Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

The Cost of U.N. Whistleblowing (February 9, 2004)
"Three whistleblowers whose warnings helped draw attention to incompetence and abuses.... all lost their jobs, unfairly, because they complained."

Those U.N. Inspectors Were Not Wrong About Iraq (February 2, 2004)
"The crucial question not being asked is why the public or the media should be surprised and outraged by Kay's empty-handed return from Iraq. The answer is that nobody bothered to ask the real experts—those maligned U.N. arms inspectors, who could have predicted all this more than a year ago."

Much of World's Conflict Fueled by Small Arms (January 28, 2004)
"In the heightened climate of fear over more spectacular strikes by international terrorists, it is difficult to convince nations that the threat of ordinary guns should not be overlooked."

Breathing New Life Into an Old Federation (January 13, 2004)
"A little more than three years ago, a few prominent Americans thought it was time to reinvigorate the World Federation of United Nations Associations, a body created in 1946."

IAEA Chief Out Front on Arms Control (January 5, 2004)
"Since the departure of Hans Blix, Mohamed ElBaradei has been the U.N. system's most visible arms controller. Some Bush administration officials have begun trying to undermine his authority."

More from U.N. Notebook.


U.N. Notebook | February 17, 2004
 
from U. N. Wire As Chile Reaches High Development Level, UN Shifts Strategy

by Barbara Crossette
 
....

UNITED NATIONS—When a country such as Chile reaches a level of development approaching that of the industrial nations of Europe or Japan, the United Nations has to adjust its programs accordingly—though with pleasure, to be sure, since success stories are always welcome.

"We feel that we are ending a stage of development and entering a new stage," said Correa Diaz, a public policy specialist at the U.N. Development Program here. Correa, a Chilean, said that the transition has numerous facets. With Chile now only a few hundred dollars short of the $5,000 per capita annual income that would "graduate" it out of the ranks of developing nations, less money comes in from U.N. agency budgets each year. As Chile nears the moment when it will become a contributor rather than a recipient of U.N. funds, the organization and the government collaborate to generate other income for programs here.

U.N. agencies also have to shift strategies. UNICEF, for example, which is no longer needed in Chile for help in basic health and education, can focus instead on advanced (and sometimes controversial) ideas like the rights of children. The Food and Agriculture Organization moves into areas such as nutrition and the problem of obesity, which has begun to affect Chilean children, according to Chilean media reports. Fast food is as ubiquitous here as anywhere in the United States, and a lot of it is purely local. Bulky empanadas and papas fritas are never far away, whether or not there is a McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken in town.

UNIFEM, the U.N. Development Fund for Women, centers its efforts now on such projects as enhancing women's rights, in a country where abortion of any kind is illegal and a blanket ban on divorce is only now beginning to be tempered by new laws. UNIFEM also supports programs involving women in decision-making at the local level. The International Labor Organization, which covers all of the continent's southern tier from here, emphasizes the international exchange of ideas on improving the lives of workers. Despite Chile's prosperity, the country has the largest gap on the continent between rich and poor.

Correa said in an interview that UNDP, which coordinates all U.N. programs in any country, decided it had to reinvent itself in Chile a few years ago. Rather than continuing to depend on program officers working in compartmentalized niches, the office here began to take a broader look at where the country was going generally. Attention turned to crucial areas of national governance: how justice and education systems work, for example, and how government services are meeting people's needs at all levels. The environment and programs for women are seen as part of this larger mix.

In this new role, the United Nations has to find ways to be helpful but not intrusive and certainly not patronizing. Future national attitudes toward the organization depend on striking the right balance.

Chile is a particularly interesting case because it is Latin America's most prosperous nation and could play a bigger role in the United Nations in years to come, as Secretary General Kofi Annan urged it and other regional countries to do when he visited here in November.

Santiago is also the headquarters of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a body within the U.N. system created in 1948 to evaluate and coordinate regional economic policies and foster trade and social development. That puts it at the heart of the raging debate over free trade and globalization.

Since January 2003, Chile has (for the second time in a decade) been a nonpermanent member of the Security Council. Its center-left government under President Ricardo Lagos has taken stands opposed to the United States, notably on the war in Iraq. But Chile is also in the early months of a new free trade agreement with Washington. A maturing foreign policy consensus allows it to do both.

While the world may hear more from Brazil, a much larger nation in both land and population, Chile, a country of 15 million people now in its third democratically elected administration since the regime of General Augusto Pinochet was ousted after a national referendum in 1988, cannot be underestimated as a potential hemispheric leader or an important voice for the wider global South.

Even the Bush administration, which has made clean government a prerequisite for aid, might listen to the Chileans. Apart from its economic strength, Chile is also the least corrupt (according to the corruption-perception index of Transparency International) and probably the most law-abiding nation in Latin America.

Victor J. Fernandez, ECLAC's chief of information services, said that the commission has at times had an uncertain relationship with Chile, especially during the Pinochet dictatorship, because of the United Nations' increasing emphasis on social development and human rights. But although the commission has often been mistrusted—and one of its officials was killed by the Pinochet regime—the organization has never been asked to leave Chile.

Chile's experience contrasts with that of the United States, where some outspoken conservatives say they would happily see U.N. headquarters leave American shores.

Unlike Americans, Chileans have known the U.N. system, including the World Bank, as a helpful partner in more difficult times. Most Americans, on the other hand, know very little about the United Nations except as a tourist attraction in New York or for occasional confrontations in the Security Council, usually reported in a negative light if Washington fails to get its way.

Now, when Chile looks at least superficially as prosperous as many European countries—a recent newspaper article cautioned Chileans against brushing their teeth with foreign water when they travel—the country can continue to work with a range of U.N. agencies in ways the United States cannot or will not. "Chileans have a better understanding of the U.N. compared with the U.S. population," said Fernandez, who has worked at U.N. headquarters in New York.

At UNDP, Correa said that the biennial human development report for Chile, a collaborative effort measuring social and political progress, has become a prestigious publication—"a happening," he called it. U.N. officials brief Parliament, speak at universities, meet with workers' groups and hold conferences. The report, he said, is the product of research and reflection "on the deepest characteristics of the country" and becomes the subject of wide public discussion.

The United Nations has to operate here, or in any developed country, in a very different way from the role it plays in underdeveloped or conflict-battered countries. In poorer nations, the international organization is a very visible part of daily life, as white jeeps flying U.N. flags roam the streets of capital cities and whole neighborhoods are occupied by expatriate officials and the international nongovernmental organizations whose offices spring up around them. In Santiago, most U.N. offices are grouped in a bucolic, though well-guarded, suburban compound that looks more like a university campus.

To remain a partner in Chile, any international organization has to find a balance between its own global agenda and national priorities, especially when strong governments are able to manage their own development and need only some additional expertise and research. In changing times, Correa said, U.N. officials have to ask, "What can you really deliver to this country?"

"You have to find a way to contribute," he said. "Every agency here has the same challenge."


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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see NationalJournal.com.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.