Looking for the humanitarian backbone at the top of the UN

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United Nations building. Image credit: Oleg Mitiukhin

The United Nations is not just another bureaucracy. Its structures and symbols mark a secular faith that is determined to save humanity, according to its holy book, the UN Charter. To do that, it engages on four grand missions: fostering peace and security, progressing economic and social development, advancing human rights, and providing humanitarian succour.

The UN’s noble theology derives from universal human values that underpin the dreams and aspirations of billions, even if it’s flawed set-up fails so often. While it’s contradictions constantly test the patience of adherents, they are also remarkably persistent. Perhaps because they are perpetually hopeful that a wise leader is about to emerge who will do better than the last one that disappointed us so much.

The four grand missions are each headed by their own high priests and a great shiver of excitement runs through the UN’s hallowed corridors whenever one of these priesthoods is up for anointment. The one coming up now is for humanitarian affairs.

Of course, we don’t live in medieval times. Thus, we are told that the selection of the correctly-titled position of the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator will be merit based (although it is not clear whether that is the merit of the candidate or their country). If you had been interested, you would have applied by the closing date of 15 March. You can be confident in the open and transparent selection process as applications were welcomed from anywhere (as long as you had fluent English), digitally (sorry if you didn’t have good internet), and from anyone (but especially women). You will be graded strictly accordingly to the UN’s human resources competency framework.

Naturally, the Secretary-General can’t rely solely on this process. So, he also conducts his own mysterious “search and consultations” and gets guidance from special visitations. In any case, we will know when the Secretary General’s divine hand lands on someone when, in the words of his messenger, “It will be announced when it is announced, when you see white smoke”.

There is a formal job description for the USG’s duties and responsibilities. It is well- written with a beguiling simplicity. After de-coding, we learn that the role requires a superwoman or man who will be the world’s conscience and can boldly hold the mirror to its misbehaviours. This is massively difficult nowadays with record levels of disasters, conflicts, population displacements, violations of international humanitarian laws, crimes against humanity, and attacks on humanitarian workers and facilities.

The USG is officially licenced to call a spade a spade. Thus, fluency with a broad lexicon of words around horror, shock or outrage is essential as well as fine judgement on the shades of concern to be expressed in different contexts. Similarly calibrated must be the look of sincerity and compassion in front of the camera, depending on whether the setting is a refugee camp or a press conference.

However, it will be wise not to over-do this, as it is prudent not to be too rude to despots and dictators, because they are UN members too. And, when the bad behaviours come from big powers or from within the permanent members of the Security Council, the incumbent must tread with extra caution. Be careful not to embarrass the Big Boss, who is up for re-election this year and will need the votes of all important countries.

The world’s top humanitarian must also be adept at holding out the begging bowl which is implanted into the USG immediately on assuming office. The bowl is bottomless because of the ever-growing needs of the world’s most vulnerable. Hence, the USG must use all their begging, bullying, and cajoling skills with reluctant donors, but should beware becoming too boring or tiresome, by constantly asking for more and more.

When they do get some funds (perhaps 10 to 70% of appeals, depending on the crisis that is popular at a moment), they must exercise the wisdom of Solomon in doling out the dough. Nowadays, there are sophisticated metrics to measure misery but any USG with a heart instead of a computer chip will find it tough to tackle questions such as: Whose suffering is more urgent? Whose needs are more deserving? Besides, much of the mobilised funds are often too little and too late, or ear-marked for concerns or countries that donors prefer.

So, when the right needs are, inevitably, not met at the right time in the right way, there will be complaints. The USG must always be a good sport and shoulder the blame. It is a natural extension of the role of the world’s conscience to be the lightening conductor for its woes and frustrations. Of course, everyone knows that most of the world’s problems don’t have humanitarian solutions but that is beside the point.

The USG will be extremely busy firefighting (mostly insoluble) crises around the world. That includes rallying humanitarian ‘troops’ everywhere. They fly many different banners and follow their own brands of the humanitarian faith. But it is the USG’s task, as Emergency Relief Coordinator, to get them pointed vaguely in the same direction or, at least, not at cross-purposes. How to do this is beyond the knowhow of the world’s most expensive business schools, although that has not stopped several consulting firms from establishing lucrative business lines in humanitarian leadership training. They get tax benefits by offering pro bono services to cash-strapped humanitarian bodies which reciprocate by serving as training grounds for junior consultants. After all, anyone wanting to get anywhere, has to start somewhere, and the humanitarian field is one of the very few public endeavours that is open to all comers (although, to be fair, this is getting better after the scandals of recent years and there is another profitable business line in monitoring quality and standards for conduct and performance).

Meanwhile, the outward-facing USG must not neglect looking inside their personal fiefdom: the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). This consists of a split headquarters straddling New York and Geneva and dozens of offices or representatives worldwide. It will be useful if the USG brushes up on their knowledge of Max Weber, that great 19th century sociologist who waxed lyrical on the topic of the perfect bureaucracy. If he was alive today, he would surely be overwhelmed by the beauty of the UN, in that regard. OCHA, as a constituent department of the UN Secretariat reflects all the attributes of the parent body and improves on it by adding its own bizarre structural complications.

It is the job of the USG to manage OCHA and many a good incumbent has been broken at the wheel of change, especially when challenging its internal chieftaincies. The next post-holder would be wise to remember that although several humanitarian bodies have won the Nobel Prize, none have been awarded for pioneering organisational reform.

The Secretary-General will be mulling over these considerations while grilling hopeful candidates. Meanwhile, it is a fairly harmless ritual to offer him unsolicited advice on selecting his new humanitarian chief. This starts first by damning the incumbent to be replaced. That is quite OK as it is a generally recognised truth that all high careers end in failure because, as said by the idiosyncratic statesman, Joseph Chamberlain, “that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”.

Critics can make their job easier by following an established checklist. The obvious place to start is with gender and geographic diversity: if you are male and white, you can expect to be automatically pilloried. Especially, if your predecessors were the same as you. Even worse if they were of the same nationality.

Then it gets more complicated. We know that it won’t look good if the SG appoints a serial rights abuser to such a sacred role. Fortunately, candidates have self-attested that they have not violated international human rights and humanitarian laws. But what if their country is a champion violator of such decencies? Of course, a good person can’t be blamed for the sins of their nation. But they will have needed strong national backing to advance their candidature in an institution which is, above all, a club of nations. So should otherwise good candidates be blackballed if they are too close to less-than-wholesome governments?

Then let us come to candidates from humanitarian superpowers.

Should the nationals of donor countries be favoured? There is an element of reward and recognition here as most international funding comes from just a few countries. Would selecting someone from a generous country encourage the miserly ones to step up? In any case, it is a well-known principle of international business that he who pays the piper gets to call the tune. Or conversely, it could be argued that candidates from countries that receive most funding for humanitarian crises are better qualified, and should get extra points in the selection hurdles?

May that also mean a bigger voice of understanding for the victims of humanitarian crises?

The SG may feel that these are all mutually-cancelling considerations. In those circumstances, a random selection made by picking a name out of a hat is as good as any tortuously-finessed choice.

Alternatively, he could throw away his complicated grids and checklists, and ignore all lobbyists. The Secretary-General could then liberate himself to make a truly revolutionary move. He could, without fear or favour, and without any other consideration, appoint to the top humanitarian position, someone that possesses a genuine humanitarian backbone. Doing that could also allow the UN to stand up straighter when facing-up to its detractors.

Will the UN Secretary-General have the special X-ray vision to detect the person with the sturdiest humanitarian backbone among the several worthy applicants?