With concrete goals and international cooperation, the United Nations can reduce poverty and infant mortality in the developing world, Kul Chandra Gautam ’72, former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, told a group of 30 students gathered in Cutter-Shabazz Hall on Thursday. Gautam, also the deputy executive director for UNICEF, discussed his work in international development during this year’s first “Careers for the Common Good Dinner.”
Focusing on concrete, short-term goals has been effective in the past, Gautam said, citing the United Nations’ vaccination program in the 1980s. Many developing countries at the time had vaccination rates of 20 percent or lower, he said, because of weak, ineffective ministries of health. As part of the program, the United Nations pressured the Catholic Church in Colombia to instruct their parishioners to have their children vaccinated and mobilized the army and police to act as distributors. After two years, Colombia’s vaccination rate rose from 20 to 70 percent, Gautam said.
“In the long run, we are all dead, so there is no point having long-term goals,” Gautam said. “The point is to break it down into small chunks that are achievable by the current government.”
While he described the United Nations as a powerful force for good, Gautam criticized what he saw as the anti-democratic nature of the Security Council, the importance the organization places on politics over development, and the organization’s respect for allegedly abusive sovereign governments.
“So many crimes have been committed in the name of sovereignty,” Gautam said, pointing to brutal regimes that he believes have denied people desperately needed international aid.
The United Nations does not currently face serious budget problems, but it and other international development organizations may soon experience funding reductions because of the weak global economy, Gautam said.
“The financial crisis, its greatest impact is going to be on the poorest people,” he said.
Gautam said organizing the 1990 World Summit for Children was the most rewarding part of his long career. The summit, he said, was an “audacious” project to bring nations together to discuss a topic they could all support. This discussion led directly to the near-elimination of polio worldwide, Gautam said, and provided a model for future meetings on development.
The Millennium Summit in 2000 was one of the most important gatherings to follow the 1990 summit, Gautam said. The Summit led to the development of the 2000 Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight benchmarks for 2015 that include the reduction of extreme poverty, implementation of universal education, and the reduction of infant and maternal mortality. The Millennium Development Goals, Gautam said, have allowed the United Nations to gauge the concrete, short-term progress of its own and partner states’ programs.
Gautam said his years as an undergraduate at Dartmouth in the 1970s contributed to his interest in international development. Guatam was born and raised in a small Nepali village and applied to Dartmouth after meeting an alumnus who was in the Peace Corps in Nepal. After graduating from the College, Gautam worked for UNICEF, where he served for 35 years as both an aid worker and as a senior manager.
Gautam said he has always wanted to perform development work in Nepal, but did not have the opportunity to do so until 2007, when he retired from his position at the UN. Gautam, in response to a question from the audience, said he had felt some guilt about not helping his home country directly, but realized that he could do more to help his country through the United Nations than he could as a private citizen.
“How lucky that I am not only helping Nepal,” he said. “There are many other countries in Africa and elsewhere that are even poorer, and I am helping them too.”
Gautam is this year’s recipient of the Tucker Foundation’s Lester B. Granger ’18 Award for Lifetime Achievement.
He will speak Monday as the lecturer for the 2009 Rabbi Marshall Meyer Lecture on Social Justice.