Un-Sung Heroes, Unfilled Coffers

Today, the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly opens in New York. So let’s ask a simple question: what good is the United Nations?


After all, the Security Council (UNSC) often seems like an anachronistic theater of obstruction where permanent members selected 70 years ago veto each other’s proposals for sport. Washington and Moscow have done so almost 200 times to protect their own interests.

Even when the UNSC does pass meaningful resolutions they are often spottily enforced or openly flouted – as people in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Palestine, and North Korea can all grimly attest. No doubt it’s better to have a forum for great power discussion than not, but you could be forgiven for thinking that this one isn’t quite fit for purpose.

But the United Nations is much more than the headline-grabbing Security Council.

The UN oversees half a dozen agencies that are dedicated to eradicating disease, hunger, and poverty all over the world.

The World Food Program, for example, helps to feed 80 million people a year, mostly in war zones. UNICEF offered life-saving treatment to 4 million children for severe malnutrition in 2017. The UN Refugee agency provides assistanceto more than 60 million people in 128 countries.

These agencies help vulnerable people in places where national governments either can’t or won’t act. In fact, even US National Security Adviser John Bolton – who never met an international organization he didn’t want to kick in the teeth – once went on record supporting their work.

Here’s the problem: those agencies are running short on cash as countries fail to pay their dues. Earlier this year, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of an unprecedented funding shortfall of $139 million, even after US-backed budget cuts.

You’ll almost certainly read about Security Council fireworks in the coming days – but the quieter drama, which affects many more people, will be whether Mr. Guterres is able to secure the funding that his agencies desperately need.

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