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Research project

The Invisible History of the United Nations and the Global South - INVISIHIST

The main aim of this project is to reveal and unravel the invisible histories of the UN, transcending the dominant Western perspective to recover the historical agency of Global South actors. The research will investigate how the UN has both facilitated and limited their role in shaping global order from 1945-1981.

2020 - 2025
Alanna O'Malley
European Research Council European Research Council

Research description

The majority of member-states to the United Nations identify as members of the Global South. This is a taxonomy that goes beyond a geographical location. It encapsulates how shared agendas led to a sense of solidarity between peoples and states in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The term Global South, rather than Developing World or Third World, is employed in this project to capture both the state, non-state and regional actors who formed part of the movement, not all of whom were located in the Global South. Over time, these actors brought their problems to the UN, in the belief that the organization could provide tangible solutions to global challenges. However, the existing historiography of the UN is largely from the perspective of Western actors, and tends to ignore or downplay the role of Global South actors. These histories enhance the image of the organization as a passive entity and a vehicle for the interests of Western powers such as Britain, France and the United States (US). The liberal world order is presented here as the rules-based system led by the US since 1945 which established an unequal relationship between North and South. This has created the current situation where the UN is broadly misunderstood and the agency of Global South actors has been rendered largely invisible.

Invisihist Team members

Research aim

The main aim of this project is to reveal and unravel the invisible histories of the UN, transcending the dominant Western perspective to recover the historical agency of Global South actors. The research will investigate how the UN has both facilitated and limited their role in shaping global order from 1945-1981. This will be an important contribution to current debates about UN reform and assessments of its performance, safeguarding against further marginalization of these actors.


By Maha Ali

The project explores the role of Asian actors at the UN in historically shaping global political discourse, and taking into account the extent to which these states have played a part in altering the discourse on ‘human rights’ and 'development' at the UN. While considering the role of Asian states at multilateral forums, instances of south-south cooperation have emerged, demonstrating a quest for political, social and economic rights and freedoms, a political position against colonialism and imperialism, and a refusal of both economic subordination and socio-cultural suppression. This project explores Global South-centric narratives, contributing towards more inclusive and robust policies at the UN, with research on constitutionality, regional political dynamics, and international obligations to reveal the degree of role these elements have played in shaping international politics and foreign policy for the Asian States in question, whereby recovering historical agency of the global south, which has so far been presented through a diluted narrative at the UN.

By Yusra Abdullahi

The project contributes to the study of international history through its analysis of Pan-Africanism as a worldview that significantly impacted international order and global politics. The project purports that the UN as a Western-founded organization, despite its commitment to the decolonization of the Global South, both advertently and inadvertently, maintained international liberal order. By analysing the inversions that occur when emancipatory discourses are held in spaces of political asymmetry, the project will bring to the fore the contribution and exercise of (Pan-)African agency across UN bodies, committees, and agendas by highlighting the myriad of ways this agency was both influential at times and suppressed at other times, as a spirited African community formed within the UN realm.

By Felipe Colla De Amorim

Clashing Latin American projects for economic sovereignty in the post-war global order, investigates Latin America's clashing projects for sovereignty and economic independence in post-World War II global order. In doing so, this research is set to offer a different, more nuanced, perspective on the standard tale of the intellectual, economic, and political movements that emerged from the state-led developmentalist propositions of UN’s CEPAL in the late 1940s which gained traction with UNCTAD’s G77 in the 1960s, and reached its peak when the NIEO was launched in 1973. By focusing on the clashing positions — both through diplomatic channels at the United Nations system and non-state actors beyond them —, this research intends to explore how Latin American actors navigated between three different dimensions (global, regional, and domestic levels) — in which these projects for economic sovereignty were both being defended and attacked.

Professor Alanna O’Malley

Alanna O'Malley is Professor of UN Studies in Peace and Justice at Leiden University. She is a historian of the United Nations, Congo, Decolonisation and the Cold War. She has a PhD in history from the European University Institute and her first bookThe Diplomacy of Decolonisation, America, Britain and the United Nations during the Congo crisis 1960-1964 was published in 2018. Currently, she is the Principal Investigator of a new project: 'Challenging the Liberal World Order from Within, The Invisible History of the United Nations and the Global South (INVISIHIST)' funded by a Starting Grant awarded by the European Research Council in 2019. 

Email - a.m.omalley@hum.leidenuniv.nl

Yusra Abdullahi

Yusra Abdullahi is a Humanitarian Advisor with extensive work experience across sub-Saharan Africa, including Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia and Kenya. She has used her regional expertise to advise international NGOs, UN agencies and think tanks in the intersecting realms of conflict transformation, gender and migration. In particular, her intimate knowledge of cultural and socio-political contexts in East Africa have allowed her to apply a gendered perspective to the conflict analyses she carried out, and provide concrete recommendations to a myriad of human rights-centred institutions for the acceleration of gender equity in conflict-affected and fragile states based upon her findings.

In addition, Yusra obtained her BA in Politics from SOAS and she also holds an MA in African Studies from Leiden University. Her research interests include African politics, history, cultures, as well as how to dismantle racism in international development. As a PhD Candidate, she is currently conducting research on the role Ghana, Uganda and Zimbabwe assumed in shaping global order, and how the United Nations both facilitated and hindered the promulgation of the principle of self-determination in these states.

Email - y.s.abdullahi@hum.leidenuniv.nl

Maha Ali

Maha's research interests lie mainly in human rights and development policy; multilateral institutions; international justice and gender; post-colonial legacies in Asia and their impact on international politics.

Maha holds a BA-LLB (Hons) degree in law, policy and humanities from Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan. During her time in Pakistan, she worked for Sindh Human Rights Commission, Government of Sindh, as an Advocacy and Communications Consultant. Later, she worked as a Legal Analyst for the Chief Minister Punjab’s Office (Strategic Reforms Unit), Government of Punjab, where she drafted the Punjab Women Protection Authority Act, 2017, and the Punjab Shehr-e-Khamoshan Authority Act, 2017. She also initiated work on a legislation for rehabilitation of senior citizens in Punjab, as well on gender equality reforms and women's rights in Sindh, while providing pro-bono consultancy to Salman Sufi Foundation, Pakistan.

Maha was also responsible for the implementation of the first Violence Against Women Center established in Pakistan in March 2017. She provided legal trainings and monitored cases of violence being reported within the all-female-run facility.

Email - m.ali@hum.leidenuniv.nl

Felipe Colla De Amorim

Felipe Colla De Amorim is a PhD student at the Institute for History, Leiden University. He is a member of the Cold War Studies Research Group (FFLCH-USP/CNPq) and holds an MA in History from the University of São Paulo. He completed his Bachelor's degree in International Relations (PUC-SP, 2014) and Journalism (FCL, 2013). Prior to joining graduate school, Felipe has collaborated with reports for Brazil’s National Truth Commission (2013-14) and co-authored the book ‘À Espera da Verdade – histórias de civis que fizeram a ditadura militar’ (São Paulo: Alameda, 2016). Felipe has previously written on topics such as corporate complicity during the Brazilian military dictatorship, human rights, transitional justice, cold war, and the history of social sciences in Latin America.

Email - f.colla.de.amorim@hum.leidenuniv.nl

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