Multilateral Institutions

The UN turned 60 this week. I am not old enough to recall its formation but I did know one of the architects - Jan Smuts. Smuts was one of the founding fathers of the League of Nations and when that collapsed in a heap as a result of the Second World War, he played a key role in the drafting of the Charter of the United Nations and was, I understand, one of the authors of the preamble to the Charter.

Jan Smuts was one of the great intellectuals of his day, the youngest Boer commander in the Boer War and then an outstanding Prime Minister of South Africa. He was a member of War Cabinet in the UK during the Second World War and received many accolades during his life and afterwards. Had his government not been defeated in 1949 and the Afrikaner Nationalists not come to power in South Africa, it is possible that South Africa might have avoided the years of isolation that followed his electoral defeat and then his death.

Smuts was also the man, who more than any other, helped Britain put in place the multilateral organisation that replaced the Empire. The Commonwealth of States is very much his creation.

I was only 8 when my Grandfather took me up the hill in Pretoria to have coffee with Smuts and his wife "Ouma". Even now I can recall sitting on the stoep of the Prime Ministers residence and the fact that Ouma was dressed in black from head to toe and wore black "tackies" is a sharp memory. Of Smuts himself, I only have a vague recollection. A year later he was out of power and five years later my Grandfather died - perhaps of heartbreak at events in South Africa as much as anything else.

This week the United Nations lumbered to its feet and tried to reform itself. The exercise was not a great success and Kofie Annan was visibly disappointed. I wondered how Oom Jannie would have felt about the whole thing and if these huge multilateral institutions that he was so instrumental in creating have met his expectations.

The sight of Robert Gabriel Mugabe strutting up to the podium this morning at the General Assembly and then being allowed to make his usual rambling discourse on the failures and evil actions of "Blair and Bush" does little to help the UN's image abroad. By now, even his African fan club that once found his antics encouraging for their own warped views of the world we live in, know the man is a fraud. They all know that Mr. Mugabe is no angel himself, that he has committed crimes against humanity and may one day face justice, that he has destroyed the economy of his country in the pursuit of power and has driven millions of his own people into exile and death.

But imperfect as it is - at least it is a forum where leaders can meet and debate the issues that confront them. We should not expect much more than that or we will be sorely disappointed. We should also not give the UN much more responsibility than a talk shop or we will simply waste resources. The oil for food programme in Iraq is a prime example of UN incompetence - corruption and waste littered the tracks of this programme and the UN came out of a US$70 billion programme with little to show for it except a damaged reputation.

In my own experience I have found many of the UN agencies equally incompetent and wasteful. The FAO is not achieving anything today, perhaps never has. UNICEF makes all the right noises but the plight of children across the globe does not get any better. Bill Gates has done more for the kids of the world than the UN in the past 50 years. One of the main images of failed States is that of UN vehicles and men in blue hats. A senior American official once told me that the degree of failure of a State could be measured by the extent of UN involvement. Now I do not know if that might signify UN activism or simply that failed States offer a justification for UN activity.

I certainly know that there is mounting evidence that much of the work of the UN is ineffective and may in fact be counter productive. That is true of the World Food Programme, which seems to simply entrench poverty and dependence on aid flows. The record of the UN in the Human Rights field is also disastrous and it does not look as if this has been tackled very effectively in the recent General Assembly. The old arrangement was a sick joke.

The other multilaterals created at much the same time as the UN are largely economic and financial - the IMF and the World Bank with their tentacles across the globe. They have their critics and the globe is littered with monuments to their failed attempts to build economies and stabilize markets. Unfinished projects and failed projects probably outnumber those that have done what was intended and we all know of such things.

But the question is - if not multilateral, then what? How do we work together to try and create a better world, a world that offers our children and grandchildren a better quality of life. The one thing that the multilaterals can point to and say, "We did that" is the fact that we have not slipped into another global conflagration on the scale of World War One and Two. The fact that despite the wild swings in global markets and currencies, we have not seen the return of the crash in 1929 when world markets and savings were wiped out and took years to recover.

We also know what works and what does not work and there are no excuses for not learning those lessons and applying them to our world as we strive to build a future. We know that democracy works, we know that free markets and enterprise drives growth and development. We know corruption undermines all other forms of progress and is a global disease. We know how to feed the world and eliminate absolute poverty. The question we all should ask is when will our leaders take effective action to ensure that these lessons are applied in the way they govern us. Those that break these rules should know they defy the world and will not be allowed to strut the stage as if they were something else and deserve our respect and recognition.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 15th September 2005