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Why the MCG will turn UN blue on Saturday

In The Age, 19 October 2015    

The MCG, Exhibition Building and Federation Square – along with the Eiffel Tower, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Pyramids, Empire State Building and innumerable other famous landmarks around the world –  will be bathed in pale blue light this Saturday night. It’s all part of a global campaign to ‘Turn the World UN Blue’ to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.

Melbourne’s commitment to celebrating this milestone reflects the instinctive understanding and respect most Australians have always had for the UN’s majestic founding principles: ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’, to ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights’ and to ‘promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’. 

Our embrace of this anniversary also reflects the important role Australia played at the UN’s creation in 1945, and the significant contributions to the UN’s effectiveness that have been made by most of our national governments since, not least in the periods we have sat on the Security Council. 

As I know better than most, many of the UN family of institutions can be deeply frustrating to work with, and are long overdue for structural and administrative reform.  But, at its best the UN is an exhilarating force for good.

Who could forget – I certainly can’t – those scores of thousands of Cambodians lined up at the polling stations in 1993 as the UN peace plan was initiated, knowing the risk of Khmer Rouge bomb attack, but thrilled at the prospect of normality at last, and the chance to have some say at last in how they lived their lives. 

Who could downplay the significance of the General Assembly, on the UN’s 60th anniversary, unanimously endorsing the concept of states’ responsibility to protect populations at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes, in a resolution which turned on its head centuries-old notions of the immunity of sovereign states from international action when doing terrible things within their own borders?

Who could deny the contribution to a safer and saner world of the UN-negotiated treaty outlawing chemical weapons?  Or of the UN’s peace-keepers – over 120,000 of them now holding the line in sixteen different conflict areas? Or of the multiple successful programs administered by UN bodies like UNICEF, the  World Food Program and WHO in health, education, poverty alleviation, disaster relief, refugee protection, people and drug trafficking, heritage protection, and environmental  protection?  Or of all the agencies involved in setting universally accepted standards in areas such as aviation, shipping and telecommunications?

What most people don’t begin to appreciate is how really very little, comparatively, all this costs. The core functions of the UN (leaving aside the peacekeeping missions but counting everything that goes on in the headquarters in New York; the UN offices in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi; and the five regional commissions spread around the world) currently involve the employment of some 41,000 people at a cost of US $2.75 billion a year).  

That sounds a lot, but maybe not quite so much when you realise that the Tokyo Fire Department spends nearly as much as that each year, the Australian Department of Human Services (with fewer staff) about $3.5 billion more, and New York City about US$75 billion more.

If you add these core functions the UN’s related programs and organs (like the UN Development Programme and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) and its peacekeeping activities the total UN system cost is still just around US$30 billion a year.

Which again sounds a big number, and it is, but not so much when you realise that it’s much less than a third of what the US military spent each year, for years on end, on the Afghanistan conflict alone.  And even more so when you remember that it’s less than the amount that Wall Street bankers paid themselves in bonuses in 2007, the year before the global financial meltdown.

The whole family of UN entities, together with current peacekeepers, adds up to around 236,000 people worldwide.  Not a small number, but maybe one that is better put in context when you know that it’s not many more than the 191,000 people now selling Starbucks coffee around the world, and just one-eighth of the 1.9 million staff employed by McDonalds and its franchisees worldwide!

The bottom line is not only that if the UN ever ceased to exist we would have to reinvent it, but that it is fabulous value for what the world spends on it.  Yes, there are a lot of frustrations, and yes it could do better in all sorts of ways.  But, in the immortal words of perhaps the most famous and respected of all its Secretaries-General, Dag Hammarskjold, ‘The UN was created not to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell’.


Gareth Evans, now Chancellor of The Australian National University, was Australia’s Foreign Minister 1988-96, and President of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group 2000-09.


This article is also available at http://www.theage.com.au/comment/united-nations-flawed-but-is-fabulous-value-for-what-world-spends-on-it-20151016-gkbab5.html