Discovering the Disfunction: My First Experience at a UN Meeting

| June 13, 2019

Last week I had the privilege of attending my first official Executive Board Meeting at the United Nations. I was excited to witness real discussion between the leaders of the world on how to solve our biggest problems. The meeting was led by the United Nations Development Programme and was scheduled to discuss how to eradicate poverty and develop poorer countries. It sounded like a dream for a young policy enthusiast. Here at the center for the world’s government, there was a plan being discussed to end poverty. I could not wait.

I went in with an optimistic and romantic view that problems were about to be solved. I was quickly met with bureaucracy, disfunction, and an organization that comically lacked answers. The meeting had a somewhat informal setup where the speaker from UNDP would first present the organization, then countries would take turns asking questions, after which the speaker would try to answer them, and the process would repeat. This procedure quickly turned into wild drama and entertainment masked behind the formality of international diplomacy.

The speaker for UNDP opened the meeting by presenting a report on what the UNDP does. This was filled with fluff and buzzwords designed to suggest to everyone that all the problems in the world were on the verge of being solved. He repetitively used phrases such as, “integrated approach to development”, “leave no one behind”, “financial stability”, and “innovation.” On their own, these words do not mean a whole lot, but they sound promising towards achieving poverty reduction.

Fortunately, the delegates in the room saw the emptiness behind these words too and were perhaps alarmed about the number of times the speaker mentioned needing more “Core funding”. The delegate representing CARACOM was the first to strike. He said in a diplomatic fashion that all of UNDP’s language sounds great; however, small island states need help, what is it that you actually do. When the floor was given back to the speaker, he talked about “integration” and climate change while telling CARACOM that the organization needs to continue reforming to answer that question.

This trend of not answering questions, filling time with fluff, asking for money, and then being questioned on what they do, continued throughout the session. For example, Denmark asked how UNDP is removing barriers to women’s empowerment. In their opening statement, UNDP talked about gender empowerment as one of the key observations of the organization. Despite this, the speaker could only tell Denmark that there is no universal answer, and then he moved on with more fluff phrases.

Amid this argument disguised by parliamentary procedure, the United States, Russian Federation, and Mexico directly asked what UNDP does and wanted to be shown results. When the speaker regained the floor with twenty minutes left in the meeting, he announced that we were short on time and wanted his colleagues on the podium to have a chance to speak. When that ended five minutes later, UNDP sought to answer every question that had nothing directly to do with development. However, before adjourning, the speaker left us with several hints suggesting that the organization does not do much of anything. He said that they are not an organization that directly has accomplishments, rather they offer their presence and support. UNDP tackles big, long term issues thus, there is no evidence to present in this annual evaluation. Amusingly, he stated that UNDP is not like a washing line of a bunch of projects having nothing to do with each other, rather they are like the dotted line linking various projects to one cause (so… like a washing line). He concluded with the point that UNDP cannot measure their accomplishments, and they do not have an answer as to if their work will ever be completed.

I left the UN that day unsure if I was entertained by the train wreck of it all or irritated by the waste and confusion. I look forward to continuing to observe the United Nations and I am hopeful that states will force these organizations into doing, not just speaking, good.