BERLIN — From the beginning, the member states of the United Nations understood the great significance of efficient communication: in resolution 13(I) of Feb. 13, 1946, the General Assembly established the Department of Public Information in the Secretariat and emphasized: “The United Nations cannot achieve the purposes for which it has been created unless the peoples of the world are fully informed of its aims and activities.”
Yet in practice the UN has failed time and again to act according to this evident truth: the Department of Public Information remained underfinanced relative to its large area of responsibility: to provide information on the work of the Secretariat, the Security Council and the General Assembly as well as the increasing number of UN programs, funds and specialized agencies.
To do this large amount of work, the department received and still receives few funds: for the years 2014-2015, for instance, the budget section for Public Information provided $188 million, or a 2.6 percent share of the overall UN budget.
The lack of funds is accompanied by political restrictions from member states. As Axel Wustenhagen, a now-deceased UN official who worked in public information, emphasized in a book contribution on the Department of Public Information, most UN member states grant the office factual information only on the activities of the UN, and the Secretariat accepts — for the most part — this restriction.
In this cautious sense, Secretary-General U Thant underlined in 1970 in a media seminar at UN headquarters that the UN neither could nor would “conduct an intensive campaign such as sovereign governments sometimes employ. . . . The United Nations, in public information activities, can only attempt to give an objective and factual record of what is happening.”
In other words, member states reject public-relation campaigns by the Department of Public Information that aim to make the world public understand the value of the UN as a global forum for defining, debating and solving global problems.
Why is that so? Member states are apparently afraid that the UN — and, above all, the secretary-general — could by such campaigns acquire its own political prestige and escape member states’ political control.
To make matters worse, the cautious matter-of-fact attitude of the department is accompanied by a lack of media experts on staff and a marked tendency of noncooperation with other Secretariat departments and UN programs and funds. These departments prefer to make their own information efforts instead of informing the Department of Public Information and letting it communicate their activities to the public. This is not a very effective policy and often creates mixed messages that leave the public confused.
To the merit of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, he refused to keep the same low profile that his predecessors did. Instead, he drew the attention of the world public to the unsatisfying state of affairs of UN public information policy and made it clear that the supply of factual information must be accompanied by conveying political visions. He emphasized that “because the United Nations relies on public support to implement its goals, the Organization’s message must be transmitted to the peoples of the world with more vigor and purpose.”
Accordingly, Annan began an ambitious reform of the Department of Public Information: he improved its technical work by setting up a comprehensive website on the UN, produced media-friendly newscasts, broadcasts and television programs and laid the foundations for a strategic planning of UN public information policy.
Annan demonstrated that UN information policy can be successful if its contents are presented persuasively and comprehensibly for the media to be able to transmit the message to the public. By creating easily understandable political ambitions, such as the Millennium Development Goals, Annan brought global public attention through broad coverage in the media and the large number of nongovernmental organizations supporting the MDGs.
Yet even savvy Annan could not overcome the main obstacles to forming a consistent, effective UN information policy: he could not end the lack of cooperation within the UN system regarding such policy, and he could not persuade member states to reduce their interference in the department’s personnel policy. That included choosing who runs the office and restrictive control of UN information activities.
Unfortunately, his successor, Ban Ki-moon, did not continue attempts to reform the effective flow of public information, did not seek much personal contact with journalists and made little use of opportunities to make the messages of the UN more visible through the help of nongovernmental organizations and other forces of civil society. Rather, Ban, whose term ends this year, has kept the UN’s profile low in relating to the public.
It is to be hoped that the new secretary-general to be elected in the next few months for the 2017-2022 term will again pay more attention to the public information policy of the UN so that its messages are conveyed with more vigor to enable the public to better understand the important work of the world organization and motivate people to support the UN.
Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (www.forschungskreis-vereinte-nationen.de).