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Restoring the credibility of the United Nations requires awareness of both the strengths and weaknesses of multilateralism — including its application to science.

It has been frequently pointed out over the past few weeks that one of the first casualties of the US-led invasion of Iraq has been the credibility of the United Nations. The United States and United Kingdom justify their decision to try to eliminate the government of President Saddam Hussein using the same principles as those on which the United Nations itself was founded after that Second World War. But lacking UN endorsement, the war has spread doubts about the effectiveness with which the agency can continue to pursue its ultimate objective, the preservation of world peace.

Restoring this credibility has, to many, become a top priority. It is one of the reasons that not only those countries opposed the invasion, such as France and Germany, but also Britain, have been so insistent that the United Nations plays the leading role in the reconstruction of Iraq after the conflict is finished.

Scientists are being urged to engage in efforts to re-establish UN credibility — as well as the work of the United Nations more generally. Three weeks ago, for example, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan wrote in the journal Science that there are "deep similarities" between the ethos of science and the concept of international governance. For example, he said, both "are engaged in a struggle against forces of unreason that have at times used scientists and their research for destructive purposes" (see A Challenge to the World's Scientists, 7 March 2003).

But it is also timely to remember the Chinese proverb that "in every crisis there lies an opportunity". The failure of the UN approach to prevent the invasion of Iraq has inevitably prompted discussion on what multilateralism can realistically achieve in the context of international peace-keeping. As this debate takes place, it may also provide an opportunity to raise similar questions about how science works within the international system.

A failure to deliver

For if multilateralism has repeatedly failed the peace process over the past two decades, it has also failed when it comes to finding ways of effectively promoting science in the developing world. There have been some important successes in both cases; think of the war in Afghanistan in the first, and the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste in the second. Against these, however, have been the times when success has been only partial; notably when decisions based on universal norms have failed to deliver a practical result.

Think here of the United Nations' failure to stop the bloodshed in Rwanda; or the way that investment in science in sub-Saharan Africa has, ironically, declined steadily since the United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development in 1979, which was intended to achieve precisely the opposite.

Uncritical support of the United Nations tends to place the blame for such failures on a lack of political commitment from member states, reflected in a failure to provide the agency with the resources required to achieve its goals. Whether manifest as a lack of troops under UN command, or the lack of targeted aid funds (the 1979 conference promised to established a US$250-million fund for science in developing countries which never materialised) it has been relatively easy to argue that the blame lies in insufficient effort, rather than this effort being wrongly applied.

But is that really the case? Or should not alternative diagnoses — and remedies — now be explored with renewed vigour? For it can also be argued that at least part of the failure of multilateralism lies in the fact that the pursuit of the universal can occasionally create blindness to the needs of the local. If that is the case, then the real challenge now facing the international community is not to reinforce the UN system as it has operated up to now, but to find ways for the system to operate more effectively in future.

The end of big government

One error, as identified in last week's SciDev.Net editorial, is to seek to apply a 'one size fits all' approach to development (see After the war is over, what then?). This is the approach that lies at the heart of not only the globalisation process, but even those organisations that, in a more limited sense, promote patterns of industrial growth and technological development. The requirement here, as identified previously, is to develop ways of integrating science more sensitively into local needs, cultures and traditions.

A second error is to believe that the desired process of change can come from outside the communities involved. Critics of the United Nations are surely right when they warn of the dangers of trying to operate a world government; or at least they would be if such a government were to claim both omniscience and omnipotence. For some of the worst failures of the UN system, which include the programmes of its technical agencies, have taken place when such agencies seek to operate programmes for which they lack the necessary skills (yet refuse to admit that this is the case).

The United Nations would do well to take stock of recent European experience. For example, one of the successes in European governance over the past two decades has been the down-sizing of government without the down-sizing of government responsibility. A range of mechanisms has been introduced, such as 'contracting out' schemes and 'public-private partnerships', in which government objectives can be theoretically achieved more effectively and with greater efficiency than by direct state intervention.

The need for 'grass-roots internationalism'

The benefits of such schemes are that they can often harness skills, resources and enthusiasm more effectively than any centrally-directed initiative. Their flexibility makes them more responsive to directly perceived needs. And their lack of institutional overload eliminates the tendencies for empire-building that continue to undermine too many major aid projects.

The transformation achieved within Europe is now required within the UN system — including its support for science. Just as Europeans no longer turn to their governments to solve their problems directly, but rather as a mechanism for defining problems and facilitating their solutions, so should countries — particularly those in the developing world — look on the United Nations in the same light. That way forward leads to a form of 'grass-roots internationalism' that, in the long run, offers the most robust solution to the challenges that the world currently faces.

There are signs that this is already happening. To many, one of the greatest achievements of last year's World Summit on Sustainable Development, for example, lay in the extent to which it was able to provide a basis for so-called Type 2 agreements between groups outside the UN system engaged in promoting sustainable development. This does not make the United Nations redundant; but it does redefine its role as the promoter and referee of desirable action plans — not necessarily the owner of the institutions that are used to put them into effect.

© SciDev.Net 2003