The second main activity of the project was conducting oral history interviews with key participants in the evolution of UN ideas. Oral histories are essential, both to inform the various publications of the project and to provide a key historical resource for future generations of scholars.

All of the 79 oral history interviews have been completed. Excerpts from the oral histories provide the heart of UN Voices: The Struggle for Development and Social Justice, and offer nuanced and passionate personal accounts of individuals who have made significant contributions to UN history and ideas. In addition, the interviews gave project researchers and authors an opportunity to identify ideas that never made it beyond closed room discussions, and to explore the debates about and circumstances of their demise. The project used the oral history method both to better understand the UN's contribution to global economic and social policy and to development discourse and practice; and to produce an archive of personal testimonies and recorded life narratives of individuals who served the world organization in key positions as staff members, consultants, researchers, diplomats or chairs of commissions. Thus, not only did the interviews serve as inputs to the research, they also constitute an important product in themselves.

In April 2007, the project produced a CD-ROM of the complete transcripts and indices for the 79 interviews. (For the online demo, click here.) This "electronic book" makes the oral histories available to researchers worldwide in searchable format.

The importance of this archival collection of taped memories cannot be over-emphasized as there is precious little institutional memory at the UN and even fewer resources to capture the historical record. The UN's archives and those of its specialized agencies have been neglected and few people write their memoirs after they leave or retire from the organization. This collection of oral history interviews will help make up for this woeful lack of attention to the UN's history.

These interviews concern mainly the UN's intellectual contribution to economic and social development (including human rights). A substantial oral history in the field of conflict management has already been undertaken by Yale University and is available to the UNIHP's authors working on the UN's contribution to peace and security.

The UNIHP is encouraging the establishment of international networks among archivists and researchers who use UN documents, including staff career records. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has begun a pilot project in this respect. It is also encouraging national governments to consider documenting and archiving the contributions of their own governments and nationals to the United Nations. Click here to view a list of individuals who have been interviewed for the project.

United Nations Intellectual History Project
United Nations Intellectual History Project

Briefing Notes
Oral History Interviews
Seminars & Conferences
Progress Reports
Reading List
Related Projects

Ralph Bunch Institute for International Studies