The UN: an incubator and implementer of big ideas?

When we advertised the coming of Sir Richard Jolly to UNICEF as a speaker in our Conversation with Thought Leaders series to talk about his book UNICEF: Global Governance that Works, we were anticipating some exciting stories about UNICEF and, yes, we knew it would be a bit self-serving.

But the conversation went beyond UNICEF as a model for global governance, to bring up some fundamental questions about the UN and its role in a rapidly changing world to which it struggles to adjust.

Building on a decade spent documenting UN history while working with the Institute for Development Studies, Jolly reminded us of the role of the UN in generating big ideas that changed the world. He recalled how, thanks to its large on-the-ground footprint, UN agencies also turned these ideas into actions, making a difference for many.

Illustrations he used included the ILO’s “Basic Needs Strategy” in the 1970’s; UNICEF’s “Adjustment with a human face” in the 1980’s; and UNDP’s “Human Development Report” created in the 1990’s. Jolly emphasized how these big ideas had a vision of human progress at their core.

As the UN celebrates its 70th anniversary, is there still an opportunity for the UN to promote big ideas?

Jolly says yes. He argues that global governance, which remains focused on economic and financial matters, is in need of a force that brings the “humane” factor back to the center stage. In his view, the UN can do it: by building on the personal commitment of its staff, working with allies in each country in which it works, and engaging with the emerging economies that are increasingly asserting their regional powers. Using these assets, Jolly calls on the UN to raise awareness about the possibility of an alternative global governance model that better addresses issues of moral and ethical concerns.

Where is his optimism coming from? Experience and pragmatism. Jolly believes there can be broad popular and political support for this vision. “First, in almost all democracies, domestic policies are made and sustained on a broader basis of human concerns, far beyond the principles of neo-liberal economics. Second, in almost all richer countries, development aid and assistance receives positive support from the electorate, and as a deliberate effort to assist people in poorer countries. […] Third, the UN itself stands consistently and considerably higher in surveys of public opinion than do the World Bank and the IMF.”

“First, in almost all democracies, domestic policies are made and sustained on a broader basis of human concerns, far beyond the principles of neo-liberal economics. Second, in almost all richer countries, development aid and assistance receives positive support from the electorate, and as a deliberate effort to assist people in poorer countries. […] Third, the UN itself stands consistently and considerably higher in surveys of public opinion than do the World Bank and the IMF.”

Why is this important? Because the many of the challenges that the world faces today and in the future, such as climate change, population growth, migration, data privacy, or cyber-security, transcend national boundaries. These challenges will grow in magnitude and affect the collective human experience. There is a greater need than ever before for international institutions, such as the UN, to deal with these transnational issues in a way that protects dignity and human rights for all people.

So, yes, listening to a story of UNICEF’s success might have been self-serving. But we were reminded that the UN system has made a difference through its big ideas coupled with actions. And with the challenges in front of us today, it was inspirational to get an optimistic viewpoint on the prospects of global governance.

To watch the event, click here.

Katell Le Goulven is the Chief of the Policy Planning Unit; Division of Data, Research and Policy.
Michelle Siegel is the Brand Development Specialist; Division of Communication.

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Comments:

  1. As big as how the UN is and what they have done over the years not everyone is in their support but they remain one of the biggest achievement of this generation for all the things they have done for Africa and the whole world in general.