Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:
Afghanistan Prepares to Choose a Government
(March 15, 2004)
"The creation of a democratic culture and democratic institutions is the hard part. The ubiquitous international election monitors almost always arrive too late to see the confusion and intimidation that has preceded the opening of polling booths."
Putting ECOSOC Back in the Loop
(March 8, 2004)
"The UN's Economic and Social Council sank into obscurity over the decades, upstaged by the Security Council, the General Assembly, and a host of agencies working on what should have been primarily ECOSOC's issues: development, health, and human rights."
Arab Women Leaders Exerting Growing Influence at UN
(March 1, 2004)
"If leading Arab women at the United Nations seem to be in the background, that is no reflection of a meekness or deference to male-dominated cultures."
Saving the U.N. From Utah
(February 23, 2004)
"What is it with Utah?... Some local politicians have become convinced that the United Nations has caused the United States to 'lose' every war since World War II."
As Chile Reaches High Development Level, UN Shifts Strategy
(February 17, 2004)
"While the world may hear more from Brazil, a much larger nation in both land and population, Chile ... cannot be underestimated as a potential hemispheric leader or an important voice for the wider global South."
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."
More from U.N. Notebook.
U.N. Notebook | March 22, 2004
Banker Plans To Put UN Show on the Road
by Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS—Malcolm Taaffe was just a New York City school kid when he was first taken to the United Nations on a class tour. He never forgot the experience. He's 46 now and a banker with a big plan to bring the United Nations to all those other people around the United States who haven't had the chance to visit New York and see the organization close-up.
Taaffe, a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley in Tampa, Florida, has designed a rolling exhibition—a sort of U.N.-mobile—that he hopes to put on the road before the end of the year. It's a 53-foot trailer truck that opens up into an interactive exhibition area and 30-seat theater for screening the United Nations' story.
The U.N. Department of Public Information signed off on the project in January. The organization, normally skittish about lending its name to private ventures, apparently saw the value in this one.
Taaffe now has to raise the $1.5 million to get it rolling.
"I grew up in the Bronx and took visits to the U.N. in grade school," Taaffe said in a telephone interview from his Florida office. "About five years ago, I had some time to kill in New York and I took a tour again. I was just amazed that nothing had changed. I found out there are still schoolchildren taking the same tour. And I thought, well, there are wonderful exhibits of the gifts from other countries, but in my mind, there's no real message about what the U.N. is really about."
He says his inspiration came from a mobile educational exhibition in a trailer that NASA, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, had brought to the Florida State Fair.
"I really got the idea from this vehicle," he said. "You walk through and it informs you what NASA's up to. Why not create a U.N. educational center?"
"When the truck comes into a city, I want it to blow people away," he said. "The ooh! and aah! factor. The sides come open, and the whole presentation—I'd like it to be just so cutting-edge that the children that do visit the center will really come away with a little bit more than what they currently know about the U.N."
Dare he drive this thing through Montana, or even Indiana, where some people think road signs are coded to direct the imaginary U.N. army to American bases?
Taaffe has already talked to a gentleman from the State Department about that. "His concern was right," Taaffe said. "Is there going to be any vandalism, or isn't it going to be welcome at certain places?" So the plan is to aim the rolling exhibition initially to U.N. "global classroom" cities—where the United Nations Association of the U.S. has strong model U.N. programs in schools, and there is generally strong public and business support for the organization—Chicago, Houston, New York, San Francisco and Tampa.
"We'll let the truck travel to U.N.-friendly cities for this first three-year project," Taaffe said.
The money for the project will have to be raised from foundations and private sources—not an easy job. Taaffe has set himself a very ambitious finish line, the end of April, for the basic fundraising. This should be something of a test of support for the organization substantially more meaningful than just telling an opinion poll what a great thing the United Nations is. He hopes to arrange a link with Discover Card to help sponsor the project. A truck builder is already lined up.
"It's going to be constructed by a company in California that built the NASA truck that currently travels around the U.S.," Taaffe said. He wants to have the work done this summer, so that the truck will be ready to roll in the fall. Even some of his supporters think that may be an overly ambitious timetable. He doesn't seem to share those reservations.
This is not Taaffe's first big idea where the United Nations is involved. He still has hopes of creating a more lively visitors' approach to the organization headquarters, with a theater screening films about U.N. work for those waiting to take tours. So far, he hasn't had much luck.
"I ran into some problems because to try and get 191 nations to agree that this is what should be done; it didn't work out," he said. So he has expanded the plan to create a new visitors' center to be integrated in a larger rehabilitation of the U.N. complex. That is now awaiting funding from the U.S. government, where it is tied up in the budget process because neither the U.S. Congress nor the George W. Bush administration appear to be in a mood to grant a loan interest-free.
Characteristically, Taaffe always sees the bright side. He thinks administration attacks on the United Nations are over because Washington needs the organization in Iraq, and that this is an "ideal time" to be talking about his rolling U.N. exhibition.
"What I find—and obviously I talk to a lot of young people about the U.N.—is there's a tremendous interest," he said. "I think there's a huge audience of young children that really want to learn about it."
With his roving trailer, Taaffe intends to give visitors a sense of being in the General Assembly as they enter the mobile theater. Other exhibits will stress the universality and ubiquity of the organization's work.
He believes a lot of the critics of the organization lack basic information. "The U.N. is important in the air they breathe, the water they drink," he said. "The U.N. is in their lives on a daily basis. They just don't get it. Obviously, it's ignorance."
What do you think? Discuss this article in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.
More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic
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
For information on National Journal Group publications, see
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All