25 June 2004

Realizing that public confidence in the U.N. was at its lowest in the Arab region, Under Secretary General for Public Information and Communications Shashi Tharoor moved forward with a professional meeting in Beirut. Hosted by Mervat Tellawy, Executive Secretary of ESCWA, the opening was covered live on Lebanese television. Mrs. Tellawy started by stressing that the task ahead was delicate and difficult requiring not only the efforts of U.N. press officers but input by all U.N. staff. Although there were no precise data about the U.N. image, it was obvious that action was required. A communications strategy with a specific target could include certain steps like highlighting more effectively practical achievements in development, humanitarian and society building; presenting better publications; updating mailing lists; more training courses for staff; closer contacts with a selective number of communication leaders; increasing public information resources; closer coordination among U.N. offices; clarifying organisational responsibilities indicating the difference of authority between the Secretariat and the Security Council.

Samir Sanbar, former head of the Department of Public Information started by indicating that these are not the best of times for the United Nations nor for the Arab region. They need not be the worse of times, however, given the political will to act and the professional capacity to respond. The U.N. and the Arab region seem destined to an indispensable partnership. Whatever the circumstances, they eventually find out that they have a mutual interest. Experience has shown that if the U.N. needs the bigger powers in order to survive, it certainly needs the smaller ones in order to succeed. When the U.N. stands for international legitimacy, for human development and dignity of life, it has the unflinching support of governments and peoples around the globe. When weakened by political expediency or ineffective ? into a ceremonial state of glorified paralysis. In any shape or form, however, the U.N. has always been and continues to be the only inclusive international framework impacting on every aspect of human life. It could live up to expectations only with full active participation of its member states. And as the U.N. is required to stand fast and firm behind its own resolutions, the Arab countries are equally expected to explore how best they could play their part. If the U.N. is currently limited in its decision making role, the Arab region is even more limited in its U.N. impact. That is where U.N. press officers in the Arab region have a difficult challenge which they could turn into a unique opportunity. They could not only convey and interpret U.N. messages to the field but similarly convey and interpret accurately and clearly the message of the region to headquarters. With professional talent and distinct credibility they could help build a bridge over a growing divide or at least light a candle. For while they represent the U.N. in the region, they also reflect the region in the U.N.

No matter how solid, a good Communications strategy cannot be an alternative to a solid political strategy. It is political action or inaction that eventually makes or breaks an image. Talented communicators therefore should not be the scapegoats of calculating politicians. Communications alone cannot rebuild what was crippled by politics.

Shashi Tharoor indicated he was convinced that if people in the region knew better what U.N. people did they will support its efforts. He stressed the role of civil society which is playing an increasingly important role as a partner in communicating the goals of the charter. Hoping to hear from participants honestly and openly what has, what can, and what must be done, Tharoor recognized that this was a time of profound unease, reflection and self questioning in the Arab world, perhaps more than any other time in recent memory. Iraq and Palestine were huge challenges, he said, adding: "There is anger and resentment at the humiliation and suffering in Palestine...there is the daily struggle of ordinary people for dignity and justice and for jobs and decent work. And there is anguish of disappointed aspirations."

The U.N. did not sanction the war in Iraq, Tharoor said, but it has been very active in trying to protect the rights and welfare of the Iraqis; the Coalition may have won the war but the U.N. interest is to help Iraqi people win the peace. U.N. activities in the region went beyond the political and humanitarian. It entails everyday life of every human being. There are experts from UNDP, UNESCO, UNICEF, WFP and other members of the U.N. family. ESCWA (Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia) is involved in a plethora of issues that are close to the hearts and minds of Arab people everywhere -- education, city planning, water purification, desertification, housing and other fields from women's rights to tourism. These many activities designed to improve the lives of ordinary Arabs deserved to be better known in the region. "Our aim is not to divert attention from the "big ticket" issues of Iraq and the Occupied Territories, he continued, but to help find ways to inform constituents of work proudly accomplished. In conclusion, he stressed: "We at the U.N. have only one mission. We want to make this world a better place."

Closed working meetings that followed provided an open forum for press officers in the field to express their views and ask pointed questions. An overly bureaucratic paper prepared by someone in New York was pointedly criticized: more creative proposals were encouraged. Many stressed the need to give field officers more leeway while others from the field staff wanted more accurate feedback on views expressed in the Arab media. Clearly, Information Centres had a special responsibility in that regard. During an exchange of experiences, someone who had worked both at Headquarters and the field, urged that those in New York ostensibly dealing with the Arab region should be of better professional quality, with real journalistic experience and real knowledge of the Arab press. Otherwise, if it was left to those with little clue of what was really required by and in the field, meetings in Beirut and elsewhere could be held consecutively to no avail.

Those who followed the event were positively impressed by Tharoor's opening efforts. Lebanon's second best talent is to welcome its visitor and Tharoor's is to charm his hosts. He was received by the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament. Most newspapers printed positive statements and interviews. A few days of mutual admiration can do wonders for the U.N. -- if maintained to withstand the wily operators in New York.