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Sometimes they get it right

November 06, 2005

Critics of the United Nations cite a long list of splashy failures by the world body. Here are half a dozen of the many lower-profile deeds the U.N. does around the world, as described by three former U.N. officials.



Feeding the world

The World Food Program started in 1962 as a three-year program and provided relief after a devastating earthquake in Iran, a hurricane in Thailand and the resettlement of 5 million Algerian war refugees. It now provides food aid to more than 113 million people in 80 countries to combat hunger and malnutrition, which claim more lives than any other natural cause of death. "These are things which no government wants to do," said former U.N. Undersecretary-General Brian Urquhart.


Freeing East Timor

The U.N. provided military and humanitarian aid to the people of East Timor in gaining independence from Indonesia in 1999. Within three years, East Timor became a democratic nation with a growing economy. "The United Nations actually knows something about nation-building," said Peter Galbraith, former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and a U.N. negotiator in East Timor.


Protecting children

The U.N. Children's Fund, known by its original acronym UNICEF, was established in 1946 to help children who faced famine and disease in post-World War II Europe. UNICEF won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1965, and it counts concrete successes. "Diarrhea is a major killer of children in most of the world, and UNICEF developed and distributed a very simple, low-cost solution of salts that rehydrate children so they don't die," Galbraith said.


Fighting disease

The World Health Organization, established in 1948, helped eradicate smallpox and combat polio. The WHO maintains a database of all known diseases and responds to disease outbreaks. "What would [people] do without the World Health Organization, for example, when dealing in the face of a chicken flu pandemic?" Urquhart asked.


Battling apartheid

The U.N.'s mission in South Africa stopped township violence and enabled elections in 1994 that undid 80 years of white-minority rule. "The greatest fight of the U.N. was against apartheid," said former Security Council President Diego Arria. "This is the jewel in the crown of the United Nations."


Rebuilding Afghanistan

After U.S. and allied forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the U.N. brought political factions that opposed the Taliban to the table in Bonn. Afghanistan held its first free election in October 2004, and U.N. aid and political efforts have resulted in the largest refugee repatriation in the last 30 years. "To get rid of the people who were responsible for the acts of terror against the United States is already a significant accomplishment," Arria said.

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