Defending the United Nations: What Every NGO Should Know

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Since 1945, NGOs have had a special relationship with the United Nations, one that has become increasingly complex and diversified. However, the main responsibility of NGOs still continues to be the dissemination of information on issues of concern. NGOs also should advocate the building of a better understanding for the United Nations’ goals and resolutions. Today, though, it has become more difficult to defend the values and principles of the UN because of the hostility expressed toward the UN and negative images in the media.

The DPI/NGO Communications Workshop was held on February 19, 2004 at UN Headquarters to discuss strategies to respond to criticism and misunderstanding. Mr. Shashi Tharoor, Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, opened the session with remarks on the various standard clichés that abound about the UN. He pointed out that most importantly we have to take things in perspective. There is the cliché that the cost to run the UN is enormous. But taken in relation to what governments are spending for things they considered essential, the UN is a bargain. The budget for UN peacekeeping around the world is less than the combined budgets of the police and fire departments in New York City. Another cliché discussed is that the UN is overstuffed. Yes, there are 51,000 people working all over the world, in over 180 countries. However, records show that at the last count the U.S. federal government has 2.7 million workers. There are 5 times the number of people working for McDonald’s around the world than the number of UN workers worldwide. Furthermore, Mr. Tharoor conceded that although the UN is looked upon as a talking shop - lots of speeches and lots of meetings, it is better to have one place for all states to get together and, if necessary, bore each other to death in their conference rooms than to be boring holes into each other on the battlefield.

Mr.Tharoor maintained that success stories unfortunately do not make it to the news. They are overlooked while failures are emphasized. It is essential that NGOs learn about UN successes and find ways to tell the world about them. They need to know of the UN’s success in promoting democracy, the rights of women and children, protecting the environment, alleviating poverty and plight of the poor while at the same time facing the challenge of saving future generations from the scourges of war. Certainly, the UN does make the world a better place. As an integral part of a global action network, NGOs in partnership with the UN, have the enormous task to defend the UN’s proud record and to promote better understanding of the work and achievements of the United Nations.

Ms Gillian Sorensen, Senior Adviser at the United Nations Foundation spoke eloquently of the myths and misconceptions regarding the UN. With each myth she presented the corresponding reality. Although the UN has been downsized with a zero growth budget and more efficiency, misconceptions still persist. She stressed the need to be attuned to the changes and urged NGOs to be more vocal and responsive

Ms Sorensen acknowledged that the UN sends out mixed signals and that sometimes its principles and practices do not match. But the UN is not irrelevant. It may be imperfect but it is indispensable. It is a reflection of the flaws and shortcomings of all mankind and does reflect the lack of political will from different parts of the world. However, it is a universal forum like no other where member states have equal opportunity to win influence, debate, and persuade.

Unquestionably the UN is the best place to address global problems that require global responses - terrorism, the traffic in drugs and arms, public health, environment, etc. NGOs have made valuable contributions by drawing attention to issues and disseminating information to the public. In light of what’s happening now in the world, the NGOs have a difficult task to defend and mobilize public opinion to support the mission of the UN.