acclaimed Human Development Report.
IU Press blog: You’ve had a long and distinguished career with the UN. Why did you decide to join the UN?
Richard Jolly: Actually, I was invited to join the UN in mid-career, having spent my life until then working in economic development in different countries, at the IDS research institute and sometimes as a UN consultant. Then in 1981, I was approached by Jim Grant, the American Executive Director of UNICEF and asked if I would be interested to join him as his Deputy. I was delighted though only when I was part of UNICEF did I realize how it was such a wonderful part of the wider UN, with a great record of leadership and effective action for children throughout the world.
Tell us about the United Nations Intellectual History Project and why it was created.
A decade ago, there was virtually no record of the history of the UN’s work on the economic and social side. UNICEF had done its own history—and there was a little on WHO and FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization]—but that was about it. A distinguished UN economist, Sidney Dell, was well aware of the need and in the 1980s had mapped out a comprehensive study of 20 volumes—but had never managed to get the support needed. So about ten years ago Tom Weiss, Louis Emmerij and I managed to mobilize interest, finance and many expert and willing co-workers to take on a comprehensive study focused on the ideas which the UN has developed and which have guided its work. We promised 14 volumes—and we have now completed all of them—plus 3 more which were proposed to us along the way. Interested bloggers can find details of this background on our website www.unhistory.org under "briefing notes".
What are some of the most successful contributions that the UN has made to the world? On the flip side, what are some of the UN’s failed ideas, and what has the UN learned from its mistakes?
We list the nine central UN ideas in the book and on our website. The successful include the very idea of human rights for all, the four world conferences for women promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, development goals, much work struggling for fairer international economic relations, leadership on strategies for economic and social development at country level—and an evolving and far-seeing agenda for environmental sustainability. On the peace making and peace-keeping side the UN’s contributions and agenda have also evolved from innovative ideas for preventive diplomacy to deal with the risks of state conflict to recent work on human security to protect individuals. Too few of us remember or are aware of these UN roles—for instance of the UN Secretary General, U Thant, playing a crucial role in ending the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when the world so nearly was engulfed in nuclear conflagration. Failures? There have been, of course, many times when the UN has been slow or inadequate or just plain wrong. Our examples included the UN’s response to HIV/AIDS—which we describe as too little and too late—its weak response to the special needs of the poorest countries and its general neglect of the widening gaps in income distribution, globally and nationally. It has also given too little attention to global issues of culture and identities.
What were your criteria for assessing if an UN idea was a success or failure?
Assessing success or failure is not easy. We devote much of chapter 12 to this in assessing the impact of UN ideas and, indeed, how ideas achieve impact: by changing the way issues or problems are perceived, by defining agendas for action, by providing a focus round which governments or NGOs can apply pressures for action—and being embodied in institutions which work for follow up.
What are some examples of UN ideas that have been “ahead of the curve”?
Most of the UN’s successful ideas were ahead of the curve when first presented. The idea of human rights for all was truly revolutionary when embodied in the Charter and then elaborated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time, millions of blacks in the US could not vote, the UK had its colonies and the Soviet Union had its gulags. So for the UN to come up with a universal perspective on human rights was totally ahead of its time. But gradually, as with other UN ideas, those which were born in controversy and sometimes hypocrisy have taken on more and more influence. The book outlines how this has been true of most of the other “big nine” UN ideas.
What do you think of Edmund Conway’s recent blog in the Telegraph that claims it’s too late to implement the UN’s plans for a new monetary world system?
I liked Edmund Conway’s September commentary on the recent UNCTAD report. This report proposed a new monetary system based on rules and regulations for managed flexible exchange rates. Conway made a number of excellent points about the UNCTAD proposals and he recognized the inadequacy of the limited and often feeble proposals for reform emerging from groups such as the G-8 and the G-20. Our UN history suggests an important qualification to his pessimism about whether the UNCTAD proposals have unfortunately come too late. Conway seems to allow little for what may happen as the global economy’s center of gravity shifts towards the emerging countries. Over the next decade, China and others of the East with financial clout may increasingly question and demand changes in the present international monetary system. Our UN history suggests that such changes occur more rapidly than many realize. Perhaps one day we may look back to the UNCTAD proposals and count them as another UN idea which was “ahead of the curve”.
In the book, you discuss the “Three UNs.” What does this term mean?
The 3rd UN is the groups of NGOs, consultants, professors and others who are closely following what goes on in the UN—but from the outside. When we asked ourselves how UN ideas gained traction it was often because of pressures from the 3rd UN. At that point, the 1st UN—member governments—and the 2nd UN—staff members—began to take UN ideas and proposals more seriously. This is what happened with early ideas like human rights, which have gradually moved from declaration to implementation and to more recent ideas like environmental sustainability, climate change and other ideas like debt relief for poorer countries. We had initial doubts about the concept of the 3rd UN, but by the final volume, had made it a central part of our analysis.
What are some of the most important challenges and issues that the UN faces in the next decade?
We list a top ten: tackling climate change; strengthening global governance in a multi-polar world; supporting fragile states; balancing regionalism with globalization; moderating inequalities in global development; responding to population growth and international migration; bridging international divides of culture and identities; shifting the focus of security from states to individuals; incorporating human rights and cultures into development; and improving the quality of education worldwide, especially in relation to understanding and tolerance.
What would you say to critics who question the relevance of the UN?
Find out more about what the UN has done and achieved. In our own evaluation, we consider two alternative scenarios, “counterfactuals” in academic jargon: a world without the UN and its ideas and a world with a more efficient and effective UN. There are many ways in which the UN can and needs to do better—but a world without the UN would be poorer, less humane, more risky and more dangerous.
What future projects are in store for the UNIHP?
After 10 years, we have done our bit. The UN Intellectual History Project is over, apart from giving presentations and joining in debates which we will over the coming months. Again see our website. But of course, there is much more to be done, history is ongoing—and the need to learn the lessons from history is endless. But now this is for others. We wish them luck.