UN: The Tragic Triviality of Dilettantism

In the most recent issue of Foreign Policy, Jacob Heilbrunn writes that Ban Ki-moon is ‘the Nowhere Man’ since he is nowhere to be seen on the global stage. He even calls Mr. Ban the ‘most dangerous Korean’, thus elevating him above Kim Jong Il, the little-understood ruler of the northern part of the divided Korean peninsula.

Heilbrunn’s frontal attack against the current UN General Secretary is not really surprising for someone who is a senior editor at the right-wing National Interest. His likening of Mr. Ban to a dictator is just plain tasteless. His text is beaming with factual inaccuracies and presumably deliberate distortions of facts.

Yet what left me truly troubled is that despite its acidity and baseness, Heilbrunn’s op-ed is a truly refreshing read.

“Even in [the] unimpressive company [of the late former Nazi Kurt Waldheim, Boutros Boutros Ghali and most recently Kofi Annan who led the UN Peacekeeping branch when the Rwanda genocide took place],” Heilbrunn cauterizes,

Ban Ki-moon appears to have set the standard for failure. It’s not that Ban has committed any particularly egregious mistakes in his 2½ years on the job. But at a time when global leadership is urgently needed, when climate change and international terrorism and the biggest financial crisis in 60 years might seem to require some—any!—response, the former South Korean foreign minister has instead been trotting the globe collecting honorary degrees, issuing utterly forgettable statements, and generally frittering away any influence he might command. He has become a kind of accidental tourist, a dilettante on the international stage.

What is so remarkable about this assessment is that it was to be expected when Mr. Ban was appointed. Heilbrunn mentions how former Secretary of State Rice championed his candidacy, but he conveniently omits the main reason – namely that the Administration of Bush junior considered Annan’s succession a major opportunity to paralyze the UN. Looking at the role of the organization in the most recent global crisis, it seems that this plan is working rather well. Even The Economist agrees that Mr. Ban’s performance at mid-point is wanting.

This sobering stocktaking exercise does of course beg the question whether or not a new Secretary General can turn the UN around. Heilbrunn seems to suggest that charismatic and passionate leaders wield the power to steer the blue bureaucracy down the right routes. Republicans have always been sympathetic with the idea of a strong leader, so this argument, too, should not surprise anyone. (That Heilbrunn has retained this faith in spite of recent political developments in the United States may be more astonishing.)

Skepticism is indeed warranted. The UN reform towards ‘delivering as one’ is stalling (it never got very far in the first place); the organization’s recruitment practices remain muddled and its internal decision-making and priority setting highly obscure. The rise of less-than-democratic countries such as China and Russia to the round table of global economic politics is curtailing the UN’s influence further.

So, will things improve significantly with a new bureaucrat at the helm of the global diplomatic apparatus? Probably not.

The good news is: it can hardly get worse.

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What Makes Global Health Political?

Lawrence Gostin, in a recent scholarly op-ed in JAMA, has argued passionately that health inequality is deeply unethical. I fully agree. The question is how the current architecture of global health assistance can be changed so that it becomes more responsive to the unethical reality of global health disparities.

I just finished an essay for publication in which I am arguing that more money for global health is not necessarily going to have much of an impact on the global disease burden. Why? Because it is being spent on causes for which marginal returns have already been reached. Focusing on either the ‘classic’ neglected (tropical) diseases, on maternal and neonatal health or even the ‘new’ neglected diseases such as depression and obesity would be a much better way to invest in healthcare in developing countries.

Why is it not happening? Because donors follow the flock; one donor rarely deviates from what other donor agencies set their priorities on. And a significant mortality reduction over, say, a decade is more difficult to measure and attribute to a specific intervention that, for instance, the purchase of medical equipment or large training programs to halt the spread of HIV.

Can these dilemmas be solved? I think so. But it requires political action, and that is challenging because of the ongoing portrayal of international development as a field which, most of all, requires good intentions, strong partnerships and more money. This is a gigantic fallacy.

Development involves trade-offs. It is usually not the kind of win-win scheme as some prominent authors suggest. Understanding these trade-offs necessitates that political dimension is brought into global health care analysis and planning.

Susan Erikson recently argued [no full text version available] that health professionals need more training in political analysis and activism. To me, this sounds like a promising first step. But it will hardly be sufficient to nurture fundamental change. What is ultimately needed is agency–political activism, in other words–in recipient countries.

The current euphemistic talk about partnerships between donors and recipients, public and private sectors risks masking the fact that little progress has been made during the past decade in creating a more egalitarian playing field for developing nations in their negotiations with rich countries.

Where we have seen positive developments, these have originated in targeted South-South cooperation and grassroot organization, and not in more technical assistance and high-level donor conferences.

This, then, is the tall order to catalyze change: acknowledge that apolitical development is a fiction; engage constructively with the recipients so that they can really become ‘beneficiaries’; most of all, listen to local priorities rather than imposing international agendas.

Are these changes likely to happen anytime soon? No. Are they impossible to achieve? No.

Welcome to my blogosphere.

The Spring semester is over and I finally have a chance to launch my blog! I will be posting commentaries on global politics in general and development strategy and practice in particular. I also look forward to sharing links to articles and websites that I find helpful, surprising, or though-provoking. In addition, I am using this web space for teaching purposes and to provide links to my research and publications.

I look forward to your comments!