TCS Daily

The Millennium Sham

By John Luik - September 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This article is the first of two parts.

If you listened only to the "leaked" confidences of unnamed UN sources or the world's liberal press the last couple of weeks, you would think that the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) -- those eight broad aims adopted by the UN in 2000 for improving the plight of the world's poorest citizens by 2015 -- had been single-handedly wrecked by the US and its new UN ambassador John Bolton. According to this delusional account, everything was nicely on track for the MDG's and last week's World Summit until Bolton took a red pen to the draft document.

For instance, Mark Goldberg, writing in The American Prospect (9/7/05) under the fair-minded headline "Under Ambassador John Bolton, the United States is doing all it can to block UN reform", noted that "Negotiations over the substance of the reforms were thrown into complete disarray on August 17, when the recess-appointed Ambassador John Bolton submitted some 750 alterations to a 39-page text of proposed UN reforms." Speaking specifically about the MDG's, Goldberg wrote that "Perhaps no edit was more obnoxious -- and more instructive of the influence of Bolton in this process -- than the systematic removal of all 14 references to the Millennium Development Goals... and then their subsequent reinsertion."

What Goldberg omits to mention is that the US has never agreed to these goals, and several entail policies that it has explicitly rejected. But those are merely quibbles beside the main question, which Goldberg never bothers to answer, of just why Bolton's removal of all reference to the MDG's is "obnoxious"? The ambassador's action is a legitimate, reasoned and long overdue response not only to the MDG's but to the entire sordid and largely un-reformable mess that the UN and its agencies like WHO have become.

Of course that's not the polite diplomat-speak that the occupants of Turtle Bay like to hear. They prefer to cloak even the moral stench of the oil-for food scandal with talk of putting an unpleasant past behind us and "moving forward with vital managerial reforms", as if the terminally ill were really able to heal themselves. They seem unable to understand that perennially blighted by profound incompetence, the UN has never possessed any managerial authority. And that any tolerance, at least in America, for a bungling world bureaucracy has been ended once and for all by the ugly specter of a Secretary General who, according to the Volcker report, has known about the deep institutional corruption involved in the oil-for-food program for four years but has chosen to do nothing about it. Neither Annan nor his deputy Louise Frechette seem to have understood that while even inept institutions might be tolerated if they are essentially good and well-functioning institutions, accepted even if they are occasionally morally suspect, an institution that is both incompetent and immoral -- like the UN -- deserves no future.

This systematic, indeed, institutionalized incompetence and corruption goes far beyond the oil-for-food scandal. For example, there are the charges of improprieties at WHO concerning improper contracting relationships between companies controlled by members of WHO's executive board and the organization. Or consider the UN's response to the unfolding food crisis in Niger, to which Mr. Annan and a gaggle of his bureaucrats paid a lightening photo-op visit late last month. Close to three million people are struggling to live in Niger, yet the UN's relief efforts have been widely criticized as slow, ineffective and even counterproductive. For instance, Medecins Sans Frontieres noted that the UN "was slow to react to the current epidemic of acute malnutrition in Niger and its response continues to be inadequate." This is particularly inexcusable given that the UN's own World Food Program forecast significant food shortfalls for Niger a year ago. But even less acceptable is the fact that the UN argued against providing Niger's starving population with free food on the grounds that such a move would undermine other UN development programs. After all, it's important to keep one's bureaucratic priorities straight: it would never do to let a few million starving people impede existing development programs.

What unites these examples is not simply incompetence or corruption, but a nexus of the two that substantially increases not only their opportunities and capacities for ill, but their strength in the face of reform. For example, the UN's administrative incompetence with respect to the oil-for food program opened the door for the corruption that characterized that program, and this corruption in turn worked against changing the incompetent status quo which made it possible.

Seen then against this background, Bolton's skepticism about the Millennium Development Goals, far from being "obnoxious", conveys a truer view of both the viability of the goals and of the UN itself than anything coming out of Turtle Bay or the uncritical fawning of the world's chattering classes.

John Luik is writing a book on health care policy.


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