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Who’s in the running for the top UN humanitarian job?

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Negotiating aid access and fundraising for crises are among the key roles for the UN’s top humanitarian official. (UN Photo)

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The aid world is waiting to hear who will be the next UN head of humanitarian affairs. Who’s in the running?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres will decide who gets the job. An application process – open to all for the first time – ended on 15 March. A shortlist is being drawn up, after which interviews will take place.

Once his replacement is picked, Mark Lowcock (the fourth Briton in a row in the job) will step down as the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

Whoever leads the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) should act as the coordinator of the international humanitarian community, steer the policy agenda, lead fundraising efforts, supervise country and regional OCHA teams, and manage about $1.5 billion in pooled donor funds. They are tasked with trying to maintain aid access in war zones and speaking up for humanitarian issues in public and private. 

The secretary-general’s spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, said via email that “at a time of ballooning humanitarian needs and decreasing resources, the role of the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator is indeed critical.” 

Official sources have revealed only a few candidates, and no date has been set for announcing the appointment. Dujarric said the UN would not divulge the names of candidates. 

While the UN and the candidates are tight-lipped, in recent conversations with a range of aid officials and diplomats, a number of unconfirmed names came up repeatedly, most reportedly enjoying diplomatic backing by their home countries.

The “ten thousand dollar question” is whether Guterres will favour an open, merit-based selection or continue the convention of a “de facto monopoly” for the UK over the job, according to a European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issues freely. 

Guterres is seeking a second, largely unopposed term as UN chief, and some argue he would rather not rock the boat by taking the role away from the UK. Others counter that he could be bolder with his final term already almost in the bag. 

“The secretary-general is determined to get the best possible person to lead the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,” Dujarric said. “As you know, people of different nationalities have held the post since its creation.” 

A statement to The New Humanitarian from the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said: “We respect and support the secretary-general’s commitment to a decision based on merit.” 

Regardless of Britishness, many of the most-frequently mentioned candidates are European men. Appointing a white male from a wealthy country would be seen by many as a missed opportunity to have more non-”Western” representation in the UN’s senior leadership. It would also do little for UN commitments to “localisation” – a policy to allow a bigger role to the people and organisations in countries that receive humanitarian aid. 

Gender parity has been a priority for Guterres, and under him, the majority of the senior management group are women, but the organisation has some distance to go: Two-thirds of all 127 top level “under-secretary-general” posts were held by men in 2017, the latest year for which figures are available.

The European diplomat said the job is “tremendously important”, given the “lack of cooperation for the greater good at the Security Council”; limitations on aid access from Yemen, to Tigray, to the Sahel; and shrinking respect for international humanitarian law. A high number of candidates is a good sign, the diplomat added, saying there would be “a lot more alarm if there were very few”. 

Here is The New Humanitarian’s best shot at a who’s who of candidates, both confirmed and those whose names came up most frequently.  

The Brits 

UK citizens have held the post for over a decade, part of an undeclared quota system for top UN jobs. Giving the job to another nationality would signal a change. It might trigger some other reshuffling in senior positions, assuming the UK would lobby for some sort of compensatory position. The European diplomat pointed out that the UK retained a number of significant roles in international affairs even without the OCHA position. 

There appear to be at least four British candidates. 

Nick Dyer is the name heard most often in dozens of interviews and off-the-record conversations with The New Humanitarian, and he is widely said to be the UK’s first choice.  Like Lowcock, he was a top civil servant in the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). When DFID was folded into the British foreign ministry in September 2020, Dyer was appointed as the UK’s special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs. The newly created post appeared to some observers to conveniently beef up his credentials. Dyer, like Lowcock, is a technocrat, with plenty of experience in managing development and humanitarian grants, including a stint in Malawi. Dyer referred The New Humanitarian’s questions to the FCDO press office which offered only the one-line response about a merit-based appointment.

Dyer is regarded as an underwhelming candidate by some observers, despite his long career in DFID. He may represent technical and administrative competence but lacks a political track record and emergency focus. One senior aid analyst, who requested anonymity to comment freely, said they were “dismayed that Britain cannot put forward a more credible candidate for a role that is so critical.” The analyst said Dyer would be a “brilliant candidate” for a role at an institution like the World Bank but lacked experience and profile in humanitarian affairs.

Harriet Mathews, a civil servant and diplomat, appears to be an alternative candidate from the UK. Mathews is the head of the Africa department of the UK’s foreign ministry, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), and served as ambassador to Somalia. She has less humanitarian experience than Dyer. Diplomatic and aid sources say it is unclear if the UK government backs Mathews to the same extent as Dyer. By appointing her, Guterres would avoid adding to his quota of senior men. There is a political connection too: Her husband, David Frost, is close to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and served as lead Brexit negotiator. Questions by The New Humanitarian to Mathews went unanswered. 

At least two more Britons appear to have thrown their hats in the ring and are said to offer significant senior humanitarian, UN, and NGO experience. The New Humanitarian was however unable to fully confirm their candidacies. A strong UK candidate could highlight the limitations of Dyer, the senior aid analyst said. 

Former UK foreign minister and the CEO of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, is not in the running, according to his staff.

The Nordic candidate

Olof Skoog, the current EU ambassador to the UN, was put forward by the foreign ministers of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. A 22 March letter to Guterres, obtained by The New Humanitarian, stated that  Swedish diplomat Skoog has “the right background, skillset, and character necessary to promote the humanitarian agenda in these challenging times.” The Nordic group say they support “an open, transparent, competitive, and merit-based selection process for the position”, adding that they collectively fund 15 percent of the UN and contribute 10 percent of annual humanitarian funding globally. Skoog has held multiple ambassadorships, including Sweden’s representation to the UN, but he appears to have little direct humanitarian experience. 

The others

William Chemaly, a Lebanese human rights and humanitarian protection specialist, pitches his candidacy as an overdue chance to appoint someone from the Global South “that has been on both sides of aid”. A comment on a LinkedIn post announcing his application by Yemeni human rights activist Rana Jarhum says “Decolonize the ERC position”.

Koen Davidse, a Dutch executive director at the World Bank, is backed by his government. He is a former civil servant, who also served as the Netherlands’ envoy to Sudan and deputy head of the UN mission in Mali. His candidacy was previously reported by UN news service PassBlue. The Netherlands government did not respond to questions from The New Humanitarian.

Joanne Liu, a Canadian doctor (and board member of The New Humanitarian), is reported to be a candidate, backed by her government. Liu did not respond to an email seeking confirmation. Liu was international president of medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières from 2013 to 2019. Questions to Canadian officials from The New Humanitarian were not answered.

Further names in circulation include another Canadian working at the UN and a senior European figure in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Neither responded to requests to confirm or deny. 

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