Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

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."

Refugees in Limbo Where the U.N. Isn't Welcome (December 29, 2003)
"For about a dozen years, tens of thousands of people, claiming to be Bhutanese citizens have been languishing in refugee camps in Nepal. Few officials believe they are all Bhutanese. Then who are these people, now numbering more than 100,000?"

Book on U.N. Creation a Welcome Reminder of Early Lessons (December 16, 2003)
"Here's the perfect holiday gift for your favorite member of the U.S. Congress."

Too Soon To Count the U.N. in on Iraq (December 9, 2003)
"The United Nations is not going to jump at the chance to take over the management of Iraq. Too much needs to change not only in Washington but also on the ground in Baghdad."

Sixteen Wise People and the Future of the U.N. (December 1, 2003)
"This could be a last-chance opportunity to reinvigorate a battered United Nations."

Saving Congo, One Woman at a Time (November 24, 2003)
"The impunity enjoyed by anyone with a gun, and the savagery of the sexual assaults women suffer as a result, has stunned and sickened aid workers."

Oil for Food: A Great Experiment Ends (November 17, 2003)
"The oil-for-food program wasn't perfect. It was manipulated by both the Iraqis and the West. None of that, however, should obscure the essential value of the concept."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | January 13, 2004
from U. N. Wire Breathing New Life into an Old Federation

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—The preamble of the U.N. Charter opens with words that echo the U.S. Constitution: "We the peoples of the United Nations ...." But the world's people have been pretty effectively kept out of U.N. decision-making over the years because member governments zealously guard their sovereign powers. The General Assembly never became the international parliament some founders hoped it would. Only in recent years have nongovernmental organizations pushed on the door hard enough to get some attention, often playing the role of a critical opposition to nations inside the halls.

Donald Blinken
Donald Blinken,
Secretary General
of the World Federation
of United Nations
Somewhere between these two poles lie the United Nations associations—103 of them scattered across the world. The associations, whose members are ordinary private citizens, are not beholden to government policies, though they may get government subsidies in some places. But they are loyal backers of the United Nations and its work, and are rarely as adversarial as some NGOs have become. They see themselves as a peoples' movement in support of the United Nations.

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 to link these scattered groups that had fallen into utter somnolence over the years. The leaders of the campaign were Arthur Ross, a prominent New York philanthropist devoted to promoting internationalism among Americans, and John C. Whitehead, a banker, former deputy secretary of state and most recently the head of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, charged with rebuilding Ground Zero after 9/11. Together they set out to find someone to lead the revival.

Donald Blinken was their choice. A founder in the 1960s of the investment firm E.M. Warburg, Pincus & Co., he was later prominent on the boards of several art and cultural institutions, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and chairman of the board of the State University of New York, before becoming U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 1994 to 1998. Blinken, mulling the offer, said everyone he consulted told him, "Give it a shot." He did. The experience has turned out to be somewhat akin to "build it and they will come."

Aided by Pera Wells, a former Australian diplomat who is his deputy, Blinken—whose title is secretary general of WFUNA—found important chores waiting to be done and vacuums to fill. In a few years, the federation has given new impetus to programs for young people around the world. It has listened to the priorities and problems of national associations in poor countries trying to spur their governments to meet by 2015 the Millennium Development Goals established in 2000. It is being asked to help the cash-poor United Nations in some outreach tasks.

First, however, Blinken and Wells had to go looking for their constituency.

"There was, up to that point, no really effective way of communicating among our various UNAs," Blinken said in an interview. "When we took over, Pera and I—at the end of 2000—it was very hard to put together a correct list of our UNAs' addresses, phone numbers (if they had them), emails and faxes. One of our first big headaches in the first six months was trying to figure out who was in charge of which UNA and how to reach them."

A new bimonthly newsletter, U.N. Connections, now takes care of the networking, electronically or in print. The newsletter, available free at, exchanges reports about activities taking place in UNAs poles apart—election monitoring in politically unstable Georgia, a population campaign in Pakistan, debates on legal issues in the United Kingdom or Venezuela, for example—while supplying national associations news from U.N. headquarters in New York, where the federation is based. Money to run WFUNA comes from national associations' dues, fundraising events, foundations and individual donors. Blinken's work is all pro bono.

Last May, the federation held a world plenary in Barcelona, and out of that came a boost for youth programs.

"The U.N. is going to have to make sure that there are young people coming along—that not all of us have gray hair and that there are younger people taking an interest in the U.N. all over the world," Blinken said. "They're not only the best representatives of civil society, but they also are in some cases future government civil servants themselves."

Wells has been working on a conference to be held this summer in Beijing. "It will bring together university students from the 25 Asian-Pacific countries that have UNAs," she said, in a joint interview with Blinken. "That includes Afghanistan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, India, the Southeast Asian countries, Korea, Japan—and they are including Canada and the United States. It's the first time we've done this. We're doing it in close collaboration with ESCAP [the U.N. Economic Council for Asia and the Pacific] and propose to have the focus on the global Millennium campaign, and what it will take to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015."

The federation also promotes the model U.N. programs known to many American students. Blinken says there are active model U.N.s in India, the Netherlands, China, the Nordic countries, Russia and numerous other places.

Looking back, Wells said, "The challenge has been to figure out how the world federation adds value to the work of the UNAs, given that many of them are concentrating—as they should do—on promoting support and understanding of the U.N. at the national level. As we go forward, we're looking to have conversations with UNAs on how to align ourselves with existing interests of the UNAs but at the same time lift their horizons to align with what the U.N. itself is doing."

UNAs are as different as the countries where they are found, said Blinken. "There is no single pattern. In many cases, the UNAs abroad have been subsidized in part or in whole by their governments. This was particularly true up till the end of the Cold War by the folks behind the Iron Curtain. They found in UNAs excellent back-channel opportunities to talk to their counterparts in the West without governments getting involved. Some of that subsidy has been carried over in certain parts of the world. The Scandinavians in particular get considerable government support. On the other hand, in the Anglo-Saxon countries—United States, Australia, Canada, the U.K., the funding is almost entirely private."

Leaders of many associations often have some experience as diplomats, academics or lawyers.

Recently, the federation was asked by the U.N. Department of Public Information to help fill a news gap in Europe. Wells said that an agreement had been reached that would give European UNAs responsibility for some U.N. information functions, "developing a strategic partnership between the UNAs and new regional information center that's being set up in Brussels."

The next step is to work out who pays.

Blinken plans to step down at the end of the summer; his successor is likely to be chosen in March by the federation's executive committee. He's pleased to see the number of UNAs growing, given the hurdles some countries face.

"Afghanistan is new on the list," he said, adding after a pause, "Iraq is going to take some time."

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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

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