The U.N. Is Designed to Fail

The annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly last week, and President Trump’s widely noted remarks there, focused much-needed attention on the organization. The dithering and inaction on critical international problems Trump noted served as a reminder that the U.N. has long been dysfunctional and disappointing. That is not surprising: It was designed to fail.

Best-known for its so-called “peace-keeping” efforts in areas of conflict—where it enjoys a mixed record, at best—the organization’s other agencies, commissions and panels have a dismal record of accomplishment, especially while acting as the world’s regulator-wannabe for all manner of products and processes. The U.N. regularly panders to activists and, not coincidentally, adopts policies that expand its own scope and responsibilities. Science routinely gets short shrift in U.N. brokered international agreements, where everything becomes an exercise in international horse-trading.

As both a candidate and as president, Donald Trump has criticized the under-performance and lavish self-indulgence of U.N. bureaucrats. The United States has long been a hugely disproportionate funder of U.N. activities—our mandatory assessment and voluntary contributions totaling some $8 billion each year—but the era of America as the U.N. sugar-daddy is about to end. In the Spring, State department staffers were instructed to find significant cuts in U.S. funding for U.N. programs (above the mandatory assessment). That was the first signal of long-overdue belt-tightening.

Why are incompetence and profligacy rife within the sprawling organization? In several respects, it’s in the U.N.’s DNA.

First, the U.N. is essentially a monopoly. Inefficiency and incompetence are not punished by “consumers” of their products. It is not as if the services of the U.N. can be spurned in favor of patronizing a more efficient and competent competitor. On the contrary, it is not uncommon in these kinds of bureaucracies for failure to be rewarded with additional resources. Contrary to good business practice, if a program isn’t working, government bureaucrats clamor to make it bigger.

Second, recall economist Milton Friedman’s observation that if you want to understand the motivation of an individual or organization, follow the self-interest. U.N. officials are rewarded for making the bureaucratic machinery run—that is, for producing reports, guidelines, white papers and agreements, and for holding meetings—whether or not they are of high quality or make any sense at all.

A related phenomenon is what the leader of a prominent national delegation to the Codex Alimentarius (a creature of the U.N.’s World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization) biotech task force dubbed “glamor fever:” The participants become so enamored of the trappings of the meetings—the formal and dignified proceedings, the simultaneous interpretation of the proceedings into various languages, and exotic venues—that they seem to forget why they’re there. (And they certainly don’t want the activity—and the opportunity for all-expense-paid, luxurious travel—ever to end.)

Third, there’s no accountability—no U.S. Government Accountability Office, House of Lords Select Committee, or parliamentary oversight, and no electorate to kick the U.N. reprobates out when they act contrary to the public interest. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that we see egregious examples of arrogance and corruption, let alone day to day featherbedding, laziness and incompetence in the thousands of individual U.N. programs and projects. A recent example was a bizarre report from the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, which called for a global “agroecology” regime, including a new global treaty to regulate and reduce the use of pesticides and genetic engineering, which it labeled human rights violations. In reality, these products and technologies improve the efficiency of agriculture and enhance food security, especially among subsistence farmers.

Fourth, in the absence of accountability, U.N. officials feel little need for transparency of policymaking; and the PR offices simply spin, spin, spin. Several years ago I attended a major World Health Organization event in Geneva at which the NGO I represented was denied accreditation because it was known to be an advocate of free markets and a critic of the lack of science in the U.N.’s policies. You get to participate in the U.N.’s marketplace of ideas only if there is official approval of what you’re selling.

Fifth, there’s the issue of the quality of the pool from which senior U.N. officials are selected. The organization is no meritocracy: The country or region of origin of a candidate seems to be more important than his credentials and qualifications. Finally, concerning candidates who are seconded to the U.N., if you were a nation’s president, or its environmental or health minister, would you give up your best and brightest people and send them to work for the U.N.?

U.S. discretionary contributions should go only to U.N. programs that are highly relevant to the United States, and we should withhold funding and participation from U.N. agencies and programs that are found to be corrupt or incompetent—which is a huge fraction of them. Better still, we and other like-minded countries should cease paying any dues at all until the entire organization undergoes fundamental and genuine reform. That is the only language the international bureaucrats will fully understand.


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About Henry I. Miller

Henry Miller is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.