You've got (e)mail ... most people haven't noticed just how often they turn to email instead of posting a letter. But there is an organisation that has, and it is trying to harness that change--the Universal Postal Union. Swiss News finds out more about this United Nations agency and asks if the writing's on the wall for the postal service.

Author:Mirza, Faryal
Position:BUSINESS
 
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Next to a busy tram stop called Weltpostverein in Bern, is a grey office block straight out of the 1960s. The stop attracts a steady stream of foreign delegates using the number three tram but many of the area's residents are unaware as to why this building draws people from all over the world. The same people tend to believe that the name of the tram stop refers to an institution that no longer exists.

In fact, the oblong building is the Universal Postal Union, and it is very much alive despite its position as the second oldest international organisation in the world. In some ways, the UPU is also "the most Swiss" of all UN agencies because of Switzerland's role in shaping modern postal history.

It was in the Swiss capital that UPU's founding stone was laid in 1874. The organisation was born at a time when postal delivery had fallen into chaos, requiring drastic action.

Until the end of the 19th century, international postal deliveries were governed by an unruly mess of bilateral agreements between countries.

"The world then was very different. Bilateral agreements between the countries were very fragile because each side decided if there was an interest for them or not," says Edouard Dayan, the UPU's current director-general.

These treaties regulated payment, which in those days was paid by the recipient.

As time went on, these became increasingly complicated because of differences in currencies, national carrying rates and other charges. It was a system characterised by uncertainty and inconsistencies.

In mainland Europe, the 'Thurn and Taxis' system used 20,000 messengers to carry government and private mail along postal routes in Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, and the Belgium and Netherlands area. However, with the rise of strong nation-states, governments increasingly wanted a monopoly on mail services.

Certain countries went on to simplify postal delivery. The most significant reform took place in Britain where prepaid postage and uniform delivery rates were introduced in 1840. Soon afterwards, the world's first postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued in Blighty.

Amid the reigning chaos in other countries, the Swiss government stepped in and organised an international conference in Bern in September 1874, believing it was high time to organise reforms on a global level.

Delegates from 22 nations met to discuss proposals to simplify the situation. The main outcome was the establishment of a...

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