Social Justice in Global Development

Explanation of the Albatross Symbol, originally in the UN Financing for Development Website


The informal meetings of the United Nations delegations on Financing for Development in March and April 1999 were unique in several respects. Convoked by the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Working Group of the General Assembly on Financing for Development, these meetings were a free-ranging exchange of views on the substance and process of a potentially unique international exercise at the United Nations. In many cases, ambassadors participated directly in the discussions and representatives came from capitals - including from finance ministries - in order to engage in the burgeoning discussion on Financing for Development. Both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank sent high-level representatives. There was a sense that something important could be building in a basement meeting room of the General Assembly.

In this setting, Eduardo Galvez, Counsellor in the Permanent Mission of Chile to the United Nations, gave an impromptu statement that was so right and so moving that when he finished the room burst into sustained applause. Dear reader, if you know the United Nations, you know this was very unusual behaviour on the part of the seasoned diplomats who typically haunt its halls. The statement was about the ideals of the United Nations and it seemed to him, after listening to several days of interventions, that this time the international community could rise to those ideals. A momentum was indeed building to overcome the typical obstacles on advancing the consensus at the United Nations on questions of development. Senor Galvez captured that sentiment for everyone in the room at that time.

An important image in his statement was that of the albatross in the poem by Charles Baudelaire and in the Samuel Taylor Coleridge tale in the ballad "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Although the bird is a native of southern Chile, he had studied the poems as a student in Paris and Oxford. As he listened to the debate in the committee room, he was reminded of that time in his life, full of ideals. He was struck by the criticisms to his first statement that morning, for being "utopian" or very difficult to implement with due considerations to the diverse national interests and the "real" capacities of the United Nations to lead such an important process. He felt that the UN, like the bird in those poems, does not fare well if it is not allowed to "fly high". They both needed to take their rightful place again, aloft. He decided to request the floor for a second time, the last speaker of the morning.

Senor Galvez said that the UN should be seen as the poet of Baudelaire’s poem, "The Albatross". He explained that this sea bird from the south of Chile, by its very nature (great size, huge wings), is beautiful only when it is high in the blue sky over the oceans ("this aerial colossus" with its huge wings spread, flies high in the sky as "a rider of ugly storms above the range of arrows and sling") and it is ugly and clumsy if it is force to walk on earth (if he is exiled on earth this majestic bird is "at bay amid the jeering crowd"). He said that we in the UN are in the same predicament. It is against the nature of our institution and its great ideals as the custodian of fundamental human values of solidarity and international cooperation, if we go about discussing the issues of how to improve financing for development only with arguments of utilitarian character or argue among ourselves in bureaucratic way or with the excessive regard to national interest in a narrow sense. "We need to promote a high level event on finance for development for many good utilitarian reasons for the efficiency of the world economy as a whole", he continued, "here in the UN we should also look at the financial needs of developing countries in a different light than that of market operators and corporations. Here at the UN we should stand for ideals of human solidarity and equitable distribution of wealth at the national and international level and for the essential dignity of people. We should be clearer about what we are trying to do and why". He said that there is nothing wrong in those who are moved to support this process for utilitarian reasons or charitable sentiments, but for us this should be for the sake of justice and solidarity among fellow human beings. "In the UN we should lead this process with this high goal in mind. Otherwise we will be as the poor albatross forced to walk exiled on earth".  It was his hope that we will stand for ideals in our promotion of a high level consideration of finance for development and for this he offered the image of the UN as an albatross "great and flying in elegant circles" high above the oceans; this "aerial colossus" that we see flying in all his majesty in the blue sky of the south seas of Chile.

He closed his improvised statement asking the delegates to forget for one time that they are diplomats mindful of only defending the interest of the different states they represent. He requested them to think as people, as human beings with sentiments and emotions that have chosen the diplomatic or international civil service profession in order to promote cooperation and understanding. "We have the honor and privilege to be in a situation were we can give something of ourselves supporting those most in need around the world," he said.

He said that we couldn’t fail in supporting this important UN process. And for this last thought, he told the tale of what a romantic English poet said in his "Rime of the Ancient Mariner". He said that Coleridge’s story of the Ancient Mariner is as familiar as an old proverb. It is the simple tale of a sea disaster, related by its sole survivor, a mariner that while sailing to the Antarctic killed an albatross, the bird of good omen that follows the ships sailing in the South Seas. That albatross would be avenged. That barbaric act was a bad omen.  The storm blast came and the ship’s crew all died, except this ancient Mariner whose fate it was to go around the world in a life-in-death mood, with the dead albatross hanging around its neck. After telling the story, Senor Galvez said that it was his hope that in the future, when we look back to the time spent in efforts at the UN to promote the process of financing for development, we will not feel that we were not up to the level of our task, as individuals entrusted with the mandate of speaking for the people as commanded by the first words of the Charter. "Being part of this process is a big challenge for us all in the UN. We have an opportunity today of being faithful to the ideals of the UN, and by that I mean to be generous pushing forward with the process of finance for development as this is fundamental not only for developing countries. It is also for developed countries, as countries and people who care, and for the UN and multilateralism as the great ideal of cooperation and solidarity without borders". His final words were,  "Please do not kill this process with small and procedural discussions or misguided fears about the lack of  'realism', and its effects on our national interests. When we, as individuals will look back to our time in the UN, I hope we will remember these moments as our 'finest hours' in the promotion of the ideals of the UN, with an image of a majestic albatross high in the blue over the seas. If we fail, the image will be of ourselves with an albatross hanging around our neck".


Baudelaire’s poem follows in English and French:                                                         

The Albatross

by Charles Baudelaire  (translated by George Dillon)

 Sometimes to entertain themselves, the men of the crew
Lure upon the deck an unlucky albatross, one of those vast
Birds of the sea that follow unwearied the voyage through,
Flying in slow and elegant circles above the mast.

No sooner have they disentangled him from their nets
Than this aerial colossus, shorn of his pride,
Goes hobbling pitiably across the planks and lets 
His great wings hang like heavy, useless oars at his side.

How droll is the poor floundering creature, how limp and weak,
He, but a moment past so lordly, flying in state!
They tease him; One of them tries to stick a pipe in his beak;
Another mimics with laughter his odd, lurching gait. 

The poet is like that wild inheritor of the cloud,
A rider of storms above the range of arrows and slings;
Exiled on earth, at bay amid the jeering crowd,
He cannot walk for his unmanageable wings.


de Charles Baudelaire 
(Les fleurs du mal) 

Souvent, pour s'amuser, les hommes d'equipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

A peine les ont-ils deposes sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l'azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons trainer a cote d'eux.

Ce voyageur aile, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguere si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!
L'un agace son bec avec un brule-gueule,
L'autre mime, en boitant, l'infirme qui volait!

Le Poete est semblable au prince des nuees
Qui hante la tempete et se rit de l'archer;
Exile sur le sol au milieu des huees,
Ses ailes de geant l'empechent de marcher.