But the scope of its work has ballooned. Parts of its empire are corrupt and incompetent. The world has moved on since the UN was founded 60 years ago, and thousands of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are achieving the same humanitarian aims more cost-effectively. As one NGO director puts it, "Small, lean NGOs working in the third world could do so much more with the money the UN wastes on self-indulgent conferences in five-star hotels in expensive first world cities. And if the UN's new role is to co-ordinate disaster relief, then God help us all."
Consider the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, costing $800m (£440m) a year. One American employee gets a $70,000 salary, and, in line with standard UN practice, two-thirds of the cost of his three children's education paid until they are 23. He shops in a subsidised store, buys cheap petrol at a UN pump, eats in a subsidised cafeteria, and UN staff find him accommodation and pay his bills. Every other year he and his family are flown home, first class. His job? To make sure the atrium looks nice. His colleague, Vladimir, says "the atrium guy" is symptomatic of the UN. "I was so idealistic when I arrived. Then I organised my first conference, and the world leaders were more interested in what was for dinner and the location of the best whorehouse than how to feed the world."
Vladimir can think of not a single useful thing his agency has done in the three years he has worked there. "People are promoted according to years of service and which region they come from. Many run private businesses from their UN desk. The guy next to me has a villa rental firm."
An NGO director who worked with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) observed the same attitudes. "They took long lunches, and worked nine to five. There was no sense they were there to overcome poverty. Frankly, a number of NGOs could do the job much better for a fraction of the cost. God knows what some of these agencies do."
What, for instance, does the UN's Economic Commission for Europe achieve, and why must it employ 219 people in Geneva, costing $50m a year? Or the High Level Committee on Management? Or the Inter- national Institute on Aging in Malta?
There are brave, dedicated heroes at the UN, and its goals are essentially noble, but their efforts are frustrated by the time-servers. The UN, all in, costs about $10bn. The point is how much better that sum could be used by those NGOs who make their funds go further, are accountable to donors and who listen to local people.
The true impact, rather than the intentions, of UN missions is often ignored. Their arrival distorts local economies. English-speaking teachers and doctors leave schools and hospitals to drive cars for the UN; housing and food prices rocket; and smuggling (people, drugs, food, cigarettes, elephant tusks) flourishes. Sources for whom I can vouch tell ghastly stories. An Indian aid worker in Bosnia despairs of the UN's inability to manage its people. Of the war period, she said: "We wondered why little girls had scars on their cheeks. They were made to kneel at barbed wire fences and service men through the wire at the UN compound. The same was happening last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo."
In southern Sudan an academic recently found the UN had spent a fortune building a parking area for its vehicles in an area that was underwater six months of the year. "They could have asked any kid on the road for advice, but didn't" he said.
An American consultant who often works with the UN despairs of their colonialism: "They paid me $6,000 a month, while our local manager got $400. The UN people wouldn't let the local translator ride in our Jeep so we waited hours for him to arrive by bus. One translator died on a mission, and they dumped his body in the jungle. He wasn't 'team' - he was 'local'."
UN defenders cite Unicef as the model for reform, and point to the extraordinary work of James Grant, who was responsible for the immunisation of 25 million children in the 1980s. Unicef is reputedly more efficient because it must appeal directly to governments for its annual budget. However, an American consultant who works with Unicef, warns, "They are great at PR. They attract celebrity ambassadors, but better work is being done quietly by little NGOs at the end of the track in god-forsaken parts of Africa, particularly by nuns who have been there for 20 years."
UN supporters speak highly of its research capability, but Karel Kovanda, the Czech representative on the Security Council during the Rwandan genocide, relied on Human Rights Watch (HRW) to learn what was happening. "Does anyone seriously doubt that HRW or the International Crisis Group produce better information than the UN?" asks one NGO director in Thailand. "The UNDP wrote a report about problems on the Thai-Burma border. They never left their compound. Their statistics were worthless, but they were recycled enough to be accepted as truth."
There is an alternative to the "scrap it or sideline it" debate about the UN's future. If some UN agencies were floated off they would have to compete with NGOs for funding from governments and foundations. A nation would decide its humanitarian priorities and look for the UN agencies or NGOs best able to deliver. The good UN agencies would survive and the dross would sink.
Of course, NGOs aren't the answer to everything. But we are already seeing a move towards greater efficiency. Some governments give part of their aid budgets to cost-effective NGOs such as the efficient Carter Centre, started by former US president Jimmy Carter and his wife, which monitors elections, fosters democracy and peace-building, and combats disease.
Privatisation would be a start, but it can do nothing to put steel, some political will, into the Security Council, which has presided over genocide in Rwanda (800,000 dead), Bosnia (250,000), southern Sudan (two million), Congo (two million) and Darfur (300,000-400,000). When I visited Darfur, a woman told me: "It's very kind of you to offer to feed us, but we've always known a degree of hunger. What would really help is if you'd take the guns away from the people who are trying to kill us."
For all the fine words in New York last week, nothing has been done for the average Darfuri woman, facing rape, attack and hunger, ethnically cleansed by her own government, and unprotected by the international community. Shame on us all.
Becky Tinsley sits on the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, is a trustee of the Carter Centre UK and director of WagingPeace.org.ukReuse content