The United Nations Intellectual History Project (UNIHP) began operations in mid-1999 when the secretariat was established at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies of The Graduate Center of The City University of New York. The project finished in 2010.

Co-directors Thomas G. Weiss and Richard Jolly present UNIHP volumes and overall findings to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 11 September 2008.

The project had two main components, a series of books on specific topics and oral histories.  The first book of the UNIHP publication series was published in May 2001 by Indiana University Press. Ahead of the Curve? UN Ideas and Global Challenges was launched by the authors and UN Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan at a reception at the United Nations on 30 May 2001. See our publications page for the latest updates.

The second main component of the project was a series of 79 oral history interviews.

Specialists and generalists alike find it hard to believe that there is no comprehensive study of the origins and evolution of the economic and social activities of the UN, let alone of the ideas developed through the United Nations and their impact on international discourse and action. Specific aspects of the UN’s economic and social activities have, of course, been the subject of books and articles. Histories do exist for a handful of organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).  A history of the World Food Programme (WFP) has just been completed, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has one underway. These are, however, mixtures of institutional and intellectual history.

This present history was not about the United Nations as a forum for international debate. Rather, it focused on the world organization as the creator and nurturer of ideas and concepts that have permeated international public policy discourse and sometimes won support and been implemented.  The sources of influence of UN ideas have been manifold. Sometimes UN analysis and ideas have made new coalitions possible and provided road maps for decision-makers.  Sometimes they have become embedded in local, national, and international institutions. And even when not fully accepted or implemented, UN ideas have often influenced discourse and debates. Although researchers have begun to investigate the role of ideas in relationship to foreign policy, there has been far too little work about the impact of ideas in multilateral institutions.

Few observers, even those close to the workings of the UN system, are aware that many Nobel laureates in economics have played key roles in the UN’s intellectual history: Jan Tinbergen, Sir Arthur Lewis, Gunnar Myrdal, Wassily Leontief, James Meade, Lawrence Klein, Richard Stone, T.W.Schultz, and Amartya Sen who won the prize in 1998.

All this was too little documented in the international treatment of ideas. Key officials have not written about their experiences within intergovernmental settings where ideas have been spawned or nurtured.  Such settings are too rarely observed first-hand by academics. Yet, future scholarship needs to be able to take adequately into account recollections and observations from key participants and observers about the mechanics though which ideas are formulated, debated, distorted, and then adapted or rejected.

Thomas G. Weiss, Tatiana Carayannis, Richard Jolly, and Louis Emmerij, authors of UN Voices presenting it to Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the NYC book launch

From the outset, the UNIHP was designed to be dynamic and future oriented – and to evolve as further resources were mobilized and research findings became available.  The assumption was that what was most urgently needed was a history of economic and social activities coming within the effective purview of the main UN organs. Thus the project sought not to provide a comprehensive institutional history of the main UN organizations operating in the economic and social arena; rather it sought to examine their contributions to the development of ideas central to UN debate over the last half-century.

Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan has endorsed enthusiastically this approach, as well as the need for total independence in this research initiative. Shortly after assuming office in January 2007, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote his first book foreword in The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

The following foundations and governments provided generous financial support:

Carnegie Corporation of New York*
Ford Foundation
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Government of Canada*
Government of Finland
Government of the Netherlands*
Government of Norway*
Government of Sweden*
Government of Switzerland*
Government of the United Kingdom
Republic of the Canton of Geneva
Rockefeller Foundation
UN Foundation

* Multiple contributions

United Nations Intellectual History Project
United Nations Intellectual History Project

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