The short answer: a lot
Image via UN Instagram
Before we dive headfirst into celebrating World United Nations Day, let’s take a step back and ask a question many of us might have but are too embarrassed to ask: What does the U.N. do anyway? The abbreviated summary starts with the aftermath of World War II when global leaders formed the organization to ensure another war of that magnitude wouldn’t happen again. More than 70 years later, that simple goal has sprouted into hundreds of others that make the U.N. what it is today. While there have been missteps and failures along the way, it’s a privilege to take the United Nations for granted, and it’s difficult to imagine where billions of people would be without it.
As overarching as the U.N.’s goals may seem, its primary objectives outlined in the founding charter involve maintaining international peace and security, promoting sustainable development, protecting human rights, upholding international law, and delivering humanitarian aid. To do that, the organization relies on a governing body of representatives from 193 member states in addition to six main organs and a network of smaller agencies that attend to specific needs.
The World Health Organization, for example, helps governments around the world manage the spread of disease and led the fight to eradicate smallpox, a feat that, according to TIME, likely saved 150 million lives. UNICEF, another familiar agency tied to the U.N., collects donations that feed 80 million people every year, allow 2.6 billion people to access clean water, and provide vaccines to more than 400 million children around the globe.
Despite the U.N.’s best efforts to prevent wars from starting, conflict continues to exist. In the aftermath of violence, the U.N. is typically there to pick up the pieces and help survivors rebuild their lives. When the media attention surrounding a refugee crisis fades long before a humanitarian mission is complete, the U.N. Refugee Agency sticks around to see that those who have been displaced find proper housing and support. Such was the case with the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, after which the U.N. provided 750,000 Palestine refugees emergency relief. Most recently, the U.N. General Assembly hosted a summit in September to tackle current refugee crises.
Ultimately, the United Nations reflects what we are and aspire to be as a whole. Naturally, an organization built on diversity is bound to face stumbling blocks along the way. U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson explained this well in an interview with the Nation, saying,
“People are expecting the U.N. to be the perfect machinery, (like) a Swiss watch…. Remember that this organization, even if it is for ‘we the people,’ is the nation-states, and many nation-states are not always democracies or well-functioning societies. You must understand the United Nations is a reflection, a mirror, of the world as it is. But my job, and the Secretary-General’s job, and all of us who work here, is to also remind ourselves of what the world should be. The best definition of my job, as I see it myself, is that I should try to, inch-by-inch, lessen that distance between what is and what should be.”
In the face of climate change, violence against women and children, global poverty, starvation, terrorist threats, and the risk of pandemic, we need to maintain a united front more than ever. So, while it’s not perfect by any means, the U.N. may be our best chance at keeping the fragile ties between nations intact. And to answer the question what does the U.N. do, it’s a lot more than we probably realize.