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The next UN humanitarian chief should be picked on merit

‘Some countries at the UN are more equal than others.’

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The next head of humanitarian affairs at the United Nations should be chosen on merit, not by horse-trading between Downing Street and the top floor of the UN’s Manhattan HQ.

The opportunity to succeed Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock is still (officially at least) open – submissions close on 15 March – but the betting in diplomatic circles is that his successor, yet again, will be a British name put forward by London. 

Thanks to an arcane UN convention, humanitarian affairs at the UN is a British fiefdom. We’re hearing that even if he knows it looks bad, Secretary-General António Guterres won’t risk alienating London when he himself is seeking a second term.

But if this tradition was ill-conceived, it looks worse with every new appointment, and especially so right now: It flies in the face of rhetoric about transparently filling jobs at the UN on the basis of talent; it contradicts commitments to give affected countries a greater voice; and it reinforces claims that paternalism and a colonial mindset underpin 21st century relief aid.

As crises multiply, and the UN’s role elsewhere wanes, its humanitarian function is more and more visible. This year, it aims to coordinate relief programmes for more than 159 million people. With indirect influence over up to $30 billion in relief spending, the humanitarian chief has both moral and financial clout.

People caught on the wrong side of wars and disasters deserve a leader with both charisma and competence: someone who can pull together international efforts, a fearless advocate speaking up for them, a persuasive diplomat behind the scenes, and a compelling fundraiser. 

They deserve that the hunt to fill such an important role be conducted across the globe and include the best possible talent. And they deserve the possibility that this person looks something like them. 

What they will get, more likely, is someone plucked from the outer circle of British public life by a ruling party besieged by Brexit and the pandemic – the same government that intends to cut its overseas aid spending by a third.

It is time for states to give up their unspoken entitlements. Britain has a chance to recapture its “development superpower” reputation – dented by aid cutbacks – at no cost whatsoever: Let go of this unjustifiable anachronism. Make a donation that really counts: Tell Guterres the UK will relinquish the seat to make space for someone chosen on merit, ideally from a developing country.

Changing times

Some countries at the UN are more equal than others, as George Orwell might say.

As the permanent members of the Security Council, the five victors of a war that ended in 1945 have veto powers over the rest. Developing or Global South countries have no permanent seat, neither do the market-based democracies that emerged from the losing side of World War II.

That built-in advantage is at least written into the UN Charter, but another rule is unwritten: A clutch of top UN jobs are divvied up between the same “P5”. China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States get to put their people in the positions that matter most: political affairs, peacekeeping, head of the UN Office in Geneva, and economic affairs, to name just the others in the top tier. 

It is time for states to give up their unspoken entitlements.

In the current carve-up, the UK gets to nominate the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Even if the person acts impeccably as a neutral civil servant, the role offers profile, influence, and access to world leaders, unfairly giving the home country, at the very least, some reflected glory. Their appointment also means the head of OCHA always comes with a similar worldview.

For better or worse – and there’s plenty in the world body that needs fixing – the UN’s role seems indispensable, at least for now. And the position of head of humanitarian affairs will continue to steadily gain in stature and importance – next year, it will be 30 years old.

So it matters more and more who gets this key role.

The last four people to have served as Emergency Relief Coordinator have all had British passports. With one exception, they were all white men. Most were figures from the UK’s political and civil service bubble – some with very little experience in aid: one was a former ambassador to France; another, a little-known member of parliament; the incumbent, Lowcock, was the top civil servant in the UK’s now-shuttered development department, DFID. 

If it’s decided, due to “realpolitik”, that Britain must hold on to the role, London should at least put forward its very best candidate rather than simply the latest name to come out of another round of Whitehall musical chairs.

But it really is beyond time to introduce a process that is fair and meritocratic, and to end the blatant cronyism of handpicking the world’s top humanitarian job.

All sectors – from sport to business – are waking up to a revived decolonisation movement that recognises that the world has for too long privileged a powerful few. The UN should not perpetuate such injustice. If it is to reaffirm “the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small”, as stated in the UN Charter, it should lead the charge for a more just and equal world. And its member states must allow it to do so.

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