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Last Updated: 11/04/2003
Where do ideas come from? An Intellectual History of the United Nations
Dr. Louis Emmerij

As lifelong participants and observers of multilateral development work and diplomacy, it struck Dr.Emmerij and his collaborators for some time that the UN story deserves to be better documented if it is to be better understood and appreciated. This article examines the importance of the history of ideas in relation to the United Nations, its formation and its major contribution to world peace and well-being.



                                                                 Louis Emmerij[i]



It may come as a surprise to many to learn that there is no comprehensive history of the United Nations family of Organizations, institutional or intellectual. True, several specialized agencies have written or are in the process of writing their institutional history and this is indeed what all organizations must do. We[ii], therefore, decided to undertake the task of writing an intellectual history, that is a history of the ideas launched or nurtured by the United Nations. As lifelong participants and observers of multilateral development work and diplomacy, it struck us for some time that the UN story deserves to be better documented if it is to be better understood and appreciated. The Bretton Wood institutions in this respect are far ahead. The World Bank published two massive histories – one on the occasion of its twenty-fifth and the other (two volumes and more than 2000 pages) of its fiftieth anniversary.[iii] The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has an in-house historian who ensures the capture of its place in history with regular publications.[iv]


Most observers think primarily about the political and security institutions and individuals when mention is made of the UN. Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to the UN for these activities come to mind, including Ralph Bunche, Dag Hammarskjold, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Peacekeepers, and recently Kofi Annan and the United Nations Organization.


But the UN economic and social institutions have quietly been making an impact, often with more success than in the political and peacekeeping arenas. Indeed, two development agencies – the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), have also been recognized with Nobel Peace Prizes. More importantly from the point of view of this intellectual history, nine Nobel Prize laureates in economics (Jan Tinbergen, Gunnar Myrdal, Wassily Leontief, James E. Meade, Arthur W. Lewis, Richard Stone, Lawrence Klein, Theodore W. Schultz., and Amartya Sen) have spent a substantial part of their professional lives working as UN staff members and consultants contributing to the UN ideas and activities.


The United Nations Intellectual History Project (UNIHP) is an independent activity located at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. It also has an Office in Geneva headed by Yves Berthelot, the former Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe. It has, however, the full support of the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. The Project is supported financially by several Foundations and Governments.


UNIHP concentrates on the economic and social arena. However, recently Secretary General Kofi Annan asked us to extend the coverage to include also the peace and security activities of the UN. We would thus cover the entire waterfront of  UN activities. We are actively considering this proposal, but its implementation depends of course of on attracting additional finance.


UNIHP has two components. The first is a series of books on specific topics that have been identified by the co-directors in consultation with the members of the International Advisory Council of the Project.[v]  Eleven topics have thus been chosen that range from international trade and finance to global governance via gender and global resource management.[vi] Under each of these topics the history of ideas launched by the United Nations family of Organizations will be traced. Did they come from within the Secretariat, or from outside the UN through governments, non-governmental organizations, or experts, etc? What happened to these ideas? Were they discarded without discussion or after deliberation? Were they discussed, adapted (or distorted) and then implemented? What happened afterwards?


We have identified eleven topics that, together with two synthesis volumes and the already published “appetizer” Ahead of the Curve? (see below) will make for a series of fourteen volumes. Of those, ten books will be written by colleagues and four by the three co-directors. The whole series has been signed up and will be published by the Indiana University Press. If peace and security is to be included in the Project the series will expand to seventeen books!


The second component of UNIHP consists of an Oral history. In depth interviews are being conducted with some 75 personalities who have played an important role in developing, transmitting or destroying ideas. There is a tragic urgency here, given the age of many of those.


We have made good progress during the two years the Project has been under way. At the time of writing (end of April 2002) more than 60 oral interviews have been concluded and we hope to start writing the synthesis volume presenting the main results during the summer of 2002. Obviously the individual tapes and transcripts will in due course be made available to libraries and researchers. In addition, UNIHP is encouraging the establishment of international networks among archivists and researchers who use UN documents, including staff career records.


All eleven monographs on individual topics are under way and we hope to start soon, as mentioned, on one of the two synthesis volumes. The other synthesis volume summarizing the main outcomes of the monographs will be written at the end of the Project. As mentioned, one book has already been published[vii] and four more will follow during 2004. Ahead of the Curve published in 2001 is a synthesis avant la lettre. In it we took a number of global and/or regional challenges the world has faced and examined how the United Nations system has stood up to them. Was the UN ahead of the curve in facing these challenges, just in sight of the curve, or frankly behind the curve – these were the questions we tried to answer in this publication. It was fascinating, and often amazing including for us, how many times the UN system has been ahead of the curve. This is true with respect to the early ideas on development, on international aspects of environmental policies, population and technology, gender issues, international and national development policies, national accounting issues, trade and finance. The problem of the transition economies in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union after 1989 constitutes a special but not unique case where the United Nation Commission for Europe (UNECE) in Geneva advocated a gradual approach that most probably was the better policy advice. We believe this to be the case also in the light of the fact that the ECE was the only place during the Cold War where East and West met and worked together on concrete problems. As we know, however, the other approach – the “big bang” approach – advocated by the International Financial Institutions and several very audible international consultants won the day. We do not want to go as far as to say that money won over ideas, but it certainly was a missed opportunity.[viii]   


The League of Nations had discussed employment problems during the 1920’s and 1930’s, and the postwar contributions were pioneering. The inclusion of human rights in the Charter and the adoption of the Universal Declaration in 1948 appear, in retrospect, mind-boggling, or in the words of Stephane Hessel, an early UN recruit, who sat at Eleanor Roosevelt’s side in 1948  and later became Ambassadeur de France, “what makes the second half of the 20th century such an important moment of world history”.[ix]     


There have also been many instances when the UN has been behind the curve. This is true, for instance, in the case of HIV/AIDS, global income gaps, or Urquhart’s candidate for the worst idea, Julian Huxley’s “sex at high altitudes”.[x]


 Four books are now completed and are with Indiana University Press to be published in 2004. They are Trade, Finance, and Development, by John Toye and Richard Toye; Quantifying the World: Ideas and Statistics, by Michael Ward; The Contribution of the United Nations to Development Thinking and Practice, by Richard Jolly, Louis Emmerij, Dharam Ghai and Frederic Lapeyre;  and Perspectives on Development: Views from the Regional Commissions, by Yves Berthelot (ed.), with chapters by Yves Berthelot, Adebayo Adejeji, Leelanda de Silva, Gert Rosenthal, and Blandine Destremeau. Two more volumes will be finished before the end of this year, namely A Critical History of Humans Rights at the United Nations by Roger Normand and Sarah Zaidi; and A Critical History of the UN and Human Security by S. Neil MacFarlane and Yuen Foong-Khong.


We would welcome any comments, observations and contributions the readers may have. We can be reached via our Web site[xi] and directly via our email address [xii]



Louis Emmerij.




[i] Co-Director, United Nations Intellectual History Project.

[ii] The “we” are the three co-directors of the Project, namely Louis Emmerij, Richard Jolly and Tom Weiss.

[iii] Edward Mason and Robert Asher, The World Bank since Bretton Woods, Washington DC, Brookings Institution, 1973; and Devesh Kapur, John P. Lewis, and Richard Webb, The World Bank: Its First Half Century, Washington DC, Brookings Institution, 1997.

[iv] The fourth volume in the IMF series appeared recently: James M. Boughton, Silent Revolution: The International Moneteray Fund 1979-1989, Washington DC, IMF, 2001..

[v] For the members of the Council, see our Web site at

[vi] For a full list see our Web site at 

[vii] Louis Emmerij, Richard Jolly, and Thomas G. Weiss,  Ahead of the Curve? UN Ideas and Global Challenges, Indiana University Press, 2001. 

[viii] For further information on this most important issue, see Ahead of the Curve?, op. cit. Chapter 6, pp. 146-165.  

[ix] Oral history transcript of the interview with Stephane Hessel.

[x] Oral history transcript of interview with Brian Urquhart. Of course, since space exploration has set in, Huxley’s ideas could appear very much as ahead of the curve!!

[xi] See footnotes 5 and 6.

[xii] Postal address: UN Intellectual History Project, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, 365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203, New York, NY 10016-4309; tel. 1-212-817 1020; fax 1-212-817 1565.

Prof. Dr. Louis Emmerij is Senior Research Fellow at The CUNY Graduate Center and Co-director of the UN Intellectual History Project. He received his doctoral degree in international economics from Columbia University in 1961 after spending four years at the University of Paris and one year at The Johns Hopkins University.