History of the United Nations – Government Essay

History of the United Nations – Government Essay
The United Nations has changed substantially its understanding, concept and action towards development since its conception in 1945. Specially since the end of the Cold War a considerable refinement in its approach

could be noticed, moving more and more away from a notion of development as mere economic improvement and progressing to a much broader view that has been named Sustainable Human Development, which is centered on the empowerment of the people and good governance, aiming at eradicating world’s poverty. Historical events played a great role in reshaping this conception and among them the speed of the globalization process stands out.
The main question of this essay is: “How has UN’s approach to development changed since the end of the Cold War?”. The intention here is to expose the major modifications that have occurred and the facts and events that have influenced them, as well as to show the importance, weaknesses and limits of the world organization in the international arena in relation to the development realm.

Historical context in which the United Nations emerged and the progress in its conception of development until the end of the Cold War

The United Nations emerged in the context of the 2nd World War, in 1945, as an attempt “to avoid the slaughter and misery of more world wars and another Great Depression—as well as the failure of the first generation of universal organization, the League of Nations” (Jolly, 2005, p.2). These were the main purposes that the organization was directed to during the first to the second decade of its existence. But the organization had broader ambitions and its original view was based on the ideas of peace, development and human rights (Jolly, 2005, p.3).

In 1944 we had also the creation of the so-called Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the IMF) that were set up to regulate the world economy under the direction of the US with the immediate goal of rebuilding Europe during the post-war years (Allen, 2000, p.204).

Through the decades, the action and approach of the world organization towards development changed consistently, being shaped by and shaping historical events occurring during its period of existence. For several years, development was taken only as economic development (Jolly, 2005, p.7). During the 50s and 60s import substitution and state-centered economic liberalism were taken as the best way to achieve economic growth (Allen, 2000, p.292).

From the middle of the 60s till the beginning of the 80s there were some historical facts that affected the UN such as the independence of several African former colonies and the reaction of the “South” in relation to the “North” with the creation of the “Group of 77” and the emergence of the “Dependency Theory” as an attempt to make the developing countries’ priorities be taken into account in international politics (Weiss, 2004, p.231). The development view shifted a little and more stress was given to employment and redistribution with growth. There were some positive reactions to this situation from the UN’s part as it launched in 1964 the First Development Decade, and in the 70s concerns about the environment and about women’s participation were also put into the development agenda. The downside of these years – also called the “debt-led growth” years – was that the developing countries increased their external debts substantially (Allen, 2000, p.296).

The 80s were called by many authors the “lost decade” once there was a turn towards neoliberalism, conducted by the Bretton Woods agencies and the US through an agreement named the “Washington Consensus”. They started promoting “structural adjustment” in developing countries, which meant conditioning aid provision in exchange of liberalization of the economy, privatization and tax reforms (Cornia, 2004, p.7). During this period those countries were already heavily indebted and the UN had serious problems in taking action because the greater part of international funds started going to the Bretton Woods agencies. Since that decade the UN began its disagreement with the Bretton Woods agencies, once the former emphasized the importance of democracy, good governance and human rights but was backed by inadequate funds (Jolly, 2005, p.5).

Structure of the organization and its main activities

According to Archer’s classification, the UN is an international intergovernmental organization with a universal approach, once it has membership drawn from basically all sovereign states in the world. Its main activities and therefore its aims can be classified as general and extensive and related both to high and low politics (Archer, 2001, pp.35-63). The three main clusters the organization deals with are: peace and security, human rights and development (Weiss, 2004).
The structure of the whole UN is really complex as it is composed by several commissions, committees, boards, specialized agencies and partners. I’ll expose briefly the (acho que seria melhor dizer structure of the organization, ou algo que o valha. Descrever a organização me parece muito genérico) organization with regard to development matters.

The core of the UN system is the General Assembly. Development issues are dealt with mainly in the Assembly’s Second Committee (Economic and Financial). The main UN organ with the responsibility of promoting development is the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and it is composed by 54 member states elected by the Assembly for that purpose. Both Committee and Council depend on the Secretariat to carry on their ideas and decisions for it is the administrative branch of the organization. There are several bodies related to development and under the coordination of the ECOSOC, such as UNDP, UNICEF, UNCTAD, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNHCHR, UNEP and WFP (Weiss, 2004, pp.246-7).

The role of the UNDP, created in 1965, should be highlighted once it is centre of the UN’s development work. It provides technical assistance, concentrated mainly in four themes: advocacy, advice, pilot projects and partnership. It acts together with many other local and regional actors (Weiss, 2004, p.249).

Main changes occurred since the end of the Cold War:

Since the end of the Cold War the UN continued working on the enlargement of its view on development. The 80s legacy was absolutely negative for the developing countries which were indebted and had their sovereignty consequently affected. With the Fall of the Berlin Wall the situation went even worse because of the fast transition process that raised more inequality figures. The UN was not in accordance (acho que nao se usa in accordance neste sentido. Melhor, did not agree) with the speed it was been done (Jolly, 2005, p.35). The Fall also shifted the attention of agencies of development from the South towards the former socialist countries. The following years witnessed a considerable increase in civil wars and interethnic conflicts (Allen, 2000, p.163)
It was in the 90’s that the UN launched loudly the idea of Sustainable Human Development (SHD), aiming at “placing people in the center of development” (Fomerand, 2003, p.77), focused on the idea of empowering people. Already in 1985 UNICEF came up with the idea of “development with a human face”. By 1990, the UNDP started publishing the annual Human Development Report, which was opposing and setting an alternative to Bretton Woods policy. The Report has been published yearly since then, and its contents broadened the development agenda and concept and showed the achievements in this sense through the years (Jolly, 2005, p.11). One good example of the expanding idea of development can be checked in 1993 HDR, which says

“Human development is development of the people for the people by the people. Development of the people means investing in human capabilities, whether in education or health or skills, so that they can work productively and creatively. Development for the people means ensuring that the economic growth they generate is distributed widely and fairly… [D]evelopment by the people [means] … giving everyone a chance to participate” (UNDP HDR 1993:3, as quoted in Fomerand, 2003, p.78)

The HDR brought with it a holistic idea of development, as the concept started to cover all areas of UN action, which is to say peace and security, human rights and sustainable development (Fomerand, 2003, p.78).

The ultimate and main objective of the SHD would be to eradicate poverty in the world and the main tool to achieve it would be via “good governance”, which can be defined as a government that manages well the public sector, is accountable, respect the law and provides information and transparency of its action (Allen, 2000, p.380). This approach also stresses the importance of democratization, decentralized development and access to productive assets to gain equity so as to achieve an inclusive globalization (Fomerand, 2003, p. p.83).

During the 90s there were other remarkable happenings that gave a new impulse in this novel approach to development, so as the Rio-92, a huge gathering of countries, governments and national and international organisations that took place in Brazil aiming at discussing matters mainly related to environment under the perspective of sustainable development. The result of the gathering was the “Agenda 21”, a global action plan focusing on bringing into practice the result of the discussions over the subject (Weiss, 2004, p.268).

In 1995, during the Copenhagen Summit for Social Development, the General Assembly launched a Decade for the Eradication of Poverty and mobilized the whole UN system towards this goal (Fomerand, 2003, p.91).
All these happenings started to affect the conflicting relation between the UN and Bretton Woods institutions, and UN alternative ideas to adjustment were being increasingly accepted by IMF and the WB. The WB committed itself to the pursuit of poverty reduction in the Copenhagen Summit. The IMF included in its mandate “structural and social aspects of fiscal policy”. In 1996, the WB and IMF published a list of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries committing to provide debt relief for a number of poor countries, and these initiatives were incremented with “poverty reduction strategies” in September 1999 in IMF programs supported by the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (Fomerand, 2003, pp.92-3).

All the regular gatherings that took place in the 90s culminated in the 2000 Millennium Summit that produced the Millennium Declaration for sustainable development and adopted a programme of goals – the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) – whose overreaching intent is to reduce the world poverty, setting targets to be accomplished by 2015. The Bretton Woods institutions accepted the MDG and are now “on board” (Jolly, 2005, p.12;41-2). The eight MDG are:
Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Achieve universal primary education
Promote gender equality and empower women
Reduce child mortality
Improve maternal health
Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
Ensure environmental sustainability
Develop a global partnership for development
(http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/ – 23-1-2006)
As it can be seen, the idea of development in the UN broadened notably through the decades, being the Millennium Summit the last highest point in this process. What emerged in the last years was a rich development concept reaching at last all UN spheres of action; taking into account not simply economic development but going as far as to approach environmental, human rights, population and gender issues.

Twenty-five years or so ago, the remedial policy measures proposed in the name of the Secretary General would had focused on the central role of the state in the macroeconomic management of national economies to achieve employment growth, poverty alleviation, and overall development. At the international level, such reports would have proposed structural and regime changes, such as the establishment of an integrated commodity program, a common fund, and the development of codes of conducts for multinational corporations.
Nowadays, the normative work of the United Nations has shifted winning acknowledgment that if development is to be both sustainable and human, what must be done (…) entails public corrective interventions in the operation of national and international markets. For the United Nations, capitalism is a necessary safeguard to personal liberty as well as an essential condition for economic efficiency. But laissez-faire policies alone will not suffice to achieve social justice, stability, and inclusion, or to promote rapid and large-scale improvements in living conditions in developing countries. Markets cannot by themselves reduce inequalities, correct their own imperfections, and promote social convergence and integration. (Fomerand, 2003, p.85)


According to what was discussed in the main body of the work, it is clear that through the decades there were many advances in the UN approach to development, especially in the last 25 years. Now, the idea of development is far richer than simple economic development, and entails many more “ingredients” (não vai vírgula aqui?) being the peoples and their empowerment the focus of the policies as well as the promotion of good governance, having as the ultimate goal eradication of poverty through the recognition that poverty itself affects people’s realization of their rights to development (Fomerand, 2003, p.90).

Although in theory it may sound all too well, it is worth making a few remarks about the omissions of the UN in its last initiatives and the main hindrances to put its policies into effect.

The major omissions of the UN lately – especially regarding the MDG – are the lack of attention to important current global issues such as the arms trade, fair trade, lack of attention to the diversity of cultures (Jolly, 2005, p.13; 59) and the raise of economic inequalities in the world (Cornia, 2004, p.3). Besides, there is no sign of strategies to control and make (será q não é melhor colocar os sujeitos aqui?) more accountable the Bretton Woods agencies and international corporations (Fomerand, 2003, p.81).
There are two prevailing hindrances to be pointed out in the UN’s work on development which are the tension between the UN and Bretton Woods agencies and the conflicting interests between “North” and “South” and their prioritization in the global agenda for development. Even though Bretton Woods agencies have broadened their approach to development in the last years, it is still true that they have diverging “philosophies” and action towards development, as the Bretton Woods keeps on an essentially neoliberal politics while the UN has a more Keynesian approach (Fomerand, 2003, p.93). This becomes even clearer when financial matters are involved. Besides the fact that the Official Development Assistance which is supposed to provide 0.7% of the donor countries GNP has been giving far less than that, a great part of the resources provided go to Bretton Woods’ hands and leave the UN with no power for action. Moreover, what tends to prevail in their policies, as both UN and Bretton Woods stand for the capitalist system, are the interests and priorities of the “Northern” countries, with lots of attention being given to market-related issues and no interest placed in international structural changes (Weiss, 2004, p.223; Fomerand, 2003, p.97).
In an increasingly globalized world, where the interconnectedness of peoples and countries is remarkable, despite of UN’s weaknesses, the world organization plays an essential role in the international arena gaining much of its authority through the power and spread of its ideas worldwide and the interest and even the need of the world potencies to have their decisions legitimated by the international community (Jolly, 2005, p.47; Fomerand, 2003, p.99). With the proliferation of national and international actors involved in the world organization, the importance and influence of UN’s conception of development cannot be ignored.


Allen, T., and Thomas, A. Poverty and Development into the 21st Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
Archer, Clive. International Organisations, 3rd ed., London: Routledge, 2001
Cornia, Giovanni Andrea. “Inequality, Growth, and Poverty: An Overview of Changes over the Last Two Decades”. In: Cornia, Giovanni Andrea. Inequality, Growth, and Poverty in an Era of Liberalization and Globalization, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. pp.3-25
Fomerand, Jacques. “The Politics of Norm Setting at the United Nations: The Case of Sustainable Human Development”. In: Dijkzeul, D., and Beigbeder, Y. Rethinking International Organizations, Oxford: Bergham Books, 2003. pp.77-106
Jolly, R., Emmerij, L., and Weiss, T.G., The Power of UN Ideas: Lessons from the First 60 Years, New York: United Nations Intellectual History Project Series, 2005. http://www.unhistory.org/UNIdeas.pdf
Millennium Development Goals, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals
Weiss, T.G., Forsythe, P.D., and Coate, R.A. The United Nations and Changing World Politics, Boulder: Westview Books, 4th ed., 2004