By Robert Wood
Our international response must to the most vulnerable, those people who experience scarcity and difficulty on a daily basis. We can feed the poor, dig a well, help construct roads, provide basic access to medicine, help with environmental safeguards and clean up pollution.
In short, by being an activist state we must intervene in the affairs of other nations in a way that replicates the best work we have performed in Australia. That is what diplomacy is about because it is about the people, not about canapés and cocktails in fancy houses making secret deals with offshore powerbrokers.
There are the cost-effective programs in international development that Australian agencies need to participate in and enable. The specific requirements for what is good growth need to be determined by experts in those fields as well as on the ground and by communities with ideas of self-governance. The way to improve the world then, to change it, is not necessarily through compromise but collaboration, which is to say, a new project that exists out there must be agreed upon by everyone involved.
Development needs to be co-ordinated by the government. Which is to say, governance in NGO, the state and corporation, needs to be brought together to plan and implement the best possible good for the greatest number of people. This is about caring for people, which is what Australia should aim towards, as it continues to be a valued world citizen. This is the opposite of Manus Island and the Pacific Solution.
This means we must keep our gaze firmly on global poverty. In speaking of Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo’s book Poor Economics: a radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty, Pranab Bardan argues:
The poor often lack basic information about the benefits of children’s immunization and nutrition, the dangers of over-medication, the risks of HIV infection, how much fertilizer to use, and the quality of politicians vying for election….In response, Banerjee and Duflo suggest nudging poor people in the right direction by establishing various default options: savings accounts in which money is easy to deposit but somewhat difficult to take out, simple chlorine dispensers at drinking water collection points, and easy availability of salt fortified with iron and iodine. Of the various Randomised Control Testing findings, the two most cost-effective programs seem to be de-worming children in areas where intestinal worms are rampant and providing remedial education for poor children who fall behind in class.
But these are simply examples from specific cases that we can learn lessons from as well. This means the government must engage with international actors, prime among them, the United Nations.
Before the government backbench scuppered his candidacy for Secretary General, Kevin Rudd claimed there were ten essential elements in his plan to reform the UN. They were:
1. Integrating missions and agencies.
2. Planning policy that looked to the future.
3. Creating prevention rather than being simply reactionary.
4. Creating better crisis response.
5. Prioritising field operations over head office.
6. A Team UN that is multi-disciplinary.
7. Real results not conference halls.
8. ‘We the People’ partnerships with civil society and private sector.
9. Centrality of women.
10. Operations that are efficient, effective and flexible.
Although Rudd does admit that ‘these 10 basic principles are not exactly rocket science’, he leaves aside the fact that there are similarities between his principles (1, 5 and 7; 2 and 3). What is perhaps most galling however is that there is no agenda in terms of key problem areas.
The United Nations is a complex organisation just like any government, multinational corporation or international NGO. It has its own culture, its own history, its own metier. If outsider Jim Yong Kim’s difficulty in leading the World Bank is any guide, reforming the UN takes more than bureaucratic language and willpower.
In that way, it is salutary to return to when it was created and invest in its original purpose as a body devoted to peaceful co-operation. The United Nations is essentially a pacifist organisation, hence it has peacekeepers rather than soldiers.
The biggest change that the United Nations needs to make is to reform the relationship between the permanent and non-permanent members. That the division is essentially a Cold War one (USA and UK vs China and Russia, with France mediating discussions), reflects the fact that the UN was founded in an era before decolonisation, which is to say, before the independence of many of its member states.
The representation these countries continue to have, particularly the UK and France, does not adequately reflect the geopolitical conditions, now let alone, what they are predicted to become. Brazil, India and Nigeria each have greater claim than the faded European nations, but perhaps we would do better if there was no veto power because there was no permanency.
That is to say the method by which the Security Council is elected, with each of the world’s regions having a representative, has a better chance of creating consensus, stability and democracy in today’s world. Only when there is reform at this fundamental level might we see a truly democratic process in the diplomatic world.
Australia, as an activist state, must learn to interpret what is good in our own society and adapt and apply it to people elsewhere. I am thankful for our relative material equality, our emphasis on the natural environment, our toleration of religion and diversity, our hope.
These are all qualities we cannot take for granted at home and about which we must continue to fight. But it is also something we must learn to cultivate in pockets overseas. We must make our peacekeepers and diplomats ambassadors of non-violence, people who can take our enacted and embodied definition of the good life to the four corners and seven seas.
That is not about inventing a new plasma screen tv, but about sharing our Indigenous football codes, our paintings, our stories, our culture, as services that can build community no matter where we find people. That means treading new paths and re-invigorating old ones, it means changing with the times as well as being mindful of what has worked well in the past.
The key to good relationships is not the same type of knowledge, but it takes practice to learn how to get on with people. When we search for familiarity we will find it, and familiarity, as that starting point for connecting, is part and parcel of feeling good, and as Australians, we could feel better about our role and place in the world if only we saw through to our very best nature.
Robert Wood’s writing has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. He has interned for Overland, edited for Peril and Cordite, been a columnist for Cultural Weekly. At present he works for The Centre for Stories.
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