OP-ED: Who are ‘we, the peoples’? Part 1

A UN summit in New York
A UN summit in New York

Something to think about the next time you apply for, and attend, a conference.

The UN, in principle, claims to uphold the diversity of cultures that represent it. In practice, the best way to do this is, fairly enough, to select the best of each country. It does this by selecting representatives and delegations whom Member States and/or the UN bodies nominate.

Thus, to represent one’s country, culture or beliefs in the UN, one needs to either become an expert in their particular field of diplomacy/development (which usually entails joining a respected NGO) or become a part of the country’s foreign relations portfolio.

To get into either one of the most respected bodies within any field of diplomacy/development or the country’s foreign relations portfolio, one needs to apply for a position there – often highly competitive.


Just like any competitive job, the criteria by which applicants are assessed for roles within these bodies that are one step away from the UN include the calibre of their alma mater, and participation in extracurricular activities. In this field, that would mean presence and representation in international events including forums, official conferences and summits.


As for one’s alma mater, the West, especially the US (in particular the Ivy League and University of California system) and UK (Oxbridge and the London universities) dominate the top places and reputations when ranking universities. So, prima facie, graduates of these schools take priority in recruitment. Thus, the most respected international institutions would have at least significant representations of people who received Anglo-American educations, and thus have Anglo-American ideals instilled in them.


As for the rest of the world, that leaves them with extracurricular events, like MUNs and other conferences. The criteria by which applicants are assessed for roles within these forums, conferences and summits can be measured by their presence and representation in smaller regional events.


Often, international events do not contribute to the travel, allowance and accommodation fees of their delegations, and may even include registration fees.  Funding is even scarcer at the regional level as these events are often organised by smaller organisations with tighter budgets.

Thus, the only means to attend these conferences is to fund them out of one’s own pocket or solicit funding through their educational institutions.

As for funding participation out of one’s own pocket, a young person living on an Australian minimum wage (the highest in the world for a country with a population over 1 million, even when PPP-adjusted) would need to work 182 hours to raise $2000 – a standard cost for conference registration, allowance and transportation to the venue (for an international conference). At an average of 16 hours per week for a part-time (to make allowance for study time) job, it would take over eleven weeks to earn this much – notwithstanding any other living expenses. In other words, bar a few exceptional scholarship holders (a negligible percentage of participants in these), one would need to be fairly well-off to afford to attend these summits – and in one’s youth, unless they are exceptionally successful (also a negligible percentage), one does not become ‘fairly well-off’ by their own merit.


As for funding through educational institutions, it is unlikely for an educational institution anywhere (including Australia), let alone in the Third World, to have the capacity to fund an entire delegation to an international conference – and to maintain equality, this means that no one will be funded. The exception is, of course, exclusive private colleges with high tuition fees – which would mean that costs will be paid out of the individual’s pocket somewhere down the line. These private colleges only accommodate the wealthiest members of society – and the lucky ones from poorer classes who make it because of scholarships (negligible percentage again) will face harsh social pressure from the elite mentality within. In many cases, the type of private school that attracts young people to IR is an International School – which gives people an ‘international’ (read: Western) education, and thus instils in them ‘international’ (read: Western) ideals and values.


And as for scholarships through private foundations, which members of society would be well-connected or networked enough to know of these private foundations in the first place, let alone develop enough rapport to be considered for a scholarship?


It is virtually only these small groups of people, of similar social standing and ideology, who have a chance of entering this circle of influence – a circle which, by natural exclusivity, would have little exposure to the world outside it. These small groups, who, despite their cultural differences, would eventually merge the ideals that the dominant culture of their social class continues to influence them with, as they are continuously groomed to climb a career ladder all the way up to the big players like the UN itself. This circle idealises (and rightly so, as we should all) the cosmopolitan ‘global village’ – but never ask to themselves: is this a true ‘global village’, or is it actually more of a ‘globalised bubble’?


Tracing this all back, the UN is a great institution in principle.  Its mission is epitomised in how its Charter opens: ‘We The Peoples’. It is meant to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves – the poor, the persecuted, the vulnerable – and represent the diversity of cultures in the global landscape. But how is this diversity represented in the UN, and how does the system of international relations feed it?  In practice, who are “we, the peoples”?


One thought on “OP-ED: Who are ‘we, the peoples’? Part 1

  1. I agree 99.9 % with what you say. only caveat I find is that nowadays anyone with access to internet can find private foundations that offer scholarships and/or fellowships. And if they are good ( read excellent) students then they will win an award. no need for nepotism. I say this from personal experience. My mom is from a poor third world african country, but because she is simply so briliant at her work she has won numerous fellowships, bursaries, etc. NO, she doesn’t work at the UN, but that because she refused to (they offered her positions countless times). So basically yes, all u say is true except for that tiny paragraph… after this is the age of technology and google is one huge equalizer 🙂

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