9 Feb 2015

Crunch time at the UN as candidates vie for top job

This week the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, is expected to announce who will succeed Valerie Amos as UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief.

Well, that sounds pretty routine and bureaucratic, but it’s not. The job involves coordinating aid to all the world’s most desperate people, including victims of war in Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, and those suffering from Ebola in west Africa. It matters. This time the system whereby powerful countries nominate their own candidate for senior UN positions, irrespective of whether he or she is qualified, has been challenged.


Back in November I reported that Prime Minister David Cameron was insisting not only that Britain should retain the post but that his old political mate, former health secretary Andrew Lansley – who had not one scintilla of relevant experience – should have the job. He refused to put up alternative candidates.

Many within the UN system have had enough of a system that operates not on merit but political patronage. After the story was circulated, they increased pressure on the UN secretary general to say no to the British prime minister and insist on interviewing a wider field of candidates. Then the campaign group Avaaz got involved.

70,000 British people signed a petition calling on Mr Cameron to withdraw Mr Lansley’s nomination and 16,000 wrote to the UN secretary general asking him to rejects Mr Lansley’s candidacy.

Alternative candidates

It seems that the pressure may have worked. According to the investigative website Inner City Press, Mr Cameron – with great reluctance – put forward two alternative candidates – former Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman MP and former junior minister for development, Stephen O’Brien.

The UN secretary general accepted nominations from other countries, and the UK now seems set to lose the position as none of its candidates are well qualified.

A poll by Avaaz, published today, shows that of more 200 UN staff members who responded to a survey only 2 per cent regarded Andrew Lansley as a good choice.

Avaaz polled the 6,300 UN staff who are also Avaaz members. The fact that they signed up to Avaaz suggests that they are more activist than other UN staff, so it’s not a representative sample.

Still, it’s interesting. The German candidate, Martin Kobler, currently the UN Special Envoy to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the most popular with 29 per cent of the vote. The Nigerian Amina Mohammed, a UN Special Advisor on development planning, came second with 22 per cent.

Secret recruitment

If this position is appointed on merit it will beg a bigger question: what about the top job? The campaign group 1 for 7 billion points out that the UN secretary general, a single person whose actions affect seven billion people on the planet, is chosen through an opaque system, in secret, by the five countries who make up the permanent representatives on the UN Security Council. The position comes up in 2017.

Former UNSG Kofi Annan and former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harem Bruntland wrote an OpEd in the New York Times last week calling for an open competition.

They revealed how the selection is done after the P5 have chosen their candidates: “Members of the Security Council then conduct rounds of secret voting known as ‘straw polls’ to ascertain who has broadest and deepest support; crucially, the five permanent members use different colored voting slips so that their preferences – and those they do not favor – are made clear to the other 10 temporary members.”

In other words, if you’re a country who happens to be a temporary security council member and you rely on, say, American aid, you might pay keen attention to those coloured slips. It’s all backroom deals and promises.

The UN is frequently accused of waste and incompetence. Maybe if they started appointing senior people on merit that might change.

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