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February 24, 2009 |  Print | E-Mail Atlantic Faces  

Louis Emmerij, United Nations Intellectual History Project

Louis Emmerij founded the United Nations Intellectual History Project together with Richard Jolly and Thomas G. Weiss in 1999. He was President of the OECD Development Center in Paris, Rector of the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, and Special Advisor to the President of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. He was also the Director of the ILO World Employment Programme in Geneva during the 1970s.

1. What is the purpose behind the UN Intellectual History Project?

The United Nations is seen by many as a rigid bureaucracy without sparkle, wit, or creativity. The general public - graciously stimulated by the mass media - sees a traveling circus, a talk shop, and paper-pushing. On and off there are tales of corruption. This is, we submit, a very uneven view of the world organization.

An intellectual history did not exist for the United Nations. Attention mostly concentrated on the UN's political and security side and not on its activities in economic and social development. Our original purpose was to complete the record. Ideas are at least as important for this area as for international peace and security.

In 1999 we (Emmerij, Jolly and Weiss) decided to fill this gap- as best we could with available resources and within a decade-with the United Nations Intellectual History Project (UNIHP) as an independent endeavor. We benefited from the confidence and financial support of both governments and foundations that, like us, could not believe that this history had not yet been written. We structured UNIHP as a diptych, or a painting with two panels. The first consists of a series of sixteen books while the second panel is concerned with oral history and offers one of our volumes with excerpts from the oral histories as well as the complete transcripts.

2. What insight does the project offer into the development of the UN?

Outsiders - and especially the next generation of students and scholars - rarely experience the UN first-hand but usually only through news clips and op-eds, websites and textbooks. The authors of the series of volumes have used the oral histories to give life, color, and imagination to the experiences of individuals and to extract the meanings that each attaches to them. Whether it was the idealism of the early years of the UN, the anguish of the Cold War, or the initial euphoria and then the uncertainties of the post-Cold War era, our oral histories recall how their perceptions of events evolved, how tumultuous experiences forced themselves into public consciousness, and how they themselves changed perspectives through knowledge, exposure, experience, and the passage of time. Oral history, with all its difficulties, gives fascinating insights, both into the person and into what makes the UN a creative organization.

The oral histories come from thirty-five countries, covering all of the world's regions and most of the UN's major language groups. A fifth of those interviewed are women, in part a reflection of the paucity of women in positions of influence in and around the UN until recently. In terms of geographic distribution, a little over half trace their family origins from the industrialized "North," and nearly half from developing countries in the global "South." The choice of persons to interview inevitably involved subjectivity. We can do little more than remind readers that there are thousands of others who contribute and have contributed to the international struggle for a better world but whose voices are consequential even if inaudible.

3. What are the greatest challenges for the UN in the 21st century?

A new look at the mandates, operations, and representativeness of global institutions is required. Global stability, long-run sustainability, much greater equity and serious attention to human rights need to be built into the mandates and operations of all international organizations. If this seems too visionary, one needs to remember and take courage from earlier experience. The proposals presented to the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 were bold and intellectually brilliant, drawing on the best minds of the times and going far beyond the conventional analysis and wisdom of the day. So also were the ideas and recommendations of the three major UN economic reports issued over 1949-51 directed towards full employment, economic development and international economic stability. All these were driven by the fears of repeating the 1930s and the confident hopes of building a new post-war world.

Today, the world is more complicated and so are the challenges. And urgency is added to the present challenge by both the depths of the current economic and financial depression and the growing realization that planetary survival requires finding ways to tackle a broader range of major challenges ahead, over the medium to longer run. The final chapters of UN Ideas That Changed the World (the final synthesis volume of the United Nations Intellectual History Project) identify several major challenges among which the following stand out:

  • global warming and climate change;
  • global governance for a multi-polar world;
  • support for fragile states;
  • moderating inequalities in global development;
  • bridging international divides of culture and identities;
  • rebalancing the security challenge from state sovereignty to the protection of individuals;
  • strengthening concern for culture and human rights in development.

4. What role can the Atlantic alliance play in making the UN more effective?

We have distinguished three UNs in our work: the UN of Governments, the UN of the Secretariat, and the UN of the NGOs, Committees, and experts. It is quite clear that the first UN (of the Governments) is the biggest obstacle to an effective and efficient United Nations. To give just one example: in the midst of the present global depression, global governance (our second challenge above) is of the essence. The whole world is engulfed in the economic and financial meltdown, yet coordinated international action plans have not even started. The planned meeting of the G20 leaves out more than 170 nations. The UN has an obvious role here. We have shown in our work how important and farseeing many past ideas and policy proposals of the UN have been.

The Atlantic Alliance could draw attention to these facts and give to the UN the role that it deserves as the one global player in a world that appears to give once again an important role to the State. A global private sector needs global governance and eventually a global government.

For more information, see UNIHP's website



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