UNITED NATIONS, Jul 19 2021 (IPS) – With Henrietta Fore’s decision last week to step down as UNICEF Executive Director, her successor is most likely to be another American since that post has been held– uninterruptedly — by US nationals for almost 74 years, an unprecedented all-time record for a high-ranking job in the UN system. The seven U.S. nationals who have headed 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 has had a national stranglehold on such a senior position in the 76-year history of the United Nations.
As for individuals monopolizing office, Dr Arpad Bogsch, another US national, held the post of director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva for 24 long years (1973-1997). But more recently, however, the professional life span of senior officials in the UN secretariat is mostly five years, with a possible extension for an additional five years. Since money talks, the US has continued to stake its claims for the UNICEF job, primarily as its largest single financial contributor. But that claim also applies to several UN agencies, which depend on voluntary contributions, and where some of the high-ranking positions are largely held by donors or big powers, mostly from Western Europe, or China and Russia.
James Paul, former Executive Director at the New York-based Global Policy Forum (1993-2012) and a prominent figure in the NGO advocacy community at the United Nations, told IPS much is at stake in the appointment of the head of a major agency in the UN system. Powerful governments battle over prestige and the shaping of policy, he said, pointing out, that “interest is intense now, as the appointment of a new head of UNICEF comes up”. “Observers inevitably wonder: what country gets the post, what is the region of the appointee, what ethnic or national group does this person represent, what is the person’s gender identify, and finally, last but not least, what is the policy inclination and administrative record of the person selected?” 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 work and how much pressure will be put on those with a say over the appointment process: the UN Secretary General and Executive Boards or committees? he asked. In the early years of the UN, he said, there was a tendency to appoint male candidates who were US nationals. The US government often acted very bluntly about getting its way and it threatened many times to withhold funding or punish UN officials if its candidate was not selected. Two well-known cases of US hegemony are UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, and UNDP, the UN Development Programme.
UNICEF is notorious because its Executive Director has been a US national continuously since the organization’s founding 74 years ago, said Paul. Now that the current head is stepping down, the question inevitably arises – will Washington once again be able to get its way? Admittedly, it did make one concession over the years. Under pressure in 1995 to accept a very accomplished Scandinavian woman, the US agreed to drop its male candidate. Washington then proposed a woman and turned up the heat. Carol Bellamy, the US candidate, was eventually appointed. The present head, Henrietta Fore, is also a woman but she too carries a US passport, said Paul.
Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996), who had a love-hate relationship with the US, tried to break the US monopoly back in 1995. But he failed. In his book “UN-Vanquished–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 Centres for Disease Control, to be appointed UNICEF chief to succeed James Grant, also an American. Since Belgium and Finland had already put forward “outstanding” women candidates — and since the US had refused to pay its UN dues and was also making ”disparaging” remarks about the world body — “there was no longer automatic acceptance by other nations that the director of UNICEF must inevitably be an American man or woman,” said Boutros-Ghali.
“The US should select a woman candidate,” Boutros-Ghali told Albright, “and then I will see what I can do,” since the appointment involved consultation with the then 36-member UNICEF Executive Board. ” Albright rolled her eyes and made a face, repeating what had become her standard expression of frustration with me,” he writes. When the US kept pressing Foege’s candidature, Boutros-Ghali says 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 woman candidate: Carol Bellamy, a former director of Peace Corps. Although Elizabeth Rehn of Finland received 15 votes to Bellamy’s 12 in a straw poll, Boutros-Ghali said he asked the Board president to convince the members to achieve consensus on Bellamy so that the US could continue a monopoly it held since UNICEF was created in 1947. And thereby hangs a tale.
According to the latest published figures, total contributions to UNICEF in 2020 were over US$7 billion. The public sector contributed the largest share: US$5.45 billion from government, inter-governmental and inter-organizational partners, as well as Global Programme Partnerships. The top three resource partners in 2020 (by contributions received) were the Governments of the United States of America (US$801 million), Germany (US$744 million) and the European Union (US$514 million). As UNICEF’s largest donor, the US was considered “an indispensable partner”. “Our partnership with the US Government is broad and diverse, spanning humanitarian and development programmes across 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 programmes,” according to UNICEF.
Samir Sanbar, a former UN assistant secretary-General and head of the Department of Public Information, told IPS the argument over the post of UNICEF Executive Director was the first clash between Boutros-Ghali and Ambassador Albright who otherwise was very friendly, as both were “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, American UNICEF Executive Directors like Henry Labouisse and James Grant proved their value not merely by bringing U.S. funds but by their proven accomplishments, said Sanbar.
Guterres, an experienced politician, will most likely explore options: perhaps await proposals from the Biden Administration while keeping open possible interest by members of the Security Council like Norway–and others, which could offer a substantive contribution, as long as its candidate is a woman, said Sanbar who had served under five different secretaries-general during his longstanding UN career. Paul pointed out that UNDP provides an interesting basis for comparison. It had a US head (the title is Administrator) for thirty-two years consecutively, from its founding in 1967.
In 1999, when the moment for a new appointment arose, the UN membership stepped up pressure for a more diverse pool of candidates. At last, the magic spell of US dominance broke, as Mark Malloch Brown of the UK got the nod. And since 1999, there hasn’t been a single US national in that post of UNDP Administrator. That was a sign that Washington’s grip on the UN was slipping and that its global influence was waning – slowly perhaps but unmistakably. A capable woman from New Zealand, Helen Clark, was one of the new breed, along with a Turk, Kemal Dervis, and a German, Achim Steiner, who currently holds the post. But not all US nominees have turned out badly, said Paul.
James Grant, was a widely-respected head of UNICEF, and Gus Speth won plaudits as head of UNDP. But symbolism is important in a multi-lateral organization with a world-wide membership and a very diverse constituency. “No matter how competent the US candidate might be, and no matter how independent-minded, color-coded and engendered, it is time for UNICEF to get a non-US Executive Director. The world of 1947 has long gone. US hegemony is not what it was.” “A bit of fresh air at UNICEF is long overdue,” declared Paul.
(ThalifDeen is the author of a newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment -– and Don’t Quote Me on That.” Peppered with scores of anecdotes-– from the serious to the hilarious-– the book is available on Amazon worldwide. The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/)