THE first 50 years of Shashi Tharoor’s life were like a starburst. He moved from being the youngest person at Tufts University to be conferred a PhD (he was 22), to the best Indian journalist under 30, to being nominated at the age of 50 to succeed Mr Kofi Annan as the secretary-general of the United Nations (UN).
Alas, Dr Tharoor’s fate since losing that post narrowly to South Korea’s Ban Ki Moon has been mired in controversy. He was made a junior Indian foreign minister after being elected an MP last year, but was instructed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to resign in April following questions over his alleged involvement in the bidding for a city cricket franchise.
While in office, his mirthful Twitter remarks on being willing to travel ‘cattle class’ left some thinking that he saw his humbler countrymen as cattle. The fur flew even more in February when he called Saudi Arabia a ‘valuable interlocutor’ between India and its enemy Pakistan.
Of that, the thrice-married father of twins says: ‘Interlocutor does not mean intermediary. But I’ve learnt that you should not use words that are liable to be misunderstood.’
That admission has a ring of irony, considering Dr Tharoor, 54, was once the UN’s chief communications strategist, and has written 12 books.
When he was in Singapore recently, I asked him what he thought about the UN’s 10-year-old Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and, of course, how he was coping with controversy:
# Haven’t the MDGs shown that international cooperation is very much a work in progress?
You’re quite right about that. I was a bit of a booster for it at the UN because what we were trying to accomplish really represented the only means of attacking the world’s problems.
But the calculations are sometimes different for countries. Yes, there are areas in which they do understand that they can do well only in partnership with others.
But there’s often also a very strong imperative to safeguard national interests as perceived by the governments concerned. Climate change is a very good example of that.
Ultimately, countries have to act as they feel is wisest for them. But I’d say that Asean has set a very fine example of regional cooperation on economic and social issues.
# Many say Asean is ‘talk only’.
If you look back to the founding of Asean in 1967, I remember so many serious disagreements between its members. It was Malaysia versus Singapore, Malaysia versus Indonesia, Indonesia versus the Philippines… Today, they are brotherly within Asean. So I would not accept any suggestion that Asean has not done well. Look at how its trade figures have grown. It always interested me at the UN to see how, on many issues, Asean countries would collectively ask one among their number to speak on behalf of the entire group.
But the idea of being able to think beyond borders is always a challenge for any country proud of its sovereignty. And many countries have only acquired sovereignty (recently) after colonialism, so they are jealously anxious to safeguard it. But if we realise that cooperating with others means we’re actually leveraging our sovereignty in everyone’s interests, international cooperation could make headway.
# But where such cooperation matters most – that is, on MDGs – hasn’t the world largely failed?
Indeed, the eighth MDG is international cooperation. I’ve been a bit tough in saying that not enough is being done… In 2000, UN members adopted the goals with much enthusiasm. But in 2005, there was a perception that progress had not been sufficient. Still, at that time, there was renewed impetus when the Group of 8 met in Scotland and said, ‘We’ll give US$50 billion (to developing countries).’ And Western countries said, ‘We’ll double aid to Africa.’ Five years on, neither has happened.
# Why can’t the UN hold countries to such promises?
Well, the countries’ counter-argument is that the global financial crisis intervened. But some such as (Columbia University professor) Jeffrey Sachs have argued that their commitment was not on course even before the crisis.
I’d say MDGs require a more sustained effort by rich countries but I’m not letting poor countries off the hook. Each developing country is responsible for the well-being of its own people… But the world has promised them help and that has either not been delivered or has not always been done effectively.
# Can the UN do more to ensure aid is effective?
Since global aid programmes began in the 1960s, people have been trying to learn lessons from how aid has been delivered, how it’s administered and the risk of corruption. But the lessons learnt have sometimes created new problems. For example, donor oversight was important. But when many developing countries spend more resources on writing reports for donors than (dealing with the) problems, the solution becomes a problem.
The onus is very much on developed countries to increase the quality and quantity of aid. The target for donor countries – to commit 0.7 per cent of their gross national product (GNP) every year to aid – that was mentioned four decades ago is still far from being fulfilled. Only seven countries – all small, rich and Western European – have met that target. The rest stand at 0.31 per cent.
# What hope is there for other increasingly crucial challenges?
Well, don’t lose hope so quickly because the fact is that some progress has been made. Our challenge is to point out that it is not enough. There is no question that since the MDGs were articulated in 2000, more people have been pulled out of poverty. But the biggest number of people pulled out of poverty has been in China and India, which have such large populations that they could easily meet the objective of getting half of the world’s poor out of poverty. Also, both did so through economic initiatives rather than through aid.
# How realistic is the UN’s goal to end extreme poverty by 2015?
The world is always going to have poor people. Even the richest countries have poor people. The question is: Can we do our best to ensure that yesterday’s poor don’t remain so tomorrow and that people are given the opportunity and the hope to pull themselves out of poverty?
# But even a country on the rise such as India has not been able to do that.
I’d say it’s tackling these problems but not with as dramatic, visible and speedy results as, say, China. But despite all this, both India and China have been able to pull people out of poverty faster than, say, Britain or the United States were able to do during their Industrial Revolution. So if we perceive that problems are persisting, that’s true. But it’d be wrong to perceive that problems are not being tackled.
# Turning to your new life as a politician in India, how did you go from being the UN’s chief communicator to one so misunderstood in your own country?
I spent a lifetime in the UN with the reputation of choosing the right words, but suddenly found myself dubbed a controversialist with every utterance I made. When I was entering politics, I asked one of my close friends, the Canadian writer and leader of the opposition Michael Ignatieff, for advice. He said what mattered was not what you were intending to say, but how people hear it. I wish I’d taken that more to heart. I can’t blame anyone but myself and one has to learn from that.