The United Nations at 70

What has been achieved in the seven decades since the UN came into being, and what more is still to be done?

Shamshad Akhtar

Development, Economics and finance, Government and governance | Asia, The World

24 October 2015

It’s not perfect, but for 70 years the UN has driven regional growth, development and security, writes Shamshad Akhtar.

On this day, 70 years ago, the Charter of the United Nations came into force – hope, rising from the ashes of World War II. For seven decades the UN has driven multilateralism for peace, security, development and human dignity – in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world. Although far from perfect, no other organisation has done more to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war and to promote social progress and better standards of life” for all.

Conflicts have been averted. Human rights have been enshrined in international law. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. Primary education has become near-universal. Smallpox and polio have been largely eradicated, and fewer women, men and children die now from preventable causes than at any point in human history.

Many of the greatest impacts of 70 years of UN work remain often unseen, but are at least as important in our daily lives. UN-driven regulations and frameworks facilitate trade and commerce, as well as air and maritime safety. UN-sponsored treaties help ensure the worldwide flow of mail, telecommunications and data. Progress is measured against UN-derived benchmarks. Global energy, food security, and even the acceptable use of our oceans and outer space are all governed by agreements reached under the auspices of the United Nations.

The most important contribution of the UN however has been to prove the power of a single ideal: that no nation can succeed alone. Through its institutional architecture, especially the five UN regional commissions, the organisation has fostered regional development and shared prosperity as a way to reinforce multilateralism, demonstrating time and again that cross-border challenges, which continue to grow, require collaboration, integration, coordination and an unwavering commitment to the wider common good.

No region provides better proof of these efforts than Asia and the Pacific. When the UN was created just four of the 51 founding Member States were from this region – China, India, Iran and the Philippines. Much of the continent was under colonial rule. Standards of living were falling, and post-war infrastructure in many countries was nearly non-existent.

To address these challenges, the United Nations created the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) – the forerunner of the present Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). Over the next seven decades these institutions, supported by the whole of the UN system, have assisted Member States in creating the most economically dynamic and diverse region on Earth.

This growth has come, however, at great cost to our people and planet – with growing resource constraints and social inequalities, which threaten both our social fabric and environmental health. We are – once again – in a time of great turbulence, transition and opportunity, which is why the United Nations remains more relevant today than it has ever been.

The newly adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – anchored in 17 universal Sustainable Development Goals – embodies this renewed multilateral clarity of purpose. Ending poverty and hunger; ensuring education, equality and inclusive growth; acting on climate change and delivering lasting peace and justice – these are the cornerstones of the regional and global future we want.

Key to success in these new Goals will be mobilizing the resources necessary for implementation – innovative finance mechanisms and new approaches to development driven by science, technology and innovation.

ESCAP is also promoting policies that foster regional economic cooperation and integration through closer trade and financial activities; connections that open transportation corridors, link countries digitally and enable access to affordable and sustainable energy; and the ability to build back better from man-made and natural disasters and shocks.

Through the ESCAP intergovernmental platform, we not only engage our member governments but are also working to better harness the power of partnerships, increasing engagement with the private sector, civil society organisations, and growing citizen movements. Bringing this all together will be a system of follow-up and review that strengthens accountability for the well-being of the peoples of Asia and the Pacific.

Seventy years ago Asian leaders had a vision to shape the future of this region. Their focus was on building nations with the support of the United Nations. That same spirit still resonates today. In the words of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: “Alongside despair in many corners, there remains great hope in the power of working together. That is the founding spirit of the United Nations – and in this 70th anniversary year, in the face of grave and global challenges, it is the spirit we must summon today.”

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