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Local communities in a big, tough world

By Judy Cannon - posted Monday, 29 August 2005

Debate about the possible reform of the United Nations organisation is likely to hot up with the approach of the UN reform meetings scheduled for September.

Criticism of what the UN as a body has done, should have done, or has not done, so often overshadows the tremendous positive contributions to the world the organisation has made, and makes, and the magnificent extent of things achieved by its agencies, staff and volunteers in its 60 years of existence. Think of UNESCO, UNICEF, the UN work regarding human rights, refugees, the environment and a long list of other focused areas and programs which have brought help and assistance to many undeveloped countries and the people who live in them.

The world has changed over 60 years and will continue to change, no doubt making further UN reform necessary to meet new and different situations: situations which are likely to prove as demanding in the future as in the past. But there should be no question of any real challenge to the UN’s basic aims, or even existence - we don’t want the baby thrown out with the bathwater. If we do not have an independent and fearless UN then what do we have? And when all the discussion and manoeuvring are done, it is still the quality of life and overall health of local communities that count most - being made up, as they are, of people.


Panellists at the opening session of the recent UN International Conference on “Engaging Communities” in Brisbane hit immediately on a prime theme - given today’s mix of forces, such as international corporations, globalisation and terrorism - where in the world does this leave the individual, or for that matter, the communities in which we all live?

The conference, which attracted 2,300 people from 30 countries (Prime Minister John Howard did not attend), included key speakers including Mrs Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and now executive director of Realizing Rights: Ethical Globalization Initiative, US; Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, Foreign Minister of East Timor; Geraldine Fraser-Molieketi, South African Minister for Public Service and Administration; Professor Rehman Sobhan, chair, Centre for Policy Dialogue, Bangladesh; Jomo Kwame-Sundaram, assistant -secretary, Economic Development, UN Department of Economic & Social Affairs, US; and Peter Beattie, the Queensland Premier.

Also involved were Thang Van Phuc, Vietnamese Home Affairs deputy minister; Jacinto de Vera, chief, Policy Analysis and Coordination Unit, Public Administration and Development, UNDESA; Tim Costello, of World Vision; Noel Pearson, of Cape York Institute for Policy & Leadership; and Professor Stephen Coleman, of Oxford Internet Institute.

Engaging Communities conference initiator Adil Khan, who is head of the Socio-Economic Governance and Management Branch of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, NY, in an interview later touched upon two streams of communities, both working to improve their communities’ standard of life. One, the UN Poverty-Environment Nexus Project, which held closed sessions during the conference, is a low-key approach directed at local communities through non-government organisations (NGOs). The second stream concerns what is happening in South America.

Regarding the Nexus Project, he said direct UN involvement with a community, (where a national government facilitates but does not control), was often more effective and cheaper. Although sometimes governments were reluctant at first because they could not understand intangibles, they subsequently came to see how such projects provided information and lessons of benefit to its own central operations as well as the local community involved. He is convinced this is increasingly the way forward.

He gave, as an example, a project to help poor people in Ayah State of Myanmar (Burma) who are learning about food production, environmental conservation and natural composting. Through this project it had been possible to create community organisations and to resource their committees. The Myanmar government had facilitated this project “and it has evolved an interesting model … in some communities participating, a democratic culture starts to evolve,” he said. “This is a powerful model. And (although) in many cases such intervention will not radically change their lives or incomes, it teaches a coping capacity and heightens their morale.” He believed the project would create its own momentum. Return visits had shown that project communities were beginning to take the initiative to solve their own problems.


When UN conditions were applied to aid, governments probably had no option but to co-operate and usually attended meetings and offered advice. Such a direct approach had its origins in donors’ views and participation when going through a central government could involve enormous resources.

Talking to young people at a mock “Security Council” meeting earlier, Mr Khan said if future reforms introduced a UN human rights security council, instead of a Human Rights Commission, he could envisage the UN being able to act if a sovereign state did not behave to its own people as it should. At present the UN could only act if it was invited by the (nation) state in question.

“Then we would be able to go directly to people to help them,” he said. In addition, further efforts were needed to improve the UN budget. If a socio-economic security council were created, contributions could be made mandatory, he said. At the moment, the average contribution by each nation was about 0.25 per cent GNI when 0.7 per cent GNI was needed. (Australia, a strong proponent of the UN when it was being established, now contributes a disgraceful 0.24 per cent GNI. Lobbying has begun to persuade this government to increase that amount, especially in view of the current UN Anti-Poverty Campaign.)

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About the Author

Judy Cannon is a journalist and writer, and occasional contributor to On Line Opinion. Her family biography, The Tytherleigh Tribe 1150-2014 and Its Remarkable In-Laws, was published in 2014 by Ryelands Publishing, Somerset, UK. Recently her first e-book, Time Traveller Woldy’s Diary 1200-2000, went up on Amazon Books website. Woldy, a time traveller, returns to the West Country in England from the 12th century to catch up with Tytherleigh descendants over the centuries, and searches for relatives in Australia, Canada, America and Africa.

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