United Nations

Let's call it a day

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 October, 2008, 12:00am

Anyone suggesting that the United Nations is a bloated, money-wasting beast with no clear co-ordination or direction need only look at the calendar for confirmation. Littered throughout the year are 70 days and four weeks proclaimed by its highest body, the General Assembly, to highlight issues of global concern. There are so many that the worth of the exercise is denigrated. Funding and resources are being needlessly consumed.

For what it's worth, today is the International Day of Eradication of Poverty, yesterday was World Food Day, and the International Day of Rural Women was on Wednesday. Global Hand-Washing Day - not proclaimed by the assembly, but backed by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation - was also on Wednesday. Proving just how ineffective the UN's message is, none of the dozen people in different professions I questioned this week about the special days were aware of their existence. Nor did they know that 2008 is the international year of languages, sanitation, planet Earth and the potato.

The issues are important. Each deserves attention because of the way it ties into the globalised world. Poverty alleviation is in everyone's interest, yet it is a subject far from the international agenda because of concern among wealthy donor nations of economic meltdown. The rights of women outside urban areas need to be upheld and protected. Potatoes are the world's third most important staple food crop, and much extra effort needs to be put into ensuring that they are affordable and production levels keep pace with population growth.

Washing hands with soap before meals and after going to the toilet was the central message of Hand-Washing Day. It may seem a logical enough matter, but hundreds of millions of people the world over are not aware of the significance of so simple an act. Doing so is the simplest and cheapest way of preventing children from contracting diarrhoea and respiratory infections. In Indonesia alone, in 2006, those scourges were responsible for more than 40 per cent of child deaths. Severe acute respiratory syndrome would have been less deadly had we paid more attention to cleanliness. If only the calendar was not so blurred by other issues, Wednesday would have been an ideal time to reinforce in the minds of my children and those I spoke to about how important a little bit of soap can be. International years have been designated by the UN since 1959 to draw attention to major issues and encourage action to address concerns that have global ramifications. The idea was so successful - I still remember the events organised for International Women's Year in 1975, the International Year of the Child in 1979 and the International Year of the Disabled two years later - that it was extended to weeks, days and decades. Unfortunately, the initial guiding principle that every year should not be allocated to a cause for fiscal reasons and to avoid trivialisation has been lost in the UN's expansion of budget and powers. There are now so many special occasions that few of us pay them much attention.

The result is that I am well aware that November 19 is World Toilet Day, but I had to check when Human Rights Day falls (it's on December 10). That there is a day set aside to celebrate the humble toilet is more striking to me than World Meteorological Day (March 23), World Information Society Day (May 17) or International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development (December 5).

World Toilet Day - to raise awareness of the global sanitation crisis - is not even a UN event; the World Toilet Organisation is behind it. I have already downloaded a Tinkle Test poster and pledge to spend a penny for charity to help the 2.6 billion people in the world who risk disease because they don't have toilets.

No guidelines exist within the UN for the proclamation of international days. Nor is a single UN office responsible for co-ordinating and overseeing the days proclaimed by UN agencies. In the interests of important issues being given due global attention, it is time for the UN to clear the calendar and start afresh.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor