Press Release: United Nations Ideas That Changed The World

“Too often the UN is seen as a political talk-shop. Yet a critical evaluation shows that it has often achieved practical results in advances in human rights, improvements in health, nutrition, and education—especially for women and children—and in contributing to ideas and actions on national and international policies. For example, the UN has played the major international role in raising awareness of environmental threats and the action required. Its ability to raise awareness of critical ideas is under-recognized. The alternative is trotting out the tanks.”

                                                        --Thomas G. Weiss, co-author of
                                                        UN Ideas That Changed The World
Though many people think of the United Nations’ main contributions in terms of peacekeeping, the new book UN IDEAS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD by Richard Jolly, Louis Emmerij, and Thomas G. Weiss shows how some of the world organization’s most important achievements are in the economic and social arenas. 

Since 1999, the United Nations Intellectual History Project at the CUNY Graduate Center has been scrutinizing the UN’s 65-year history to identify ideas that have proven crucial to improving the quality of life on the planet. At a time when America is resuming its leadership role in the UN, the ideas that have worked point the way to the future.  For example:

UN policy ideas from the 1950s point the way out of the present economic and financial crisis.  Three important reports showed why action for “underdeveloped” countries should be combined with global action to avoid international instability and recession. With a deep global recession and discussions of neo-Keynesian policies of economic stimulus, the time for these visionary ideas has arrived. 
Disease control was advanced in 1966, when the World Health Assembly agreed to eradicate smallpox, which was accomplished in 11 years. This controversial decision was initially fought by many governments, who considered it intrusive and expensive. The issue of disease control is still with us. Viruses do not require visas, or as former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan refers to them, they are “problems without passports.” This miracle of global cooperation saved lives, and a similar logic could be applied today.
The UN’s contributions to environmental debates have been revolutionary.  
Awareness of climate change and the recognition that it is to a large extent human-made is a dramatic transformation of conventional wisdom. Though many scientists contributed to the new understanding, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  provided much of the scientific authority. The panel shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for its call for action, pointing out that it is not yet too late to forestall catastrophic climate change.
Gender equality has advanced since the UN Commission on the Status of Women was established in 1946 and the UN decided to evaluate women’s contributions to the non-monetized sector; for example subsistence agriculture. After the first UN conference on women in Mexico City in 1975, women’s issues expanded from an original focus on women in the West to the empowerment of poorer women.  Two decades later at the 1995 Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, 17,000 non-governmental organizations participated, most of them from poorer counties. UN global conferences fostered an appreciation for the economic value of women’s work, which led to the promotion of basic women’s rights, including reproductive health and education.
The authors of UN IDEAS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD believe the world is looking for the United States to resume a leadership role like the one in 1945, which resulted in a second generation of international organizations to promote peace and prosperity after the collapse of the League of Nations and following the Great Depression.  Perhaps the same far-sighted American political commitment could lead to a third generation of international organizations equal to the challenges of the evolving 21st century. 

Richard Jolly is Senior Research Fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he is co-director of the UN Intellectual History Project and Honorary Professor, and Research Associate of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, where he was director from 1972 to 1981. He worked for the United Nations as an assistant secretary-general for almost twenty years; from 1982 to 1995 he was Deputy Executive Director for Programmes for UNICEF and from 1996 to 2000 he was Senior Adviser to UNDP's Administrator and principal coordinator of the widely acclaimed Human Development Report. Jolly has been a trustee of OXFAM, chairman of the United Nations Association-UK, and a council member of the Overseas Development Institute. In 2001 he was knighted by the queen of England for his contributions to international development. He has worked as an economist in some dozen countries and written or edited some twenty books and more than 100 articles with a special focus on adjustment with a human face, disarmament and development, human development, global and national inequality, and strategies of redistribution with growth.
Louis Emmerij is Senior Research Fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he is co-director of the United Nations Intellectual History Project. Until 1999 he was special adviser to the president of the Inter-American Development Bank. Before that he served as president of the OECD Development Centre, Director of the Institute for Social Studies in The Hague, and director of the ILO's World Employment Programme. Among his recent books are Economic and Social Development into the 21st Century, editor; Limits to Competition, co-author; Nord-Sud: La Grenade Degoupilée; Financial Flows to Latin America, co-editor; Science, Technology and Science Education in the Development of the South; One World or Several?, editor; and Development Policies and the Crisis of the 1980s.

Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, where he is co-director of the United Nations Intellectual History Project. He is President of the International Studies Association (2009-2010) and Chair of the Academic Council on the UN System (2006-2009). He has served as editor of Global Governance, Research Director of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Research Professor at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, Executive Director of the Academic Council on the UN System and of the International Peace Academy, a member of the UN secretariat, and a consultant to several public and private agencies. He has written or edited some thirty-five books and 150 articles and book chapters about multilateral approaches to international peace and security, humanitarian action, and sustainable development. His latest book is What's Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It.

The Graduate Center is the primary doctorate-granting institution of the City University of New York (CUNY). An internationally recognized center for advanced studies and a national model for public doctoral education, the school offers more than thirty doctoral programs as well as a number of master’s programs. Many of its faculty members are among the world’s leading scholars in their respective fields, and its alumni hold major positions in industry and government, as well as in academia. The Graduate Center is also home to more than thirty interdisciplinary research centers and institutes focused on areas of compelling social, civic, cultural, and scientific concerns.  Located in a landmark Fifth Avenue building, the Graduate Center has become a vital part of New York City’s intellectual and cultural life with its extensive array of public lectures, exhibitions, concerts, and theatrical events.  Further information on the Graduate Center and its programs can be found at

Submitted on: JUL 1, 2009

Category: Political Science | Press Room