The Useless UN

The Diplomad, an excellent group blog by some US Foreign Service officers notes the complete lack of UN help in the tsunami cleanup:

Well, dear friends, we’re now into the tenth day of the tsunami crisis and in this battered corner of Asia, the UN is nowhere to be seen — unless you count at meetings, in five-star hotels, and holding press conferences.

Aussies and Yanks continue to carry the overwhelming bulk of the burden, but some other fine folks also have jumped in: e.g., the New Zealanders have provided C-130 lift and an excellent and much-needed potable water distribution system; the Singaporeans have provided great helo support; the Indians have a hospital ship taking position off Sumatra. Spain and Netherlands have sent aircraft with supplies.

The UN continues to send its best product, bureaucrats. Just today the city’s Embassies got a letter from the local UN representative requesting a meeting for “Ms. Margareeta Wahlstrom, United Nations Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Secretary-General’s Special Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance in Tsunami-afected countries.” Wow! Put that on a business card! And she must be really, really special because she has the word “coordinator” twice in her title!

When it comes to creating committees and looking busy, the UN excels. When it comes to actually doing something, the UN is next to worthless. The problem is the same old bureaucratic mentality — study a problem to death then maybe decide to do something at some point provided that the Undersecretary for the Temporary Planning Committee Formation gets around to it. It’s a massive circle-jerk for the international nomenklatura.

Meanwhile, the US has used the same massive military heavy-lift capabilities to actually get the job done. As one Dutch diplomat notes:

The US military has arrived and is clearly establishing its presence everywhere in Banda Aceh. They completely have taken over the military hospital, which was a mess until yesterday but is now completely up and running. They brought big stocks of medicines, materials for the operation room, teams of doctors, water and food. Most of the patients who were lying in the hospital untreated for a week have undergone medical treatment by the US teams by this afternoon. US military have unloaded lots of heavy vehicles and organize the logistics with Indonesian military near the airport. A big camp is being set up at a major square in the town. Huge generators are ready to provide electricity. US helicopters fly to places which haven’t been reached for the whole week and drop food. The impression it makes on the people is also highly positive; finally something happens in the city of Banda Aceh and finally it seems some people are in control and are doing something. No talking but action. European countries are until now invisible on the ground. IOM staff (note: this is a USAID-funded organization) is very busy briefing the incoming Americans and Australians about the situation.

Which only goes to show that talk is cheap. The UN is full of talk, but when it comes down to actually helping people on the ground it requires someone to take the leadership role in getting that done. The UN is systemically unable to act in cases where there are major ongoing complex humitarian emergencies from Rwanda to the Sudan to Indonesia, and usually if anyone acts it’s the United States while the feckless bureaucrats of Turtle Bay take the credit.

Which again makes me ask: why do we bother with the UN?

3 thoughts on “The Useless UN

  1. Which again makes me ask: why do we bother with the UN?

    What’s the alternative? Get rid of it and build a better one?

    Have the US take over the whole damn world?

  2. Which only goes to show that talk is cheap.

    So, Jay, what have you DONE? How did you respond? Did you donate money/blood/your computer skills to help coordinate efforts? Did you stay up all night praying for those lucky enough to survive? Did you offer to volunteer to rebuild Banda Aceh? Did you write a letter to your Representative and Senator, urging them to use all their influence to set up a warning system so that similar catastrophes can be avoided in the future? Did you interrupt your holiday activities to see what you can do? Did you did you did you?

    As all talk is cheap, here is what I did, which was little enough: I translated a letter for a company that provided water purification equipment to the affected areas, which contained details about the procedures involved, and donated the amount I was paid for the translation to OxFam.


  3. What’s the alternative? Get rid of it and build a better one?

    That would be a reasonable alternative. Either that or work on an ad hoc basis through treaties and accords rather than having a fixed bureaucracy.

    So, Jay, what have you DONE? How did you respond? Did you donate money/blood/your computer skills to help coordinate efforts?

    I’ve donated quite a bit to the American Red Cross for disaster relief, and I’d normally give blood as well, but I can’t due to being on antibiotics (@&^! sinus infection!)

    That does remind me, I should link to the World Relief Day effort coming up this January 12th…

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