In December of 2016, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted some harsh words for the United Nations:
“The United Nations has such great potential,” he wrote. “But right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”
Over the months that followed, he didn’t relent, often questioning whether the time and money — the latter some 22 percent of the U.N.’s $5.4 billion core budget, according to The New York Times — the United States invests in the United Nations was worthwhile. Once, he went as far as saying that the U.N. was “not a friend of democracy, it’s not a friend to freedom, it’s not a friend even to the United States of America.”
But now that Trump is president and no longer a candidate or president-elect, his presence is expected at the United Nations — and so is a familiarity with what exactly the U.N. does. In fact, it’s time we all study up.
The U.N. is no stranger to proving its worth. If you ever visit the U.N., there’s a good chance its staff will give you a small card that highlights some of its work, including:
- Providing food and assistance to 80 million people in 80 countries.
- Supplying vaccines to 45 percent of the world’s children, helping save 3 million lives a year.
- Assisting and protecting 65.3 million people fleeing war, famine and persecution.
- Working with 195 nations to keep the global temperature from rising above 3.6 degrees.
- Keeping peace with 117,000 peacekeepers in 16 operations on four continents.
- Fighting extreme poverty, helping improve the lives of more than 1.1 billion people.
- Protecting and promoting human rights globally through 80 treaties or declarations.
- Coordinating $22.5 billion appeal for the humanitarian needs of 93.5 million people
- Using diplomacy to prevent conflict.
- Assisting some 67 countries a year with their elections
- Helping over 1 million women a month overcome pregnancy risks.
On Monday, President Trump addressed the U.N. for the first time, and acknowledged that it feeds the hungry, provides disaster relief and empowers women and girls across the globe. On Tuesday morning, he delivered a more controversial speech that hit on what he apparently believes are the failures of the United Nations. But the positives he quickly glossed over are still just the tip of the iceberg.
On Monday, I was at the United Nations as well, attending a General Assembly meeting on how the private sector and government entities can work together to tackle the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals. Drafted and agreed upon by 193 nations, those goals include everything from ending poverty and providing quality education across the globe to building sustainable cities and implementing affordable, clean energy in developing nations.
And while it sets its sights on those goals, the U.N. has drastically improved the quality of life for people from every corner of our planet. Below, I’ve included a (non-exhaustive) list of examples, both big and small.
— United Nations officials helped Peru pursue a National Solid Waste Plan that created green jobs and began to clean up major cities across Peru with recycling. It wasn’t just the cities, either. The U.N. also helped indigenous Peruvians in the Amazon rainforest protect “the world’s lungs” from being destroyed by deforestation by creating the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. REDD+, as it’s known, helps indigenous people reduce their already small carbon footprint and introduces them to farming and agriculture techniques that increase their efficiency.
— Two women are now helping create peace along the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border by mediating inter-community meetings on the border to resolve disputes over natural resources. But it was only possible after they reunited at a cross-border cooperation project funded by the U.N. Peace Building Support Office.
— Six U.N. agencies came together to help Ethiopian women receive interest-free loans that they then invested in environmentally-friendly cooking stoves. Working alongside the Ethiopian government, those U.N. agencies helped develop learning programs to teach basic business skills that would help the women achieve a more sustainable income.
— Some of those agencies also helped women in Kenya prepare to vote and even campaign as candidates across the country. Kenyan laws dictate that at least one-third of the political nominees must be women, but the law is rarely practiced. The U.N. is hoping to help change that.
— In Chad, where there are a half a million refugees and active conflict, malaria is the number one killer of young children. So the U.N. helped provide mosquito nets equipped with insecticides to 13 million peoplethrough a joint program with Global Fund.
— In Albania, the U.N. helped survey the population and revealed widespread domestic abuse in the country. Then U.N. representatives helped the government draw up aplan to criminalize violence against women.
— UNAIDS is also pursuing a 90–90–90 goal: to have 90 percent of people living with HIV know they have it, have 90 percent of those who know they have HIV on antiretroviral therapy and have 90 percent of those in therapy achieve viral suppression. This program has helped encourage countries like Thailand to tackle their HIV issues and facilitated some of the most dramatic progress against the disease the world has ever seen.
— U.N. Women and UNICEF helped push governments in Latin America — where 29 percent of girls were getting married under the age of 18 in 2012 — to push legal reforms that ended child marriage made legal by parental consent. The latest reports from 2017 show the number has already dropped to 23 percent.
— The U.N. has helped women in Palestine who survived sexual, domestic and war violence find safety.
— In Lebanon, U.N. officials worked with the government to abolish the so-called “rape law,” which allowed a man to skirt punishment for rape if he could produce a valid marriage license with the victim.
— In Colombia, the U.N. is now helping lead an effort to reintegrate the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC)into society after the longest conflict in the Western Hemisphere — between FARC and Colombia’s government — came to an end.
— In China, government officials were so committed to U.N. climate change obligations that they “not only contributed to the greening of more than 6,000 square kilometers of Kubuqi [desert], but also lifted 102,000 people out of poverty.”
All this is to say nothing of what the United Nations does for the U.S.
The U.N. has a peacekeeping group with 125,000 field personnel including military, police and civilians. Of the 97,000 soldiers and police officers serving on those missions, only 74 are American. Those peacekeepers are active in missions in Haiti, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, and throughout the Middle East — all places the United States have a vested interest in maintaining stability and peace.
But everything pales in comparison to what the U.N. might do next, and what President Trump will desperately need it to do: help de-escalate tensions with North Korea. While Trump criticized the U.N. for being a “club” where people “just talk about things,” he may be underestimating just how important that talk is. Nations come to the U.N. for help avoiding conflict. For all its purported bluster, the “club” has military and economic value.
Instead of solving the North Korea tensions by “destroying” a nation of 25 million people, like President Trump suggested he might in his address to the U.N. on Tuesday, he could use the many diplomatic tools the U.N. offers — from economic sanctions to negotiation coordination — to avoid a catastrophic military outcome.
As Secretary General António Guterres said at the opening of the annual United Nations General Assembly debate, “At times, there are competing interests among us. At others, there is even open conflict. That is exactly why we need the United Nations. That is why multilateralism is more important than ever.”
Resolving the refugee crisis, developing programs that empower women, and keeping the peace are all objectives that President Trump and other world leaders have vocally supported. If he’s wise, Trump will recognize the power and dedication the U.N. has towards accomplishing those objectives. And so will we.
By A Plus’ ISAAC SAUL
A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
For more, you can follow @Ike_Saul on Twitter.