This towering rookery of 147 nations, two more to come in shortly, is increasingly the target of indignation and resentment. Worse yet is the indifference with which the role of what was in its inception intended to be the salvation of the world is discounted or ignored. With his peregrinations and preachments, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Andrew Young, has hardly helped to mitigate the trend of public opinion in his country.
That trend, sometimes called neo-isolationism, is more and more dominant. In Congress it takes various forms, with reprisals against international organizations such as the World Bank. The American contribution to the U.N. has been whittled down and it is likely to be further reduced.
Knocking the organization is an effortless indoor sport. The jobbery, the inefficiency in which posts are filled on a ratio of national origin and the once-in, impossible-to-fire practice are all too evident in the U.N. But what this ignores, in the opinion of one observer, is the work of the U.N.'s related agencies.
Some of these agencies have been bogged down in Third World politics. There is one, however, that has set a high and consistent goal and has become a shining light in all the dark places of the earth. It is the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF).
The executive director, who has guided UNICEF since 1965, is Henry R. Labouisse. Its reputation has steadily grown under his creative and imaginative leadership. UNICEF Christmas cards designed by artists in many countries have sold millions, both as a money-raising device and as a herald of the work of the agency with children everywhere.
His initiatives have often taken courage. UNICEF was the first to send a team into war-ravaged Hanoi to try to determine the needs of children there. This was in the immediate aftermath of the war, when the general attitude was hands off. Vietnam is one of the two countries soon to have U.N. membership with U.S. sanction if not approval.
Although he has reached the retirement age, Labouisse has been persuaded by Secretary General Kurt Waldheim to stay on as director for two years. That is good news indeed. This colum is frankly a tribune to a dedicated public servant who happens also to be a longtime friend.
For 10 years in the Department of State, he was one of the principals in organizing Marshall Plan aid. A chief of the Marshall Plan special mission to France, he was an active participant in setting up an organization that meant so much for the West.
His first international assignment was the stickiest, most difficult and thankless that could possible be imagined: At the request of Dag Hammarskjold, then Secretary General in 1954, he took the directorship of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). This was at time when nearly a million Palestinians, most of whom had fled from Israel after 1948 war, were festering in squalid camps in host countries that were only too eager to exploit these unfortunates as a means of shaming the new Jewish state.
The U.N. was unpopular for having had a share in partitioning Palestine and the refugees tended to blame their plight on the international organization. Money was in short supply. Yet in four years Labouisse was able to improve the standard of living in the camps. Thanks to his persistence in getting governments to increase their pledges, he was able to initiate a program of grants under which refugees willing to strike out on their own were given a down payment on shops or farms.
"His contribution has been invaluable," Hammarskjold said of his tak with the refugees. "He has laid a solid foundation for the work which has to be taken up."
President John F. Kennedy named Labouisse ambassador to Greece in 1962. After three years he returned to the U.N. to head up UNICEF. It has been strenuous work, involving long and arduous travel to UNICEF posts, shared by his wife, the former Eve Curie, author, lecturer and daughter of Pierre and Marie Cure, the discoverers of radium.
No one knows better than Labouisse what a drop in the ocean of hunger and disease is the contribution his organization makes. The budget for 1977 is $150 million. Member U.N. governments contribute $92 million and the balance comes from sources generated by UNICEF, such as the Christmas cards, and from a wide range of non-governmental contributions.
For millions of children the UNICEF flaf is a symbol of hope. And in the worst extremity it can mean a lifeline to the future.