(Created by Rachel Lovely, History 135, April 2002)
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How has the economic and social work of the United Nations affected different areas of the world since 1945?


At the United Nations (UN) conference in San Francisco in April 1945, representatives from fifty-one countries came together and drew up the UN Charter. The Charter was signed by fifty nations on 26 June 1945 and became the foundational document of the UN. After countries, including the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, China and France, ratified the Charter, the UN officially came into existence on 24 October 1945. Since this milestone date the UN has become recognized as a global peacekeeper and a problem solver in international crises. Since 1945, UN organizations have also had many internationally successful achievements in global issues that have ranged from poverty to women's rights.

Since 1945 the UN has developed six principal organs to carry out its work: Economic and Social Council, Security Council, General Assembly, Trusteeship Council, Secretariat and International Court of Justice. In addition to these six primary organs, the UN has also established several affiliated organizations that have worked together within the UN system.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) was founded as one of the prominent organs of the UN and became responsible for international issues that have included the promotion of cooperation for economic development, solutions to global economic and social problems and the recognition of human rights. Under the jurisdiction of the General Assembly, the ECOSOC works with the many specialized agencies in the UN system to coordinate economic and social work worldwide.

One of the major accomplishments of the UN was the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since the Declaration has been put in place, the UN Human Rights Commission has directed global attention to the abuse of human rights, torture, missing persons and arbitrary detention, and the protection of human rights has been recognized as one of the most important reasons for the existence of the UN. The UN has used the provision of the Declaration in cases of human rights abuses that occurred in countries such as India, China, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. The UN has also utilized the Declaration to impose sanctions on leaders such as the Taliban in Afghanistan for violations of human rights that included inhumane punishment, discrimination against women and the harboring of known terrorists. Since its adoption in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become an important part of international law and has continued to earn respect from many different countries.

Another success of the UN was the creation of a development program (UNDP) that has been successful in the reduction of poverty in regions such as Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. The UNDP also plays a strong role in crisis prevention, which has provided urgent response to countries in times of emergency. UNDP has also contributed to the fight against AIDS by being a cosponsor of UNAIDS with seven other UN system organizations. Together with these organizations, UNDP has worked to moderate the effects of AIDS on developing countries and to assist in the reduction of poverty. Other projects executed by the UNDP have included agriculture, education and the environment.

The UN has been a leader in the promotion of women's rights through the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). UNIFEM has provided global support of women's empowerment through implementation of programs that have enriched the lives of women in many different countries. Some of the strategies for UNIFEM have focused on the participation of women in leadership roles, eradication of violence towards women and the reinforcement of women's economic capacity. Through the support of UNIFEM the number of women in government has significantly increased in countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Germany and South Africa.

To coordinate international health work with governments around the world, the UN established the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1945. The organization consists of 191 member states that make up the World Health Assembly that has the responsibility of determining the policies for the organization. The WHO has worked with countries in Africa to prevent and treat diseases such as malaria, AIDS and TB. Since 1945, WHO has gone on to set the standards for health worldwide.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has been responsible for providing assistance to poverty stricken children in developing countries. UNICEF has supported education and established programs to secure the well-being of these children from birth. UNICEF also supported children by providing essential supplies such as vaccines, vital drugs and immunization equipment. Programs for UNICEF focus on issues that include child protection, education, nutrition, health and early childhood development. One of the focuses of UNICEF has been on girls' education in countries where girls have traditionally received a lesser quality of education compared to boys.

The UN Economic and Social Council has 54 members with representatives from regions that include Eastern Europe, Africa, Western Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. These members hold one session each year in either New York or Geneva to discuss the economic and social issues that face the world.


  • 1944 - At the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington DC, the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union and China established agreements on the creation of a world organization that would maintain global peace and security.
  • 1945 - On October 24th the United Nations became official after the UN Charter was ratified by nations that included the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, China and France.
  • 1946 - The United Nations International Children's Fund (UNICEF) was formed to provide relief to children in Europe after World War II, and later went on to help improve the quality of life for children in developing countries.
  • 1947 - United Nations Day was officially declared on October 24th by the General Assembly.
  • 1948 - On December 10th the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted to protect the basic freedoms and rights for all people.
  • 1950 - UN High Commissioner for Refugees was created to provide assistance and protection to refugees throughout the world.
  • 1965 - The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to UNICEF.
  • 1972 - The United Nations Environment Programme was formed at the UN Environment Conference in Stockholm to work with international issues such as global warming.
  • 1976 - The UN Development Fund for Women was founded for the international support of women's empowerment.
  • 1979 - Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted in December.
  • 1981 - UN High Commissioner for Refugees was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
  • 1992 - The Earth Summit was held and brought together leaders from 178 nations to address environmental, economic, and social challenges that faced the world. Together these nations drafted treaties to control emissions of greenhouse gases and protect endangered species.
  • 1994 - The International Conference on Population and Development was held in Cairo, Egypt. Those in attendance included government delegates, UN representatives, non-governmental organizations and media representatives.
  • 1995 - The World Summit for Social Development was held in Copenhagen to discuss issues that included poverty and unemployment.
  • 1995 - The fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations.

WWW sites

Visit the United Nations official website for news, events, and information about the UN and links to UN related websites. There is an alphabetic index for all the websites of the United Nation Systems available, and also a UN World Map for more websites that treat the work of the UN. The United Nations Treaty website contains over 40,000 treaties established by the UN that can be viewed (Also check out the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its entirety.). The United Nations Development Programme website has much information about the social and economic issues that the UN is involved in, and for current events, programs and campaigns, check out the United Nations Foundation site. The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development deals with projects and research in social and economic development. UNIFEM has its own website that provides information about programs for the empowerment of women across the globe; as does UNICEF. Do not neglect to visit the United Nations Photo Library to view pictures of the work that the UN has done around the world.

Here are two more websites that concern the UN, but are not run by them. 
UN Watch is a non-governmental organization based in Geneva. Its job is to police the United Nations according to its own Charter. Inner City Press is engaged in investigative journalism from the United Nations.

The following links are from non-UN based organizations that complement the economic and social work of the United Nations: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Global Fund for Women, USAID.

Recommended Books
United Nations Publications, Basic Facts About the United Nations, 2000 (2001); Sharon Detrick, A Commentary on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1999); William F. Jasper, The United Nations Exposed (2001); Philip Alston (Editor), James Crawford (Editor), The Future of UN Human Rights Treaty Monitoring (2000); Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New : Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2001); United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2001 : Making New Technologies Work for Human Development (2001); Edward Newman (Editor), Oliver P. Richmond (Editor), The United Nations and Human Security (2001).

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