UN Bashing is Hardly Enough

UN Bashing is Hardly Enough

Miller Op-Ed in TCSDaily
June 20, 2006

United Nations deputy secretary-general Mark Malloch Brown has a singular view of what constitutes international diplomacy. He said in a speech recently that the American public is ignorant of the importance and effectiveness of the UN because of the U.S. government's tolerance of "too much unchecked UN-bashing and stereotyping." By whom? "Much of the public discourse that reaches the U.S. heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News," according to Malloch Brown. In fact, during its six decades, the overall record of the United Nations has been so rife with failure, corruption and incompetence—to say nothing of poor judgment, rudeness and condescension, as exemplified by Mr. Malloch Brown—that it deserves to be disdained.The organization's best known interventions—attempts to attain and maintain peace—too often have been exercises in lowest-common-denominator diplomacy that progresses at a glacial pace; and its essays into public health and environmental protection are frequently disastrous failures. The UN's leaders and programs consistently lack an appreciation for the relationship between wealth creation and public and environmental health. Mr. Malloch Brown's boss, Secretary General Kofi Annan, has expressed the hope that concern for "intellectual property" will not "get into the way" of producing and distributing drugs for a potential avian-flu pandemic. In other words, companies that make drugs and vaccines should abandon their intellectual property at Mr. Annan's whim.Even if the recent incidents of corruption, dishonesty and profiteering—exemplified by the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal and its coverup, sexual abuse of refugees by UN officials and peacekeepers, the botched investigation of the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri, and procurement scams—are anomalies, it is hard to explain away the anti-social outcomes of business as usual. Nothing the UN has inflicted on innovation is worse than its record on biotechnology applied to agriculture and food production. At the UN's Task Force on Biotech Foods (which operates under the auspices of something called the Codex Alimentarius Commission, itself a creature of the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization), only gene-spliced products are addressed, a scope that has been condemned by experts repeatedly as unscientific and indefensible. The work of the task force prevents the wider diffusion of a superior technology for agriculture and food production and is directly detrimental to farmers, consumers, academic researchers and industry worldwide. It will exacerbate malnutrition and starvation in the developing world.The UN's record is as bad on chemicals. The stigmatization of DDT under the Persistent Organic Pollutants Convention has caused the death from malaria and other insect-borne diseases of untold millions of residents of tropical countries and exacts a huge economic toll. Regulators who have banned DDT fail to take into consideration the inadequacy of alternatives and the fact that its toxicity is modest (and virtually nonexistent to humans). Because it persists after spraying, DDT works far better than many pesticides now in use, some of which are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms.The result of the excessive regulatory burdens by Codex, UNEP, UNIDO, the Convention on Biological Diversity and other scientifically challenged UN agencies and programs is discouraging: vastly inflated R&D costs, less innovation, and diminished exploitation of superior techniques and products—especially in poorer countries, which need them desperately. Public-sector research—where budgets are tighter than in corporations with deep-pockets—has been particularly affected.How do such travesties of regulation arise? Through a kind of "Emperor's New Clothes" process: At UN-sponsored seances, self-interested and often inexpert participants move a flawed proposal step by step through the approval procedures, all the while pretending that it makes sense. A triumph of bureaucratic process over substance that ignores Nobel Laureate Anatole France's astute observation, "If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing." Why are arrogance, condescension, incompetence and anti-social behavior so pervasive in the sprawling organization? First, the UN is essentially a monopoly. Inefficiency and poor performance are not punished by "consumers" of their products or services spurning the UN and patronizing a competitor. On the contrary, it is not uncommon in these kinds of bureaucracies for failure to be rewarded with additional resources, according to the hypothesis, "Maybe it's not working because it's just not big enough." Second, economists have long observed that if you want to understand the motivation of an individual or organization, follow the self-interest. Sadly, the self-interest of UN bureaucrats seems seldom to coincide with the public interest. UN officials are rewarded for oiling the bureaucratic machinery—that is, producing reports, regulations, guidelines, and white papers, and for holding meetings—whether or not they are of high quality or are credible. Or even moral.Third, there's no accountability—no House of Lords Select Committees, U.S. Government Accountability Office or congressional oversight, or an electorate that can throw the UN bums out if they fail to do what's in the public interest. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that we see egregious examples of arrogance and corruption, let alone day to day featherbedding, laziness, incompetence and self-indulgence in the thousands of individual UN programs and projects.Fourth, in the absence of accountability, UN officials feel little need for transparency of their policy making; the PR offices simply spin, spin, spin. Last year, I attended a major WHO conference in Geneva at which the NGO I represented was denied accreditation because it was known to be an advocate of free markets and a critic of some of the UN's policies. The lesson? You get to participate in the UN's marketplace of ideas only if what you're selling is politically correct. Finally, there's the issue of the quality of senior UN officials. A candidate's nationality or region of origin seems to be at least as important as his credentials: No meritocracy there. And consider this critical factor that affects the quality of the pool from which potential candidates are selected: If you were a nation's president, or its environmental or health minister, would you send your best and brightest people to work for the UN? Of course not—and that's how the UN ends up with the Malloch Browns of the world.The UN's assault on innovation and wealth creation demands a counter-attack. The United States and other like-minded nations can provide the firepower by withholding funds and participation from UN agencies and programs that are corrupt or incompetent. Better still, they should cease paying any dues at all until the entire organization undergoes fundamental and genuine reform. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />