9 Mar 2015

Stephen O’Brien: UN opts for ‘pretty good candidate for important job’

Today the UN secretary general announced that he had appointed Stephen O’Brien, currently the prime minister’s special envoy to the Sahel, as under secretary general for humanitarian affairs.


I could have headlined this news, “UN appoints pretty good candidate for important job under the circumstances.” Wouldn’t sound like much of a story but it is. Too often UN appointments are made entirely on political patronage and not at all on competence. This time the former has been tempered by the latter.

Last November I broke the story that the prime minister had nominated his mate Andrew Lansley to head the UN’s humanitarian programme, despite him having no relevant experience or qualifications.

It matters because this job involves negotiating humanitarian access with warlords in South Sudan and President Bashar al Assad in Syria. It’s not a position for an amateur.

The story sparked outrage and a campaign by Avaaz to end political patronage in UN appointments. At first the prime minister refused to suggest any other candidates,  but under pressure from UN headquarters, he put forward two others: former environment secretary Caroline Spelman and O’Brien.

“Of the three names put forward by Britain, Stephen O’Brien was the best candidate,” said Avaaz Campaign Director, Sam Barratt. “But with a world of humanitarian experts to chose from, this appointment shows the carve up of senior UN jobs is still based on the colour of passports, not the quality of CVs. For the good of the world, this old system of political patronage over meritocracy has to come to an end,”

He’s right. The UN should not divvy up jobs according to nationality. There’s now a campaign for the biggest job, that of UN secretary general, to be appointed on merit not political horse-trading.

But Mr O’Brien was a minister for international development and has worked with various bodies trying to eradicate malaria. He’s been a senior executive in a large company. When I spoke to him last week he was in Mali, working on peace initiatives. So he’s engaged and he cares about the issues.

Activists are disappointed because they rightly want a transparent system on UN appointments. I agree. But it could have been a lot worse. Two steps forward, one step back.

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