March 1, 2010 | Commentary on International Law, International Conflicts, Alliances

More Harm than Good

he United Nations’s emphasis on working with and through governments can horribly undermine its efforts to alleviate suffering -- especially when governments are key drivers of the suffering to begin with. A Foreign Policy article this week offers a chilling story of how this has unfolded in Zimbabwe over the last several years.

The article discusses policy disagreements between the U.N. country director for Zimbabwe, Agostinho Zacarias, and Georges Tadonki, who headed up the U.N. humanitarian office in the country. According to the article, Zacarias desired a cooperative relationship with President Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party, and to that end was willing to downplay many of the problems plaguing the country.

The resulting policy included “forcing agencies in Zimbabwe to . . . [equate the situation in Zimbabwe with that in other African countries] that the agriculture is troubling because there is no rain, that the education is failing because of a lack of resources from taxes.” These explanations deliberately excluded contributing factors such as land seizures, centrally planned prices for agricultural goods and other basic commodities, and political repression -- factors for which Mugabe and his supporters were responsible.

When Mugabe failed to win the March 2008 election, it was dubiously asserted that opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai also failed to receive a majority of the votes, and a run-off election was set for June 2008. Mugabe’s supporters launched a violent campaign, resulting in many deaths. The violence eventually led Tsvangirai to withdraw out of concern for the welfare of his supporters.

According to Tadonki, “We are responsible for those deaths. If the United Nations had told Mugabe, ‘We know what you are planning,’ we wouldn’t have seen it. . . . We all sat [in Harare] and knew that in the countryside, 60 percent of Zimbabweans were being killed or raped.”

Also, the U.N. downplayed a looming cholera outbreak at the behest of Mugabe. According to the article:

In the 11 months between August 2008 and July of last year, nearly 100,000 Zimbabweans came down with cholera in the first countrywide epidemic of the disease in modern history. Previous outbreaks in Zimbabwe, which have occurred annually since 2003, had affected only pockets of the country. This time, cholera was everywhere. Corpses filled the streets and hospital beds. In some districts early in the crisis, half of those infected died. . . .

A Nov. 19, 2008, U.N. appeal for aid, issued months after the cholera epidemic began, predicted just 2,000 cholera cases. Just two months later, the death toll alone had already reached that number. In all, more than 4,000 people died between August 2008 and July 2009, and roughly 98,600 people had caught the disease. The true figures might be even higher.

Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, an independent analyst present in Zimbabwe at the time, corroborates Tadonki’s claims that his warnings of a cholera outbreak went unheeded, observing, “It was very clear that no action was taken. That is what I would call criminal neglect on the part of the U.N.”

Unsuprisingly, Tadonki was fired -- for refusing to go along with the U.N. country director’s policy of appeasing Mugabe, for confronting the government with NGO estimates (admittedly without permission) of the burgeoning epidemic, and for raising objections in correspondence with the country director and with his own superiors in New York. He has appealed, and his case is under review.

It would be nice to think that the Zimbabwe situation was unique. However, the U.N. is involved in virtually every developing country on the planet, including those controlled by despotic regimes, such as North Korea, Burma, and Iran. The article quotes a senior U.N. official on the dilemma faced by the U.N. in these countries:

The U.N. has to work with the government. Clearly, we work in a lot of countries where the government can make it very challenging. But should we say forget it? Or stay and try to help? . . . To be the resident coordinator in some of these countries is not an easy task; you have to deal with the consequences of the actions of those regimes, but in a way that those regimes don’t take for granted that you’ll be there to clean up.

But how much does U.N. assistance aid the governments in these countries instead of the people suffering under their rule? The organization’s officials all too often ignore the dilemma altogether. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe recently stated about U.N. assistance to North Korea, “These are human beings that need the food. It’s not the political system. This shouldn’t be argued in a political way.”

This amounts to whistling past the graveyard. Governments often cause these crises directly, or exacerbate smaller problems until they grow to unmanageable proportions. Pretending that a crisis can be addressed effectively without addressing its underlying causes does a disservice to those most affected -- and those most likely to be affected by the next crisis.

The desire to help those in need is understandable. However, it does not obviate the responsibility of donors to face the situation -- and its causes -- forthrightly. As I recommended in my papers on U.N. aid to North Korea and Burma, it is eminently reasonable (though politically difficult) for the U.S. and the U.N. to deny food and humanitarian assistance that may aid a repressive government rather than its citizens, and to demand that the government agree to rigorous, transparent monitoring standards and delivery verification. Failing to do this can have consequences that rival those of doing nothing at all -- as the citizens of Zimbabwe can testify.

-- Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in National Review Online