Trevor PageLETHBRIDGE, Canada, Jan 5th (IPS) – Most people around the world were excited for 2020: From the devastating bush fires in Australia to the locust plagues across East Africa that stretched across Arabia to Pakistan, extreme weather , melting ice sheets on the poles and Covid-19 that is still devouring the globe.
Trevor PageBut 2021 threatens to be even worse than 2020: The economic impact of lockdowns, inward-looking, self-interested wall-building governments that surpass internationally agreed levels. And then, to quote David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Program, “We could face several famines of biblical proportions” and “We are on the Titanic and the iceberg is ahead”. He was referring, of course, to the world’s hotspots in Africa and Asia. But as with the pandemic, we are all together. Nobody is safe until everyone is safe. We live in a totally interdependent world. But how well is the world prepared for the coming year? Not very well, is the short answer. The change in government in the US will not close the gaping hole it has torn in the world order. Despite a short-term Brexit trade deal, Europe is still falling apart. Russia is no longer a leading actor at the international level. But China is marching tirelessly and implementing its traditional long-term plans.
And what about the United Nations: the UN charter that nations signed after World War II to keep the peace, and the organizations they founded to make the world a better place for all? Do not expect changes in the Security Council, the United Nations’ most important organ to prevent war and armed conflict. The governments are preoccupied with domestic issues. 2021 is not the time they want to see a change in the world order, nor is the time to tackle the fundamental changes that will be required to make it happen.
In the humanitarian field, the Norwegian Nobel Committee seemed to be laying the groundwork for awarding its 2020 Peace Prize to the World Food Program. The WFP has been fighting global hunger for more than 50 years. And it has certainly helped to improve the conditions for peace in conflict areas. To declare that it acts as a “driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict” is a long way off. Yes, it was the “driving force” in Operation Lifeline Sudan in the 1990s, before South Sudan became independent. And it has been the “driving force” in Yemen since the outbreak of civil war in 2014. But what about the numerous other armed conflicts that are raging in Africa, Asia and Latin America?
And what about the other parts of the UN system that have been set up to deal directly with war and armed conflict, including its cause and effect: the Political and Peacebuilding Department, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees? And then there are the UN Special Rapporteurs and the Army of the Secretary General’s Special Envoy, assigned to the conflicting countries to lead UN action. Well, nothing has happened to this part of the UN system to suggest that significant change is on the way. But every conflict situation is different, as are the actors involved. Individuals are always the ones who can make a difference so surprises are always possible.
What is widely misunderstood by the public is that the United Nations and its organizations, whether conflict resolution or hunger relief, are never completely in the driver’s seat. They are the foot soldiers because they have received marching orders from the member states. And for their work they are funded by the Member States and are accountable to them. At a time when governments do not want to move the goal posts, there is usually no great forward momentum in the UN system in sight.
But other significant forces also play a role here. First, in a growing number of countries, the general public is ahead of their governments. People don’t want a child to starve to death, no matter where they are from. Public opinion can be quickly mobilized to encourage donor governments to increase contributions to cope with the effects of natural disasters in an affected country. Second, the media plays an important role, not only in raising public awareness of the problem, but also in exposing overly stingy donor governments and inept relief agencies in properly solving the problem. Government officials in developing countries are often reluctant to admit the severity of a natural disaster or the risk to civilians from armed conflict. A free press remains the best watchdog in the world.
Third, it is worrying that there seem to be a growing number of UN officials unwilling to speak out and raise the alarm when danger signals arise. “Why are there such scared cats?” A colleague recently asked me who had just returned because of a famine. He knew exactly what he had seen and what it meant for the population in the coming months. But his seniors were nervous about admitting it lest it anger the government officials they worked with. It can be dangerous if well-paid senior UN humanitarian officials are unwilling to speak up and raise the alarm to prevent incipient situations from turning into disaster. The underlying problem could be the proliferation of short-term Uber-style contracts that UN staff are hiring these days. Many don’t want to take the risk of offending someone because they fear losing their job. For the United Nations to work effectively, its staff must be able to advocate the principles of the United Nations, speak up when necessary, and do their jobs with impunity. You have to play a supportive role right at the forefront of the action. UN humanists must stand tall.
In this way, humanitarian organizations could take the lead in 2021 to maintain the reputation of the UN system in some parts of the world. David Beasley and his World Food Program are sure to be in the spotlight. If hunger is prevented from being used as a weapon of war, the progress of the WFP will be slow and uneven. The dynamics of each conflict are different, as are the actors involved. Don’t expect widespread results anytime soon. But the WFP has been facing the challenge for over 50 years and delivering the goods. Building a closer relationship with the political, peacebuilding, human rights and refugee agencies of the United Nations will be crucial to the new challenge. In the difficult years to come, the decision by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the 2020 Peace Prize to the WFP could be just what the UN system needs to make life more bearable for the millions who are still in the crossfire of war.
Trevor Page, based in Lethbridge, Canada, is the past director of the World Food Program. He was also a member of the UN refugee agency UNHCR and what is now the UN Department for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs
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