Commentary: Accentuate the Positive on UN’s 60th Anniversary By RITA MARAN

Friday October 21, 2005

Already during 2005, millions of human beings trapped by natural disasters have been saved through the rapid response of United Nations agencies. U.N. workers have, often at great risk to themselves, physically delivered differing types of lifelines—food, medical supplies, and shelter—to victims of the tsunami in the Pacific, Hurricane Katrina and hurricane Rita here in the United States, and most recently, the devastating 7.6 earthquake in Pakistan. Were it not for the capability of the U.N. to carry out humanitarian efforts in any part of the world on a moment’s notice, the resulting loss of life and land might well have negatively impacted millions more. 

The media typically spotlight the more catchy U.N. news stories about bureaucratic inefficiencies and allegations of wrong-doing at the U.N. Fair enough: it seems you have to accept that when you’re an organization with little policing power taking orders from 191 member nations. The end result of emphasis on the U.N.’s weaknesses means little room for exposure of its strong accomplishments. 

Let’s be specific. When Hurricane Katrina struck, it took a couple of days for the U.S. to begin to send in help. The United Nations stepped up to the plate with an offer of help, which President Bush publicly accepted. And so it came about that the United States was, for the first time in its history, a recipient of aid from the United Nations, through two different U.N. agencies. 

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), headed by an extraordinarily capable Under-Secretary-General Jan Egeland (a UC Berkeley alum, incidentally), met with administration officials and arranged for the U.N.’s crisis teams to go to work. A day or so later, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, currently serving as UNICEF’s Executive Director, publicly offered the US government UNICEF teaching kits for 300,000 U.S. schoolkids suddenly far from home and school. That educational lifeline provided a way for displaced schoolkids to keep up their education and also, incidentally, helped calm them as they engaged in familiar tasks. 

Came the Pakistan earthquake and Jan Egeland, coordinator of disaster relief efforts of several U.N. agencies (the High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the World Food Programme) quickly flew into Pakistan and requested that President Musharraf lift all customs restrictions on incoming supplies, and provide three-month visas to aid workers. It was done. The work proceeds. 

The U.N. World Food Programme, one of the U.N.’s most efficient agencies, quickly supplied emergency foodstuffs to 37,000 people in Pakistan. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees speedily brought in 15,000 tents and 220,000 blankets—absolute necessities for sustaining life in that part of the world as winter begins. UNICEF is bringing in water treatment plants. The World Health Organization has deployed 11 surgical teams, and is providing essential medicines for 210,000 people for one month. All that was done. Quickly. Lives were saved. 

As impressive as those statistics are, no one can promise that sufficient amounts of aid will actually reach all those who need help in time. 

Something to reflect on—perhaps to act on—on this year’s 60th anniversary? 


Rita Maran is a lecturer on Human Rights at UC Berkeley and president of the United Nations Association-USA East Bay Chapter. The U.N.’s 60th anniversary is Oct. 24.