Amos tipped for top U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator
Valerie Amos, a British high commissioner in Australia, has emerged as a frontrunner for the U.N.’s top humanitarian relief coordinator, highlighting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s preference for political appointees over experienced practitioners, diplomats told Turtle Bay. The list of those considered was largely limited to British candidates in a race that reinforced the U.N. practice ...
Valerie Amos, a British high commissioner in Australia, has emerged as a frontrunner for the U.N.'s top humanitarian relief coordinator, highlighting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's preference for political appointees over experienced practitioners, diplomats told Turtle Bay. The list of those considered was largely limited to British candidates in a race that reinforced the U.N. practice of reserving top posts for diplomats or politicians from powerful or influential countries.
Valerie Amos, a British high commissioner in Australia, has emerged as a frontrunner for the U.N.’s top humanitarian relief coordinator, highlighting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s preference for political appointees over experienced practitioners, diplomats told Turtle Bay. The list of those considered was largely limited to British candidates in a race that reinforced the U.N. practice of reserving top posts for diplomats or politicians from powerful or influential countries.
The selection process for the director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs — the most important emergency relief job in the world — was conducted in complete secrecy as are most high-level appointments in the United Nations. It has drawn sharp criticism from representatives of influential humanitarian aid agencies, who argued that the U.N. needs to conduct a more open and competitive recruitment process in order to chose the most experienced and talented candidates in the world.
“As humanitarian nongovernmental organizations, we want a meritocratic selection. The secretary-general should appoint the new emergency relief coordinator on the basis of qualification and experience, instead of that person’s nationality,” said Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, the largest global humanitarian NGO network. “We don’t want a political appointee who might require a year-long training and induction program on humanitarian response. We need someone who understands humanitarian organizations and their work.”
Amos, a senior official in the Labor Party, has had a distinguished career, serving in a number of top government posts, including the head of Britain’s department of international development for six months in 2003 and minister for African affairs in the Foreign Office, positions that oversaw British support for development and relief projects. She has also served as the head of the House of Lords. But she has limited experience managing the kind of massive relief operations that the U.N. typically is called to coordinate following natural calamities, including the Haitian earthquake, the Southeast Asian tsunami, and Burma’s Cyclone Nargis.
U.N.-based diplomats said that Britain proposed Amos and two other British nationals on a short list, including Martin Griffiths, a veteran U.N. relief official, and Barbara Stocking, the head of the British relief agency Oxfam. But they say that Britain has indicated that it favors Amos. Other British candidates whose names have circulated include Michael Williams, the U.N.’s top envoy to Lebanon, and Dr. David Nabarro, a veteran U.N. health and relief official who has headed U.N. task forces on infectious diseases, including avian flu, and food security.
The U.N. has traditionally looked to diplomats and politicians to head its most important relief agencies. Earlier this year, Ban appointed Tony Lake as the head of the U.N. Children’s Fund on the recommendation of the Obama administration. His predecessor, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, was select by Kofi Annan on the recommendation of President George W. Bush. In fact, every single head of the agency has been an American, as the United States contributes most of the agency’s funding.
The U.N.’s top relief job first went to Jan Eliasson, a former Swedish diplomat, and later to the Japanese diplomat Kenzo Oshima. Kofi Annan appointed two officials with extensive experience in the field, the late Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil, a veteran field officer with the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, and Jan Egeland, who had previously headed the Norwegian Red Cross.
The U.N.’s top emergency relief post is currently held by John Holmes, a former foreign policy advisor for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Holmes is stepping down later this year. The British government had initially put forward Holmes as a candidate for the top job in the U.N. Department of Political Affairs. But that post was given to an American, B. Lynn Pascoe, and Holmes was appointed head of OCHA, a position for which he had little experience.
U.N. officials have defended Ban’s selection of political appointees, noting that the U.N. is a fundamentally political institution that requires the participation of member states. Ban’s lawyer compared his hiring style to that of a head of state selecting political appointees to his cabinet. They say that political and diplomatic skills are essentially for an organization that is constantly intervening in crises in foreign countries that have a high degree of sensitivity. They say that Holmes is one of the top performers in Ban’s cabinet.
Humanitarian relief specialists say that they have been pressing the United Nations for years to open up the recruitment process, and that they briefly made headway on a limited number of elections. They cited the selection of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees in 2005.
The U.N. publicized the opening in international publications, invited private relief advocates to serve on the selection panel, and published the names of candidates on the short list. In the end, the competition actually led to the selection of a politician, former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres, not a humanitarian relief expert, but it helped rally broad support among NGOs for his selection. But the U.N. retreated from that practice.
“Gutteres is now arguably the most dynamic leader in the entire UN system,” said Joel R. Charny, a former U.N. official who now serves as vice president for policy and advocacy at Refugees International. “In this day and age, when quality and leadership are so desperately needed on the humanitarian side of the U.N. system, it is unacceptable to back to recruitment by hors trading based on nationality. I can’t comment on Valerie Amos as such, but for the humanitarian affairs post we need a leader along the lines of Jan Egeland, who will fight for humanitarian values to be respected, as well as someone who understand how the system works and can ensure effective management of oversight of emergency operations. The way to find someone with those qualities is through an open transparent recruitment process.”
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Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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