United Nations on Development Issues

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Wednesday, July 25, 2001

The United Nations is one the largest bodies involved in development and other global issues around the world. However, it has many political issues and operational problems to contend with. For example:

  • It’s budget is just a fraction of what the world spends on military budgets, yet it is supposed to be the premier world body for peace.
  • Their funding is often in arrears, even though each member is obliged to pay, thereby reducing the effectiveness of their projects.
  • The UN is not perfect — it is plagued with bureaucracy, the permanent members of the UN Security Council is not democratic, and so on.
  • Because some of their research and reports can criticize the more powerful members, those countries, especially the USA, can often be openly hostile towards the UN.
  • It does not help when some Western nations withhold payments and then criticize the UN for being ineffective.
  • The issue of any sort of UN reform is another topic in itself!

However, despite this, it is also performing some much-needed tasks around the world, through its many satellite organizations and entities, providing a means to realize the Declaration of Human Rights.

Effects of Debt

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and nicely summarized by this article:

if the external debt of the 20 poorest countries of the world, many of them African, was written off today, it could save the lives of 21 million children before the year 2000. Or, read the other way, this figure means uncancelled debt may be responsible for the deaths of 130,000 children each week until the year 2000 [since May 1998]

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Human Rights

The UN has shown that debt affects human rights.

(Democracy and human rights often go hand in hand with economic rights. Without the rights and ability to develop economically, other rights which often follow, are often lost. Visit the Institute for Economic Democracy for more information on this perspective.)

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Progress of Nations

The Progress of Nations, 1998 report from UNICEF is a compilation of information and statistics that measures how developed a nation is with regards to the state of the children rather than the state of the economy.

One of these statistics citing other UN and OECD data shows the percentage of a developed nation’s GNP that goes into aid — which country came out as the most stingiest? The richest. USA. See the 1998 report for the stats. (The term “stingiest” is what former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter himself described about U.S. aid.)

And even when they did provide aid, a lot of this — more than half in 1997, for example — went into military aid and trade.

(Note that another issue with regards to aid is that even when substantial aid is provided, if the programmes are not appropriate, the effect can be disastrous. The US and other nations should not be cutting back their promised aid and their obligations. However, they should also change some of their aid programs so that the aid works to the best advantage of the recipient, not the donor. For such a vivid example of this, refer to this site’s section on food dumping/aid and the disastrous effects that has had on many countries.)

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Debt and the Effect on Children

The Progress of Nations, 1999 report by UNICEF, suggests that debt is killing children.

It is pointed out that as countries are diverting resources away from social provisions to repay debt, those most affected are the poor, especially women and children.

The State of the World's Children 2000 report, also by UNICEF, points out that in 1960 the income gap between the richest one-fifth of the world's population and the poorest was 30-1. In 1997 it was 74-1.

According to UNICEF's Progress of Nations 2000 report, 30,000 children die each day. Yet, they "die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death." That is just under 11 million children each year dying from poverty.

UNICEF defines these as children under the age of 5. The numbers would be even higher if they considered children to be those under the age of say 6, or 7, for example.

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Human Development

In 1990, the United Nations started the Human Development Reports. These reports attempted to measure human development using values such as life expectancy, literacy, equality, gender equality, and many other indications other than overall monetary wealth of a nation to determine how nations faired. Each year, the report has a different theme but always the Human Development Index, a ranking of nations on how they do in various development related categories as mentined above.

Some of the reports have been controversial, others very detailed and accepted by even those who are criticized in the report.

For example, the 1997 Human Development Report drew criticism along with the World Bank, for distorting the figures on world poverty, basing all examples off one dollar per day as the international poverty level. It is estimated that 1.3 billion people live in absolute poverty (defined by that one dollar per day assumption). But what does that mean when half the world — nearly three billion people — live on less than two dollars a day?

Despite the criticism, as Nobel Laureate Amartaya Sen comments, “the HDI, which is inescapably a crude index, must not be seen as anything other than an introductory move in getting people interested in the rich collection of information that is present in the Human Development Report.” These reports are not the end statement, but a continuation monitoring and improving itself and sparking off often intense debates which should help get more and more thinking about these issues.

1998 Human Development Report

The 1998 Human Development Report from the United Nations’s Development Programme criticizes how unfair and inequitable the distribution of wealth has been around the world.

The report also points to statistics that 20% of the population in the developed nations, consume 86% of the worlds goods. Also mentioned is the effect that this disparity has on the environment as more and more resources are used to feed growing consumerism. However, the fallacy in this is not that there is too much consumerism, but that this is heavily disparate and it is the rich nations that consume in a manner that is not sustainable and hence contribute to the damaging environment, yet it is the poor that have to suffer the brunt of all this. There is also some criticism of the existing global market model where the regulations and legislations do nothing to help citizens but do everything to help the corporations.

The report itself has drawn a fair bit of criticism for not going as far as saying that the affluent nations need to cut back on consumerism. It mentions the need to be more sustainable and fair, with measures required to allow developing nations to increase their consumption levels while avoiding the mistakes of the already developed nations. The criticism arises because the current pattern of consumerism is not sustainable at all and is very polar in distribution between the haves and have nots. After all, for a nation to prosper, basic rights and economic freedom need to be provided, which does not necessarily imply increased consumerism.

In case you were wondering, Canada, France and Norway ranked first, second and third, respectively, in the 1998 Human Development Index, with Canada, Norway and the US in the same respective positions for 1999 and for 2000. Norway, Australia and Canada ranked from first to third in 2001. By 2004, for example, Norway, Sweden, and Australia were ranked top three, while the US and France slipped to 8th and 16th, respectively. Canada was fourth. Side NoteIt would be futile, and almost pointless, to show how countries change at the top, as this isn’t a competition of who is the best or not. Saying that, I often find American citizens comment to me that the US is the best on all such indicators, and while clearly it is not, it is also not bad on these indicators, either. For such American citizens, they need to realize that other countries offer better standards of living, and for citizens from other countries, they have to realize that standards of living in the US can be very high, too. US’s high inequality perhaps ranks it lower than it could otherwise be. The key thing this index begins to measure is life based on more than just GDP.

Another interesting fact is that the poorer countries of the Developing World have covered as much ground in human development during the past 30 years as the industrialized world did in over a century, as Jonathan Power points out.

1999 Human Development Report

The 1999 Report, about globalization, looks at the effects of the many parts of globalization, both positive and negative. It comes over as unusually critical of the developed and wealthy nations for their aggressive drives into globalizing many facets of people’s lives too quickly.

2000 Human Development Report

The 2000 Report, about Human Rights and Human Development looks at the issue of human rights around the world, of corporations and other actors as well as nations.

(See the UNDP’s Human Development Report web site for previous and subsequent reports.)

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Corporate Involvement/Influence

The UN has been trying to get corporate involvement in some of its projects so that corporations can also become more responsible and a more healthy and sustainable process can be established.

However a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) project, the Global Sustainable Development Facility (GSDF), has come under some stern criticism because some of the corporations involved in this partnership are known to have had negative impacts on human rights and the environment. It is feared that this project offers the ability for these corporations to obtain a cheap way to improve their image by portraying themselves to people as conscientious and accountable (it would just cost $50,000 for a corporation to take part in the project). It is also feared that this will mean that the UNDP is effectively selling itself off to these corporations and shareholder interests, rather than following their primary humanitarian objective of helping the poor people of the world. A year long campaign by many NGOs has seen the UN cancel this for now, but these NGOs are still working on this issue of corporate partnership with the United Nations, such as the Global Compact.

The issue is not so much that the UN should not be involved with corporations. It should; it should work to ensure that corporations also abide to universal human rights principles that nation states and citizens are obliged to observe. However, the choice of multinational corporations that the UN has started with, and that many of them have had very bad human rights records, is what is causing the controversy, as well as a debate over whether the UN should partner with such companies, or monitor and report, in similar ways that it reports on issues pertaining to countries.

The huge arrears in UN payment by the United States (about $1.6 Billion at the time of writing) is perhaps a factor as it makes the UN try to find other ways to fund their activities, and corporate collaboration, while obviously a potentially valid partnership, could also affect the UN’s ability to operate in certain circumstances.

For more information about this, you could start at the following links:

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Monday, July 20, 1998
  • Last Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2001

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