The United Nations has recently been the source of much discussion and controversy. In a speech this week to the UN General Assembly, President Obama continued to make his case for a military strike against Syria. The president posed this question (which he could have asked himself) to the assemblage: "What is the role of force in resolving disputes that threaten the stability of the region and undermine all basic standards of civilized conduct?"
I'll pose another question. What is the role of ending extreme poverty on a global scale that threatens the stability of millions of innocent human lives and undermine all basic standards of civilized conduct? What about access to food and water, education, and immunization to diseases?
Much of the media focus on the UN is based on its involvement with mediating regional conflicts. Whether it is the debate about intervention in the civil war in Syria or the signing of an arms trade treaty, the role of the UN on the world stage is far too often reduced to that of the intermediary between world powers -- or it is ridiculed or maligned by grand-standing American politicians. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said in a recent statement: "The U.N. Arms Trade Treaty is another attempt by internationalists to limit and infringe upon America's sovereignty..." In a May 2013 Gallup poll, only two-thirds of Americans reported that they "believe the United Nations plays a necessary role in the world today."
It is important to recognize that the United Nations is vital to the global community for more than its peacekeeping efforts. It is unfortunate that other crucial and often highly successful international lifesaving programs are overlooked, misunderstood or underappreciated.
Consider the UN's eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -- set in the year 2000 -- that it aims to meet by 2015. These pressing global issues were chosen and agreed upon by all United Nations member states. These worthy goals are as follows:
- Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
- Achieve universal primary education
- Promote gender equality and empower women
- Reduce child mortality
- Improve maternal health
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
- Ensure environmental sustainability
- Develop a global partnership for development
All eight of these highly ambitious goals will not be met in the next two years in all of the world's countries, but significant progress has been made just by working toward them. According to the 2013 Millennium Goals Report, the number of people living in extreme poverty has been halved (700 million fewer from 1990 through 2010), over 2 billion people now have access to cleaner sources of drinking water, the number of starving people in developing regions is decreasing steadily and a low debt burden has led to better trading conditions in developing countries. Already, the UN member states are beginning to look past 2015 and focusing on even broader goals -- ending poverty once and for all and bolstering sustainability, not just in very poor countries, but also in the wealthy ones. These are the types of initiatives that are so crucial to the advancement of the human species and enforced through the right kind of collaboration with the international community.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) is one of the UN agencies working toward the Millennium Development Goals. UNICEF has done much over the past several decades to fight starvation and disease for the world's millions of children.
Most Americans don't know the name James P. Grant -- but they should. Grant served as executive director of UNICEF from 1980 until just before his death in 1995. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times once wrote that Grant "launched the child survival revolution with vaccinations and diarrhea treatments, probably saved more lives than were destroyed by Hitler, Mao and Stalin combined." By advocating for cheap and simple life-saving measures for little children, Grant advanced world immunization rates from 20 percent to 80 percent against six major deadly diseases -- polio, tuberculosis, tetanus, measles, diphtheria, and whooping cough. He always kept oral rehydration salts in his pocket to demonstrate a pennies cheap method of preventing death from diarrheal disease which to this day kills nearly a million children every year. Schoolchildren are taught about famous military leaders in their history classes, but what about activists and humanitarians like James Grant who have saved lives instead of destroyed them?
Today, UNICEF is working in 191 countries on issues such as infant mortality, education, fighting HIV and AIDS and protecting children from violence in conflict zones on an annual budget of $966 million -- that's considerably less, by comparison, than the annual budget of Harvard University (about $4 billion).
James Grant's common words of advice to world leaders were: "The children should be the first to benefit from mankind's successes and the last to suffer from its failures."
As the mass media fills its hours with news about war, violence and crime, it is important to remember that such good works are being undertaken around the globe. About a billion and a quarter people live on less than $1.25 a day and the inequality gap is drastically growing. Consider that Mike Duke, CEO of Walmart, makes $11,000 per hour plus benefits!
Compared to the costs of waging war, the price of eliminating avoidable sicknesses, injuries, death and other tragedies is infinitely small. It all begins with real awareness.