Since its founding as an international organization in 1945, the main organs and specialized agencies of the United Nations have held conferences, meetings, seminars, symposia, and training courses all over the world. This project aims to document the titles, approximate dates and locations of these events, and visualize the data as maps and graphs.
Many historians have examined the importance of location in international organizations and their conferences, whether the competition amongst dozens of American cities to host the UN in the 1940s (Mires 2013) or the significance of Mexico City hosting the first International Women’s Year conference in 1975 (Olcott 2017). San Francisco’s proximity to Hollywood made movies and film stars an integral part of the UN Conference on International Organizations in mid-1945, when diplomats gathered from 50 countries to draw up the UN Charter (Sluga 2018). Quite a few articles or book chapters have delved into a particular UN conference or UN agency (e.g. Burke 2008, Jundt 2014, Loeffler 2013, Macfarlane, Sherwood 1996), while others have explored the Bandung conference of 1955 as the symbolic coalescence of the Non-Aligned Movement (e.g. Lee 2010, Shimazu 2014, Tan and Acharya 2008).
This project had two goals moving beyond current work. First, it looks at conferences from all UN agencies. Second, it traces how the locations of conferences changed over time. Rather than focusing on any one conference, it mapped all the conferences listed in the available UN Yearbooks from 1945 to 1989 (over 6,500 entries). Conference locations provide a new way to map the geography of the UN through its activities from 1945 to 1989.
There are two key audiences for this project. First, the overview maps will hopefully prove useful for teaching. As dozens of newly decolonized nations joined the UN in the 1950s and 1960s, UN conference locations began to change too. The overview maps provide a visual sense of how the UN’s operations changed (and did not change). Second, this work can open new avenues for scholars to investigate where the UN operated and how this changed over time. To provide materials for these two audiences, this section includes videos of maps showing conference locations over time, Tableau visualizations, and the Excel spreadsheets providing all the data.
This introductory essay explains the data source, collection and compilation, as well as the visualization. I acknowledge the generous support of the Public History Initiative in the History Department at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, and the Arts Undergraduate Research Award from the Faculty of Arts at UBC.
Compiling data proved a labor-intensive task. As far as the author is aware, there is no comprehensive list of UN activities available online; however, the UN has published Yearbooks outlining its activities since its inception in 1945. I decided to use the Yearbooks because they are the most comprehensive UN source on its conferences. The structure and organization of these Yearbooks vary throughout the years but contain information on the activities of each of the main and specialized agencies of the UN with the exception of 1953-1959 (see Data Collection Issues). These Yearbooks are available and easily accessible on the UN Yearbook website in PDF format.
To capture how the UN’s choices of venue changed over time, I focused on areas where change could occur. I excluded the activities of the Security Council and the International Court of Justice because they operated exclusively out of their headquarters in New York and The Hague respectively every year from 1945 to 1989, with possible exceptions in 1953-1960. The other main organs (General Assembly, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council) also hosted most of their activities out of their headquarters, either in New York or Geneva, but did host a substantial amount of activities outside of these cities. For this reason, I included all the activities of these organs and created an option on the visualizations to filter out all activities in New York and Geneva if one desired. Along with the main organs, I included all of the activities I could gather from the specialized agencies of the UN.
After establishing which organs and agencies to analyze, I then had to decide which type of activities to include. For the main organs, it was easy to find and record every activity. Each Yearbook from 1960 contains an appendix entitled Structure of the UN that lists all the activities of each main organ with their location and dates (see Figure 1). For the years 1945 to 1953, the beginning of each Yearbook contained chapters dedicated to the structure of each organ which listed activities in a similar format.
The Yearbooks’ listings for the specialized agencies of the UN were more complex. Although the Yearbooks dedicated a chapter dedicated to each agency, there was no list of large activities as was the case for the main organs. Instead, smaller activities were listed throughout the chapter. These activities ranged in size and specificity; however, conferences, meetings, seminars, symposia, and training courses were usually listed with their location and dates. Therefore, I included these activities.
Data Collection and Classification
Before starting the project, I had aimed to use data scraping software to gather the dates and locations of the selected activities; however, this proved impossible due to the format of the UN Yearbook. The Yearbook is available either as a series of photographs to scroll through on the UN’s webpage or as downloadable pdf files of single pages. Different parts of the Yearbook had different formats to list conferences, sometimes just within paragraphs of text and sometimes as lists (see figures 1a and 1b as examples). These different formats and other challenges made scraping impossible or too technically time-consuming to succeed. As scraping was not viable for large-scale accurate data collection, I gathered the data manually.
To gather the data manually, I read each chapter or annex section specifically related to a UN organ for mentions of conferences, meetings, seminars, symposia, and training courses. I created an Excel spreadsheet of all these activities and sorted them by UN organ. For the main UN organs, this was time-consuming, though simple. It proved more complex for the specialized agencies of the UN. Each Yearbook contained a chapter for each specialized UN agency with a multi-page report on its activities. This report’s format varied greatly year to year and included information on the location of these activities in random ways, if at all. Figure 2a is an example of a more organized chapter for WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) in 1983. The author(s) of the report decided to list the activity location of regional training courses and seminars; however, they only included the city locations for the training courses and not for the seminars, only listing country locations. This type of randomness existed in almost every chapter for specialized agencies, with each one recording the locations of their smaller, regional activities differently. As a comparison to the WIPO example, see Figure 2b for how the WHO (World Health Organization) recorded the locations of its regional activities in 1977.
These inconsistencies rendered scraping software ineffective and meant that I read every chapter in detail to find the locations of activities. Despite the author’s best attempt at thoroughness, it is possible that certain conferences were missed from the specialized agency sections. Additionally, some Yearbooks contained only minimal information on the smaller regional activities of certain specialized agencies, presumably because of decisions made by the authors of the original reports. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) in particular rarely recorded the location of any of their activities and focused almost entirely on the agency’s financial activities.
These two factors of potential author error and the Yearbook authors’ lack of consistent reporting mean that the dataset for the specialized agencies is likely incomplete. Despite these hurdles, we decided to include whatever was reported in the Yearbooks to create the most comprehensive dataset possible. Most activities performed outside of the UN main organs’ headquarters were in the form of small conferences, meetings, seminars, symposia, and training courses organized by specialized agencies. If they were excluded, the dataset would largely consist of activities located in New York and Geneva with little variance and insight into the geography of the UN.
The most problematic issue with data collection involved the UN Yearbooks from 1954 to 1959. During these years, the UN Yearbooks published minimal or no information on the location of main organ and specialized agency activities. The UN Yearbooks focus on a wide range of activities and are not specifically made to provide geographical data on the location of activities, but rather, to provide a summary of all UN activities during a given year. The priorities of what to include in the Yearbooks clearly changed year to year at the authors’ and editors’ discretion. For this reason, there was likely little to no attention given to recording the geographical location of activities during these years. I thus have omitted these years.
The information gathered provides interesting insights on increases and decreases in UN activities that occurred throughout the decades. The two most interesting trends were a decrease in activities in the early 1960s compared to the 1950s and a large increase in activities in the 1980s compared to the 1970s. Although we have no dates for the years 1954-1959, activities dropped from 195 in 1953 to 88 in 1960. Considering the lack of data sets for the late 1950s there is a chance this dip is due to authors of the UN yearbooks not documenting the details of smaller activities throughout these years; however, the exact cause could be investigated further. Previously, from 1945-1953, there was a steady increase in the amount of annual activities. From 1965 until 1980 there was a steady increase in activities until a large jump occurred in the 1980s.
The 1980s saw total activities for the decade increase to over 2800 from around 1500 during the 1970s. This could also be due to recording discrepancies; however, the dataset for the 1970s is fairly complete and contains the details of many smaller conferences throughout the decade. One possible explanation for this is the increased viability of air travel in the 1980s as opposed to previous decades. With the decrease of cost and increase in global air travel, it is likely that it became more economically viable and convenient for UN organs and specialized agencies to branch out into countries and regions they were unable to operate in before.
Once I had gathered the dataset, I divided it into two different subcategories for the visualizations: Countries; Global North and South. The political map of the world varied greatly from 1945 until 1989 and the map visualization tool on Tableau uses a current version of the political map. In order to make the data work with the software, certain countries that have changed over time (i.e. West and East Germany, Zaire, the USSR) were relabeled to reflect the current country that exists today.
Categorizing countries by Global North and South proved somewhat difficult due to the lack of a universal designation for what country belongs to which section. In the end, the author chose to use Cold War classifications because of the time period the project encompasses. This means that the USA, its major, developed allies, and any country that was part of the USSR or in Europe behind the Iron Curtain at the time are categorized as the Global North. Non-aligned states and developing states are categorized as the Global South.
I used the software Tableau for the visualizations because of its ease of use and compatibility with Excel spreadsheets. The data was organized into year, number of conferences in each country, sub-region that each country belongs to, whether a country belongs to the global North or Global South, and if that country has a UN headquarters located within it. In an attempt to show different perspectives on the data, I used various visualizations including map timelines, a tree map, line graph, bar graph, and pie charts. All these visualizations are available under the “visualization” tab of this project.
Despite the challenges of data collection, this project has created the most comprehensive dataset available on UN gatherings. This provides a starting point to understand the UN’s geographical range of activities from 1945 to 1989 (with the exception of the years 1954-1959). There are thousands of gatherings that researchers can now investigate beyond the usual big suspects to understand how the UN’s geographical foci have changed over time. Hopefully, this project will provoke further investigation and discussion in researching and teaching the history of international organizations.
Roland Burke, “From Individual Rights to National Development: The First UN International Conference on Human Rights, Tehran, 1968,” Journal of World History 19, no. 3 (2008): 275-296.
Thomas Jundt, “Dueling Visions for the Postwar World: The UN and UNESCO 1949 Conferences on Resources and Nature, and the Origins of Environmentalism,” Journal of American History, 101, no. 1 (2014): 44–70.
Christopher J. Lee, Making a World After Empire: The Bandung Moment and its Political Afterlives (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010).
James Loeffler, “‘The Conscience of America’: Human Rights, Jewish Politics, and American Foreign Policy at the 1945 United Nations San Francisco Conference,” The Journal of American History 100, no. 2 (2013): 401–428.
John Macfarlane, “Sovereignty and Standby: The 1964 Conference on UN Peacekeeping Forces,” International Peacekeeping 14, no. 5 (2007): 599–612.
Charlene Mires, Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
Jocelyn Olcott, International Women’s Year: The Greatest Consciousness-Raising Event in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
Marika Sherwood, “‘There Is No New Deal for the Blackman in San Francisco’: African Attempts to Influence the Founding Conference of the United Nations, April-July, 1945,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 29, no. 1 (1996): 71–94.
Naoko Shimazu, "Diplomacy as Theatre: Staging the Bandung Conference of 1955," Modern Asian Studies 48, no. 1 (2014): 225-252.
Glenda Sluga, “Hollywood, the United Nations, and the Long History of Film Communicating Internationalism,” in Jonas Brendebach, Martin Herzer, and Heidi Tworek (eds.), Exorbitant Expectations: International Organizations and the Media in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London: Routledge, 2018), ch. 7.
S. Tan and Amit Acharya, Bandung Revisited: The Legacy of the 1955 Asian-African Conference for International Order (Singapore: NUS Press, 2008).