News & Analysis
An Alternative Post-2015 Agenda
Saturday, August 15, 2015
As noted in my last post, the draft of the post 2015 agenda that governments have agreed upon is the disastrous product of a dysfunctional UN. To show what a meaningful agenda could be, I’ve drafted the text below. If governments go ahead with their agreed text I invite civil society organizations to consider adapting and adopting the following. PREAMBLE We live at a time when the growth of..
Read More
A Verbose, Hollow Post-2015 Agenda
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
I have just finished reading the agreed draft of the "development agenda" the United Nations will put before world leaders next month. It has every characteristic of what UN insiders call a “Second Committee text;” that is to say, without vision, guided entirely by precedent, and wholly unrealistic. Usually negotiated by Second and Third Secretaries too low on the diplomatic totem pole to..
Read More
UN's Faux Development Agenda
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
The United Nations seems to be headed for a summit session of the General Assembly in September that will agree on a meaningless global development agenda. The draft of the document now being discussed in New York makes high minded declarations about "principles" and "commitment" but ignores such key issues as money laundering and drug trafficking that bedevil economic growth in poor countries...
Read More

Reviving Gandhi 
The relevance of his ideas to a world in crisis


A century after Mahatma Gandhi wrote his seminal work Hind Swaraj, we make the case that his ideas and concepts offer the only means of escaping the disasters that are shaping up as industrial civilization careens towards its terminal crises. The following is the first chapter in a book exploring how to revive Gandhi's political legacy. 

On 13 November 1909, a few weeks after his 40th birthday Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi boarded the S.S. Kildonan Castle to return to South Africa from Britain. He had been in London for more than four months, lobbying parliament entirely without success to protect the rights of Indians as it authorized a blatantly White supremacist constitution for the new Union of South Africa... Read More

Britain and the Opposition to Gandhi's Legacy

Mahatma Gandhi was one of a hundred Heroes and Icons TIME magazine celebrated in a special issue marking the end of the 20th century. An article by India-born British novelist Salman Rushdie explained his place in history. Rushdie began his piece with a riff on the Apple Corporation’s “Think Different” advertising campaign. “A thin Indian man with not much hair sits alone on a bare floor, wearing nothing but a loincloth and a pair of cheap spectacles, studying the clutch of handwritten notes in his hand. The black-and-white photograph takes up a full page in the newspaper. In the top left-hand corner of the page, in full colour, is a small rainbow-striped apple. Below this, there's a slangily American injunction to Think Different. Once, a half-century ago, this bony man shaped a nation's struggle for freedom. But that, as they say, is history. Now Gandhi is modeling for Apple.” Gandhi today is “up for grabs” Rushdie declared. “He has become abstract, ahistorical, postmodern, no longer a man in and of his time but a freeloading concept, a part of the available stock of cultural symbols, an image that can be borrowed, used, distorted, reinvented to fit many different purposes, and to the devil with historicity or truth.“ As if to validate that last phrase he then served up the following reprise of colonial era British propaganda: Read More


Sidelight to History: Mother Theresa
Mother Theresa's Letter
click to enlarge

As a young reporter in Calcutta I was assigned to write about Mother Theresa and spent several days following her around the city, from early morning prayers at the Mother House on Lower Circular Road, to Nirmal Hriday, the house for the dying destitute she ran in one corner of Kalighat Temple, to the home for unwed mothers and abandoned children, to the rural refuge for lepers. It was the first time I really looked at the plight of the poor of Calcutta, and it left me shaken – and vastly impressed with the work she was doing. (There was already talk about her performing miracles but when I asked about them she waved the question away and directed my attention elsewhere.)

A few years later I was working for the United Nations, and had the bright idea of inviting Mother to speak at the UN at the first observance of International Women’s Day (7 March). She declined the invitation, saying in a handwritten note torn from a notebook that she would be a “misfit” at the UN. Without thinking, I showed the note to a colleague from the secretariat, a priest who had been seconded by the Vatican to help with the first World Population conference (Bucharest 1972); it was only when he asked if he could make a copy that I began to consider the consequences.

In the years that followed Mother attended a number of events at the UN, and each time I saw her it was with regret; she had been entirely right in wanting to avoid the place. Her simplicity did not fit. It made people uncomfortable. No one seemed to know what to say to her. She herself was strained, and each time hurried away as soon after speaking as she was able to do without giving offense. Needless to say, she was a huge irritant to those espousing birth control as essential to development.
Inside the United Nations


Some items below are from previous years but they continue to be relevant to current realities.


China Human Rights: An expert UN human rights panel has called on the government of China to release Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo from prison immediately. One of the authors of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for fundamental rights for the people of China, Liu was convicted of “subversion” at a two hour trial in 2009 during which he got to speak for 14 minutes; he was given a 11-year prison sentence. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also called for the release of Liu’s wife from house arrest; she was confined for speaking to Western reporters about the condition of her husband in prison. The panel said in a written opinion sent to the authorities in Beijing that Liu’s criminal trial and imprisonment violated norms set by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The 5-member body also called for reparations for the 55-year old Liu who earlier spent two years in prison for his role in the June 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. The award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu infuriated the Chinese government, which blanked out news of the honour from its mass media and suspended trade talks with Norway, where the presentation was made. Liu was unable to attend the presentation ceremony, during which an unoccupied chair on stage stood mute witness of his repression. In a rebuke to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the UN panel asked him to support the call for Mr. Liu’s release. Fearing to offend China, Mr. Ban has maintained a total silence on the issue (see below).


The Drug Scene 2012: With an estimated 154,000 hectares growing poppy in 2012, Afghanistan remained by far the largest source of opiates worldwide. Despite the 18 per cent increase over the 2011 poppy acreage, opium production fell 36 per cent to 3,700 tons because of a crop disease and adverse weather conditions. Meanwhile, South-East Asia, mainly Laos and Myanmar, had over 58,000 hectares growing poppy.

Bolivia, Colombia and Peru had about 155,600 hectares growing coca in 2011 and cocaine production is uncertainly estimated at between 776 and 1,051 tons.

 Cannabis, the world’s most widely used illicit substance, is not widely trafficked internationally because local production meets most demand. However, production of cannabis resin is concentrated in Morocco and Afghanistan, and it is widely trafficked.

The figures relating to “illict drugs” are all extremely slippery estimates by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), based on a wide variety of “lies, damn lies and statistics.” The latest version can be found in the freely downloadable UN document A/68/126

At present some 16.5 million people use opiates worldwide; about 13 million are heroin addicts, putting away 375 tons of it every year. Europe accounts for 150 tons of heroin consumption. 


Security Council: The main UN organ responsible for maintaining international peace and security continues its ineffective course in 2013, so I leave unaltered below a 2011 comment which is as valid in 2013 as when it was written.

The SC has admitted its own craven ineffectiveness by deciding to expand the "name and shame" list of groups using child soldiers. Since receiving the first formal report on this situation in 1999, the Council has done little more than hyperventilate periodically on the matter. Its primary "action" has been the "name and shame" list. Those who abduct, abuse and brutalize children in order to use them as killers and sex slaves are supposed to be "shamed" by having their groups named in a UN document. While the Council has been thus occupied, an estimated 2 million children have been killed in armed conflicts and 6 million left disabled. Around 300,000 children now serve as soldiers. Little girls fare the worst. Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, told the Council last month that "sexual violence is becoming systemic and across the world, classrooms and the kids sitting in them are increasingly seen as legitimate targets."


UN Reform: Efforts to improve the performance of the United Nations were briefly energized after the Obama administration signalled its intention to seriously engage in multilateral diplomacy, but they are now back to normal. That is to say they are like a Noh drama. The action is glue-like, the plot incomprehensible, and the whole thing of interest only to afficianados. There is need for a radical change of focus and approach, but UN member States are so reluctant to give up the devil they know that it is impossible to entertain the slightest hope of real change. (For what is necessary to bring about real UN reform see our Discussion Paper; this is a topic on which we need to get a global conversation going.)


Signs of a New Era: Developing countries in 2012 accounted for nearly half of world gross domestic product (GDP); by 2020, just three of them, Brazil, China and India, are projected to have more of the world output than Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the United States of America combined.

By 2025, the South is likely to have 600 million people with household incomes over $20,000 and an overall annual consumption of $30 trillion. All regions of the South are growing and they have done so during the most severe recession in the North since the Great Depression.


High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development: At the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable development in June 2012 member States agreed to replace the ineffective Commission on Sustainable Development with a 30-member High Level Forum. Consultations since then have led to the Forum being thrown open to participation by all States, including the Holy See and Palestine. Its first meeting was on 24 September 2013. Unesco will convene an expert scientific body to support the work of the Forum, which will meet at the summit level every four years under the aegis of the General Assembly and at the ministerial level annually at the level of ECOSOC. (This straddling of deliberative and policy review functions could have got things moving with a well-chosen and focused membership; with all "stakeholders" dipping their oars into the process, it is unlikely to result in anything meaningful.) Delegates at the Rio+20 Conference thought they were creating a purposeful high-level body that would straddle the deliberative and policy review functions of the General Assembly and ECOSOC; the way things are going, the HLPF seems to be going the way of the body it replaced, towards endless ineffective talk.


Sustainable Development Board: Note one more step in the continuing saga of the UN’s ineffectual efforts to deal with global environmental problems: the President of the General Assembly has just communicated to member States the membership of the governing Board of the projected “10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production patterns.” Each Regional Group in the Assembly nominated two members to serve for two years; where they have named two States to a single slot, each will have a one-year term. The following States will serve on

the Board: Tanzania; South Africa; Japan/Republic of Korea; Bangladesh/Indonesia; Romania; Russian Federation; Chile; Mexico; Finland/Germany; Switzerland.


It is anyone’s guess how a membership so unrepresentative of the world’s economic realities can be effective in helping to reorder global consumption and production patterns.


Books, Reports & Stuff

 The following information is taken from reports before the 2013 session of the United Nations General Assembly

6.6 Million Child Deaths a Year: Unicef reports that an estimated 6.6 million children under the age of 5 died last year. Nigeria, Congo, India, Pakistan and China account for more than half those deaths. The top killers are malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea, all preventable and treatable. Malnutrition is a factor in half of under-5 deaths. The only bit of good news in the report is that the rate of childhood deaths has been halved since 1990; West and Central Africa are the only regions that have not done so.

Post-2015 Development Goals:  In one of the most dishonest reports I have seen in four decades of covering the United Nations, UNDP sets out what it says are the results of "consultations" with over a million people globally on what international development goals should be after 2015. (The Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000 are set for renewal in 2015.) According to UNDP, the world’s people want the following (in order of priority): “A good education. Better healthcare. An honest and responsive government. Better job opportunities. Access to clean water and sanitation. Affordable and nutritious food. Protection against crime and violence... It goes on for 159 colorful pages. There is not a mention of real world problems that developing countries have repeatedly declared to be high priorities. For instance, African countries called specifically in 2012 for an end to what the UN diplomatically calls “reverse transfer of resources.” That refers to the thievery that moves money from poor countries to rich ones. Over the last decade, 33 sub-Saharan countries had over $1 trillion stolen from their economies and transferred to offshore banks, which channel them to the wealthy of the world.

Women in Politics:  While the status of women in politics has improved somewhat over the past three decades, they remain marginalized in political decision-making in every region of the world. Few Member States achieved the target agreed upon by member States in 1990 to have 30 per cent women in decision-making positions by 1995. Only 35 national parliaments have 30 per cent or more women as at June 2013. Details here.

World Food Situation:  A joint report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome and the Brussels-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warns of a 30 per cent increase in food prices -- by 2021. The causes? Slower growth in major food crops and continued growth of world population, expected to reach 9.2 billion by 2050. (Note the use of different time horizons.) The report wants action against speculators, and "strict rules" to govern factors that "distort" world food trade. The next meeting of the G-20 is expected to take those matters in hand and bring "regulation" to the world food market. No mention of the fact that the existing "global market" for food is a highly energy-intensive and wasteful system driven by corporate profits. Corporate farming of mega tracts is environmentally destructive and always less productive than family run farms. The treatment of animals subjected to "factory farming" is cruel beyond belief and also environmentally disastrous because so much consumption and waste are concentrated in such small areas. The report ignores the obvious: that if we cut out the big corporations the "world food economy" would quickly resolve into much more productive and "green" local, national and regional food economies. They would employ millions more workers and could easily feed the projected world population and more. Especially if we reduce the wastage that now accounts for one-third of the world's agricultural production. Decreasing that percentage should take care of inflation.

Illiteracy: The World Literacy Decade the General Assembly declared in 2003 ended on 31 December 2012. In a period that saw a 40 per cent increase in world population, the number of illiterate young people declined from 168 million in 1990 to 123 million in 2011. The number of those who remained illiterate above the age of 15 fell from 881 million in 1990 to 774 million in 2011.  

UN Secretary General
Ban Ki-moon

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (the last name is Ban), was given a second 5-year term on 21 June 2011. It began on 1 January 2012.There were no other contestants for the post.

Ban's reappointment is not seen anywhere as a reward for good performance. He has been a general embarassment in the post, dragging the Organization into near total irrelevance with his hamhanded diplomatic incompetence. For a sampling of his feats check out our blog at Ban's first term is also described under the SG section (link below)

The uncontested reappointment was widely seen as recognition that the currenly rancorous relations among the five permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia, United States), will preclude agreement on anyone new. Ban is the special favourite of China because he has said not a word about the 2010 Nobel laureate languishing in a Chinese prison.

In New York, the media gave the reappointment minimal coverage. The New York Times gave it three lines; The Wall Street Journal noted it at the bottom of its column of snippets on page one. Ban himself celebrated the event with a 7 minute UN video set to rock music. It shows him talking, walking, shaking hands with celebrities, hugging a baby ... .  
Former Secretary Generals