TOON VISSERS

Idealistic

The idea to work for developing countries emerged during my bachelor studies Sociology (1960-1967) at the Katholieke Hogeschool in Tilburg, the Netherlands.

After my Bachelor’s I followed the specialization ‘Developing Countries’ with Professor Janssen. In the Summer of 1965 I participated in a study tour to Senegal to see if the developing world and I would fit together. The answer was positive.

During my Master’s I took part in a UN internship programme in Geneva which proved to be an eye opener. From then on I was enthusiastic about working for this prestigious and partially idealistic organization. A the same time I got acquainted with the Dutch UN Associate-Expert Programme. That appeared to be the perfect answer to my UN career wishes and after the necessary preparations I was appointed in April 1968 as Associate Expert in Manpower Planning and Statistics in an International Labour Organization (ILO) project in Algeria.

Activities

After my ILO service in Algeria (1968-1971) I continued my career with the United Nations more or less uninterruptedly until my retirement in 2000. In that period I worked for four UN organizations – ILO (International Labour Organization), ECA (Economic Commission for Africa), UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and WFP (World Food Programme) – and in seven different duty stations (Algiers, Addis Ababa, Lusaka, New York (10 years). Rome, Dar es Salaam and Libreville (Gabon)). In Gabon as Res Rep/ Resident Coordinator. Through the various geographic assignments and functional responsibilities, I had the opportunity to acquire a good insight into the role and functioning of the UN system.

UN fulfills a vital global need

The United Nations was established with some enthusiasm in the aftermath of the Second World War to prevent future wars and to promote socio-economic development and human rights (some Specialized Agencies had already been established). We are all familiar with the ups-and-downs of the United Nations during the Cold War, the independence wave of African countries and the demands of the American Congress. It can, however, be stated without doubt that the UN has realized many of its objectives and that it has gone from strength to strength. The United Nations in New York is a far-flung and impressive politico-diplomatic machinery, which, if it would not be there, would need to be invented. It is not only about war and peace in the Security Council, but it deals with a multitude of political, socio-economic an cultural issues.

The General Assembly and the Social and Economic Council of the United Nations have together created new organizations, like those for refugees (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR), children (United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF), development (United Nations Development Programme, UNDP), population (United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA), environment (United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP), UN Women and others. Each of these offshoots now employs thousands of staff around the world and operates with large budgets. The role that the UN has played in, for example, the advancement of women, protection of the handicapped, the aged and the environment has been enormous. In addition to the United Nations in the narrow sense, there is the UN family or UN system, which includes 15 Specialized Agencies, some of them very large like FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) in Rome, ILO and WHO (World Health Organization) in Geneva and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Paris. There is a Specialized Agency for virtually every important technical – International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Universal Postal Union (UPU), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Maritime Organization (IMO) – , social and economic activity. They are global centres for coordination, cooperation and policy development. Altogether the UN system employs more than 50,000 people and has a combined budget of tens of billions of dollars annually. The UN is regularly criticized, in particular the Security Council for its (in)effectiveness in security matters.

But the UN Secretariat cannot be blamed, it is the Member Governments which often do not see eye to eye when the permanent members of the Security Council use their veto.

In sum, the UN system fulfills a vital global need and it has gone from strength to strength. Because of further globalisation, the need for it will grow. Its further development is both desirable and unstoppable.

Personal experience

There are several highly memorable experiences, like Algeria, our first country of assignment; New York, with its complex, fascinating Headquarters embedded in this hectic city; the senior assignments in Tanzania and Gabon; the warm, hospitable counterparts and people in Africa; and the many committed and enthusiastic UN staff.

Strength and weakness

The power of the UN lies in its humanitarian assignment. Its threefold mission of peace, development and human rights appeals to the nobler principles of mankind. Universality is part of it, in that all countries and political systems are participating on a constructive basis. That constructive cooperation is the essence of progress!

The weakness of the UN is that important Member Governments try to use the United Nations for selfish purposes and thereby damage the sprit, circumvent established rules and harm common interests. Reality seems to indicate that a complex political entity like the United Nations needs flexibility to enable it to function. If the permanent members of the Security Council would not have such flexibility, they would make less use of the Organization. For example, negotiations about the reform of the Council which started in the mid-1990’s have so far been unsuccessful. The eternal struggle between power and justice!

A long and fruitful life

As indicated above there is an increasingly strong need for global bodies to coordinate and regulate global security, political, technical and socio-economic issues. The UN system has proven to be able to play that role. As it is the pre-eminent body with universal membership and universally acceptable rules and procedures, one can be confident about the role of the UN system in the short, medium and long term.

Ideally we would have a world government.

Until that will be realized, the current UN system will basically have to and be able to meet the evolving needs. If the UN will be able to effectively represent the dynamic global power structure, it should have a long and fruitful life ahead of it.

A personal note

Although at a respectable age of 70, I do not want the UN to go on retirement! On the contrary, I wish it to remain fully active and blessed with a healthy offspring and many friends.

In my 30+ year career with the United Nations, I had the privilege to be actor and witness to its humanitarian objectives and constructive functioning. It gave me with great satisfaction and I am still an enthusiastic and active supporter. I am deeply grateful to the UN and former colleagues for this enriching experience. I am also grateful to the Dutch government for having indirectly enabled my career through its Associate-Expert programme and through its generous contributions to UNDP.

Toon Vissers

Toon Vissers

Independent International Affairs Professional

Tilburg University (sociology, specialization development)
Chief, Staff Development and Recruitment WFP (World Food Programme), Rome, Italy
Deputy Resident Representative UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Resident Representative UNDP/Resident Coordinator UN, Libreville, Gabon