Dhaka Courier

Corona crisis exposes weakness of UN bodies including WHO


Once, in the freshly victorious Western world post-WW2, UN bodies were presented as the great champions of freedom and justice by the big powers. Decolonization process was on and smaller countries were happy to find a set of defenders as the older colonial world came to an end.

Several declarations and documents were also ushered in which represented the promise of a brave new world.  While the UN General Assembly became the playground of superpowers, the tent of state representation, there were other representative bodies which offered even greater promise to the less powerful.

Specialized bodies

Some of these bodies are UNICEF, WHO, UNDP, WFP etc. Some built a good reputation like Unicef while others not so much but still trudged on. But these institutions and the UN had come into being at a particular time in history with its own priorities of the developed and the non-developed. That conceptual framework no longer applies and that is a major problem for the UN and its affiliates in a changed world.

What worked in the 1940s will never work in the 2020s.  The main functions of the UN has been to keep conflicts limited to small wars and try to prevent a big war one at which it has been successful. However, the cold war between the US and the USSR has ended with Soviet Union’s demise. Both these ideological enemies used them to try to control the UN to protect their strategic interests.

 The attached bodies were less political but not de-politicized with UNDP more close to the US and UNESCO less so as examples. Unicef and WHO were seen by many as more middle of the path but not particularly efficient. As long as most countries remained hugely underdeveloped and aid became a big factor in decision making, aid bodies mattered. But once global economies began to change in the 21st century, shifts began that challenged conventional notions of both peace and development.

The end of USSR not history

The first big bomb to hit the real world was the death of the Soviet Union which along with its allies ceased to become a political factor globally. It's at this time that the term” peace dividends”  began to make itself heard. It was a very US centric thinking which saw a world without its old cold war enemy as a world of peace. US political theorist Francis Fukyama wrote a book, “End of History” gloating over the death of  Soviet Union and forecasting that “history “ as understood by SU supporting Marxists would be coming to an end and a new era would begin.

He was proven very wrong of course as history shows. There is no global peace and no development led by the US. Instead, many of the smaller states have emerged as new forces of power, a virulently anti-US Islamic militancy has grown which threatens the US like never before and a very smart and powerful enemy has emerged which poses a greater structural threat to the US which Soviet Union never was in the shape that China is now.

But China has not risen alone, it's the growth of several others that makes the older UN so enfeebled. It's also because the age of charity funding based global nanny institution for peace or development has dramatically gone.

The Covid-19 blow and WHO

The corona crisis has also shown that the historical domination of the West has come to a not so soft end.  Initially gloating over the epidemic in China, it proved too early for a victory dance. The rest of the world particularly the West was badly hit with the US becoming the new epicentre of the virus. The US and Europe situation showed how small the world had become but more significantly, how small is the clout the West has.  In that scenario, how can bodies like the WHO survive with its dependence on the West isn’t clear.

Its not so much the funding but more importantly the confidence and prestige the West is supposed to lend to the UN agencies. But the US for example, withdraws when it sees its clout decline. So UNESCO is gone and now it appears is WHO’s turn.

WHO is a co-coordinating body with a lot of prestige but no intervention capacity of its own. Its advice is regularly contradicted by itself and its bureaucrats are used to listened to by only the smaller countries.  But smaller countries are far less small now and that makes dependence on WHO less needed.

Medical support services and capacity is higher everywhere than when WHO was birthed and the kind of health lordship that it once had doesn’t exist. Its seriously worth asking if it has a future when its major role has been giving bulletins and advice which it either contradicted itself or was not listened to.

Its not WHO in isolation that has declined but the UN in general. Long before globalization was here in the economic space, multilateralism was but that is ending as regions emerge to forge their own socio-economic history. In that new configuration the UN in general and the WHO in particular is bound to be eclipsed it has better find a new role for itself or the body birthed in 1948 already looks ready for the coffin.

  • Coronavirus
  • Pandemic
  • World Health Organization (WHO)

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