Book reviews - United Nations.
       

International Commissions and the Power of Ideas
(Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2005, 317pp.)

There is a quip of Winston Churchill saying that God so loved the world that He did not send a committee. However, when the United Nations needs a platform of ideas it creates an "independent commission". Yet as the editors write "The role that international or independent commissions have played in linking ideas and institutions has not received the attention it merits. The names of many of the key commissions, often best remembered by the individuals who headed them - Brandt, Palme, Brundtland, Carlson/Ramphal, for example - continue to be recognized. But the impact of commissions - what they have achieved, and how they have done it, both individually and collectively - has been too often neglected."

This book of the United Nations University is an effort to look at the impact of ideas and programs put forward by different independent commissions. Independent commissions are created as a response to three challenges. The first challenge is to bring together in a single document ideas on which there is large consensus but where no one expression of these ideas are a common reference. This was the role of the independent commissions on development. The Commission on International Development chaired by Lester Pearson of Canada - often called "The Pearson Report" - was a consensus document of the mainline thinking on development of the 1960s.(See Partners in Development -1969-) There was a need to review the trends of development policy, especially as they grew from the experience of the then newly independent African countries. The role of the Pearson Commission, largely sponsored by the World Bank, was not to explore new territory, but to bring together in a document backed by well-known persons the basic development approach that had developed in the 1960s.

The second commission devoted to development, the Independent Commission on International Development Issues, chaired by Willy Brandt of West Germany, was a response to the failures of development efforts of the 1970s. The 1970s was a time when the Non-Aligned Movement in the United Nations, encouraged by the impact of the OPEC states, had tried to create a New International Economic Order (NIEO). The effort failed, beaten back by the USA and the UK who slowed down and then destroyed all possibilities of discussion within the UN but who proposed no alternatives. The failure of the NIEO negotiations left a legacy of bitterness among the Non-Aligned who came to believe that the rich states were interested in neither development nor social justice. Willy Brandt who had actively opposed the Nazi government and who had bettered relations between Germany, the Soviet Union and Central Europe was asked by the World Bank to head a new commission which would draw on the experience of the 1970s and yet show that there was possibility for understanding. Brandt was not an economic policy maker, but as he had made efforts of bridging the East-West divide, so he could be a symbol of efforts to bridge the growing North-South divide. The report Common Crisis: North-South Cooperation for World Recovery produced few economic ideas that led to policies. As some have noted, the ideas in the report were too radical for the industrial countries who feared that behind any reforms the ghost of the NIEO might arise and not radical enough for those Non-Aligned leaders who wanted radically changed economic structures. Brandt called upon "political will" as he had in national and European policies. Alas, there are no magic words for creating political will. Economic thinking disappeared into the sands of neoliberalism and vague "poverty reduction" measures.

A somewhat similar effort to propose ideas after failure was the "Brundland Commission" - the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway. 1972 had seen the rise of UN concern about the environment with the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm. The conference led to the creation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and a short-lived series of activities. A decade after Stockholm, there were few environmental advances, and UNEP had largely faded from influence in the UN system. The Japanese government who was chairing the UNEP Governing Council felt that something should be done to give ecological questions a new start and were willing to put up funds for an independent commission on the environment.

The name "development" was added to show that ecology is a world issue, not just a question of industrial pollution. The Brundtland Commission echoed the Brandt's call for political will. "The Commission's hope for the future is conditional on decisive political action now to begin managing environmental resources to ensure both sustainable human progress and human survival." The Brundtland Report incorporated concerns for the environment into the concept of development by coining the phrase "sustainable development" as a conceptual roof. While "sustainable development" as a concept is subject to multiple interpretations, it has entered the international vocabulary.

The third challenge for international commissions would be to analyse trends and to look toward the future. While future-oriented thinking has always been an aim of independent commissions, it has rarely been the practice. Commissions want to reach consensus, and consensus is reached most easily about the past and with difficulty about the present. It is nearly impossible about the future where ideas are nearly always produced by individuals and not committees.

Beyond the production of ideas, there is the need to have decision-makers put them into practice. Rarely is a policy-maker, whether minister, civil servant, or international functionary simply waiting for a new idea or policy recommendation to drop onto his desk. Nor is such a person in a position, mentally, administratively or politically, to take a new idea, weigh it and decide whether to implement it - or not. Influence and impact is far more complex, both in practice and subsequently to assess. The UN needs to foster an environment that encourages and rewards creative thinking, analysis, and policy-focused research of high intellectual quality. International Commissions and the Power of Ideas is a welcome addition to the study of how to develop such a creative environment.

Rene Wadlow