Wednesday, 15 August 2007 00:00
Dean Hirsch is president of World Vision International, a Christian relief, development and advocacy organisation.
Public opinion on the United Nations has become increasingly polarised. For some, the UN is the great non-partisan promoter of peace, capable of mediating conflicting national interests and advancing the common interests of humanity. For others, the UN is an incompetent secular institution imposing itself on national sovereignty and parental authority.
Former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton famously said, "There is no such thing as the United Nations. The United States makes the UN work when it wants it to work. If the UN secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it would not make a bit of difference." Although few would be so blunt, many agree with Bolton's sentiment.
As Christians we should be engaged in local, national and global issues. But we must remember that we are not just American, French or Kenyan citizens — we are citizens of the kingdom of God. Jesus called his disciples salt and light. In Matthew 5 Jesus says, "You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven." He warned against hiding the light or losing one's saltiness. I believe that we should engage with the institutions of our world so as to promote kingdom values — and not just the interests of our nation state. In doing this we bear witness to the light of Jesus Christ.
The remarkable thing about the UN is that it welcomes our participation and engagement. This is not an opportunity we should miss. I am not rejecting the often valid criticism that many have for the UN. The UN has frequently failed to realise its goals and aspirations since its inception. One only has to think of Rwanda, Darfur or the Oil for Food scandal.
The UN has its shortcomings, but I believe it serves a great function as one of the few places where leaders and persons of influence from around the world can come to neutral ground and engage in dialogue. At the UN, communists and capitalists, democrats and autocrats, people of faith and people of no faith can come together to discuss issues that matter for the world. For those of us who work in civil society, the UN gives us an opportunity to work with governments on issues of common concern.
In March 2005, I was invited to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's office along with several other NGO leaders to discuss the worsening humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan. Since World Vision has staff working on the ground in Darfur, I was able to speak with credibility and press for stronger UN measures to protect civilians. The Secretary-General listed a number of barriers that have prevented a peaceful resolution to this tragedy. I suggested that the UN and NGOs develop specific strategies and tactics for dealing with each of the barriers. The Secretary-General welcomed this suggestion and as a group we worked together to discuss and plan how to move forward. I believe that our engagement made a difference in pressing the UN to act on Darfur and particularly in highlighting the needs and reality of humanitarian workers.
This is just one example of the kind of impact NGO's and civil society can have through engagement with the UN. Typically the impact is small, and we don't always see results. However, I believe that engagement is meaningful, in and of itself. Through engagement we can build relationships without getting obsessed with political power. By demonstrating our commitment to peace and justice, we can bear witness to our faith.
Finally, I believe we have an opportunity to learn. I have come to appreciate the different perspectives of the diverse people working with the UN. For the most part they are serious professionals who are sincere about advancing peace and human rights. In the same way, I have always felt that my Christian values are respected and my faith is not compromised by my interactions with the UN.
The challenge for the UN is moving from discussion to action. One thing I believe we can embrace and contribute to as Christians is achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs are measurable, realistic goals that would make a tremendous difference in the lives of children. They deal with issues like water, education, hunger, HIV and gender equality. They state that every child should have enough to eat. Every child should have the opportunity to go to school. Every child should be safe from violence and abuse. The MDGs call all peoples to unite to make this vision a reality.
As a Christian humanitarian organisation, World Vision is committed to working with the UN and other organisations to achieve these goals. With initiatives like the MDGs, the UN has incredible potential to make a difference in the lives of children. And we can be a part of it.
Unfortunately, many people today are narrowly focused on national interests, or simply on their own lives. As Christians, I believe we are called to care for the entire world. The challenge before us is to be global citizens and global Christians. If you want to be part of the future, you have to be global, because globalisation is only going to accelerate. The UN, for better or worse, is the significant player in addressing the political, social, economic and environmental issues that confront this world. We can choose to go it alone and harshly criticise the UN from the outside, or we can enter into the dialogue and be salt and light. The way I see it, we are called to engage.