‘They all just run for posters.’

‘They all just run for posters.’ – visitors to United Nations-sponsored activities

Francesca Tempestini

“The most interesting people I have met this year – a group of Chinese without even the basic knowledge of the English language. We could not speak, but at least we could smile. And we smiled, intensively, politely, for ten, endless minutes.”

As she answers my question, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) officer, Judy Castellino, is still in a good mood. And so are all her colleagues at the eighth annual United Nations Information Fair: a unique chance to get in touch with people and the work of the most widely spread Organization on earth. Twenty nine representatives from as many United Nations programmes, specialized agencies, offices and departments are on hand to meet with the noisy, enthusiastic school children and the fussy senior people who crowd the stands. The atmosphere is frantic. Catching a glimpse of the short films looping on five screens, visitors’ attention is drawn by the colourful scenery of the Fair. They take a stroll in the lobby in search of unforgettable souvenirs, half curious, half delighted, with brochures and booklets filling up their paper bags.

A disappointed representative from the Department of Economic and Social Affairs at her first Fair tells me: “They all just run for posters. An economist is always available for those who want to know more about our projects and activities. At the moment, he just sits as nobody seems interested.”

“Only one visitor out of ten ask questions on specific topics”, echoes the International Labour Organization representative.

Overloaded with booklets and with an increasing sense of guilt (I’m gathering material for the article … who would ever believe such a poor lie?), I move to the Cybercafe. Making its debut at the Fair just this year, the “UN webcorner” has attracted lots of visitors. “It has been a success”, the CyberSchoolBus creator explains to me. “Visitors stop by and take a trip through our pages. And who cares if sometimes they use our computers to browse the Net, too? I could not help laughing when I saw this French couple reading the morning news on Le Figaro’s site. They apologized, saying they just felt homesick … well, at least, the UN has helped them out!” I agree. There is nothing worse than forcing people to learn if their mind is else-where.

I wonder if those children writing e-mails must feel the same way. Their teacher, and ebullient lady whom I casually met at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) stand, assures me that all students from the Harlem Study Center for Law and Peace are taking matters “very” seriously. “They are involved in the Model UN project”, she proudly confides to me. Playing the role of ambassadors at the United Nations and interacting on the Internet with schoolchildren from different countries, they learn how the international community works, and are put face to face with the major problems affecting our planet today. A good example of the Department of Public Information outreach capability, I have to admit. Does it mean that there is much more than posters behind the interest visitors show for the United Nations?

As I realize that nobody, except me, is holding a notepad (journalists seldom disguise), I ask myself whether more careful reporting of the activities of the United Nations by the media would help people to feel a part of it, rather than just these children here on a school trip. On the way out, visitors are invited to make suggestions on global issues such as “tell us what you and the UN should do to make the world a better place”. Stop asking questions that would puzzle even our Secretary-General might be a proper answer.

COPYRIGHT 1997 United Nations Publications

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group