Frequently Asked Questions

Why the UN?

Hasn't the UN Failed?

Isn't the UN preoccupied just with violence, poverty, and disease in the third world?

What about the catastrophic failures – Rwanda, Darfur, the Balkans, and the Iraq Oil for Food scandal?

The UN seems too big and complex – can’t we just focus on bilateral and regional agreements?

Really, the UN doesn’t deal with the key things that affect us – trade and finance.

New Zealand is such a small country – what impact can we have?

Why the UN?

The UN is central to our future.

Many of our major challenges, such as international conflict, climate change financial collapse and oil depletion, are global in extent and require the world’s nations to work together to address them. The UN brings together not only national governments, but also a wide range of people’s organisations (Non-Government Organisations or NGOs), and increasingly corporations as well.

Hasn’t the UN failed?

The UN has not yet succeeded in achieving all its goals. It has not eliminated war, poverty or injustice. It has had some catastrophic failures. However it has also played a central role in global developments moving from a world terrorised by colonial empires and international conflict, to one where the vast majority of the world is essentially peaceful, nearly all the world’s nations are independent, and the majority have some form of democracy. With a few exceptions, conflict has been limited to civil strife, or border raids in a few countries.

Further, the UN has extended its role to a wide range of social and economic issues that require global solutions, as well as others from which countries can gain from each other. Issues include climate change, human rights, education, organised crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, corruption, women’s and children’s issues, democracy and many more.

Isn’t the UN preoccupied just with violence, poverty and disease in the third world?

These activities are certainly important for the UN. However, there are many other issues such as trade facilitation, drugs, organised crime, terrorism, corruption, epidemics, and environment that affect us directly. Indirectly, overall global development assists us in opening up our markets and enabling us to trade more effectively. More specifically, global development enhances our trading potential.

What about the catastrophic failures – Rwanda, Darfur, the Balkans, and the Iraq Oil for Food scandal?

The UN is far from a perfect institution – it is made up of people working sometimes in very difficult circumstances, taking on tasks that often have never before been attempted. They are also working in very complex political environments, when parties can be more concerned with their own political interests than the overall good. 


The UN often doesn’t receive the finance or troops necessary, doesn’t have the flexibility it needs, or is blamed for circumstances that it has little influence over.  There can be powerful interests that would like to destroy the UN, and attack it mercilessly. Yes, we would like to see the UN being more effective than it is; that is why it needs to be better supported, and its renewal better promoted.

The critical issue is not so much how effective the UN currently is, but how effective we need it to be.

The UN seems too big and complex – can’t we just focus on bilateral and regional agreements?

Bilateral and regional agreements have their place, but become impossibly complex when we consider the whole picture. For instance, Fonterra deals with over 140 countries, between which there are over 10,000 bilateral relationships. The world needs globally consistent rules to handle this confusion. Even with regional arrangements, many countries have a considerable number of regional groups to deal with. Many issues are of such scope that we need global solutions. The UN is the only organisation that brings all countries together.

Really, the UN doesn’t deal with the key things that affect us – trade and finance.

It is true that the key global trading organisation, the WTO, is not part of the UN system, and the key global finance organisation, the IMF and WB are only marginally connected. However, they are all part of the global multilateral system with which we must engage and ensure that it works effectively. The UN does directly facilitate trade by developing customs standards and improving air and sea transport safety, develops labour standards, and addresses corruption and terrorism.

New Zealand is such a small country – what impact can we have?

New Zealand is a small country that has a strong record of contribution to the UN, and a good reputation as a non-partisan actor. We are not part of major military alliances and can make valuable contributions by perceiving middle ways between conflicting parties. We can also be innovative in developing new solutions to complex issues, as we did in the recent Bali Climate Change negotiations. Such initiatives require well-trained diplomats, effective involvement of community groups and thorough research. While they have a cost, such initiatives contribute to a safer, more prosperous world, and benefit our reputation. 

We have a considerable list of New Zealanders who have been appointed in prominent positions in the UN, epitomised by the recent appointment of Helen Clark as administrator of the UN Development Program. We have been doing well, but could we do better?

Jim McLay's speech - Making a Difference The Role of a Small State at the United Nations