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The most important UN elections you’ve (probably) never heard of

29 October 2023

By Dr. Hannah Davies


a glowing blue sphere with symbols and words like intentional control and performance

Both delegates to the UN and UN staff are well aware of the impact of the ACABQ on the management and performance of the UN, even if not everyone is sure what the acronym stands for. Delegates are also very familiar with the Committee on Contributions, which determines the rates for assessed funding. Regular readers of our newsletter will likely also remember our recent post on the evolution of audit mechanisms, like the BOA and IAAC, and how their approach can be a tool for change management in the UN. These are all technical bodies, whose members can have significant impact on the funding, performance and accountability of the UN. But how is their membership decided?


This Friday, 3 November 2023, the UN General Assembly's Fifth Committee will appoint members of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), the Committee on Contributions (CoC), the Board of Auditors (BoA) and the Independent Audit Advisory Committee (IAAC). Since the second session of the General Assembly in 1947 there has been a specific agenda item for the Fifth called “Appointments to fill vacancies in subsidiary organs and other appointments” (General Assembly decision 73/417). These are all technical bodies and the individuals appointed serve in their personal capacity. Nevertheless, given their potential to impact the funding and the effective functioning of the UN, member states have a vested interest in their composition - as do other stakeholders and UN staff, even if they may not realize it. While the number and composition of these bodies has changed over the last 77 years, the unavoidably political nature of the appointments continues to reveal much about shifting power dynamics and emerging financial players within the UN system.


It is also worth following who is being nominated and supported by member states to understand the management policy and performance impacts. The definition of diversity for the UN system is set by the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) as ReformWorks has highlighted before, but do its members have experience with diversity, equity and inclusion policies? When the ICSC developed and agreed the changes to pay and conditions which negatively affected single mothers, there were no women on the Commission. The ICSC does not have appointments to fill this round, but the ACABQ also has significant impact on all the management policies and approaches of the UN - yet there has only ever been one woman Chair of the ACABQ, a role with a significant degree of autonomy and discretion. As with many things about the UN bureaucracy, there is a surprising degree of transparency, which allows UN observers, staff and stakeholders to follow these appointment processes. All candidates CVs are published as official documents. While there is no standard template, it is possible to see for example if candidates have relevant technical experience what kind of track record they have.


While the candidates in these elections should, in theory, have relevant technical expertise in related issues like audit, finance and human resources – this is not always the case. Many years ago, when I was working in the secretariat of the Fifth Committee, one of my first jobs was to prepare the official documentation for the elections. As I was reading through the note about the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), it states that at least three out of the members had to be “financial experts of recognized standing”, I asked a more experienced colleague which of the three current members were the experts. He looked at me archly and responded that they are all recognized financial experts. His point being that in a politically competitive member state environment, no representative from one country could set themselves up as being better or more expert than one from another country.


Despite the fact that members of technical bodies serve in their personal capacity, the majority of individuals appointed over the past decade have been current or former government officials. Many of them have themselves been in the Fifth Committee. They often recycle through other UN bodies gaining a certain kind of UN experience rather than the relevant external technical professional expertise on key management issues like procurement, human resources, or complex IT systems.


Of the committees with members up for election, the ACABQ is the one with the most impact on the work of the UN. Not only does it review and make recommendations on all UN Secretariat activities and General Assembly decisions with budgetary implications – from peace operations, to ICT procurement – it also reviews the budgets of UN Specialized Agencies such as UNHCR, UNWomen and UNDP. The recommendations of the ACABQ form the basis of Fifth Committee decision-making. The content of the ACABQ’s reports are significant, not only on the resources that get allocated such as number and level of staff, but also in terms of cross-cutting management policy. If the ACABQ report recommends something, Fifth Committee convention means that it would have to “take note” of any paragraph containing something it didn’t agree with. Given the difficulties of consensus decision making in a fractious member state environment, the more the committee can agree with the ACABQ, the easier the process.


However, the ACABQ now has 21 members after the General Assembly voted in 2020 to expand from 16. The expansion was opposed by many member states – including all the western group who have historically been the main financial contributors dominating budgetary decision making. From its beginnings as a nine person committee, membership has been based on geographical allocation of seats. The current allocation is five each for African and Asian states, four each for Latin America and Caribbean (GRULAC) and Western European and Other (WEOG) and three for Eastern Europe. Some observers have argued that the expansion has effectively created a mini-Fifth Committee with the ACABQ talking a political rather than an expert approach to budgetary decisions.


This year there are 10 vacancies in the ACABQ outlined in the table below.

Regional Group

Number of Vacancies

Country of Candidates

Africa

2

Chad, Tunisia & Uganda

Asia

1

India

Latin America and the Caribbean (GRULAC)

2

Brazil, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay

Eastern Europe

2

Lithuania & Russian Federation

Western Europe and Other (WEOG)

2

UK & USA

Since the number of candidates matches the number of vacancies for each of the Asian, Eastern Europe and Western European groups there will be no ballot for these seats. Mirroring the Security Council, the USA and the Russian Federation have almost continuously had their nationals represented on the Committee and could be considered quasi-permanent members. The UK candidate replaces the Turkish member for the WEOG seat. The UK has not been on the ACABQ since 2016 and the nomination is interesting since leaving the EU, the UK has sought a greater profile and more influence in the UN.


Of the three candidates for the African seats, one is the existing Chair Abdallah Bachar Bong from Chad who is likely to be re-elected. Caroline Nalwanga from Uganda is also a current member, which usually comes with an incumbent advantage. The most competitive race is likely for the two GRULAC seats – two of the candidates Juliana Ruas from Brazil and Julia Macel from Paraguay are current members and have both been Vice-Chairs of the Committee. The candidate from Honduras is a previous ACABQ member and ambassador.


The Board of Auditors is regarded very highly by the General Assembly and its recommendations are almost always accepted. There is no formal geographical requirements for the three members but in practice they come from different regions and always include at least one member from the global south. This year, Brazil is unopposed and will be on the BoA for the first time, replacing the Comptroller General of the Republic of Chile, joining the President of the French Court of Accounts and China’s Auditor-General. Only 19 member states have ever been appointed to the BoA and the position comes with a certain degree of prestige.


Another expert technical committee with an advisory role to the GA is the IAAC – established in 2007 – to advise the General Assembly on the scope, results and effectiveness of audit and oversight functions including measures to ensure the compliance of UN management with recommendations. The IAAC also plays an important role in coordinating audit and oversight mechanisms which an impact the focus on performance and constructive change and reform by oversight bodies or can result in audit overload for staff. The IAAC also reinforces the independence of oversight bodies, including as of this year the UN Ethics Office. The IAAC has five members, reflecting the geographical distribution of member states and candidates are required to have a degree of relevant audit expertise. The IAAC also demands a cooling off period before working in the Secretariat and serving in the Committee. This year, two nominations – from South Africa and France – are unopposed.


Of key interest to Member States – but of less concern to the Secretariat - is the Committee on Contributions (CoC) which advises the Assembly on the scales of assessment that determine how much each country pays towards the UN. While a more specialist committee than the ACABQ, membership of the COC is also divided between UN regional groups. Over the years, as the membership of the GA has grown so has the committee – rising from 10 to 18 members. As patterns of contributions to the UN evolve with western states no longer being so dominant, the dynamics of the committee could shift. This year there are eight candidates competing for six seats. The two WEOG seats are uncontested with the German member returning and the Turkish candidate coming onto the Committee (a straight seat swap with the UK for ACABQ perhaps). The Brazilian candidate – already a member - is also uncontested for the GRULAC vacancy which means Brazil could potentially be represented in three bodies.


Two vacancies for the Asian members are contested among three candidates from Saudi Arabia, China and the Republic of Korea. Given China’s status as a top financial contributor to the UN, their candidate is likely to be returned. An Estonian candidate is challenging the Russian Federation for the vacant Eastern European seat. Given wider geo-politics surrounding the invasion of Ukraine it will be interesting to see how support for the Russian candidate holds up in this more technical committee.


For more information, visit the UN General Assembly 5th Committe Appointments


Dr. Hannah Davies is a freelance consultant and researcher with a focus on international public administration. She spent 15 years working for the UN in a range of communication and management related roles.



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