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WAALM - School of Cultural Diplomacy

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Why It's Important to Study the UN

InsightsPosted by The Editorial Thu, March 24, 2011 06:53:51

Source: The Interdependent, A Publication of UNA-USA

By: Helmut Volger

The institutional knowledge of the world body helps it evaluate successes and failures and encourages more teaching about its work.

The United Nations is faced with major global problems like civil wars, human rights violations and environmental pollution – yet to a large extent academia is ignoring the question of how it can help the UN understand and tackle these complex issues. The academic world also overlooks opportunities to help develop legal and political tools as well as institutional structures to help solve the problems and evaluate the results of such efforts. Given my experience as a UN researcher since the mid-1980s and through an e-mail survey I recently conducted among a number of UN researchers in Europe and the US, I look at the strong and weak points of current UN research.

Research on the UN has been and still is carried out in most of the 192 member countries by only a handful of scholars of international law, political science and economics, mostly as a hobby and occasionally subsidized by research grants. The research literature reflecting this work conveys often interesting information, but it is read generally by other UN experts and not by academics in general, to say nothing of the public.

The scholars who responded to the survey, which asked six questions on the structures and goals of their respective research on the UN, describe the work they do on the world body as generally not coordinated, neither within a single academic discipline nor among disciplines or departments, so that those studying the UN are virtually small islands in a large sea of indifference. Given the excellent quality of most studies of the UN, it is a loss for the world body, academia and the foreign policy actors in member countries that the strengths and weaknesses of the UN system are not discussed on a wider level.

A UNA Global Classrooms program in Berlin. Such Model UN programs around the world can inspire students to choose UN careers.


Regionally, the differences are worth noting: in the US, Canada and Scandinavian countries, private research foundations and nongovernmental organizations since the mid-1980s have developed research institutions providing political initiatives of civil society – such as disarmament and environmental protection – with empirical findings; whereas in Germany, for instance, examining the UN still relies predominantly on academic institutions to produce.

In this difficult environment, a small number of committed UN associations and international academic research networks, like the Academic Council on the United Nations System (known as Acuns), try with some success to foster coordination and public awareness through conferences and books.

In their work, UN scholars are supported by the research capacities that the UN established gradually since the mid-60s, above all UN University, founded in 1975, which supervises the study of more than 10 thematic institutes that work with interested academic institutions in UN member countries.

United Nations University is complemented by other UN research institutes that explore the efficiency of UN operations and train UN officials (UN Institute for Training and Research, or Unitar); social development (UN Research Institute for Social Development, or Unrisd); disarmament (UN Institute for Disarmament Research, or Unidir) and the advancement of women (UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, or Instraw). This latter organization has now been integrated into the newly established UN Women entity.

All these institutes publish valuable papers and books covering their fields and dealing with topics like gender and development and democracy or governance and human rights (Unrisd); the international nonproliferation regime (Unidir); and overarching themes like the future of international environmental law or climate change and sustainability (UN University). Yet they all suffer from scarce resources in staff and budget and their findings are not promoted enough or noted by academia as a whole.

The widespread academic indifference toward the UN has two main causes: First, there is a lack of demand from students. For most students of international law, economics, international relations and political science, the UN does not offer enough attractive career prospects, so there is little clamoring for academic studies or classes on UN issues, and therefore universities see no reason to expand their small UN curriculum. Second, foreign ministries and other government bodies seldom seek academic advice for their UN policies and – even more important – governments rarely commission paid studies on UN matters, thus creating a lack of financially attractive demand for the universities and other research institutions.

As one UN expert described in his survey said, the interactions between academia and foreign policy officials occur rarely and on a small scale. They take place either in routine meetings of scientific advisory boards to the ministries, providing hardly any concrete results in the form of policy recommendations, or on an ad hoc basis at the request of individual UN scholars who are trying to convince government officials on the merits of continuous substantial policy advice.

Some noteworthy exceptions are to be found, proving what research on the UN can achieve if its results are taken into account. For instance, broad-based studies on climate problems in many countries were seriously considered and discussed after the Rio de Janeiro conference in 1992 on environment and development. UN-related research provided arguments in later negotiations on climate protection.

Switzerland, which joined the UN only in 2002, has grasped the usefulness of coordinated UN research: in 2006 its Ministry of Foreign Affairs started with Swiss universities a nationwide academic network called UNO Academia. This model could be used by other UN member countries in starting similar networks or specialized UN research institutes.

Why is it important to discuss the state of research on the UN?

Without institutional memory of UN achievements kept by historians and social scientists, member countries are unable to evaluate the success and failures of the world body. Such institutional knowledge would demonstrate the success rate of the UN in many areas of its work and provide illustrative training material for young UN officials.


Without a systematic scholarly analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of UN structures, the reform debates lack consistency and benchmarks for political and economic efficiency. The debates before and during the 2005 World Summit on the reform of the Security Council offered ample proof: as long as there are not enough reliable research data on its political functions for the different country groups, as well as its informal working methods, communication and decision-making structures, the debate will remain chaotic and futile.

With regard to responding to global problems – where the UN’s attention is drawn the most – organized research on the world body would provide politicians with helpful, well-defined alternatives that they could use instead of improvised instant agreements in difficult negotiation processes, like the current talks over what to do after the Kyoto Protocol expires on UN climate protection.

Thorough studies of the UN would also help to dispel the myths about simple causes and simple remedies and could make politicians realize that solving global problems needs a lot of time and money and far-reaching changes in the trade systems. Research would show the political benefit of the UN, emphasizing how it is indispensable and cannot be replaced and how its extensive development work and continuing debates on financial regulation complement other bodies like the Group of 20.

The lack of interest among academics and politicians in researching the UN has another consequence – a dearth of UN teaching. Fortunately, the Model United Nations programs, which are simulations of the political processes in the deliberative bodies of the UN (UNA’s Global Classrooms being among the programs) carried out by students taking over the roles of national delegations, are a strongly motivating experience, arousing a lasting interest in UN and political affairs among the students and inspiring them to strive for a job as UN official.

Without knowing more about the United Nations, political decision-makers in the individual member countries are hardly able to grasp what the UN needs to do, what it can do and what it needs to get for its work and – equally important – as long as this knowledge is also not shared by the media and the public, governments will not get the consent of their people to support the UN more consistently.

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