Conflicts, crises in fragile states, and violent extremism are on the rise and a record number of people were forced from their homes last year. Short-term security interventions and humanitarian responses often only provide temporary relief. Achim Steiner discusses how development must be redefined in the twenty-first century to address the underlying causes of crises, citing results from the United Nations’ work in hotspots around the world, including Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, and the Sahel.
The Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations was established in 1996 by Gillian and Theodore C. Sorensen to highlight the United Nations and offer a special occasion for its most distinguished and experienced leaders to speak to the Council membership.
BRONNER: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting lecture. This is Achim Steiner. I’m Ethan Bronner. I’m a senior editor at Bloomberg and I’ll be presiding tonight.
So this is the annual Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations. That’s generously established in 1996 by Ted and Gillian Sorenson. The lecture welcomes those intimately involved with the working and the issues of the U.N. and invites them to meet with CFR members. Ted Sorenson, as some of you all certainly know, led a long and distinguished career as both a public servant and a prominent lawyer, best known for working with Jack Kennedy as a speechwriter, advisor, and special counsel in the White House, and then as an international lawyer, advising governments, and multinational organizations, and major corporations around the world. He was a dedicated member and active participant here at the Council for close to forty-five years. And he served on the board of directors from ’93 to ’04. We’re thrilled that Gillian is here with us tonight, and we’re grateful to her—we, I speak for the Council here—for her family’s generosity and continued involvement at CFR. (Applause.)
So as you’re all used to, I’ll speak with Achim for about half an hour, and then you guys will ask your questions for another half an hour, and of course promptly at 7:00, promptness being close to godliness here at the Council, we will end.
So, Achim, at your suggestion, I was reading the U.N. and World Bank report on development over the weekend. And it quoted from the U.N. charter, which promises to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. And in the same document, it notes that actually it’s been a pretty rough thirty years. More countries have experienced violent conflict than at any time in nearly thirty years. And the terrorist attacks have also come up over the past ten years. The UNDP’s promise is to reduce conflict through development. Development, I think, broadly defined, obviously. So tell us a little bit about how the UNDP can prevent conflict.
STEINER: Thank you, Ethan. And good evening to all of you. Gillian, also thank you so much for being here this evening and thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for the honor and the opportunity to be here tonight.
I think, without turning my opening remarks into a corporate statement, let me put it very simply: The role of the U.N. Development Program was borne out of the 1960s, when the world felt that with finance, expertise, and technology we could help countries to essentially graduate in a developmental sense. And today we measure this through the per capita GDP, where when a country, you know, earns so much per head of population, it is essentially deemed developed. And this kind of graduation path was very much part of this view of, you know, let’s invest something in the poorer world, and they can catch up, and this will make us a more resilient global community.
Now, that’s where you begin to resonate already with what you’ve just quoted from the charter also, which is that successful development is likely to reduce reasons for having conflicts. And this goes to the core also of my argument this evening that I wanted to bring to the discussion here, is that we live in very conflictual times. As you know, and many of you know, the last five or six years have brought the scourge of war and conflict back to our attention as probably not for the last twenty to thirty years. We have close to seventy million people who are displaced.
We have conflicts that, you know, literally span different parts of the globe, centered sometimes around the Middle East and North Africa in terms of public attention, but, you know, whether you go to Latin America, whether you go to Africa, and even parts of Asia, what is emerging is many societies are beginning to struggle with cohesion. And the drivers of that conflict are very often development failures. They have to do with inequality. And it’s not always just poverty—abject poverty. It can also be injustice. It can be discrimination. Discrimination by the state on the basis of your religion, or of your ethnicity. And these are the grounds into which the seeds of conflict, of dissent, and then, in due course, more and more often, also violent extremism, are sown.
BRONNER: Do you think that the growing mixing of the world, the fact that people—I mean, I don’t know exactly, but I would hazard a guess that a hundred and fifty years ago the vast majority of people didn’t go thirty miles beyond their hometown. And that’s rapidly changed. And in many ways, that’s a terrific thing. People have many more opportunities than they had at one time. And even if the answer to my question is what I’m expecting, we still need to work at this thing. But is it possible that people are actually suffering less today than a hundred and fifty years ago?
STEINER: Without question. We are a much wealthier, healthier, better-educated generation than ever in human history. I mean, we often forget that in the last thirty years we’ve moved from a world where nine out of ten people used to live in extreme poverty, today a world where only one out of ten people lives in extreme poverty.
BRONNER: That would suggest that UNDP has been doing a pretty good job over the years.
STEINER: Well, it goes over two hundred years, but I would claim a certain part of it. (Laughter.) And my point being, actually, we need to think in those developmental terms today far more than we are likely to admit to ourselves. And let me give you one figure that illustrates this just in economic terms. The United States, since the beginning of this century, meaning the year 2000 till 2017, spent on countering terrorism and essentially, you know, aggressive political extremism in eighty countries across the world with $5.9 trillion—trillion dollars. So here is an attempt to try and contain the seeds of violence, of extremism that lead to conflict, to displacement, to war, to destabilization across entire regions, with a very much security-focused intervention.
And the bitter lesson that we have learned is the world has not become safer. These problems often are not resolved. They may be contained temporarily with military and security operations, but really we have to go back to investing in development. And part of that is both a prevention perspective—earlier, more significantly recognizing that what’s happening in a society is actually about to lead to an implosion. And also when we have a crisis, to invest far earlier in a peacebuilding and recovery process that recognizes that, you know, we’re not just trying to keep Syrian refugees alive, or people that had to flee Darfur alive in refugee camps—where now they on average spend seventeen years before they actually return.
There are girls being born in the refugee camp for Somali refugees in Kenya today that themselves had mothers who were born in that refugee camp. These are the breeding grounds of not only extremism, but of hopelessness, of radicalization into which then these forces begin to also create—
BRONNER: So you’re making your case at a difficult moment in American history, because this country has elected a president who—I can’t speak for him—but it sounds like he would say that’s not my problem. My problem is to keep this place safe. And I’m going to do that, and make jobs, and prosperity. And that’s what we’re here for. And he’s not alone. You look in Brazil, and Poland, and Hungary, and Russia, and in Israel. There is a growing sense of, we can call it ethnic nationalism. Does it make your case harder to make? I mean, in other words, we used to say, well, you know, we have to do this, or the terrorists will come get us. And basically President Trump will say: They’re going to come get us because we’re going to build a wall.
STEINER: Well, without getting into the dynamics of the wall, which are a very American discussion, and I fully respect the polarities that are there, even though I obviously have conclusions that are my own. But, you know, let’s take this sentiment for a moment. I mean, part of what has driven a president in this administration to argue against engagement abroad is actually perfectly compatible with what I’ve just been describing to you.
BRONNER: Tell me.
STEINER: That the military security interventions of the United States across the world over the last ten, fifteen years, have rarely yielded the straightforward result that was being looked for. And in fact, if you then start also bringing to this discussion not only this frustration but also a realistic perspective of, you know, how else are we engaging? Because the United States now has a defense budget of $700 billion a year. The total expenditure of all industrialized countries put together for development aid, as it is called, is barely a fifth of that, for the entire world.
So the second thing we need to look at: Are we actually spending the things on—or, our funds on the right things to defend ourselves? And I shared with you before we came in here, this evening of how much an average American citizen is willing to invest in their own security in terms of prevention. So let me just share three numbers with you, which are in themselves very revealing. The New York Police Department has a budget of 5.6 billion (dollars) a year. So New Yorkers are willing, with their taxes, to invest 5.6 billion (dollars) a year to protect themselves. It’s a kind of prevention. The Fire Department of New York, you know, wonderful FDNY, has a budget of over $2.3 billion each year. That’s just marginally less than the Secretary General has for the entire budget of the U.N. secretariat that he runs in order to help the world achieve peace.
And the most stunning figure is—and, again, it’s an interesting one—is Chicago. The Chicago Police Department has a budget of $16 billion a year. Now, just take for a moment that perspective, and then allow Americans to appreciate how much are we really spending on all this development support internationally? Because the notion is it’s an extraordinary amount of money that the United States is investing. And yet, if you were to put it alongside and look at global security as being something that would avoid Americans having to go fight wars abroad, it would avoid allowing entire nations to become breeding grounds for violent extremism, and above all could create functioning markets, well-governed societies, for example across the African continent where soon two billion people, by the middle of this century, will be buying consumer goods, will be producing commodities, will be consuming electricity.
And that’s where you start understanding that actually an engagement, whether it is now the United States, or it’s a country such as Germany, or the European Union, or Japan—in a developmental perspective of bringing peace as a more likely outcome makes a lot of sense.
BRONNER: But can you illustrate—are there data now after fifty years, or whatever number of years it’s been of UNDP and other development work, that you can show that if you do this kind of development work you will reduce violence—I don’t want to be overly mechanistic—but by some percentage? In other words, how do you persuade the Americans that actually all that police money would be better spent creating jobs in Africa, which is sort of what you’re telling us?
STEINER: It’s a slight dilemma, because when the house is on fire you can’t talk about how to build a house, you first have to get the fire brigade. So currently peacekeeping missions, military interventions are, regrettably, a kind of stabilization factor. My point is, that is the perspective from which to look at global security. But you asked the question, is there evidence? Well, yes, there is a lot of evidence. First of all, in the sense of what are the successful nations of the world today? They are countries such as the Scandinavian nations, where inequality is relatively low, where the state is a provider of many services, where fundamental freedoms and governance—democratic governance systems are functioning well.
But we can also look at, you know, many African countries. The ones that are succeeding economically now—whether it’s Ghana, whether it’s a country such as Kenya, whether it’s Morocco, just to name a few—are countries that are investing in the development of their people and their economies. They’re also looking at political freedom, contested as it sometimes is, as part of a well-governed and functioning society. I could take you to many other places. The per capita income of South Korea in the 1950s was the equivalent of most African countries. Today, it is a highly industrialized country. It is providing aid. UNDP helped Estonia and Lithuania, for example, in the 1990s with the establishment of e-government systems. You know, one of the great things that they are very proud of today and that they are now exporting. Today they are supporting us in helping Africa, Asia, Latin America introduce e-government platforms, which are a part of creating more functional, more transparent societies. So development works.
BRONNER: Because you don’t just fight poverty. The UNDP actually helps create better government, that’s the idea?
STEINER: Well, it’s not just poverty. Poverty is the priority, because obviously poverty is the cruelest form of development denied. So we always will have a focus on helping eradicate poverty. But, you know, sometimes you eradicate poverty by investing in tomorrow’s technologies. Education is an investment not in eradicating today’s poverty—it makes you poorer as a parent, very often. But you’re actually investing in your children in order to have a better life. Development—and especially what I am trying to do with the United Nations Development Program in this moment—in this particular moment today, is to focus on the future of development. We need to enable societies to escape poverty by being able to draw on global markets, but also on technology, use the digital economy not as something that is, you know, not just a phenomenon out there.
And interesting enough, if you look across nations in Africa today—my colleague Mike Myers is sitting here. He lived with us also in Nairobi, Kenya. Some of the most modern and advanced innovations in smart cellphone electronic payments are actually being launched on African markets in African countries, because these are the leapfrogging technologies for tomorrow. So development, as we interpret it today in UNDP, is we want to eradicate poverty, we can do so by helping countries develop. And some of that is very much about the future of opportunity. And that history has taught us time and again, well-governed societies that are accountable, that are transparent, are actually more likely to succeed. And where inequality and injustice—either based on just you’re a rural farmer, and therefore you don’t count, or you happen to be of a pride or of a particular religion, therefore you’re marginalized, simply is much less likely to happen. And that creates stability. And that creates economic opportunity.
BRONNER: That’s your message, and it makes sense to me. I wonder how you deal in societies where certain kinds of hierarchies, patriarchies, opposition to rights for homosexuals or equal rights for women—which I understand what you’re saying is we know that if you go down that road, your society will be better developed. But there is deep cultural reasons that societies refuse to go down that road. What do you do about those societies?
STEINER: Well, first of all, accept and respect that not every society has to express its fundamental norms and values in exactly the same way that another society has done.
BRONNER: That’s for sure.
STEINER: There’s a degree of political correctness that has also permeated development-speak that simply ignores and negates the fact that we have very individual histories, cultures, and traditions. Now, I just debated this with a colleague of mine from China this morning. The Declaration of Human Rights. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of vision, ambition, commitment ever articulated. The problem with the Declaration of Human Rights—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is rarely ever any of its individual clauses or paragraphs. What has made human rights is such a contested issue is essentially that its application in the period since the adoption has often been very much marked by double standards and doublespeak. What is right one minute is suddenly excusable in another.
BRONNER: What do you mean?
STIENER: Well, we may talk about individual freedoms that are guaranteed by law but, you know, in one country they are absolutely condemnable and perhaps should even lead to that government being either overthrown or regime change being brought about. It another country, you know, it is acceptable because it happens to serve, you know, our interests. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves. This is the real world out there.
But my point is I can travel to virtually every corner of the world and sit and talk about the fundamental human rights in terms of what societies would aspire protects an individual from the tyranny of others, and there would be very little disagreement. But the minute I start talking about this in the context of the United Nations, I talk about an entire body of history that seventy years old, in which contradictory behavior and, yes, double standards and hypocrisy have turned the human rights agenda into something that is more about how do I get the other than how do I protect fundamental rights.
And, you know, development—Amartya Sen, a wonderful, visionary professor, once defined development as freedom. I think is where we come back to the topic here. Freedom is, you know, in the minds of some, something that you put in a constitution. In the work of UNDP, it’s what we do every day. If you eradicate poverty, you give people greater opportunity, greater freedom to realize their objectives. But you also create a freedom to the international community not to have to constantly engage in proxy battles.
BRONNER: But freedom is an interesting example to me, because I feel like in our Western societies it’s a clear at the top of our value system, and that in more traditional societies it’s less yearned for. I mean, maybe you disagree. But I mean, in other words, I feel like a certain sense of order and respect are more important than freedom in a lot of these societies. And we come to them and say: We’re here to make you free. And they look at us like, we’re not interested, thank you.
STEINER: It depends on what time lens you put on. You know, to talk about freedom when you had the Third Reich, you know, in a very sophisticated society called Germany, when you have McCarthyism in the United States of America and—or, quite frankly, the discrimination even that the Constitution the United States had on people of color to be able to vote, you know, we need to look at the timeline that we judge the societies by. Clearly there is a dimension of, you know, enlightenment and of maturity also, including the rule of law and justice, that can actually uphold the rights of individuals.
But let’s also be clear: When a nation-state is composed of people who still, until maybe twenty-thirty years ago, had mass famines at regular intervals, where governments were not able to protect their citizens from catastrophic natural disasters. Then the realization of these freedoms is put alongside that of the individual freedom to write what I want on the internet. It is, you know, also the freedom to be able to survive, to have food, to have economic opportunity. And I think the worst thing we can do is to trade one off against the other. And that sadly happens. And I would never advocate that.
But I think we should also not judge societies by the journey they are taking that—you know, within the U.S. or in Europe—our own societies have, quite frankly sometimes very painfully, taken fifty, a hundred years to pass through. What does that mean? It does not mean that we stop advocating for fundamental rights today, nor for development. But it is perhaps less judgmental and more open to engaging where are we able to be helpful and constructive.
BRONNER: So you mentioned China a minute ago. I saw on your website that the UNDP and China have signed an agreement over the Belt and Road. And, you know, that’s kind of an interesting issue too because in a lot of developing countries, in Latin America where I spend a lot of my time right now, there’s a sense that the Chinese have imposed not particularly great conditions for their loans and for their development projects. And there is certainly a sense in this country that China is far from altruistic—not that anyone is altruistic—but it is doing it in a more power-hungry fashion than we would like them to do. How do you deal with that, if you’re negotiating with them?
STEINER: By being very clear about why we would cooperate with China, not in terms of China’s own development—that’s one area of engagement we have—but in terms of China’s engagement with other countries. And here we are very clear: The single reference point for us, for example, in operating in Africa—and UNDP is one of the most represented entities across the whole African continent; so we work with literally 95 percent of nation-states on the continent by being present there—is to help them get the best possible conditions when they choose to engage with China as an investor. And let me tell you—
BRONNER: Do you help them negotiate, to think about how to deal with that?
STEINER: Yes, we—well, help them negotiate in terms of analyzing the terms. We are not sitting, like a lawyer, next to them.
BRONNER: (Laughs.) Right, I understand.
STEINER: But very often as an advisor. And where we do engage, we will certainly help a country to maximize its interests, because that is our role. It is to help, you know, sometimes very small African nations to engage with a behemoth economically. But let us also be clear, China is now injecting tens of billions of dollars in regions of the world where we have, in part, withdrawn finance. And, you know, for Africa, it is desperately needed capital. So if we can be part of making that capital work for Africa and not just for China—and, as you say, altruism is not a reason why our economies function. Everybody has their interests. Everybody engages. Our role is not to promote the Belt and Road Initiative. Our interest and our role as UNDP is help countries engage with China on terms that, let’s say, put them as close as possible to being equal negotiating partners.
BRONNER: But is there a risk that you will get fooled, that actually you’re helping China do its—you know what I mean?
BRONNER: Because it’s complicated, if in fact they are being as wily as some are accusing them of being.
STEINER: Well, frankly, I don’t quite buy into that rhetoric, because, you know, China may be a massive economic force today in the world, but it still is vulnerable if it is caught out doing things that are against the interests of a country. I mean, the collusion within elite is probably the most dangerous part, because an elite is easily persuaded to sign a deal with China. That’s where transparency, where public accountability, our work with parliaments to have, you know, the tradition of committees that can have commissions of inquiry all begins to be an insurance against an elite negotiating the crown jewels away.
But, you know, what let us also recognize that China is also a major accelerator of development opportunities. I mean, we often forget that in Africa today, to stay with that continent, six hundred million people don’t have access to electricity. And forgive me, I mean, this is in a sense scandalous, for the fact that we live in the 21st century. Now, it was China’s massive investment in renewable energy technologies, solar technology in particular, that has brought the prices tumbling down so quick that suddenly solar becomes a shortcut for access to electricity on the African continent, alongside other sources of power.
So we need to be careful because China’s economic might was, in part, built on the markets of the West. We all bought China’s products, benefitted from them being cheaper. Today we have a different political reality because maybe, you know, we have learned some lessons. But China is a self-interested actor on the global marketplace. Good development advice is to make sure that that self-interest does not override the self-interest of a poor, developing nation. And in that sense, we are actually a fundamental backbone of a more equitable and transparent global economy.
BRONNER: And you’ve been in development for a while. I mean, not at UNDP for hundreds of years, but you’ve been—this has been your life. Do you feel in these last few years, to go back to an earlier question I asked you, that it is harder to make the case for global development in a sort of nationalist moment?
STEINER: Yes, most definitely, partly because domestic political agendas create polarity. Polarity creates this unity. And in that vacuum of a consensus, it is easy to start, you know, pointing to the other. And I think we are in a moment where the other, the foreign, the outside is something that is both perceived by some and certainly used by an increasing number to create divisions and also a degree of nationalism and a withdrawal. Whether it’s just mental or not one can argue in different countries. Development is the counterproposition. So that sense, yes, it is very much—
BRONNER: Exactly. You’re the enemy. (Laughs.)
STEINER: Well, rarely the enemy. I mean, in the eyes of some, yes. You know, the black helicopters of the U.N. and so on—even though they are actually white. I never understood while they’re black. (Laughter.) But, you know, is part of this. But, you know, one of the things that is very striking to me is that people—when you talk to young people, or people in the street, if you go back to the charter and the objectives of the United Nations, I would argue that even today in sometimes this very polarized discussion, 80-90 percent would very much support the aspiration of what the U.N. is.
But what we also have to deal with is every night when you watch the evening news you have to ask yourself: So we’re doing all of this, or we have done all this, and why is the world on fire? Because it is seemingly on fire. And Yemen, Libya, Central African Republic, Central America. I mean, I can start pointing—you know, Syria, Iraq. We are witnessing terrible failures in both development and peace. And Yemen is a case in point. The worst humanitarian tragedy, playing itself out today at this very moment, is in a country called Yemen, where essentially a war, a proxy war is being played out, and—
BRONNER: It’s not really a development problem, as most of us would think of it. It’s really a political battle.
STEINER: Yes, but this is my point. Why were regional powers able to enter into that society? Because Yemen was riven by poverty, but also by tribalism, and by discrimination, and by a lack of faith in the state. The perfect ground into which, you know, outsiders can sow the seeds of division with weapons. And the next thing is you have Yemen literally after four years of war, having been thrown back almost quarter of a century in terms of its development. Eighty percent of the population now depends on support. Ten million people are literally a meal away from starvation. It’s a catastrophe in humanitarian terms, and a development tragedy.
Now, that’s just Yemen. Look at how much we are now expending as an international community on trying to help contain the largest cholera outbreak since, I think, the Second World War. The regional destabilization, it’s billions and billions of dollars. And never mind the rebuilding of that country.
BRONNER: So, you know, it makes me think of—as I said, I’ve been spending my time in the last few years more in Latin America. And Venezuela, of course, is the sort of—you know, the black hole there. And to me, it’s an interesting—we’re going to move in a minute to questions but this last one from me—what role can you play in a situation like Venezuela, because Venezuela doesn’t want your help. And they’re—you know, it is a political, ideological, and kleptocracy kind of battle. Can you do anything? Because it will become Yemen at some point, possibly. And then we’ll sit here in three years and you’ll say Venezuela.
STEINER: Absolutely, and—
BRONNER: That I’m saying you should be responsible, I’m just curious what your thoughts about—
STEINER: No, but the United Nations in part carries a responsibility because it has the ability to act. Where it can act, where it can intervene is always a second question. And the dilemma for the United Nations, for the secretary-general in the context of Venezuela, has been that there has not been amongst the two sides a request for the U.N. to intervene politically.
BRONNER: That’s what I’m saying.
STEINER: But that doesn’t mean that we are not doing anything. On the contrary, humanitarian support is, in part, helping the country to cope right now. It is one of the more bitter ironies here, because of the lockdown of Venezuelan funds, Venezuela can’t actually buy some of the basic medicines and food commodities that are needed. So this is one of the short-term challenges at the moment that are being—where one is looking for a solution. But, you know, the U.N. system is still active in the country. It’s not being prevented from doing its work, together with the International Red Cross, and UNICEF, and UNDP. The World Food Program has now been admitted because—
BRONNER: Yes. This was recent, yes.
STEINER: Venezuela wanted to avoid acknowledging a humanitarian crisis, which in international law creates different legal means by which to intervene. But the truth is that in Venezuela we see the collapse of an economy. And the fastest way, following some form of political settlement or at least arrangement, it is investing massively in the development of that country that can most quickly and effectively bring it back from where it is now. And it is probably the single-largest collapse of an economy probably since the Second World War.
BRONNER: Yeah. Yes, it’s quite amazing.
OK, at this time I want to invite members to join our conversation. A reminder to you that this is on the record, so don’t say anything you’re going to regret. (Laughter.) Please wait for the microphone to come to you, and then please stand and state your name, and your affiliation, and do try to make your contribution reasonably concise.
Please. So you’ll wait for the mic, and please stand, thank you.
Q: Thank you, Ethan. Sir, I’m Steve Gutow from—visiting from NYU.
Just two questions, because they haven’t come up. When you see the kind of human rights abuse that we’re now seeing in China with the Uighurs, however you pronounce it, and the human rights abuses in Burma with the Rohingyas, how do you—how do you do—how do you deal with—I mean, one must be easier than the other, because Burma is not China. But what kind of things can you do to, from your position, to move that agenda? Or do you—is that just not part of your development ideas?
BRONNER: Yeah, go ahead, please.
STEINER: Thank you. And thank you for raising what is sometimes a very difficult reality in which to operate. If you take a view of China as being singularly defined by its human rights record, then you cannot work in that country. And if you take China in terms of its economic significance, also in terms of the opportunities over the last forty years of ensuring that economic development would actually uplift many people out of poverty. And in fact, China has literally broken the record for any country in lifting people out of extreme poverty—hundreds of millions of people—then you begin to look for ways in which you can engage and, at the same time, try and address issues that are, you know, whether they relate to human rights, or discrimination, and others, very much part of the agenda.
Now, in the United Nations, we are, in a sense, also able to invoke different instruments. UNDP is active in the country at the invitation of the country to assist with its development. The Office of the Human Rights Commissioner is an office that is established by the United Nations, including with the Human Rights Council, that is mandated to monitor, to report, to name, and also to shame. And my colleague, Michelle Bachelet is very much able on the global podium to point to, first of all, countries that are not observing human rights, particular issues that have arisen.
And, you know, for us in the United Nations, I think we are fulfilling our role in helping the world to point to where human rights are not being respected. But sometimes it is difficult to expect an instant action on the ground. For example, the U.N. development program, working in China or working Myanmar, you call it Burma, is something that I would argue does not always immediately lead to the result we desire. We could have just withdrawn from Myanmar. It actually would have been, you know, from a corporate point of view, the easiest thing to do. We have not done so, because Myanmar is also a country that after many decades of military dictatorship is building its institutions.
Just to give you an idea, it is in the parliament of Myanmar right now where we are, for example, helping MPs to develop the basic tools of parliamentary democracy. How do you run a commission of inquiry? I mentioned it early on. It was actually an example from Myanmar. UNDP, together with the Global Alliance of Human Rights Institutions, actually in many countries supports the establishment of human rights councils. We do so often against the backdrop of, for example, the human rights commissioner having delivered a report criticizing that country. Is there a moment when sometimes you have to simply say you cannot do work anymore, because either the nature of the crime or the transgression is so severe or your ability or actually do anything constructive happens to be the case? Yes, it happens. My representatives, on average three to four a year, are declared persona non grata. In a country such as Nicaragua, we have not worked for a number of years because we could not agree with the government on the terms on which we would work.
I hope I am responding to you on both the example of the Uighurs in China and also in Myanmar. I am sharing with you the reality of everyday judgement. Do we stay engaged? Do we withdraw? Do we overlook? Do we look the other way? Hopefully never, but sometimes it may seem like that because in the ability to engage with a country it is not the shortest route to success to have an article in the New York Times with your name attached to it. I mean, just to use an example, because sometimes, you know, the New York Times is a place where the most audible human right records are published, and thankfully so.
BRONNER: You know, before we take another question, I’m curious if you would expand a little bit on the Nicaragua story. What is it that they wanted you to do that you couldn’t do?
STEINER: I was not at the time at UNDP. My understanding—this dates about four or five years ago. Essentially, it was a resident representative or resident coordinator of the United Nations system who was asked to do things related to, you know, other programs or projects which were not within, you know, the remit of those projects. And in return, was prevented from engaging in activities that we consider to be a legitimate part of engaging with ministries. And the degree to which the—essentially the debate became so confrontational that for the country the decision was to expel the representative.
BRONNER: But you still haven’t told you what they wanted you to do.
STEINER: I am not familiar with the details.
BRONNER: You don’t know? Oh.
STEINER: Because, I mean, this is five, six years ago.
BRONNER: Right, but just broad—I mean, it was to—
STEINER: Use funds for certain things. And there were criticisms about elements of the political process that we made, sometimes on behalf of the U.N.
BRONNER: I see. Uh-huh.
STEINER: Because, you know, things didn’t start in Nicaragua to take, you know, a complicated turn only one or two years ago. I mean, this has been a process, unfortunately, unfolding over a number of years. And it had to do with our governance work, with government institutions, but also on the issue of public expression and freedom of expression. But I don’t want to go further, because I am not familiar with the details now. It’s one of 170 countries in which we in one form or another operate.
BRONNER: In the back, please. Yes, sir. Yes. Yes, you. (Laughs.)
Q: Thank you. Charles Henderson.
Going back to Venezuela and Yemen, where do you see the progress is actually being made? Do you see in both countries that there’s a movement forward on that? And if so, if it’s not happening, what are the challenges that you have to overcome?
STEINER: Well, I think in Yemen we, sadly, had to wait far too long, until, you know, the powers that are engaged in that country have concluded that this is, you know, perhaps a conflict that will no resolve itself, that cannot be won, that is costing them a great deal of money. So just in the last few days, we have had what I would say the first tangible breakthrough in the sense of the Houthis, one of the parties to the conflict, withdrawing from the Port of Hodeidah. Hodeidah is sort of the—you know, the Achilles’ heel of any international effort to support the country because if you close that port you cannot bring in food, you cannot bring in medicines.
That withdrawal was negotiated as part of the U.N. brokered agreement, the Stockholm Agreement, last November. And it took us another five months to get the parties to agree on the terms with which they would withdraw. Now, our role here was persistent diplomacy on the one hand, conditions that were changing amongst all the interested parties, and, thirdly, the ability then to step in. So UNDP is actually an integral part of the immediate response. Within twenty-four hours, we have begun to take control operationally of the port, repairing equipment. We are employing four thousand people to demine the area around the port and essentially establish the functionality of the port again.
That is a major step towards creating confidence that actually peace could work, and that the country could begin to recover. It’s just one place, but it’s a neuralgic point, and of great symbolic value. So the U.N., together with its partners, is very much at that point of helping Yemen to rediscover confidence in its ability to actually negotiate a peace agreement, and for the powers to recognize that this is not a war in which they can succeed.
Venezuela is in a far more ambivalent moment. You all know it very well, otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting here, so I don’t want to pretend that I have any deeper insight on what it is that would trigger, let’s say, a positive next step. Right now, clearly there is a situation that is akin to an impasse between a government and another government in the same country, to put it very simply. And, you know, in the United Nations, I have to be very clear, we have a procedure by which we recognize the government until the membership, the member states of the U.N., do no longer recognize that government. So for now, the government of President Maduro is the recognized government.
On the other hand, we are also engaged with many other countries in trying to find a way in which this situation can be resolved in a way that allows the country not implode completely, particularly with violence. Thankfully, violence has so far been limited. But this is not a given. And so rapid resolution is needed. Meanwhile, I have to, you know, confess to you, I think the U.N. has been relatively limited in its ability to intervene, in inverted commas, in Venezuela. There are larger powers at work and they are, in a sense, determining what is happening next.
BRONNER: Yes, ma’am. Right here.
Q: Hi. Darin Kingston, the Global Development Incubator.
So you said two things earlier that to me kind of reflect the emotional state of working in international development. One is, the world seems to be on fire. The other is, yet in the past several decades the poverty rate has actually decreased, you know, in pretty incredible degree, and other indicators of multidimensional poverty. And so I guess I would appreciate your reflections on sort of what specifically do you see within your work that allows you to maintain optimism that that trajectory will continue, despite the world being on fire, or feeling like it’s fire? And then secondly, what can UNDP—how should UNDP and the, you know, international development community at large, be doing a better job of talking about that success within the context of, you know, these broader sort of injustices that perpetuate? Because, if for nothing else, to maintain the political and the public will go to go on, you know, that narrative needs to get out more.
STEINER: Thank you. It’s a—it’s a question that I reflect on continuously. And the first simple answer is to somebody who has worked in the field of development, both from an academic perspective but also a practitioner’s perspective, and now has the opportunity to lead, you know, two global entities, you get access to a lot of information and analysis. And the simple answer is: Development works. And, you know, it’s one of the bitter ironies that, you know, in the year 2019 we are doubting whether development, in the sense of both national well-thought-out, well-developed interventions and policies do deliver, whether it’s poverty eradication, whether it’s girls at school and education, whether it is the advent of whole new sectors in an economy. We have thousands of examples where countries over the last thirty, to forty, to fifty years have demonstrated how successful development is done.
So I don’t have any self-doubt about the fact that development if you define it as a deliberate set of interventions that is taking a country from A to B, has worked. And I mentioned the statistics of just extreme poverty over the last two or three hundred years. And, by the way, while increasing the population by 5 billion that we achieved that. I mean, small fact but it just gives you a sense of the magnitude of what has been accomplished by human ingenuity, good governments, sometimes civil society and business providing the kind of leadership.
The second thing is I do struggle with the challenge that we have in one hand trying to tell the world where things are not going right, and at the same time keeping a sense of, but we can do something about it. Just this afternoon, to give you an example, I had one of those moments of this slightly pathological tendency of the U.N., because it aggregates and speaks in global averages, often bringing the story that we are failing. And it hides the many successes of individual countries. So, you know, take a challenge like climate change. Wherever you stand on the spectrum right now, we set ourselves objectives. We are not yet meeting them. And, you know, this is a very disconcerting fact. What it hides is that there are actually quite a lot of countries who are doing remarkable things in decarbonizing their economies. They’re leading by example. They are succeeding.
And interestingly enough, I had a discussion just this afternoon, it will be very interesting to see, if you took the global economic landscape and took individual countries, the ones that are advancing fastest on climate change—and actually, on the so-called green or sustainable economy, and I’m not talking at all about Green New Deals—(laughter)—they are performing better than those who are not. So what does that tell us? You know, there is opportunity in transition. And I think part of the problem in development is that we’re often locked down by a sense of status quo. And that status quo may be good for some, it may be good for many, but it does not provide the dynamic innovation that makes countries and economies succeed and evolve.
I see UNDP’s role in helping to unlock that confidence that if you actually look to the future and you’re willing to change maybe the policy context within which you tackle poverty, energy, the future of mobility, our agricultural economies, then you actually introduce economic opportunity and dynamism. And that is what has kept development going. So there is a challenge in describing failure, and yet also being able to recognize success. And basically, human nature does exactly that. We study our neighbors. And psychology—you know, a lot of behavioral science is coming to development now.
And one of the simplest lessons we have learned, apparently, in the climate change area, is you can write whatever you want about global warming, sea level rise and, you know, droughts and so on. If your neighbor is basically spending less on electricity than you are because he or she put solar panels on their roof, that’s a 90 percent guarantee that the neighbor will do this within six months. Forget about all the science. Forget about everything else. We learn from our neighbors, from our peers. And I think development has to rediscover a little bit human psychology and human nature also, because at the moment it’s getting, you know, distorted by the political narrative of the day.
And that’s one of the reasons why I was so keen to come to a Council on Foreign Relations, because I want to understand and I want to seek also feedback on how do you rediscover this understanding that investing in our own, but also other people’s development, is actually the best and most effective way in which to assure our own future development? And I think that is very much understanding in the global community that while you used to have to worry about your neighbors fifty miles away, you now have to worry about somebody five thousand miles away, because their actions could very much change your future.
BRONNER: That’s why we have walls. Just kidding. (Laughter.)
STEINER: And don’t you think that they’re actually not very helpful in this case, right?
BRONNER: (Laughs.) Next time you’ll interview me.
Q: Jeff Laurenti.
On that very theme, the fact that the Europeans have been facing an onslaught, as they view it, from Africa of migration—unwanted migration—and don’t appear to be making major investments, new investments in development in Africa, or that the Americans face with the flood at our southern border hasn’t exactly led to cries for more development money for Central America. What do you see quarter century, half century from now will be the countries that are making these kinds of investments? Will it still be the Europeans and the Americans? Do you have any sense of confidence that countries that have been emerging from poverty into prosperity—one thinks instantly China, China, but others as well—will be stepping up to make major investments, not strictly for profit, but for the larger community-building work that UNDP and the international financial institutions do? And as they step into it, will they be interested in good governance, the way the nice Europeans and episodically Americans have been?
STEINER: (Chuckles.) It’s a very good question. I think at the moment we are losing perspective on development and development finance. You know, very practical mathematics should tell us that if a continent such as Africa is going to move from one billion people to two billion people by 2050, that’s only forty years—less than forty years from now. And it’s somewhere around 2050 to 2060. Imagine for a moment what that will mean. I gave you earlier on the statistic that six hundred million citizens on the African continent do not have access to electricity today. So let’s assume by 2050 all of them will have access to electricity. That means. 1.4 billion people will have been added to the global energy matrix in less than thirty-five to forty years. That’s more than China ever added on in its, you know, whole sort of rapid movement towards electrification and industrialization.
That is on top of the food that it will either consume or produce. It is the consumer markets it will represent. And imagine that continent for a moment not being able to accelerate its development in the way that some other regions of the world have done. The sheer global insecurity that will arise from that, will not only affect Africa’s economies, I mean, it will affect Europe’s. And the fact that you rightly point to Europe struggling with what is a relatively small number of refugees points to our vulnerability.
And you know, I belong to those who are actually not in denial. The large number or refugees, and migrants, and displaced people who came into Europe in a relatively short period of time did create a psychological challenge. Rationally speaking, totally irrational. But, you know, are not just rational. We are subjective human beings. And I think it is actually changing already now. People have calmed down. Things are more under control. But it just showed that this Mediterranean Sea turned into an absolute nightmare. I mean, the scenes we have witnessed there are the sort of apocalyptic scenes that were supposed to come somewhere in 2100. You know, African citizens with their children scrambling on boats and drowning in the thousands trying to cross over to Europe, it’s happened right now.
And this is the price for not thinking about the development on the other side of the Mediterranean. But it’s not only out of that negative self-defense reason. It is also the two billion consumers, the two billion Africans who could be part of the global food security equation. And my greatest concern is that we are losing perspective because we think that with a few dollars we can somehow create miracles. And the Sahel is a story of fifty years of tragedy. Every drought, the world rises up generously. It donates. We bring in aircraft. We drop food. We save millions. Within a year or two, we all walked away and we left an entire region, called the Sahel region of North Africa, essentially to its own devices. Into which that poverty that was, you know, extreme vulnerability has now come also the financing of extremism and extremists. Some of the most dangerous terrorist movements today happen to be growing the backyards of places that we consider to be deserts with sand dunes. And they are threatening the international order.
And even with a—(coughs)—excuse me—with a peacekeeping operation in Mali right now, we are unable to contain this. The United Nations has lost dozens of peacekeepers already this year again in Mali alone. It lost 148 last year, most of them actually due to terrorist attacks. So we are struggling to contain and we are not investing on a level that is necessary. Now, I’ll give you another number, just—not that the number itself matters, but its proportionality. Deploying a peacekeeping operation in Mali, because whenever you involve military personnel and infrastructure, costs around $1.2 billion a year. The entire development budget for that region of the Sahel per year was less than a billion dollars. So if we actually want to see a regional succeed economically, reduce poverty, reduce the likelihood of extremism, of nation-states falling apart before our very eyes, then we also have to invest with a clear-eyed logic and realism.
And this is where my point is, we need to judge the funding and the nature of investment and development, particularly in vulnerable regions of the world, with a very different perspective. Otherwise, they will pay the price and we will pay the price with them. As we sit here today, this evening, I can tell you right now there’s a degree of helplessness with which the world is watching a country next to Mali essentially drifting and descending into the same crisis state—Burkina Faso. We’re just not able to get the international community to engage on a scale necessary—and I’m not talking about military interventions here. That is going to stabilize this country and make its citizens believe again that there is actually something to be gained from believing in the nation-state of Burkina Faso. Meanwhile, ISIS, Boko Haram, through cross-border raids, beginning to essentially destroy this country, you know, like a sort of snake that attacks quickly and withdraws again. And that corrosion is something that creates the situation that we face in Afghanistan, in Somalia. And we then spend—as I said, the United States alone in the last seventeen years—$5.9 trillion trying to contain again.
BRONNER: Let’s take a few more. Yes, ma’am.
Q: Thanks so much. Minh-Thu Pham with the U.N. Foundation. Good to see you, Achim.
STEINER: You too.
Q: I wanted to go back to something that you started to raise, Ethan, about making the case for development and for providing assistance in these countries. You know, if—in this country you look at the Trump voter, or across the sea a Brexit voter, I think there’s a deep sense of, you know, the system is broken. It’s rigged. The liberal order hasn’t actually done what we thought it would. How do you make the case for doing what you’re talking about, supporting development, to voters like that, and to have them see that actually supporting development in other countries is going to help them? And I mean, when you look at the system, do we need to completely revamp multilateralism, do we need to really think more deeply and reflect on this global order that we’ve created? What do we need to do to fix it? Thanks.
BRONNER: On one foot, as the rabbis used to say. Do it quickly. (Laughter.)
STEINER: Let me start with the reverse. The constant obsession with the United Nations and multilateralism being dysfunctional is actually more the product of propaganda and fake news than of reality. Now some of you in this room might shake your head and say, how can he say this? Let me be very frank. I’m not in denial. I mean, the United Nations, my own organization, my sister agencies are far from being paragons of, you know, brilliant management and greatest effectiveness on the planet. But what they don’t deserve this almost deliberate cynicism about their performance, because multilateralism is actually serving us every day. And I don’t know, it is—you work for the U.N. Foundation—it is a struggle in this cacophony of so many different things to convey this.
Let me us reach people because we have universal post union. Planes are able to fly all across the planet because we the international civil aviation authority. We have patents protected because we have the World Intellectual Property Organization. U.N. AIDS, you know, the eradication of smallpox. Without the World Health Organization would that have happened? Not singularly. But I could mention virtually every aspect of our everyday lives today that in one form or another in part actually succeeds to operate because we built after the cataclysm of the Second World War, a multilateral system in which the rule of law, in which the right of small nations to be heard, and all these other elements actually have delivered.
What we are being held responsible for right now is increasingly the inability to deliver miracles. And that’s part of my point. You cannot deliver miracles, first of all, if the major superpowers do not want you to do so. So the Security Council, often seen as the symbolism of the failure of the United Nations, is actually the failure of member states. And what I often say is, the U.N. wasn’t founded because nations are united. They’re divided. And when divisions arise, isn’t it better they’re played out in public, in the limelight of the Security Council, rather than behind closed doors and curtains? And—and I cannot prove this, because I haven’t found an answer to this yet—but actually the Security Council of the U.N., often, you know, the symbol of failure, if you take its last fifty-sixty year of decision making, probably the vast majority of decisions it took were taken in unison, and prevented wars, and helped to avert conflicts, and allowed the international community to intervene.
So how do you tackle, in a sense, a group of people who want to talk down that system’s delivery? I think by basically not entering into the arguments that they are trying to put on you. Because if the U.N. has to start justifying itself in terms of nationalist criteria, in terms of serving the interests of one country rather than the international community, then that’s the first step towards betraying multilateralism, and you lose your, essentially, right to operate, and the confidence and respect. What we have to do, I think, is make the United Nations and that which it does every day in its full diversity more accessible. Easier said than done. But, you know, I can actually say with great confidence that, you know, the working man or woman, the rural dwellers are far more willing to listen if we actually were to sit down and explain what we do. And so I think sometimes would say, well, I didn’t know. I didn’t realize. Yes, I’m for this.
So we have lost the conversation. I think we have lost the conversation.
BRONNER: It’s possible. We’re reaching the witching hour. And I’m going to invite all of you to a lovely reception that is part of—that comes at 7:00 at the end of this. I would just say that it makes me wonder, though, whether they’re—you know, whether trying to just sell it on those same terms is going to work, or whether you need to—you know, it’s sort of like anytime there’ a disaster people in New York say: New Yorker’s are this way. But everyone’s the same everywhere, but that’s how we are in New York. And I wonder if this sort of approach to exceptionalism and to nationalism is something you need to think about in order to sell what is, in fact, multilateralism, but just don’t call it that. But that’s for another session. (Laughter.)
Achim Steiner, you’ve been terrific. Thank you very much. And thank you all. (Applause.)
STEINER: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Ethan, thank you very much.