After the Death on Aug. 18 of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, it’s an opportune moment for a closer look at the organization he led. How valuable is today’s U.N. in a G-zero world with a startling lack of global leadership? Is the institution still a guiding force for good?
The Security Council charged with overseeing international peace and safety remains dysfunctional, but that’s hardly a new story. The willingness of the five permanent members to veto the plans of others and protect their allies is decades old. The G-zero problem was evident in the Security Council long before it became obvious everywhere else.
But the U.N. leadership still makes a difference. The current Secretary-General, António Guterres, has won well-deserved praise for a willingness to speak plainly on tough issues even if it aggravates powerful member states. He has sharply criticized the government of Myanmar, an ally of China, for crimes against Rohingya Muslims. He said U.S. President Donald Trump’s ban on immigrants from some Muslim countries “violates our basic principles.” He has spoken of defense for Palestinians against U.S. ally Israel. In August, he used a visit to Nagasaki, Japan, to implicitly criticize both the U.S. and Russia for the slow pace of nuclear disarmament. And somehow he has helped the U.N. avoid (so far) the sort of destabilizing attacks that Trump has launched on NATO, the E.U. and other multilateral institutions.
Where the U.N. really proves its value, however, is in the work of its agencies. Peacekeeping operations in Africa, Asia, the Balkans and elsewhere prevent conflict where outsiders are reluctant to get involved. The U.N. Refugee Agency helps millions of displaced people. The World Bank provides grants, credits and low-interest loans to help poorer countries build the roads, bridges, ports, schools and hospitals they badly need.
The World Food Programme, funded entirely by donations, has fed tens of millions of hungry people globally. It trains large numbers of people to boost food security and nutrition standards and helps build clinics and health centers.
The World Health Organization is at the front lines of health crises, but it’s also battling long-term to meet the U.N.’s health-related development goals. It has contributed to dramatic reductions in infant mortality, deaths of mothers during childbirth and fatality rates from HIV and malaria. UNICEF treats malnourished children and provides access to safe water, education, vaccines and mental-health care for millions of kids.
In a world where so many countries are erecting barriers to people in need and building explicitly my-country-first foreign policies, who else will do these things?
Not every government seems to appreciate this. In July, Guterres notified each of the 193 member states that the U.N. faces an unprecedented cash-flow shortfall due to delayed contributions. Budget cuts are coming, he wrote in his letter, if member states can’t be relied upon to pay their share promptly.
Whatever governments of the wealthiest members think about U.N. values, they should see the worth of an institution willing to police so many of the world’s danger zones and ease so much human misery. “An organization such as ours should not have to suffer repeated brushes with bankruptcy,” Guterres wrote. “But surely, the greater pain is felt by those we serve when we cannot, for want of modest funds, answer their call for help.”
This appears in the September 03, 2018 issue of TIME.