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The New Face of the United Nations

Jeffrey SachsJeffrey Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also a Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals. Through Project Syndicate he is a regular contributor to Webdiary. His last piece was The Environment Fights Back.

by Jeffrey Sachs

On January 1, 2007, Ban Ki-Moon, South Korea’s former foreign minister, will become United Nations Secretary-General, following Kofi Annan’s ten-year tenure. Annan inspired the world with his diplomacy and leadership on poverty reduction and human rights, but the war in Iraq divided the world and drew attention and financial resources away from crisis regions and critical long-term problems like climate change, disease control, sustainable energy, and access to water. With the recent elections in the United States and the rise of Asia’s global influence, there is an opportunity to turn the world’s attention to the most critical challenges facing our planet.

In addition to the long-term challenges of poverty, the environment, nuclear proliferation, and UN reform, the new Secretary-General will inherit a long list of hotspots: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, Somalia, Myanmar, Sudan, North Korea, and others. Recent attempts to influence developments in these countries through threats and sanctions, and sometimes war, have failed. Most are less stable today than they were five years ago. Clearly, a new approach is needed.

The leading Asian countries, including Ban’s South Korea, have long favored a balance of diplomatic approaches and economic incentives as the way to solve complex challenges. Rather than relying on sanctions and threats of force, the idea is to underpin long-term prosperity in today’s unstable regions. This balanced approach is important because most of the world’s hotspots are in trouble not only, or even mainly, because of politics, but because of the underlying challenges of hunger, disease, and environmental crisis.

Consider Darfur, a crisis that has been debated in the UN Security Council as a confrontation between the Sudanese Government and the people of Darfur. But the deeper truth is that Darfur is unstable because it is home to an impoverished and fast-growing population without adequate supplies of water, food, health clinics, schools, and other basic services. Rather than focusing on sanctions, the major powers would do much better to work with Sudan’s government to propose and help to finance long-term development strategies.

Defusing the crises in Darfur and elsewhere will be among the greatest challenges facing the new Secretary-General. Yet it is vital that the UN not simply lurch from one hotspot to the next. The UN also has the unique role and opportunity to offer leadership in building a global consensus around vital long-term environmental and economic challenges facing the planet.

Climate change, deforestation, growing populations, and other ecological strains will challenge the very survival of hundreds of millions of people around the world in the coming decades. UN leadership will be instrumental to proposing and forging solutions to such daunting long-term global challenges.

In fact, from 1992 to 2002, the UN’s member governments signed a number of treaties and agreements that can and should provide the foundation for long-term global solutions. Three treaties emerged in 1992 out of the so-called Rio Conference on the Environment – on climate change, biodiversity conservation, and desertification. In 2000, the member governments agreed on the Millennium Development Goals. And in 2002, they agreed on the Monterrey Consensus, pledging concrete efforts to triple aid flows to the poorest in order to reach the international goal for foreign assistance of 0.7% of rich-world GNP.

The key for today’s UN, therefore, is not to create more goals, but to implement those that have been set. This, too, fits strongly with the spirit in which Ban has approached his new position. He has made clear his intention that the UN should implement the commitments that the world community has made. Without implementation, all of the treaties in the world would lead us nowhere.

During his mandate, the Secretary-General will face the pressing challenge of forging a global agreement on climate change for the years beyond 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol ends. The Millennium Development Goals remain far off track in the poorest countries, with just nine years to go. Despite a global pledge to reduce significantly the loss of biological diversity by 2010, huge areas of rainforest and oceans continue to be destroyed.

If the United States works more closely within the UN framework, it will find willing partners in the rising Asian powers, which are intent on using their influence and resources to solve today’s challenges. After all, Asian countries are interested in global stability to underpin their own long-term development.

They are acutely aware of their increasing influential around the world, as investors, trading partners, and as contributors to and victims of environmental change. Behind the scenes, the Asian powers can help to defuse the crises in Darfur, North Korea, Myanmar, and elsewhere. And they will be crucial to forging new cooperative approaches to climate change, water scarcity, and the like.

The new Secretary-General comes to office with the world yearning to solve festering problems. Importantly, there is already broad agreement on a set of shared goals. Those goals are achievable. The challenge is implementation.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006

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