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Ahead of the Curve?

UN Ideas and Global Challenges

Louis Emmerij, Richard Jolly, and Thomas G. Weiss. Foreword by Kofi A. Annan

Publication Year: 2001

Ideas and concepts are arguably the most important legacy of the United Nations. Ahead of the Curve? analyzes the evolution of key ideas and concepts about international economic and social development born or nurtured, refined or applied under UN auspices since 1945. The authors evaluate the policy ideas coming from UN organizations and scholars in relation to such critical issues as decolonization, sustainable development, structural adjustment, basic needs, human rights, women, world employment, the transition of the Eastern bloc, the role of nongovernmental organizations, and global governance.

The authors find that, in many instances, UN ideas about how to tackle problems of global import were sound and far-sighted, although they often fell on the deaf ears of powerful member states until it was apparent that a different approach was needed. The authors also identify important areas where the UN has not stood constructively at the fore.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: United Nations Intellectual History Project Series


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pp. vii

List of Boxes, Tables, and Figures

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Much has been written over the years about the United Nations and its activities, but little about its intellectual contributions and virtually nothing concerning its contributions to the world of ideas on economic and social development. Yet well over half of the organization’s staff and resources have been devoted to economic and social development, and many great minds and outstanding leaders...

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pp. xiii-xiv

As the three directors of the United Nations Intellectual History Project (UNIHP), we would like to acknowledge the assistance of many people without whose helping hands and enthusiastic support this book would not have appeared in such a timely fashion. We begin by thanking Secretary-General Kofi Annan for his unfailing support and encouragement—and that of a number of ambassadors in New York and...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xv-xvii

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pp. 1-15

This is the first publication from the United Nations Intellectual History Project (UNIHP). This project was born from the conviction that after fifty years it was time to identify and trace the economic and social ideas that have been launched or nurtured by the UN family since 1945. The Cold War’s end led to a substantial growth in scholarly and policy interest in the political and security activities...

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1. Four Powerful Ideas and the Early Years

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pp. 16-42

The United Nations (UN) was born in San Francisco in 1945, just as the deadliest and most destructive war in recorded history was coming to an end. Rising from the ashes of destruction and despair came four powerful sets of ideas. • Peace—the idea that sovereign states could create an international organization and procedures that would replace military aggression and war by negotiations and collective security.

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2. Development Hits Its Stride in the 1960s

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pp. 43-59

By the early 1960s development in what would soon become known as the “South” was gathering steam. Decolonization had moved from controversy and sometimes conflict to practical arrangements for handing over and independence, at least for more than a score of countries in Africa—with virtually all others to follow in short order. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) emerged after the 1955...

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3. Employment Creation and Basic Needs

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pp. 60-79

The 1970s were a creative decade for the UN system. Many ideas were launched—sometimes controversial, normally interesting, and often ahead of the curve. In reaction to the bittersweet record of the 1960s—better-than-expected economic growth but mounting unemployment, population growth, resource scarcity, and environmental pollution—the UN became the forum for several pioneering...

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4. UN World Conferences and Global Challenges

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pp. 80-119

From the vantage point of the beginning of the twenty-first century, it may be difficult to believe that in the 1960s environmental degradation, population growth, urbanization, and women’s rights were being discussed but were not squarely on the international agenda. This changed during the 1970s. The United Nations system launched a series of global conferences on each of these challenges.

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5. Current Orthodoxy, the New Social Question, and Policy Alternatives

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pp. 120-145

In spite of the avalanche of ideas proposed by the UN in the 1970s, the reaction that took place within the 1980s ignored or abandoned much of what had gone before. Development in the 1980s was built more on market ideology than on facts and figures of specific problems. The neo-liberal revolution of the early 1980s grew from four factors: the crisis of inflation and of Keynesian policies in the North; the global recession, balance-...

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6. The Socialist Bloc’s Collapse

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pp. 146-165

Although it was not long ago that we watched dramatic televised images of men and women destroying it with their bare hands, somehow the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 seems like ancient history. Vehement discussions about the transition period that took place in the early 1990s have faded. It is even difficult to remember the main lines of the different strains of arguments that confronted...

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7. Widening Global Gaps

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pp. 166-182

Today’s world is very different from the world of 1945,when the United Nations began. Developed countries have become consumer societies, enjoying a widespread level of prosperity beyond anything available or even imagined when the UN Charter was signed. Global consumption has risen sixfold since 1950. Living standards have soared, benefiting at least 1.5 billion people, especially in North...

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8. Governance, Good Governance, and Global Governance

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pp. 183-204

The UN was directly concerned from its inception with four compelling ideas: peace and negotiation in place of war; national sovereignty in place of colonial status; accelerated economic and social development; and human rights (see Chapter 1). All had important implications for governance—for the objectives and operations of existing structures and for their transformation. The latter three...

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9. Conclusion: The United Nations and Ideas

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pp. 205-214

What is the UN? Is it an assortment of governments that disagree on most issues? Does it reach beyond them to represent “we, the peoples”? Are there independent officials, or are staff enslaved to repetition of national party lines? Is it a family of organizations, some close siblings and others estranged cousins— like the World Bank and the IMF? The answer is,“All of the above, and more.”Concerning ideas and policies, the...


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pp. 215-238


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pp. 239-254

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About the Authors

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pp. 255-256

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 had a distinguished career as president of the OECD Development Center, rector of the Institute for Social Studies in the Hague, and director of the...

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About the UN Intellectual History Project

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pp. 257

The United Nations Intellectual History Project was launched in mid-1999 because there is no adequate study of the origins and evolution of the history of ideas cultivated within the UN and of their impact on wider thinking and international action. Although certain aspects of the world organization’s economic and social activities have been the subject of books and articles, there is no comprehensive...

E-ISBN-13: 9780253108302
E-ISBN-10: 0253108306
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253339508

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 4 figures, 1 index
Publication Year: 2001

Series Title: United Nations Intellectual History Project Series