UNITED NATIONS, July 19 (IPS) — With Henrietta Fore’s decision last week to step down as executive director of UNICEF, her successor will most likely be another American, as that position has been held continuously by American citizens for nearly 74 years. an unprecedented record for a high-ranking position in the UN system.
The seven US citizens who have led the UN Children’s Agency since its inception in 1947 include Maurice Pate, Henry Labouisse, James Grant, Carol Bellamy, Ann Veneman, Anthony Lake and Henrietta Fore. Pate held the job for 18 years, from 1947 to 1965, and Labouisse for 14 years, from 1965 to 1979.
No other agency in the 76-year history of the United Nations has had a national stranglehold on such a high position.
As for individuals monopolizing office, Dr. Arpad Bogsch, another American citizen, held the position of Director General of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva for 24 long years (1973-1997).
But more recently, the professional lifespan of senior officials in the UN Secretariat is usually five years, with a possible extension of another five years.
Since the money talks, the US has continued to claim the UNICEF job mainly as the largest financial contributor.
But that claim also holds true for several UN agencies, which rely on voluntary contributions, and where some of the senior positions are largely held by donors or major powers, mostly from Western Europe, or China and Russia.
James Paul, former executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum (1993-2012) and a prominent figure in the NGO advocacy community at the United Nations, told IPS that there is a lot at stake in appointing the head of a major agency in the UN system.
Powerful governments are competing for prestige and shaping policy, he said, noting that “the interest is high now, as the appointment of a new head of UNICEF is imminent”.
“Observers inevitably ask: which country will be assigned the position, what is the region of the appointee, what ethnic or national group does this person represent, what is the person’s gender, and finally, last but not least, what is the policy intent and administration of the selected person?” said Paul, author of “Of Foxes and Chickens” – Oligarchy and Global Power in the UN Security Council (2017).
He said some candidates may be serious people with years of experience, while others may be personal friends of a powerful head of government.
How will the selection process go and how much pressure will there be on those who have a say in the nomination process: the UN Secretary-General and directorates or committees? he asked.
In the early years of the UN, he said, there was a tendency to nominate male candidates who were American citizens. The US government often acted very bluntly to get its way, threatening many times with withholding funding or punishing UN officials if its candidate was not selected.
Two well-known instances of US hegemony are UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, and UNDP, the UN Development Program.
UNICEF is notorious because its executive director has been a continuous U.S. citizen since the organization’s inception 74 years ago, Paul said. With the current head stepping down, the question inevitably arises: Will Washington once again get its way?
Admittedly, it has made one concession over the years. Under pressure in 1995 to accept a highly accomplished Scandinavian woman, the US agreed to drop its male candidate. Washington then suggested a woman and turned up the heat.
Carol Bellamy, the American candidate, was eventually nominated. The current head, Henrietta Fore, is also a woman, but she too has a US passport, Paul said.
Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996), who had a love-hate relationship with the US, tried to break the US monopoly in 1995. But that did not work out.
In his book “UN-Conquered–a US-UN Saga,” (1999), Boutros-Ghali says he was thwarted by then-US President Bill Clinton and US Ambassador Madeline Albright.
Clinton wanted William Foege, a former head of the US Centers for Disease Control, appointed as UNICEF chief to succeed James Grant, also an American.
Since Belgium and Finland had already nominated “excellent” female candidates — and since the US had refused to pay their UN dues and also made “disparaging” comments about the world organization — “there was no longer automatic acceptance by other countries that the UNICEF director must inevitably be an American man or woman,” said Boutros-Ghali.
“The US should select a female candidate,” Boutros-Ghali told Albright, “and then I’ll see what I can do,” as the nomination was accompanied by consultations with the then 36-strong UNICEF executive. “
Albright rolled her eyes and made a face, repeating what had become her standard expression of frustration with me,” he writes.
When the US continued to push for Foege’s candidacy, Boutros-Ghali said that “many countries on the UNICEF board were angry and (told) me to tell the United States to go to hell.”
The US eventually submitted an alternate female candidate: Carol Bellamy, a former Peace Corps director.
Although Finland’s Elizabeth Rehn got 15 votes to Bellamy’s 12 in a straw poll, Boutros-Ghali said he had asked the chairman of the board to persuade members to reach a consensus on Bellamy so that the US could have a monopoly on it. since the creation of UNICEF in 1947. .
And there is a story to it.
According to the latest published figures, total contributions to UNICEF in 2020 exceeded $7 billion. The public sector contributed the largest share: US$5.45 billion from government, intergovernmental and interorganizational partners, as well as Global Program Partnerships.
The top three resource partners in 2020 (according to contributions received) were the governments of the United States of America ($801 million), Germany ($744 million) and the European Union ($514 million).
As UNICEF’s largest donor, the US was considered “an indispensable partner”.
“Our partnership with the US government is broad and diverse and includes humanitarian and development programs in key areas of UNICEF’s work, including health; Education; early child development; water, sanitation and hygiene; nutrition; child protection; gender equality; HIV and AIDS; immunization; and research programs,” said UNICEF.
Samir Sanbar, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and head of the Public Information Department, told IPS that the row over the position of UNICEF director was the first clash between Boutros-Ghali and Ambassador Albright, who was otherwise very friendly. since both are “former professors”.
As Boutros-Ghali once quipped, “I may be America’s yes-man (as he was described in the Arab press when he was elected Secretary General), but certainly not, yes sir”.
Initially, U.S. UNICEF executives such as Henry Labouisse and James Grant proved their worth not only by raising U.S. funds but also by their proven track record, Sanbar said.
Guterres, a veteran politician, will most likely explore options: perhaps waiting for proposals from the Biden administration, while potential interest from Security Council members such as Norway – and others, who can make a substantial contribution – remains open as long as his candidate is a woman, said Sanbar who had served under five different secretaries-general during his long UN career.
Paul pointed out that UNDP provides an interesting basis for comparison. It had a head of the US (title is administrator) for thirty-two consecutive years, from its foundation in 1967.
In 1999, when the time came for a new nomination, UN membership increased the pressure for a more diverse pool of candidates.
Finally, the magical spell of American dominance broke, when UK’s Mark Malloch Brown got the wink. And since 1999, not a single American national has held that position as UNDP administrator.
That was a sign that Washington’s grip on the UN was waning and that its global influence was waning—slowly perhaps, but undeniably.
A capable New Zealand woman, Helen Clark, belonged to the new breed, along with a Turk, Kemal Dervis, and a German, Achim Steiner, who currently hold the position.
But not all American nominees have come off badly, Paul said.
James Grant, was a widely respected head of UNICEF, and Gus Speth won praise as head of UNDP. But symbolism is important in a multilateral organization with a global membership and a very diverse constituency.
“As skilled as the US candidate is, and however independent, color-coded and spawned, it is time for UNICEF to get a non-US Executive Director. The world of 1947 is long gone. The hegemony of the US is not what it used to be.”
“A breath of fresh air at UNICEF is far too late,” said Paul.
Thalif Deen is the author of a recently released book on the United Nations entitled “No Comments – And Don’t Quote Me About That.” Laced with dozens of anecdotes – from serious to hilarious – the book is available worldwide on Amazon. The link to Amazon from the author’s website follows: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/
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