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The Platonic Acorn: A Case Study of the United Nations Volunteers

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 May 2009

Robert A. Pastor
Robert A. Pastor was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia from 1970 to 1972 and is currently a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. The author is indebted to Professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr., ofHarvard Universityfor comments on an earlier draft. Interviews with the following people were invaluable for constructing a history of the UNV: Mr. Michael von Schenck, former secretary-general of ISVS; Mr. Edward White, liaison officer, UNV, New York; Mr. Terry Doyle, Multilateral and Special Programs/Peace Corps; and Miss Jane Wiedlund, UN Secretariat. For the historical interpretation of the UNV as well as for the conclusions of this article, the author takes sole responsibility.
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This article presents both a history and an administrative analysis of the United Nations Volunteers, an international organization established by a General Assembly resolution in December 1970. The hope that the new organization would presage a new era of multinational volunteerism has proven groundless. In seeking to explain the ineffectiveness of the UN Volunteers, I look inside the organization and find that it has little or no control over its six principal functions. This extreme decentralization of responsibility is then explained not by a static description of the institutional but by focusing on the dynamic process by which state and transnational actors exercised influence during the different stages of the organization's establishment and development. Those actors whose autonomy was most jeopardized by a new volunteer organization were most active in defining and limiting the scope of its operations. The relative lobbying advantages of state and transnational actors meshed with bureaucratic and budgetary constraints to ensure an enfeebled organization.

Copyright © The IO Foundation 1974

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1 For an excellent study on how influence is exercised in eight specialized international agencies, see Robert, Cox and Harold, Jacobson, eds., The Anatomy of Influence: Decision Making in International Organization (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1973).Google Scholar

2 Actually, ECOSOC Resolution 849 in August 1961 created a young professional “volunteer” program which still exists and is often confused with the UNV. Though insignificant in numbers, these volunteers earn the salary of a starting UN civil servant.

For two other unsuccessful recommendations that the UN establish an international corps of volunteers, see the following: “Thant Sees Role For World Youth,” New York Times, 6 July 1965, p. 1; “Japan Urges UN to set up International Peace Corps,” New York Times, 23 September 1967, p. 12.

3 An ad hoc interagency (UN specialized agencies) meeting was held in Geneva in July 1968 to discuss the development of national youth policies and the potential of volunteerism. See UN ECOSOC Resolution 1353 (XLV), 2 August 1968.

4 In January 1971, the Governing Council agreed to restructure the program along the lines proposed by Jackson's, Sir Robert report. See the United Nations, A Study of the Capacity of the United Nations Development System (Geneva: The UN, 1969).Google Scholar

5 UN Document-E/4790 (UN Economic and Social Council, 49th Session, Report of the Secretary-General, “The Feasibility of Creating an International Corps of Volunteers for Development,” 14 April 1970).

6 The Peace Corps, for example receives more than 30,000 applications a year to fill approximately 7,000 slots. In a poll given to college seniors in the United States, 80 percent said they would prefer to work for the UN or a multinational organization than for the Peace Corps. See Blatchford, Joseph, “The Peace Corps: Making it in the Seventies,” Foreign Affairs 49 (October 1970): 130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7 UN Document E/4790, p. 8.

8 See UNDP, “Way and Means: Programming Ideas and Resources for National and International NGO's,” Commitment (UNDP Service Bulletin), 2, October 1972. Also see the debates on the Second Development Decade in the General Assembly's 26th session.

9 Terry Doyle said that the problem of filling the “special placements was the problem of allocating scarce skills.” If the Peace Corps gave all its best recruits to the UNV, it “would have nothing” for itself. In November 1972, however, ACTION Deputy Director Don Hess decided that the Peace Corps would henceforth give “top priority” to recruiting UN volunteers, except in cases where the Peace Corps was recruting the same skill for the same country.

10 UN Document A/8003, pp. 77–78. ECOSOC Resolution 1539 (XLIX), recommending that the General Assembly establish the United Nations Volunteers along the lines proposed in the feasibility study, was adopted 21–0–3.

11 US Department of State, “Position Paper” on “The Feasibility of Creating an International Corps of Volunteers for Development” (memorandum), 11 June 1970, p. 1 (from Peace Corps files, Washington, D. C.).

12 See UN Document A/Res/2659 (XXV), 7 December 1970, adopted 91–0–12.

13 UN Document DP/L.164, 8 January 1971, p. 5.

14 UN Document DP/L.166/Add.3, 29 January 1971, pp. 39–44.

15 Memirandum from Director International and Special Programs/Peace Corps to Ag. Deputy Director/Peace Corps, 24 March 1971 (from Peace Corps files, Washington, D. C.). Even in the formulation of the “Position Paper,” the Peace Corps was less inclined to employ arm-twisting tactics. A direct memorandum from Peace Corps Director Blatchford to the Secretary of state on 13 July 1970 successfully staved off a similar maneuver as the feasibility study was on its, “voyage through the Economic and Social Council” (from Peace Corps files, Washington, D. C.).

16 Memorandum from the US Mission to the UN to the secretary of state, March 1971. Letter from Ag. Deputy Director/Peace Corps to Mr. Sadry, 15 April 1971 (from Peace Corps files, Washington, D. C.).

17 UN Document DP/L.205, pp. 4–5, 10–11; UN Document DP/13/Ca/SR.3 (Governing Council, thirteenth session), 28 January 1972. The IPF is the amount of UNDP assistance allotted to a country over a five-year period. An arrangement was later worked out so that the 25 least developed countries would receive a special subsidy that would keep their IPF from being drained by UNV expenses.

18 UN Document DP/L.205, 15 December 1971, p. 3.

19 UN Documents DP/L.277 and DP/278.

20 From the Shah's 1968 speech at Harvard, cited in New York Times, 12 November 1972.

21 UN Document E/5146, 9 May 1972.

22 UN Office of Public Information, Non-Governmental Organizations Section, “Text of Remarks by Edward C. White, Liaison Officer at UN Headquarters of United Nations Volunteers, at a briefing for the representatives of non-governmental organizations on 25 October 1972,” December 1972, p. 4.

23 Schelling, Thomas C., “Hockey Helmets, Concealing Weapons, and Daylight Savings,” Discussion Paper No. 9 (John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1972), p. 8ff.Google Scholar

24 Roosevelt, Curtis, “The Political Future of Transnational Associations: The Opportunity for Effective NGO Action,” International Associations, June–July 1972, pp. 329–32.Google Scholar Roosevelt is chief of the Non-Governmental Organization Section, Economic and Social Council, United Nations. His paper was prepared for the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Status within ECOSOC, Geneva, June 1972.

25 The superior effectiveness of ISVS may also have been due to the fact that it is an intergovernmental organization while CoCo is a nongovernmental organization. Just how much that primary organizational quality determines the effectiveness of an international public organization is a subject that clearly merits further research.