It’s springtime in Sweden. Like many other students, I’m now approaching my final phase of study and anticipating graduation. The thought of making my way into the professional world feels a bit daunting. For this reason, gaining experience via an internship helps to make that transition less intimidating.
Over the past three months as an intern with the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, I have had the opportunity to put my acquired academic knowledge to the test. Coming from the field of development studies, the subject of the United Nations has often come up during the course of my education.
In the academic world with which I am most familiar, critical scholarly views of the UN are common. This contrasts with the liberal institutionalism which drives the work of many international organisations, including the Foundation.
In fact, there seems to be a dissonance between the critically infused academic angles which I have been exposed to through my studies and the mainstream view which emphasises the centrality of the UN to multilateral cooperation.
Personally, I am curious about different views on contentious subjects and try not to make hasty commitments to specific standpoints. My internship has provided me with an opportunity to explore how internationalism facilitates development.
The UN, normative ideals and contestations
I am also interested in the expectations, values and roles that different stakeholders ascribe to the UN. A plurality of perspectives is a democratic privilege, and healthy critique of the UN theoretically allows the institution to improve. But to what extent does this happen in practice, especially when it comes to development?
Despite the diversity of their values and ideologies, the 51 original UN Member States managed to agree on a set of fundamental principles. The 1945 UN Charter expressed hopes of securing a peaceful future and respect for human rights through international cooperation. Today, 193 states have joined the agreement and the UN offer its members a forum for discussion and collaboration.
Furthermore, the UN’s unique position as a global convenor allows it to meet transnational challenges and development needs. Paraphrasing Madeleine Albright: if the UN didn’t exist, it would have to be invented. But as a global champion of hard-to contest ideals such as peace and human rights, the UN still faces opposition. The capability to enforce its values in practice is being questioned.
The latest UN reforms, initiated in 2017, aim to boost delivery in several areas of the organisation’s work. During my internship, I have gained an insight into the Foundation’s own work to support positive change in the UN. However, other voices claim the UN is a thing of the past.
The long-lasting impacts of colonialism
Reflecting on development in theory and practice, a common theme emerges: the consequences of colonialism are still present in the way our world is ordered – socially, economically and politically. Observing the normative influence of today’s global institutions, decolonial scholars point out that power dynamics appear in the production of knowledge.
As colonialism created hubs of power and influence, built on resource extraction of non-European communities, the lasting heritage of global structuring of centre–periphery societies is difficult to escape.
The saying that ‘history is written by the victors’ also applies to the way colonial powers, through their dominant positions, constructed narratives of modernity and development, reflecting Eurocentric knowledge claims. Today’s global institutions continue to echo values and ideas associated with Western traditions.
The UN and the World Bank – development actors based on Western concepts of liberalism, universalism and, in the case of the Bretton Woods Institutions, capitalism – promote universal ideals that risk undermining specific experiences and needs of societies with differing traditions and conventions.
However, norms can have beneficial effects, too. As globalisation has increased, so too have transnational flows of goods, people, ideas and technology. Similarly, the potential far-reaching spread of progressive norms and values could be seen as a positive development. The question is: whose norms are we talking about here?
Bridging the gap between theory and practice
As I approach the end of my internship, I am re-evaluating various outlooks on development and the UN’s role as a key facilitator and normative actor. Contentious as it may be to discuss ideologies and development, I do believe that in order for me to make informed choices about my future options as a development practitioner, I need to reflect on where I position myself in relation to different perspectives.
Whichever approach is taken to development – be it the rejection of international institutions as actors, or the promotion of them – the UN still takes up space in the conversation. But in light of the crisis of multilateralism, could there also be room within established development institutions to further incorporate outside critiques and utilise those perspectives to improve the operational work? Or are ideological differences an obstruction?
While I cannot provide answers to these questions, I have become more aware of the multitude of perspectives present in development approaches. It is important for me to be mindful of the values and norms an education or workplace upholds, and to seek out contrasting and complementary perspectives.
Moreover, I have realised that academic knowledge does not automatically translate into practical applicability. Theories will only get you so far and the complex reality of producing change and development may require additional professional skills and understandings that need to be developed outside of the academic setting.
There may not be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to practice development – which, when it comes down to it, is about identifying problems and solutions. Framing something as a problem depends on our interpretation of events or circumstances.
Our interpretations depend on our individual perspectives, which naturally differ because of who we are, where we come from, our backgrounds, schooling, experiences and more. Because of this, what we consider to be appropriate solutions to problems also vary a great deal.
My main takeaway from this exploratory reflection on the UN, academia, norms and development practice is that idealism comes in many forms. Some development practitioners and theorists may have different ideas on what norms and values should shape development work, but no one seem to abandon the idea that the world still needs development.
In conclusion, today’s global development challenges can only benefit from the facilitation, multilateralism and leadership provided by the UN. However, narratives on development that contest prevailing normative ideals continue to have the potential to help shape a more inclusive and efficient organisation.