By Alejandro Hernandez
Amidst the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the Ukrainian counter-offensive in September, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) 77th session went mostly under the radar. Citizens around the world usually ignore these sessions, even though the UN is the largest international organization in the world working on the most important challenges for the whole planet.
The UNGA being overlooked is unsurprising given that trust in international institutions has decreased in recent years due to their lack of efficacy in preventing global conflicts but also decreasing the quality of life in rich countries. Despite this, there is still a way the UN can improve its image, a crucial endeavor to fix a world in crisis.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize the UN. The biggest critique from citizens in rich countries is that international organizations tend to be expensive and offer little enforcement. This public sentiment has been exacerbated by growing support for nationalist governments and isolationism as seen with Brexit in the United Kingdom and the Trump years in the United States.
Developing countries have higher trust in the UN given the significant aid they have received. Still, they critique the fact that UN efforts, especially in peacekeeping and climate, are limited to the will of countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, or China. But in a context of climate urgency, wars, and backsliding human rights and democracies, the UNGA, along with the Conference of Parties (COP), is more important than ever.
In reality, if one looks at the UN budget for 2021 it was only $37.7 billion distributed across 42 programs, funds, and organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and UN Women.
The UN has addressed crises in Myanmar, Palestine, Ukraine, Yemen, and most recently brought attention to the Uyghur genocide in China. The UN provides development aid and food security programs—a service that is even more critical now since the world is nearing a global food crisis. It also promotes women’s rights, education, and designs environmental programs. Given all of the important programs and services provided by the UN, why the discontent? The evidence, therefore, suggests the UN must significantly repair its image.
Growing inequality has led to populist governments targeting international organizations to advance their unilateral agendas. It is no surprise that autocratic regimes denounce international organizations, like the UN since they demand autocrats respect human rights, implement sustainable development, and preserve the peace through the Blue Helmets. The problem then is that the UN wastes efforts trying to convince governments rather than people.
The target of the UN’s public relations should be the population, with a focus on working locally. While the UN charter specifies that it will respect sovereignty—the main reason why it cannot directly enforce global policies—there are workarounds that would allow them to evade skeptic governments.
First is collaborating with the private sector. Something I call “the NASA approach.” During the past decade, NASA saw its funding reduced, which resulted in space missions such as the Constellation Program getting scrapped. With excellent PR strategies (including a fashion trend) and opening to private partners, it has new resources and managed to increase its federal funding. The UN can do the same. For instance, Microsoft will be a key partner implementing projects in the upcoming COP 27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, from the 6th to the 18th of November.
With strategic partners like private companies, the UN can have more financial flexibility too, which means improving its youth programs, providing scholarships and paid internships—so far, they are reserved for those who can afford unpaid internships in Geneva or New York. For this reason, they should target marginalized communities, both the minorities that institutions systematically neglected and those that fall into the populist rhetoric.
The last strategy should be improving local engagement, similar to how the private and non-profit sectors have localized their media. The UN needs to become more approachable to people, not governments.
For example, the UN could create local chapters to achieve this, especially in developed countries. This would reframe the paternalistic approach that we have seen in the last 70 years. The chapters would highlight that every country has vulnerabilities that the UN and its organs can help solve.
Imagine UN Women collaborating with feminist groups in US states affected by the reversal of abortion rights. Actions like this would rebuild trust in the institution and provide them with funding and tools, which allows for implementation. This would not be an obstacle-free, since autocratic countries would limit the involvement of an international institution interacting with their citizens. Nevertheless, the policy would be aimed at rebuilding trust among democracies, where it is backsliding.
The COPs would benefit from this approach. Back in 2015, the world adopted the compromise of keeping the global temperature under 2°C but the UN has not managed to enforce this goal. “Outcomes of the COPs depend on the political will of countries,” explains Emiliano Reyes, a Climate Advisor on International Cooperation in Mexico. “The Paris Agreement has a bottom-up implementation through Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC); governments must push ambitious policies to reach global goals, and protect ecosystems, people, and communities.”
Of course, there is much to do to fully update the UN. For example, of the 193 speakers at UNGA this year, only 22 were women. Yet, we must not forget where the human rights charter originated, where the Law of the Sea came from, or how international food programs continue to avert global famines.
It is important for the UN to retain its legitimacy among the global population, otherwise, there is the risk of losing the biggest forum for international cooperation. The last time divisions, mistrust, and unilateral decisions prevailed humanity was pushed into a World War and the aftermath required the creation of the United Nations. We need trust in international organizations in a moment as difficult as the one we are all living in.