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Fact Checking the Assumptions that underlie UN Senior Appointments

30 June 2024

By Katja Hemmerich


Man climbing a ladder in front of a world map.

In March of this year, Martin Griffiths, the British Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) announced he would step down as the head of the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) at the end of June. The position, which has traditionally been ‘ring-fenced’ for the UK carries immense responsibilities to ensure that governments, NGOs and UN agencies are working together effectively in responding to the increasing number of disasters and conflicts currently plaguing the world.


Yet, despite the three month search for candidates and an obvious need for ongoing UN leadership in this area, the selection has been delayed. The assumption of observers of such processes, like Blue Smoke, is that the delay is being used to see whether the outcome of UK elections on 4 July changes the the UK’s nominated candidate, and possibly, its openness to giving other countries a chance to lead OCHA. It appears that political considerations outweigh the need for strong continued leadership or competence in coordinating the UN's response to humanitarian disasters.


This senior leadership appointment process and the controversy surrounding it, highlight a number of unique challenges and dilemmas that intergovernmental organizations face in trying to select the ‘right’ leadership. Our spotlight this month outlines those dilemmas and uses academic research to fact check some of the assumptions that underlie them.


UN senior appointments and the tension between autonomy, competence and member state buy-in/control

From the UN’s inception, organizational tensions between autonomy and member state control, the need to maintain buy-in from key member states and select candidates with the greatest competence have created challenges in appointing senior leaders. Already in the Preparatory Commission in 1945, there were opposing views regarding whether the Secretariat should be composed of a wholly independent civil service or whether senior officials would be seconded by their capitals to the UN. The latter model was pushed by the Soviet Union, which was both skeptical that an independent international civil service could be created, and wary of the autonomy that created. Ultimately the UN Charter set out a vision of an independent international civil service that embodies the world’s highest standards of competence, integrity and efficiency while also ensuring a balanced representation of all its member states.


But as is so often the case in the UN, there was an almost immediate divergence between what was agreed on paper and how that was implemented in practice. Permanent Missions to the UN did not exist before 1949, so there was a legitimate need to ensure timely and frequent communication with the most influential member states. The Cold War was emerging and further enhanced the need to ensure continued engagement across the growing divide between East and West. A number of senior UN staff had themselves been part of the League of Nations and seen firsthand how the withdrawal and lack of engagement by key member states precipitated its decline. For all these reasons, ‘geographic balance’ was quickly interpreted by the first Secretary-General and much of the UN’s leadership to mean that key senior positions would go to the Permanent Five (P5) of the UN Security Council.


Yet, also in typical UN fashion, this pragmatic and reasonably justifiable approach was then undermined by administrative rules and regulations. Secretary-General Lie had every intention of independently recruiting the best and the brightest from amongst the P5, reportedly targeting the Chief Editor of the Economist to head up the Economic Affairs Department, for instance. However, he was unable to attract the top people he wanted because the UN’s highest salary scales were not competitive - and he had no authority to create exceptions or leverage other financial incentives or benefits to compensate. So in the end, he was forced to reach out to member states to ask for government nominations, setting the precedent for what is now the generally accepted system in the UN Secretariat.


The Soviet Union, whose nominee was selected to lead what was then the Security Council Affairs Department, proceeded to assert its ‘ownership’ of the department by rotating their own officials every two years with little or no involvement (or reportedly pushback) from the Secretary-General’s office. The United States then insisted that the number two in that Department, who led the Political Division, be an American as kind of a countermeasure, to which Secretary-Generals also acquiesced. By the 1970s, it was generally accepted that top UN jobs would tend to go to the P5, and by the 1990s ‘ring-fencing’ of certain positions for certain countries became common practice (Source: Thant & Scott, The UN Secretariat: A brief history).


New York University’s Center for International Cooperation has tracked 1,360 senior level appointments between 1995 and 2023 and illustrates in their Dashboard how these have been allocated between regional and income groupings of UN member states:



The graphs illustrate not just a dominance of the P5, but specifically of Western and high income countries (who are often one and the same). This reflects the additional and more recent political consideration that the UN is heavily dependent on voluntary funding, most of which comes from these countries.


Fact checking the underlying assumptions of UN appointments

There is a need to unpack some of the assumptions that underlie decision-making on senior leadership appointments, and there is a growing body of academic research that can help in this regard.


Let’s start with a basic recognition that North America and Europe both have fairly significant populations and strong education systems. Could this reasonably account for Western dominance of senior leadership positions? A 2018 study of the distribution of UN senior leadership appointments from 1947 to 2007 found that:


“While the Western countries’ share of world population and GDP have been steadily declining since the creation of the United Nations, their control over the U.N. Secretariat has not wavered; in 2007 they continued to hold 47% of Secretariat positions, while their world population share fell from 18% to 12% … in spite of the widely discussed rise to international prominence of middle income countries like the BRICs, Western Europe and its offshoots have not lost control over this key U.N. body.” - Novosad & Werker, “Who runs the international system? Nationality and leadership in the United Nations Secretariat”, 2018


With almost half of leaders being selected from only 12% of the global population, it’s hard to believe that the UN is truly selecting the most capable leaders, even with their advantages in terms of education systems. As observers at Devex have said in relation to the OCHA selection:


“We’ve done the math, and it is considerably more likely for the Security Council chamber to be destroyed by a piece of space junk than the most qualified candidate happening to be a U.K. national six times in a row.” - B. Donaldson & E. Teimory, "Opinion: It's time to end the UK monopoly on UN humanitarian affairs", May 2024


Assumptions that UN leaders from a particular region are better performers than others is further dispelled by a 2022 study of senior leadership in UN peacekeeping. The study set a performance standard based on battle deaths, civilian victimization, peacekeepers’ misconduct, and casualties among peacekeepers. It then measured 238 civilian and military leaders selected for 38 peacekeeping missions from 1978 to 2017 against the standard and the extent to which strong performance factored into their renewal or the appointment of another leader from the same country. Performance varied across leaders and the hypothesis that a leader's or a country’s strong track record was the primary reason for renewed selection could not be confirmed. Rather, the study found that:


"Leaders from large troop contributors or permanent members of the Security Council are more likely to endure in post, and they may also be partly shielded from the effects of poor mission performance.” - M. Lundgren, K. Oksamytna, & V. Bove, “Politics or Performance? Leadership Accountability in UN Peacekeeping”, 2022


This then leads to the need to unpack another fundamental assumption about senior leadership appointments in the UN. Part of being a successful leader in the UN involves garnering member state support (politically, financially, materially etc.) for the organization to fulfill its mandate effectively and demonstrate relevance and legitimacy through strong performance. It can, and has been argued, that selecting leaders from powerful member states should help facilitate this process. But what does the research tell us?


New research on UN funding confirms that when assessed and voluntary funding streams are taken together for the UN system, many Western states are paying disproportionately more to the UN than other member states. That same research also highlights that the money flows are not just a result of greater wealth of those donor states or an altruistic willingness to donate, cultivated by their personnel working within the top echelons of the UN. Rather, it is a means of controlling UN programming and asserting priorities upon which it would be difficult to gain consensus across the full UN membership of 193 member states (see our April 2024 spotlight for more on this).


The idea that the allocation of senior positions is about more than just financial donations is also reinforced by specific studies on UN senior appointments. A study of senior appointments to UN peacekeeping from 1990 to 2017 found linkages between appointments and the provision of troops, but not necessarily money. It also found that the emphasis on a leader's perceived ability to leverage political influence or troop contributions resulted in some poor leadership selections.


"Despite some role that skills play in the appointment process, the UN’s dependence on troop contributors, together with its reliance on institutionally powerful states, can be a source of dysfunction if it prevents the organization from selecting effective peacekeeping leaders." - K. Oksamtyna, V. Bove & M. Lundgren, "Leadership Selection in United Nations Peacekeeping", 2020


The study found that countries that supply a significant number of troops and are geographically close to the conflict, and therefore have regional political influence, have had an increasing likelihood of obtaining senior leadership posts. Being from a donor country with high bilateral assistance to the conflict country did not, however, increase the chance of getting a top position, nor did being from a country with particularly strong military capabilities. They also found no correlation between the leaders’ experience or skills (except their language skills to some extent) and their likelihood of being selected. The most dominant factor in determining selections was being from a troop contributing country, which led to more appointments as Force Commanders, or being from one of the Western P3 countries in the Security Council, which increased the likelihood of becoming the head of the entire peacekeeping mission. The mixed results of the study point to the desire of member states to be able to exert a certain level of control over UN operations as another important factor in determining who leads UN entities.


That the United States, which contributes more than 25% of the UN’s peacekeeping budget, or that Troop Contributing Countries, which put the lives of thousands of their citizens on the line every year, want some assurances that UN peacekeeping missions are well-run and effective is entirely reasonable. But as the 2022 study cited above demonstrates, asserting control of peacekeeping missions by dominating their leadership does not lead to better performance. In fact, it can stymie efforts to appoint leaders who will improve the performance of UN peacekeeping missions. This point has also been made by former heads of UN peacekeeping, such as Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who found that the focus on appointing Force Commanders from Troop Contributing Countries:


“weakens the loyalty of commanders to the UN and leads to a dangerous system of rotations, limiting the pool of applicants, with the risk that the wrong commander may sometimes have to be appointed.” - Jean-Marie Guéhenno, “The Fog of Peace: A Memoir of International Peace-keeping in the 21st Century”, 2015


The inverse relationship between member state control and UN performance has also been confirmed by other studies of the UN development system. In a study that used quantitative methods to examine the performance of 54 international organization while undertaking qualitative case studies of seven UN entities, Professor Ranjit Lall demonstrated that strong performance of international organizations was linked to greater political autonomy while poor performance was linked to increased control and interference by member states. In short, the more autonomy that UN leaders can carve out from their member states, the better the organization will performance. But that requires loyalty to the UN, independence and a lot of skill - all of which is more likely to be present when leaders are selected objectively and on the basis of competence rather than politics.


The importance of effective leadership is a point also made by a study on the death of international organizations, which is the final assumption that our spotlight examines. Fears about potential decline or dissolution of the UN due to the potential withdrawal of key member states appear almost as relevant today as during the early years of the UN, given Brexit and the possibility of another Trump presidency. Despite the example of the League of Nations, quantitative studies of international organizations, which have existed in various forms since 1815, show that the majority do survive. The risk of dissolution or complete irrelvance exists, particularly for smaller international organizations. But while 33% of smaller international organizations have met this fate, only 10% of major international organization like the UN or League of Nations have died. The study which outlined these findings also undertook a qualitative analysis of why some major international organizations died and others didn't. Poor performance and waning support for multilateral cooperation amongst member states signaled the start of an international organization's decline. Those organizations which managed to reinvigorate multilateral cooperation, adapt to emerging needs and develop strategies to resist and reverse the cycle of poor performance survived - all of which was dependent in large part on effective organizational leadership.


"IO agency to adapt the organization or resist the different pressures will also be conditional upon whether IO staff can leverage resources and engage with like-minded actors, but this also clearly requires strategic leadership and organizational direction." - H. Dijkstra & M.J. Debre, "The Death of Major International Organizations: When Institutional Stickiness is not Enough", 2022


Overall, while the political considerations that govern UN senior leadership appointments appear to be legitimate, there is limited evidence to support the assumptions on which they are based. A significant amount of independent research confirms, however, that when political considerations override competence in choosing senior UN leaders it leads to a cycle of poor performance that can become more difficult to fix, thereby creating serious existential risks. If member states really want an effective United Nations, then it is in their own interest to stop ring-fencing positions and support an objective and competitive leadership appointment process. And if UN leadership really wants the organization to be fit for the future, it will prioritize competence and independence in its senior appointments.


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