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The Economic and Social Council

Where does 70 percent of the UN's budget go? To the economic and social development programs of this little discussed UN organ, otherwise known as ECOSOC.

While the Security Council gets the headline-grabbing work of peacekeepers and arms inspectors, leave it to ECOSOC to figure out how to immunize babies in Sudan against polio, fight opium smuggling in Tajikistan or finance refugee camps in Pakistan. Sheer grunt work, but, without it, according to the UN founders, the chances for war and bloodshed would only escalate. But you won't see an ECOSOC banner flying in the field. This organ issues reports and makes recommendations on everything from human rights to health policy, while coordinating the work of 14 specialized UN agencies -- such as the Food and Agricultural Organization -- and 15 other commissions such as the Commission for Human Rights and the Economic Commission for Africa. Some UN programs such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report to ECOSOC as well as to the General Assembly.

ECOSOC's 54 members meet once a year for a four-week session in either New York or Geneva. Each year, one-third of them are up for reelection by the General Assembly to a three-year term.

Despite the demand for development work, many of ECOSOC's original functions have been taken over by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- distant UN cousins. That leaves many UN member states wondering what the ECOSOC's role should be. Some question its value since they see it as mainly a discussion forum with no enforcement powers. In response, for the past 10 years, the U.S. and other member states have made efforts to strengthen ECOSOC's policy responsibilities, especially on development issues.


Fast Facts

- The U.S. recently rejoined the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 18 years after it withdrew when the organization was accused of corruption and mismanagement.

- The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) buys half the vaccines produced worldwide, while the UN Population Fund is the world's largest purchaser of contraceptives.

- The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has received the Nobel Peace Prize twice -- in 1954 and 1981. The International Labour Organization, another ECOSOC agency, also won in 1969.

- Since 1950, UNHCR has helped more than 50 million refugees. By 2002, it was working with more than 20 million refugees worldwide.


Closer Look

Peacekeeping in East Timor
In 1975, after Portugal withdrew from East Timor, the island was invaded by Indonesia. The next 24 years were filled with violence -- culminating in August 1999 when Indonesian militia groups and the army responded with force to an East Timorese vote for independence. UN peacekeeping forces, who were observing the elections, returned a month later to restore peace and stability after many East Timorese were killed and 500,000 were displaced from their homes. That same month, Indonesia's forces and administration withdrew and the UN set up a transitional government that coordinated institution building -- from creating an official currency, to setting up a legal system. Finally, on May 20, 2002 East Timor gained independence and shortly thereafter became a member of the UN.


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