Seton Hall's UN Study Program Gives Participants an Insider's View of the UN

November 5, 2012|By Benjamin Stipe, UNA of Connecticut
Often times the United Nations is reported on and written about as if it was a static structure or an elitist bureaucracy of sorts that wantonly makes decisions that can, at times, have a profound impact on the world through its member states. While there is some evidence to support the UN’s static-like politics, for instance a Security Council whose membership seems frozen in the time of 1945 and its subsequent political paralysis during the Cold War, suffice it to say there is much more to the UN in regards to political and personnel depth. The truth is the UN’s political space remains comparatively narrow and necessarily collaborative, while many of its goals are idealistic and ambitious given the current state of global affairs. Correspondingly, day-to-day efforts at the UN are far less dramatic but no less important. In the U.S., where a romanticism of charisma has existed for centuries in all facets of government and civil society, it can be difficult for the “average American” to understand the sometimes tedious nature of governments communicating with each other, the nature of the work at the UN, without all the drama or personality.

un_building_blogEnter Seton Hall University’s UN Intensive Summer Study program created and academically administered by Dr. Courtney B. Smith, Associate Dean and Associate Professor, through the University’s John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy. Responsibility for the program’s extensive scheduling between UN entities, support organizations, and speakers, throughout the UN Plaza, belongs to the staff of the UN Foundation and UNA-USA who work tirelessly at this fine art to keep up with a sometimes-consistently changing schedule reflecting the hectic day-to-day operations of the UN itself. Thankfully, for all involved, the UN Foundation and UNA-USA have qualified and experienced personnel such as Minh-Thu Pham, Director of Public Policy, and her support staff to assemble such a program. Ms. Pham’s UN experience includes several years in the Secretary-General’s Executive Office as a policy advisor, on such topics as UN reform and peace-building, and time as the chief of staff for the UN Special Envoy for Malaria. Ms. Pham’s experience also includes other postings that were of critical importance during the peak of their respective political relevance at the UN and in the international community. Given this adept program planning by former UN staff in addition to the program’s substance, and what participants’ experience, one might suggest a rename of the program to something such as “UN Intensive Immersion Summer Program” to truly capture what a week in the program is like.

un_blogIt is a robust and in-depth program, hence intensive, on the system of the UN that provides its participants with a realistic insider’s view of the UN from multiple angles, i.e. various organizations throughout the system. The use of the term “angles” is meant to imply that the whole of the UN does not observe, interpret, or respond to political tensions, disasters, or crises in the same way. Those familiar with the UNA-USA could equate the Program to anywhere from three-to-five years to four-to-seven years’ worth of UNA seminar attendance depending on one’s chapter membership. Such is the policy and issue substance and organizational efficiency of this program. Through the program’s speakers, speaking candidly, you learn that each UN organization serves a very specific purpose, albeit on a global scale, along with that specific purpose comes a narrow bureaucratic lens through which they view matters contextually. Is it possible to reach this policy zenith, this finely focused bureaucratic lens, to which the UN channels its goals, while still retaining its lofty ideals in their purest form? In answering this question, the participant will hear mixed reactions, but therein rests the beauty of the UN system coupled with the spirited nature of Dr. Smith’s program. This issue, a seeming non-consensus where there should be consensus, alone causes much confusion when the media turns its focus on the UN not realizing that all parts do not share the same perspective, partly by design.

Dr. Smith’s program has been going strong for 13 years, and has a sterling reputation among academics and professionals within the UN and the U.S. State Department. In fact, some speakers in the program have donated their time on nearly a half dozen occasions for it. The program’s participants literally come from all over the globe including Singapore, India, Colombia, Russia, Taiwan, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, and Canada among others as well as those from across the U.S. including UNA-USA members. Seton Hall’s Whitehead School is well represented too by several well-informed students who themselves come from diverse backgrounds and locations. In regards to status, participants range from students, undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral, to working professionals from various disciplines all of whom are looking for greater insight into the body of UN organizations that they may be working for or working with in the future. Some participants have a more focused interest regarding a certain topic such as human rights, UN counter-terrorism efforts, women’s issues, international law, and human trafficking to name a few. Other participants, though, may take a less directed and more leisurely approach by simply doing a Google search on something to the effect of “UN Study Program” with Seton Hall’s program being a leading result.

un_blog_1Quite possibly the best primer to the program is Dr. Smith’s own book on the UN titled, “Politics and Process at the United Nations: The Global Dance.” In this book, Dr. Smith discusses, in exquisite detail, the system of the UN and its decision-making processes, and it is well worth its reasonable price tag found at many outlets. The book is extensively cited making for a thorough analysis of existing research and that research which is still needed on the UN and its associated international organizations. In detail alone, the text far exceeds many books already on the market, which struggle to academically portray the UN and its bureaucracy causing them to rely more on politically slanted prose resulting in muddied waters and little understanding about an intergovernmental organization that has yet to realize its full potential in an increasingly fragmented yet interdependent world.

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