During the Spring 2014 Semester, I had the honor and fortune to intern with the Permanent Mission of Albania to the United Nations (UN). Below is a culmination of what I have learned and concluded from my experience. Though more philosophical and lengthier than other entries, this expresses my understanding of International Relations (IR) and humanitarian work after having worked in the UN. It is my perspective on making a difference through International Relations, one of my main motivations for taking up this internship.
Many including myself used to think that the UN was the ideal place to make a difference on the global scale. At first glance this may appear so. Upon a closer examination, one discovers the misgivings and shortfalls of the UN and international organizations. But on a broader and more mature perspective, one sees its true value in the international relations system. Along with other entities, the UN works to make a difference in partnership with civil society, academia, private sector, individuals, and more on a global level.
UN institutions and bodies like the General Assembly, working groups, ECOSOC, and Security Council hold sessions each year to come to decisions and inscribe those decisions in official documents. In the fall, the diplomats begin negotiations, such as the negotiations for the future goals and development agenda in preparation for 2015 and beyond. States negotiate every word, terminology, and definition to finalize an agreement or program. Long processes of scrutiny and debate take place.
Discussions in the UN are fascinating; however, they are done at such a high level – (ambassadors and diplomats, sometime even ministerial), that it is hard to see how this work will translate to concrete goals. Moreover, it is even more challenging to think about how the new development agenda set to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be carried out and actually implemented at the ground level. This is especially so with the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), because the outcome document will be non-binding. That is, what incentives do states have to follow it exactly, and what is to prevent them from deviating? Countries and diplomats spend so much time, money, and energy negotiating treaties and other documents, yet it seems complex for there may not truly be a system for compliance and implementation.
This brings me to a conclusion: the main purpose of international organizations like the UN (that to some appear to make little concrete difference on the ground) is to perpetuate, alter, and disseminate positive global paradigms and values. The ideas of human rights, women’s empowerment, sustainable development, and more have been created at the intergovernmental level (whether from ground, local, national, or international pressures), and are further reinforced in country governments through diplomats’ cables between the UN and their capitals. The friendships and connections that diplomats form with one another act as a glue and symbol of amicability between countries. The high media visibility that these negotiations receive further helps to spread the ideas and rhetoric that are developed in the UN to all corners of the globe. In this sense, institutions of international relations help to set the stage and the tone for work, which is mainly by civil society and the people.
Scholars, science, and academic communities further spread and study the paradigms championed at the international institutions, adding and shifting such ideas, and certainly perpetuating them. Governments work to carry out decisions taken at the intergovernmental level, when they have the capacity and interest to do so. For example, governments typically have a greater role in security rather than sustainable development.
Perhaps the real champion of implementation and adherence to international decisions, especially in long-term issues like development or humanitarianism, mostly come from civil society and the ground–that is the NGOs and even individuals. I venture to say that civil society and partnerships (including private sector) do a majority of all the implementation of the UN. Inside the UN, states are wary of civil society and demand that states be the main actors, even when they often lack the capacity to make such a difference. This is rhetoric – we know and have seen that outside organizations do the brunt of the work in field offices, often taking on many risks and expenses to do so. Civil society picks up the ideas and frameworks of the UN, adds to them, changes them, and actually puts them to work on the ground. The UN, other intergovernmental organizations, and states may oversee or add when they see fit.
One can see how all pieces of this model are important, and each have their own part to add and role to play. One can also see the inherent checks and balances within all sectors of society in this system of global action. They work together even when in tension. Though many dismiss the UN and intergovernmental organizations as doing little tangible work, these institutions facilitate the process and ideas that are needed to make achange – this may be a drop of water. Then the ripple effect starts when civil society, private sector, governments, and individuals take on the action themselves.
To make sense of the UN and similar institutions, one must have the ability to see broadly rather than narrowly. One must look at the whole picture. One must see beyond banal sayings like the UN is a bureaucracy, and a waste of taxpayer money. One must resist the urge to deem “corruption” any political and international process that they do not understand. To blame in ignorance is always easier than to critique constructively in an educated manner. One must see the UN’s value as the constant machine running behind the processes and frameworks that we now take for granted. While Americans and other wealthy citizens who lead comfortable lives may not see its value, citizens facing difficulties in humanitarian and conflict situations certainly do. The UN is an entity that many choose to criticize, but that has impact on the largest scale we could possibly reach and come up with. It is that when you remove this vital piece that is the UN, that the whole system may fall apart – one does not see the worth of water until it runs out.
Despite contemporary turmoil, this is one of the most peaceful times we have ever seen. While intrastate conflict is ever-present, interstate conflict is very low. How did we transform Europe from the main continent of war to a continent of peace? How did the ideas of human rights come into the forefront and become a dominant paradigm, when centuries and even decades prior, only white men were treated as human beings with rights? Though such frameworks are not always practiced, they remain the dominant ideas even for countries breaking them. In 2012, The European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its groundbreaking work in establishing lasting peace, prosperity, and democracy in the majority of Europe; this is a classic vision of International Relations Liberalist theory dream come true. It is not natural, and it takes commitment, partnerships, and time to build; but it is also real.
The system of international relations/humanitarian action functions to make a difference. It is self-perpetuating. Action begins and continues through all pieces of the system. It is neither top-down nor bottom-up, but rather a continuous flow of work, change, and energy throughout all its aspects. Where one chooses to be on that system depends on the individual. One can be at the very top state and interstate level if one has the patience and diligence for it. One can be closer to the ground if one desires to be in the middle of the action and see solid results. One can be in the middle or critique to improve the system through academia. All these are pieces that make a difference, and we each must find out where we fit in this global chain.
Real change on such a broad scale can appear self-effacing for us. How can each person make a difference and does it really matter? One should look at both the macro and the micro. Above all, every life that is saved, every person whose life is improved because of our work makes it worthwhile. Change shows itself in the macro scale, but manifests itself in the micro scale. We must not lose track of the fact that the entire point of international relations and humanitarian work is to help people – this is a people-based, human rights approach. Such is the purpose of the UN, civil society, and each person’s contribution to one another. This is how we make a difference for our friends and neighbors, regardless of any constructed forms of boundaries in the world.
Klevisa will graduate in May 2014 as a triple major in International Studies, French, and Politics along with a minor in Philosophy. In April 2014, She received the College of Arts and Science (CAS) award for distinguished undergraduate research in Social and Behavioral Sciences for her International Studies capstone, “Democracy in Albania: Shortcomings of Civil Society in Democratization due to the Communist Regime’s Legacy.”