The New Secretary-General, and the Next: Reforming International Appointments

The announcement that the new Secretary-General of the United Nations will be Antonio Guterres of Portugal brings to an end a process of making this important appointment which has been more transparent than ever (as it included such innovations as a public debate between declared candidates). However, despite the credentials of the new Secretary-General and his laudable intentions for the organisation, the process has highlighted the continued deficiencies in the selection process, including but not confined to lack of full transparency, in particular on the basis of the final decision.

The widespread anticipation that the next Secretary-General would be the first woman in the position has been disappointed, as has been the supposition that the candidate should come from Eastern Europe, the one officially recognized regional grouping from which a Secretary-General has not come before. However, it is less surprising that these expectations were disappointed than at first might be thought.  UN insiders, including both member states and activists engaged with the organisation, informally imposed both a regional and gender criterion, creating a gradient against which potential candidates who did not satisfy the requirements had to climb – inevitably limiting the range of strong candidates, including women candidates, who were willing to enter the race. (While two of the five finally declared women candidates were from outside Eastern Europe many others had been discouraged previously, and both of those who did run were decided insiders whose actions during their UN tenure were viewed by many either adversely or as unremarkable). Although there were numerous candidates, the preponderance of those from Eastern Europe was relatively weak, and on the whole without much experience of the United Nations system or with a checkered record. Strong candidates from elsewhere, with a few exceptions, may inevitably have been discouraged by the idea that the candidate must if possible be both a woman and from Eastern Europe, even as the process remained opaque and dependent on state sponsorship and power-broking. [The regional groupings are also highly unequal in terms of number of countries and their share of the world’s population — more than half of the world’s population and more than a quarter of countries are in the Asia-Pacific, while twelve percent of member states and less than five percent of the world ‘s population lives in Eastern Europe].

If the expectation had been that the candidate selected would have been a woman, without imposing a regional criterion additionally, this would surely have increased the quantity and quality of the women candidates who made themselves available globally, especially if the process had also been made more transparent to all individual candidates.  (In saying so, one need not assume that a perceived difference in individual qualities was the determining reason for the final selection. The point is rather that a stronger field would have made it still harder not to choose a woman in this instance).  In the event, the actual outcome was that neither representativeness criterion was met.

There are three lessons, which should be viewed as an ensemble aiming to reconcile representativeness, flexibility and excellence.

First, it would be far better in the process of selection for a post of global importance for informal understandings to take the form of embracing certain criteria as of great importance and to be actively promoted rather than to articulate them as restrictions (this is a lesson for the campaigners as much as for officialdom). For example, the idea that a woman candidate is to be favoured is wholly appropriate and the case could have been made publicly with great force, since it is indeed powerful, without imposing it as an absolute requirement. Each selection for individual posts, including for the Secretary General, should be accompanied by a statement on the part of the organisation as to why the individual was selected over other candidates, which would put pressure on decision-makers to explicitly acknowledge these criteria and to publicly justify their choices.

Second, the idea of regional turn-taking for individual posts (as with regional possession of individual posts) should be laid aside. The position of Secretary-General, like the positions of President of the World Bank and Managing Director of the IMF and other major international organisations should henceforth be as much as possible made open to all nationalities and to the degree possible undertaken on a meritocratic basis, while taking a broad view of what constitute the needed personal qualities, and providing due regard to criteria of regional representation, gender balance, etc. In the case of the Bretton Woods Institutions, which have historically given their foremost leadership positions only to Americans and Europeans, such a reform is clearly in the interests of global representativeness as well as individual excellence, and for that reason has been the focus of growing attention.

Third, it is far better to think of representation by region and gender in terms of the portfolio of senior positions within the United Nations system, and in international organisations, instead of putting all of the weight of such considerations upon any single post. Appropriate composition of that portfolio must respond not only to the financial contributions or political influence of countries but also to diffuse democratic criteria of different kinds, including representativeness by gender, region and population.    More generally, it is best to think of the system of international organisations as well as of each individual organisation as being defined by its staff and not merely by its leadership. “Presidential” thinking has not served the UN system, which is bound up in hierarchical deference and diplomatic culture, especially well.

An approach based on these three principles, which can be formalized if desired through a process defined by a more empowered International Civil Service Commission or similar body, is much more likely to ensure more adequate representation of the world’s people at any moment as well as the choice of the best candidates for posts, while helping to break up the often pernicious hold of individual countries or groups of countries on individual appointments.  It also has the advantage that because it couples the loss of ‘property’ of countries over individual posts with opening up possibilities for other posts, and with considerations of improving systemic effectiveness, it is more likely to be implementable.

The system of international organisations and the UN taken as a whole must project the impression of being driven by the concern to provide a high quality of leadership that delivers for people, rather than to operate on the basis of agreements brokered for their own reasons between inside players. A higher level of global democratic engagement in such a selection processes is in this respect not only to be welcomed but is indeed absolutely necessary, and can alone deliver the combination of representativeness and excellence that is needed.

Despite his merits, the newly appointed Secretary-General creates the impression of having been an internal candidate, who not only has the institutional experience but also speaks the language that marks him as such, despite his strong advocacy of a human rights agenda, stemming in part from his prior role as UN High Commissioner for Refugees. There are doubts as to the extent to which he will transform the United Nations system, as a consequence. One indication of this is that in his “vision statement” is full of such language as to propose to ‘fine-tune’ the ‘UN Development System’ (which in my own role as a member of the Independent Team of Advisers to the member states in the UN’s Economic and Social Council I can testify requires rather more than fine-tuning). That the process of his appointment remains mysterious, in a media-driven age, has limited his credibility from the start, and he will have to earn more of it from the global public if not from member-states, especially in light of the dashed “democratic” expectations of adequate regional and gender representation.

The United Nations system faces unprecedented challenges, which in its current form it is not prepared to meet. It needs radical reforms – from the very top down, giving rise to a full agenda for the UN system, the member states, and most of all the new Secretary-General.


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