Monday, July 29, 2002

How to Write a Globally Worthless Report, UN Style

On July 24, the United Nations Development Program released its 2002 Human Development Report. Whenever I hear that the UN or one of its numerous offspring organizations has released a report, I cringe just slightly.

Why cringe? Well, apart from the self-congratulatory fanfare that always accompanies these things, there’s the more serious frontal assault on any semblance of truth that such “expert reports” repeatedly convey.

First come the basics. Customarily, a report includes verifiable figures, or something approaching verifiable figures. At the UN, however, such standards can easily fall by the wayside. In this case, the biggest problem is non-existent figures. While many wealthier countries keep endless statistics on their citizens’ lives, many less developed nations don’t bother or can’t afford the luxury of detailed head counting. So when preparing a report on the international state of such and such an issue, limited figures pose something of a hindrance. But this doesn’t stop the UN. When it wants to prove a point, it finds the figures.

Case in point: A friend and I were preparing a website for one of the more esteemed UN organizations. The director of the projects asked that we post a series of tables providing information on the topic at hand for countries world-wide. The only hitch was that the world’s poorer nations had no such figures. When I pointed this out to the director, he simply told me he’d extrapolate some, i.e. make them up, all the while keeping in mind that the figures were intended to show the need for concerted action to deal with the problem demonstrated by the as yet non-existent figures.

When it comes to writing reports, the UN begins not with the intention of showing the real state of a problem, or whether a problem even exists, but with the intention of justifying the existence of the UN body mandated to deal with the program. In other words, like bureaucracies in general, UN reports are a means of self-propagation. The figures used, whether real or not, serve this function.

This leads to the second, ideological issue. UN organizations view themselves as indispensable in their roles as policy coordinators. If you look at almost any UN body, you’ll find that a central element of its mandate is to establish international standards. This may sound like little more than a clearing house for cooperation between nations, but it’s much more. Increasingly, UN bodies see themselves as the originators of international norms for governing a host of particular activities. In the minds of most UN officials, these norms have a virtual legal status.

Now, the best way to show the need for international standards is to brew up reports, full of figures, demonstrating the presumed existence of a problem. The next step is to argue that only action taken on a global level can alleviate the problem. There’s no real evidence for this, it’s just an assertion every UN report makes. To this end, one thing always pops up: globalization.

To my mind, globalization is the most vacuous concept invented since the fall of Soviet communism; it means absolutely nothing apart from being a source of rhetorical capital. I mention the Soviet Union here, because this is where the problem begins. It’s always assumed that the end of the Cold War brought on a new global age. For an example, we can look at the address given by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the lead author of the UNDP report.

Early in her speech, Fukuda-Parr notes:

For many in the world, the 1990s was a decade of great leaps of progress — economic, technological and political. The Internet brought the world ever closer. Authoritarian regimes in the Former Soviet Union, Africa and Latin America toppled one after another.

She speaks of the world coming closer together, but she never bothers to mention that it was the military determination of western democracies that made this possible in the first place. Let’s call this step one in writing a UN report: the world is better today – i.e. more united - just don’t mention why.

But having recognized the new global community, one must point out that this unprecedented situation is also making life difficult for many. So continues Ms. Fukuda-Parr:

Globalization is forging greater interdependence, yet the world seems more fragmented - between the rich and the poor, between the powerful and powerless, between those who welcome the new global economy and those who demand a different course. The anti-globalization movement, the most significant social movement of our times, is demanding greater social justice, not just handouts for the poor.

This is step two to writing a UN report: having established that globalization exists, we now point to the negative effects, which again are more or less unproven – they’re just assumed. Of course, as these effects are global and beyond the reach of any one nation, only an organization with a global reach (aligned with various international civil society groups and the anti-globalization movement) can provide the international balm.

At this point, Fukuda-Parr points out that the only remedy is political inclusion. At first glance, this might sound similar to something we’d find in the US constitution or in the British parliamentary tradition. But of course, it’s not. Ms. Fukuda-Parr’s intention is not to uphold national democratic institutions, but precisely to tear them down. In her address she goes on to argue the following point:

Too often when economic or social challenges confront a nation there is a mistaken notion that authoritarian control will provide the answer.

This sounds good, but what exactly does “social challenges” mean? Would something such as an attack by terrorists from a specific religious tradition upon a large number of a nation’s citizens qualify here? I think it would, because Fukuda-Parr ends her address with the following quote from Aung San Suu Kyi:

At a time when the world is preoccupied with the menace of terrorism, it is worth considering that people who feel deprived of control over their lives - necessary for a dignified life - are liable to search for fulfillment along the path of violence.

So the war on terrorism, this “preoccupation,” can lead us to forget that what is actually needed is not military resolve but inclusive politics. Indeed, this is one of the primary conclusions of the report: the war on terror must not compromise human rights. The message seems to be directed to smaller regimes that might use the war as a pretext for tyranny, but if we consider that the US if the prime actor in this war, it surely must be aimed at the US as well.

So here’s the pattern when writing a UN report:

- Establish, by any means, the new globalized atmosphere, but never consider that it was a few particular nations that made it possible.
- Then, blame this selfsame globalization for economic and social problems in order to justify the need for global action.
- Next, subtly associate the UN view of global action with democracy and inclusion as opposed to national governments so often tempted to resorting to authoritarian measures.
- End with the suggestion, sometimes outright accusation, that those nations that once were the defenders of democracy can no longer be trusted to defend democracy in the new global atmosphere. The only solution: sacrifice national sovereignty to unaccountable UN bodies in order to ensure democracy.

Any questions?

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