For several years I was the faculty adviser for the United Nations Association Student Alliance at Kirkwood. I met many wonderful students from a wide variety of countries — Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, South Africa, Indonesia, East Timor, Nigeria, Mexico, Benin, and Central African Republic among them.
At the same time, I taught a course on Child Labor and International Human Rights through the Center for Human Rights at the University of Iowa, where I met more students from a variety of countries, including China and Trinidad and Tobago, but primarily Americans interested in global issues. Many of them had traveled to other countries in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa, seeing for themselves what life was like in many countries on those continents.
What I learned from the students at Kirkwood was the role that UN agencies played in their countries. The UN Development Agency was often mentioned, as it worked with local agencies to develop agriculture, industrial and service industries to strengthen local economies. UNICEF was often mentioned, as it helped children in refugee camps and orphans of the HIV epidemic. The UN High Commission for Refugees was an important agency in several countries, as they saved lives from military and political attack.
In my teaching at the University of Iowa, the International Labor Organization was key to efforts to end child labor in many countries. Child labor took many forms — child soldiering, bonded labor, sexual slavery, and domestic help were some of them. The ILO was concerned for humanitarian reasons, but also because children often took the place of adults who needed work. In some cases, children were supporting their parents! The ILO preceded the UN, having begun under the aegis of the League of Nations. Even older is the Universal Postal Union, which coordinates international mail delivery and postage rates.
Even before these experiences, I went on a fact-finding tour to Israel and its occupied territories, where I found that the UN Relief and Works Agency provided education, employment, and many other services to Palestinians in all the refugee camps in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Most Iowans don’t know about many of these organizations, but we all depend upon their work, as we do live in a global society, like it or not. People in developing countries are often much more aware of UN agencies, and become aware they do their work because of the strong support by the United States.
The U.S. should definitely continue to host and support the UN, for the sake of people around the world, for the sake of Iowans, and as part of the good will the UN generates for the United States.
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• The Rev. Jeremy Brigham, Ph.D., is Program Chair for the Linn County United Nations Association.