“It’s a very brutal business being in politics,” said James Jonah, a former United Nations undersecretary-general. “You have to persevere, and idealism doesn’t take you anywhere.”
Jonah, a former finance minister of Sierra Leone, held a conversation with about 40 students, professors and alumni in the Branford Common Room on Thursday afternoon. The conversation targeted the causes and consequences of Sierra Leone’s 10-year conflict from 1991 to 2002, the UN peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone, post-conflict reconstruction and changes in the UN over the past 30 years.
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Jonah said he was not trying to give students considering a career in multinational organizations false optimism about the effectiveness of peacekeeping efforts. Rather, he said he hoped to provide a true vision of what a “headache” working for bureaucracies like the UN can be.
Jonah served for 31 years at the UN from 1963 in a variety of roles, but left his position at the UN to return to Sierra Leone as Minister of Finance, a move Jonah called a “sacrifice.”
Political science professor Chris Blattman, who moderated the talk, opened by asking Jonah what it means to be a finance minister amid chaos and warfare. Jonah said before 1996, Sierra Leone did not have democratic elections. In addition, Jonah said, ministers and civil servants would take five percent off every contract made in the Ministry of Finance to support their extended families, leaving the ministry with no funds to pay salaries. He said he prohibited anyone working with him to engage in such practices.
The UN was able to offer Jonah little help in Sierra Leone because the departure of UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whom Jonah called “too independent,” weakened theUN, he said. But Jonah said without strong central leadership, the UN Secretariat and UN General Assembly could not function.
“The UN of today is not the UN I entered,” Jonah said.
Jonah said during the Sierra Leone crisis, the UN sent a battalion that was quickly captured without resistance. He said for situations in which fighting is not involved, the UN performs well, but peacekeeping efforts by the organization are not successful when military force is needed. He added the UN had helped with the logistics after the conflict had ended, which he cited as a strength of the organization.
He said his hopes for both African unification and the future of the UN were low. Because Europeans and not Africans had divided Africa into countries, Jonah said state unification would seem logical. But unlike with the historical cases of Italy and Germany, when external threats spurred unification, African sovereigns did not have a compelling reason to surrender their power.
Jonah also said he could not see the UN moving forward as an institution without making nations like India on par with the five members of the Security Council — the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China. But Jonah said he did not think France and Great Britain would vote to change the Security Council.
When Blattman asked Jonah to tell the audience something hopeful, Jonah’s tone remained pragmatic.
“The world is a very difficult place,” Jonah said. “If you are tending sheep, it is better to know where the wolves are.”
Jonah said if he were offered$10 million, he would not return to the UN.
Unable to elicit a more optimistic response, Blattman concluded the talk with “so patience, thoughtfulness and perseverance.”
Five students present characterized the talk as “realistic.”
“Generally, the talk was quite exciting for me, coming from Sierra Leone,” Porjia Karimu FES ’11 said. “What I particularly learned was the role of the international community in Africa, what he calls interference in local politics. Sometimes, so-called interference is good, but more often than not, it tends to be very obstructive.”
Jonah dined with members of the Yale International Relations Association and spoke at the opening ceremonies of Yale Model United Nations after the talk.