Global Conversations With: Dr. Christiaan Morssink, Executive Director for the United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia

Alison Vayne, for GPA -- Christiaan Morssink is the Executive Director for the United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia (UNA-GP). Morssink was born in the Netherlands and while still studying in Amsterdam became involved in journalism and international activism. He has resided in Philadelphia for the past 15 years doing volunteer work for various organizations, focusing on humanitarian and environmental issues. Morssink has a Ph.D. in Health Policy and Administration and is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania. He has traveled all around the world, worked in several countries and is now one of a growing number of Philadelphians interested in making ours a global city.

How has your early involvement with reporting and activism influenced your work today?

I got involved with the independence movement in the ‘60s. Being an activist, you need to spread the word about what’s wrong and in that sense you become kind of a theme journalist. On the tenth anniversary of the death of Franz Fanon I decided to write an article about him. That article got published, which in turn motivated me to write some more. It was an important moment in my career. It also gave me the confidence to become the co-editor of the activist periodical The Suriname Bulletin. This led to a gig with National Educational Television, preparing a documentary to be used for students about developmental issues. We used the comparison of Suriname and Guyana as examples to describe issues around development. Other activism topics related to the fights against the coffee, cacoa, sugar and banana cartels. We now hear mostly of the drug cartels and the oil cartel (OPEC), but we had all kinds of capitalist buyer cartels in the “First World” that were wreaking havoc in “Third World” countries in those days.

Then I started writing a little bit more scientifically, doing reports and stuff like that. So, the journalistic tools that I got because of my activism played out later on in writing reports and getting the right tone, especially in policy making to identify how to set up a text and how to make sure you get the attention of the reader early on.

Tell me more about the United Nations Association and how you got involved.

UNA is an organization that was started by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1943. We are a clear expression of Eleanor Roosevelt’s opinion and vision that politicians in a democracy will only act on a basis of impulses and stimuli coming from the population that voted for them, especially in the American context, where the constituency is geographical. There’s no opportunity in this country for say a socialist party, a tea party or a green party to get representation, as proportional elections are not part of the system. The Democrats and Republicans may not like each other, but they need each other to keep all the others out. And that geographic model is kind of problematic in that it reinforces attention to the parochial. Within this kind of representative democracy, the UNA-USA lobbies and pushes the politicians towards accepting the UN and when working in foreign relations, to keep the UN in mind. I would also like to see the politicians do that on a domestic level, for example in education (UNESCO), human rights (UDHR), or say the treatment of Native American Indians (See the UN treaty on the rights of indigenous peoples).

I got involved with the UNA when I came to Philadelphia. I was just diagnosed with cancer and I didn’t know how long I was going to live and I still wanted to be active. So, in 2002 I focused on landmines, which is a very simple cause with a very simple problem: get rid of landmines, clean up abandoned landmines that are close to populations and clean up the minefields. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines got a Nobel Prize for their work. By the way, the United States never signed that treaty.

I got involved with that group, which in Philadelphia was a part of UNA-GP activities. We were mostly doing fundraising, giving lectures and informing the people. We worked with Vets For Peace, a group of veterans mostly from the Vietnam War and World War II, but also now including folks that have been in Iraq. Later I got on the board of UNA-GP. I started in 2002 with the landmine issue. I worked for four years as president and have been an executive director of the UNA-GP for the last three years.

Why do you think it is so important for the city of Philadelphia to become a global hotspot?

There are a few reasons. There is a utilitarian reason in the sense that the whole market in terms of services and production is becoming global. And in that sense, if you do not understand that, and if you in your board rooms and trade union rooms, as well as in your classrooms and your city council, do not get a handle on that, you will lose big time. We need to understand that all the things we do are done in a global context.

There is also the notion of mindset. If you have a global mindset, you become much more suave in understanding the world. Because you put everything in a global context, your poverty becomes more relative, your richness becomes more relative, the fact that today we have some snow falling or not falling becomes more relative in the context of where it is. That understanding of global thinking and using that as a constant parameter in assessing what is happening is quite relevant and has a good impact on people’s assessment of their quality of life.

There is a third element that is a socially dynamic one. If you try to make the city into a global city, a global shining point, you aspire to something that can bring people together, that can create what I call ethnic pride without becoming chauvinistic, where you can have fun in building something that has value and makes everybody stronger together. It provides a strong dynamic component that makes the whole city more interesting. You use a global worldview and target in your assessment. I am not interested in comparing myself to Harrisburg; I am interested in comparing myself to Istanbul, Ankara, Amsterdam, Paris, or Kolkata. Going global provides the dynamic of social mobility where you bring people together in being proud Philadelphians.