Category Archives: United Nations

The UN, Resolution 1559, and Israel

Much has been made of UN Resolution 1559, calling for the disarming of Hezbollah. Israel has repeatedly called for its implementation, and used it to justify its actions. Unfortunately, there are some weaknesses in that argument.

First, resolution 1559 is merely a guideline. It was not passed under chapter 7, which implies that it has no binding authority. In essence, Israel cannot use that resolution as a cover for its actions. Indeed, the same resolution reaffirms and reiterates the sovereignty of Lebanon, which is now being violated.

Second, Israel’s legal argument does not consider the several UN resolutions that Israel itself is in violation of. By one account, Israel has been the subject of 138 United Nations resolutions against it. This excludes the many resolutions which the US vetoed. For some interesting reading on this issue, read the following:

While this suggests that Israel is in serious violation of UN resolutions, it is important to underscore that the violation would be even graver with a more equal balance of power. UN resolutions that have been passed did not get the US veto. Necessarily, therefore, they can be assumed to have been already watered down to avoid harsh criticism of Israel. Equally, the west has generally been supportive of Israel’s ‘right to exist’, and surprisingly no UN resolutions have called for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank or Gaza – asking instead for a negotiated peace only. It is an interesting, if rhetorical, question to ask – had the balance of power been more equal, would the UN resolutions against Israel have been even more damning?

Finally, a word about the United Nations. The UN receives significant flak for being ineffective, particularly from the United States. The impotent Unifil peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon is an excellent example. But why? After all the UN Security Council is made up of member states, so is it not them that are to blame?

In this case, the Security Council is weak because the United States makes it so. By selectively using the UN to further its agenda of supporting Israel, vetoing resolutions it does not like, and allowing Israel to ignore the Council’s resolutions at will, the US has made the UN a minor pawn in the larger game.

Equally, by ignoring Syria and Iran, who are significant regional players with leverage over Hezbollah, the US has suggested disinterest in a diplomatic solution. Through this policy of not negotiating, and by allowing Israel to redraw the map, the US harms the very credibility of UN resolutions that it claims to support.

Mr. Bush is right in saying the UN is irrelevant. He should know. He made it so.

What’s Wrong with an Unpaid Internship?

Good question. I spent the better part of the last year answering that question. My IOMBA program required an internship with the UN. Yet, a novice to this field after 6 years of paid work experience, I was surprised to discover that the UN does not pay interns. Nor, for that matter do most NGOs and research organizations in Geneva, Europe, or even in that haven of capitalism – the USA.

For me the answer was simple. I’m working, contributing to an organization. I should get rewarded for it, and financial incentives work best. If an organization does not want to pay, it does not really want my talents, nor deserves it. So, I quit the UN.

There are wider implications of unpaid internships however, that were made obvious by this piece in the New York Times. The problem with unpaid internships is that they do much more than undervalue an individual. They distort the labor market, depress wages and do not prepare interns for the real world (I can vouch for that). Most worrisome, perhaps is that:

They fly in the face of meritocracy — you must be rich enough to work without pay to get your foot in the door. And they enhance the power of social connections over ability to match people with desirable careers.

Unfortunately, I see no end to this tyranny of the UN. Europe, of course is way ahead of the USA in celebrating unpaid work – where most students intern at least once before graduating. And most programs are requiring internships, so that this system is approaching a tipping point where internships may well be the rule and not the exception. At least in India we don’t have this idiocy – yet.

A Few Degrees of Separation

It happened again this weekend. I met someone that, by the laws of probability, I should not have.

I had met her in Geneva in October last year, a day before she was leaving for Nairobi, and when I was still contemplating coming here. Our meeting had been random, at a party, and we had not stayed in touch. Then, 3 months and several miles and friends later, we meet at another acquaintance’s party. Coincidence, if there ever was one.

They say we are all separated by six degrees of seperation – that ‘anyone on earth can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries.’

More and more though, I realize that it is probably two degrees in my line of work. There are way too many common denominators in development work to escape having some acquaintances in common with everyone you meet.

For instance, if you are in the development field in general, you will at some stage of your life have worked and lived in Geneva and/or Washington, DC. For those passing through these countries, it is a small world. Then, we divide ourselves neatly into sectors. Private sector development, financing, youth issues, environment, gender issues, refugees, humanitarian relief. Within these categories, the world is smaller still. This work is all about networking. Everything else is secondary.

What does this teach you? That your mother was right when she told you to be nice to people. Don’t make enemies – you never know when you might run into someone again.

Another UN Meeting

Jesus H. Christ!!! Yap yap yap – thats all people do! What is it about people that get together in a room that everyone thinks everyone else wants to listen to them?

Sorry, I just got out of a UN meeting. I’ve been to some very engaging meetings, but it must be something about UN meetings that makes them such a waste of time. I think I’m beginning to grasp what.

Nobody every criticizes. You are not there to argue against the topic under discussion. Meetings are invariably to talk about what you have been doing. Because what you and your organization has done must clearly be the next big thing on this planet! Besides, god forbid the program goes forward and you get left out? So everyone must know you exist. So people talk, even if what they say has no relation to what is going on. So a discussion on pro-poor ICT policy will include mention of what someone is doing in some village with some doctors.

Nobody ever seems to be in a hurry. Particularly when the meetings consist of junior underlings designated by their institution heads to attend. By contrast, meetings with institution heads are so much more productive, because those people really have something to do after.

Its all well and good to brainstorm, but this is just a storm without any brains. I would have been more productive if I had been sleeping.

Neutrality & Objectivity

My job, as GSB broker, has been to facilitate pro-poor investments. I try to identify sectors and industries where private enterprise can introduce services for the poor or reduce costs for them, and I try to identify companies that are interested in such BOP investments.

It is an exciting job. In a country like Kenya the potential for business is huge. Indeed, almost any successful business has at least some positive impact, and after working here, I would be loathe to work in the static and unchallenging environment of a developed market.

That said, how do I pick a company to work with? By facilitating specific company alliances, am I not inherently favoring one company? And can my doing so have perverse side effects beyond the benefit I intended? For instance, if a project provides financial services in rural areas through a company, is it possible that I may have denied the people in that region other better or cheaper options? Or, if I help a company develop cheap accounting software for SMEs, am I needlessly encouraging consumers to use something proprietary?

In the pure market economy, market is both king and kingmaker. There are market failures, such as those that lead to monopolies, but the market bears the blame for them. Without ascribing too much to my job, I can however, choose one company, technology, or business model over another. Am I then playing god in the market?

This is a problem not unique to my program. All project development work has the same dilemna. It requires objectivity and neutrality most humans are incapable of. We all prefer working with some people rather than others. We know of some companies and not of others. So, by default, if not by design, we are not neutral. There are things outside our frame of reference that we do not see.

In the grand scheme of things my contribution is unlikely to change the course of an industry. Not yet, anyway. Still, this is why it is important – no, essential – to have well-informed, ethically aware people in this work. Because when we, as kingmakers, have the power to decide who gets money and who does not, and our results cannot be easily measured, our only support is good-intentions and the desire to excel at our job.

The Problem of Helping People

An interesting point was made today by the UNDP driver, on the way back from a meeting. Having worked here for a long time, and taken much of the staff around the country on missions, he knows quite a bit about development work.

There is a drought in Kenya, and the UN and other agencies are contributing food to the north. The food being offered is generally maize and beans – the staple food for Kenya. However, that area is home to a large number of Somali’s, who having been colonized by Italy, prefer pasta. So the maize ends up going to feed cattle, not the people themselves. What’s more – if the food aid comes from a non-muslim state, at least some people are unwilling to accept it.

An even more perverse impact relates to security regulations. UN Security regulations require that employees on mission in high-risk areas (known as Phase 3 areas) must travel with a security detail, in an appropriate 4×4 truck. The total cost can be about Ksh. 13,000 per day. For a 10-day mission, that is a good amount of money. Appearently, when the UN downgrades a certain area to Phase 2, the very security guards that previously protected the cars, are directed to take out a few tires of those cars. The increased incidence of crime results in an increased security assessment, and everyone is happy again.

Helping people is not easy, and can give rise to some perverse incentives for those one hopes to help. What is one to do – stay out of these areas, or do what appears right, anyway?

An intern’s job search in the field.

A friend asked how my work experience at the UNDP had been, particularly with regard to getting into the connected network. Having spent approximately the last 6 months working as an intern – first at the International Trade Centre in Geneva and now the UNDP in Kenya, I have come up with my own simplified theory of how things differ for getting a job in the UN. It is actually quite simple.

Being in the right place, at the right time, and knowing the right people. There is a whole lot of serendipity involved, and your skills are coincidental insofar as they help you to know the right people.

How are things different in the field? First, by virtue of being in the field, you have already proven your committment. Back in Geneva interns were considered dead-weight with no work experience and little to offer. Here, in the field, interns are respected as risk-takers, given real responsibility, and appreciated for what they contribute.

Second, the number of opportunities in the field are much greater. Projects come and go, as do the expats. Which means the chances of you being at the right place at the right time are higher. And when an opening comes up contracts will be written up to hire you – not the other way round.

As for knowing people, I still do not know many within the UN. But the UNDP name gets me a hearing with anyone – in industry, government, and civil society. It is a respected brand that I can leverage. And as I prove my capabilities, I get more recognition from my immediate superiors.

That doesn’t mean there is a paycheck in my future. And getting to do exactly what I want would require patience and at least 1-year. Still, if I had to work for free and struggle to get recognized for my work, with the goal of joining the UN, I would rather do it in the field. But that is just me.