There were five American editors at my dinner table that evening. As the coffee was being served, I tossed a question: “If a great tidal wave rose and washed away the entire United Nations system, what would you miss? What agencies would you like to rebuild?” I was agreeably surprised that they didn´t deflect my question in a flurry of smart wisecracks as journalists are apt to come up with when faced with anything that sounds “worthy” or heavy. This group took my question seriously and offered a thoughtful list of UN agencies that would be missed if they were washed away.
WIPO, the World Intellectual Properties Organisation, which deals with patents and copyrights; ITU, the International Telecommunications Union, which allocates airwaves for message transmission; JCAO, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which sets and maintains standards for international airlines; WMO, the World Meteorological Organisation, which watches over and interprets weather patterns; IMO, the International Maritime Organisation, which monitors the world´s shipping lines.
That was it Those are the functional bodies of the international system. The business of the world would grind to a halt without them. The general public — most of the 5,6 billion who constitute that hydra-headed mass — take those functions for granted and do not know that such organisations exist. But the international media, international traders, and the international transport companies are quite aware of the value of those relatively small and unpublicized United Nations agencies.
The man from The New York Times read the disappointment, even chagrin, on my face.
“Maybe Unicef too,” he suggested. “Because I´m from Unicef? I asked. “No. Because children have no advocate. Children have no votes, no power,” he replied. It was a good, humane thought worth dwelling on. But I let it go and asked; “What about the United Nations proper? The UN´s peacekeeping functions?”
“Rubbish,” said my friend from The Washington Post. “All the pandering to (he Soviets. All those nyets from Gromyko. All that non-aligned hypocrisy. Cuba is non-aligned? Zionism is racism? The Jew-baiting never stops, does it?”
Those were the Waldheim days. The whole world knew that the angular Austrian was only concerned about staying on top of that bureaucratic dunghill, which old rubber mouth.
Mayor Koch of New York, used to call “that cesspool”. The West had become totally disenchanted with the peace-keeping performance they had set up in 1945 to prevent the resurgence of fascism. They had found a new enemy in international communism and what they thought of as a Third World conspiracy abetted by the Soviet Union to undermine capitalism, the very basis of western civilisation
— which, according to them, was the only civilisation that counted. It would take 15 more years before the Americans could bludgeon another Secretary-General and a sufficient number of Security Councilors to declare “just war” in the name of the United Nations. As in Korea, the international community, now some 30member States of the United Nations, scurried behind the American flag to beat up on a small country, this time their recent friend whom they had armed to the teeth over the previous decade. Saddam Hussein, who had acted throughout his regime with obduracy and pointed ruthlessness, was easy to demonise. That done, they went merrily to war to defend the sovereignty of an oil company with a flag, owned by a desert sheikh, in the name of democracy.
The western media crowed. The United Nations had, at long last, rehabilitated itself. It was now fulfilling the ideals of its Founders: it was serving Washington´s bidding once again.
But what about the United Nations agencies? Washington Had twisted the arms of Japan, Britain and Singapore to denounce UNESCO as the cat´s-paw of Soviet-influenced Third World countries, and to withdraw their financial support to it. Washington had also reneged on its support for the UN Population Fund, which had been established under pressure from American demographers and their attendant propagandists who feared that unless the birthrate of pick an innies could be halted, the resources of their world would be gobbled up. The reason given for this betrayal of their own baby agency, to mix an ironic metaphor, was that the Fund was financing abortion programmes of China, which was pursuing a one child per family policy. Ronald Reagan´s fuzzy head, bending over to offer-political to the new breed of rednecks — the Right to Lifers — declared that if the question of population growth was left to free market forces, everything would be tickety-boo.
Other UN agencies too—FAO, WHO and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees — were smeared by that septic Think Tank called the Heritage Foundation which had oozed out of the mud in the Reagan years to take us back to the sort of primordial barbarism they favoured in international policy.
But, alas, there was no public outcry loud enough to stand up to this sort of regressivism. Why? Simply because the public had scarcely ever been told what the truth was about these public issues, and what the UN agencies were trying to do to deal with hunger, disease, poverty, excessively rapid population growth, and a myriad of other global ills. And who was to blame for that? We, of course. We, the journalists. Our business is to investigate the public agencies that are financed by the tax dollars of people, and to regularly keep track of their performance. National governments are answerable to their constituencies. The UN has no global constituency to answer to. It is only answerable to the press. But the press doesn´t give a hoot to the work of the UN agencies.
In every UN center—New York, Geneva, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Bangkok, Nairobi and Santiago—there are packs of reporters covering the meetings and events held in those marble halls where a whole range of issues from Environment to Children Under Difficult Circumstances are being discussed and programmes formulated. But there is no professional proving of these processes. And when they do write, very little of it sees the light of print or the TV screen. There is an acronym used in Ameriean newsrooms about stories on poverty and ´development MEGO. It stands for Mine Eyes Glaze Over. Boring. Bureaucratic bumbling. Balderdash. Jargon-laden junk. Cant about Time Frames, Paradigm shifts, Dynamic Development and a thousand other inventions of die art of discommunication. The reporters do not take the trouble to try and unravel these balls of verbal wool to expose their emptiness. Nor do they pin down their authors in those cubicles they skulk in, and get them to explain how they earn their keep. None of those plans they produce are explored for their labyrinthine processes, nor is the outcome ever assessed by journalists with skill or the zeal with which they pursue the sexual peccadillos of presidential candidates. No wonder their editors´ eyes glaze over.
No. It will not do. We need a United Nations system which works. We cannot allow UN agency bureaucrats to hide their light — or blight — under those is communicative phrases and bulky reports. There is a lot of talk at the United Nations these days about transparency. Good. But there will be no transparency and no public knowledge about the realities of this intensely intermeshed world unless the daily buck-shot of professional questions is fired at the agencies through which the United Nations works. We journalists have not reported the United Nations well in the past 45 years. It is time we did.