The U.N. Has a Diversity Problem
Westerners are overrepresented in senior positions across the world body.
Mark Lowcock (center right), the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and Filippo Grandi (left), U.N. high commissioner for refugees, visit a South Sudanese refugee settlement in Kakuma, Kenya, on Feb. 1, 2018, along with Josphat Nanok (center left), the governor of Turkana County. TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images
For many people around the world, the United Nations has long been associated with struggles for equal rights and racial justice—stemming from its work during the era of decolonization, as well as its support for the American civil rights movement and the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
But in a year of worldwide protests for racial justice, the world body is increasingly under fire for failing to promote equality in its own ranks, especially in the recruitment and hiring of employees from developing countries for the most sought-after positions.
With its 193 member states, the U.N. is one of the most diverse institutions in the world—and yet, according to its critics, the agency has a diversity problem.
The United Nations still employs more people from the United States—some 2,531 or 6.75 percent of the entire U.N. workforce—than from any other country, according to an April 2019 U.N. report on staff demographics, even as the Trump administration complains about America’s waning power at the agency and the oversized influence of other countries.
Many European powers, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain, are considered by the U.N.’s calculations to be overrepresented, meaning they have more employees per capita than most other countries in the world.
For people from the developing world, there are plenty of field jobs available in conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Mali. But the best-paying, most senior jobs at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva and New York go disproportionately to Westerners.
Nowhere has this gap between poor and rich countries been more evident than in the U.N.’s emergency relief agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. OCHA was established by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1991, to coordinate the activities of the U.N.’s myriad relief agencies in response to natural disasters or complex emergencies brought on by conflict or political collapse.
The hiring practices at OCHA have fueled criticism from staffers—including from Western nationals in senior positions—who say the humanitarian relief office operates like a neocolonial fiefdom with a particularly Anglo-Saxon complexion. The U.N. glass ceiling has been particularly hard for Africans to crack, though there have been some prominent African U.N. leaders, including former Secretaries-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt and Kofi Annan of Ghana. At OCHA, members of the African country blocs account for 23 percent of overall posts, according to internal data obtained by Foreign Policy, but they are largely invisible in the agency’s top ranks at U.N. headquarters. The Asian, Latin American, and Eastern European blocs fared even worse, accounting for only 16 percent, 4 percent, and 3 percent of OCHA staff, respectively.
The department’s Western tilt begins at the very top.
In the past 13 years, the institution has been led by four former British government officials, each accepted to the job in a noncompetitive hiring process. All were white men, with the exception of Valerie Amos, a Black woman who was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) and served as a British politician before running OCHA from 2010 to 2015.
The vast majority of senior staff are recruited from Western countries that donate to U.N. relief efforts, even while the majority of the agency’s operations are in Africa and Asia. Some 54 percent of U.N. posts at the humanitarian offices worldwide are held by nationals from the U.N.’s Western bloc—more than the positions held by nationals from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe combined.
At the U.N.’s New York headquarters, the figures are even more weighted toward the West, with 71 percent of jobs held by nationals from Western countries. At least 90 percent of employees in some divisions and branches, including the policy branch and the strategic communications branch, are Westerners.
The disparity has fueled mounting resentment from staff against Mark Lowcock, an economist who served as the permanent secretary at the British Department for International Development (DFID) before taking charge at OCHA in September 2017.
“OCHA has a racism and neocolonialism problem. And it starts at the top,” one OCHA staffer wrote in March in a formal complaint to the U.N. internal oversight body. “Mr. Lowcock has consistently handed or maintained key positions of power and influence within the Organization to White and British people.”
“To look at OCHA’s leadership webpage is to be immediately and visually struck by the consequences of white privilege and the continued dominance of the white gaze in international aid. Twelve out of 15 photos on the page are of White people,” according to the complaint, which was reviewed by Foreign Policy. “Just three are of People of Colour. And none (yes, ZERO) are of Black people.”
All but one of the senior team at OCHA are members of the Western bloc.
Britain, which played a foundational role in shaping the U.N. after World War II, is one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that have secured virtual monopolies on the body’s most sought-after cabinet-level posts.
Chinese diplomats have led the Department of Economic and Social Affairs for over a decade, using the office to promote Beijing’s signature trade and infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative; French government officials have for more than 20 years run the U.N. peacekeeping department, which oversees missions in Africa and the Middle East, regions where France still aspires to exercise its diplomatic influence. Former U.S. State Department officials have headed the U.N. political affairs office since March 2007. Russia, which has lacked a top-level job at U.N. headquarters, succeeded in installing a former Russian official as the world body’s newly established counterterrorism czar.
Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. diplomat who served as undersecretary-general for political affairs, said that he felt it was “inappropriate” to bring in his own staff from Washington into the department he led. The department’s staff, he noted, was already dominated by American, Japanese, and Italian nationals (though many of those officials’ families hailed from the developing world). “I was always concerned that given the fact that we worked on political issues, political monitoring and political developments, that our staff needed to reflect the membership at large,” he told Foreign Policy.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has expressed concern about what he sees as the underrepresentation of developing countries at the United Nations, particularly in Africa, saying it is a “delusion” to believe we live in a post-racist world.
“The creation of the United Nations was based on a new global consensus around equality and human dignity. And a wave of decolonization swept the world,” Guterres said in the annual Nelson Mandela lecture this July. “But let’s not fool ourselves. The legacy of colonialism still reverberates.”
“Africa has been a double victim,” said Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who is one of four Western Europeans to have held the top U.N. job in a non-acting capacity. “First, as a target of the colonial project. Second, African countries are underrepresented in the international institutions that were created after the Second World War, before most of them had won independence.”
But the U.N. chief has also stumbled on matters of race. In June, as racial justice protests broke out across the world, the U.N. ethics office instructed U.N. staff not to participate, citing the need for U.N. civil servants to remain neutral in the face of social unrest in member states. The U.N. chief initially endorsed the ethics office’s instruction, according to diplomatic sources. After critics raised objections—noting that the institution’s most famous African American official, the Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, at the height of the civil rights movement—Guterres reversed the ban.
In a subsequent town hall meeting, Guterres assured staffers that the instruction “does not in any way indicate that staff are to remain neutral or impartial in the face of racism. To the contrary, there is no ban on personal expressions of solidarity or acts of peaceful civic engagement, provided they are carried out in an entirely private capacity.”
In August, the U.N. was forced to cancel a “U.N. Survey on Racism” that asked respondents to identify the color of their skin and included the color “yellow” among the options. The question triggered an uproar given that yellow has historically been viewed as a racial slur against Asians. The other categories included black, brown, white, mixed/multi-racial, and other.
In June, in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and ensuing racial justice protests, an association of U.N. staffers conducted a survey of U.N. employees of African descent to assess perceptions of racism. The survey by the Association of United Nations People of African Descent, which drew responses from more than 2,000 people, found that some 52 percent had experienced some form of racism.
“We witness discrimination in all areas—job opportunities, promotions, training opportunities etc,” one anonymous respondent said. Another noted that “it’s very hard to see Africans appointed at HQ level.” A third complained that a disproportionate number of senior jobs went to nationals from the Western group.
“As an African, I am given the impression that my career path is limited to dangerous duty stations,” said a fourth. A copy of the survey was shared with Foreign Policy.
The U.N. Charter requires staff to be hired on the basis of merit, but “due regard shall be paid to the importance of recruiting the staff on as wide a geographical basis as possible.” Several officials complained that Guterres’s office has done too little to expand opportunities for nationals from the developing world in OCHA.
An OCHA spokesperson acknowledged that the department needed to do more to advance diversity but said that the OCHA has made gains since Lowcock, the current U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, took over in 2017.
“We are determined to increase the diversity of OCHA’s work force and we are taking action to achieve this,” said Zoe Paxton, OCHA’s spokesperson, a British national who previously worked for Lowcock at Britain’s premier development agency. “This includes the recruitment of diverse external talent for senior positions, promoting national staff to international roles, and investing in leadership development.”
Paxton said OCHA had recently appointed two nationals from outside the Western bloc to senior positions: Ramesh Rajasingham, a dual French and Sri Lankan national who is serving as the acting assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, and Muhannad Hadi, a Jordanian national who was hired this month as the U.N.’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria. The office has a number of vacant senior posts, providing an “opportunity to make progress in increasing the proportion of [non-Western] staff.” OCHA has also reduced the portion of staff from the Western bloc from two-thirds (63 percent) to around one-half (54 percent) since 2016, Paxton said. But she vowed that “there is more to do and we will not stop now.”
Some of the most significant improvements, she said, occurred in field jobs, where the proportion of Western nationals dropped from 49 percent to 42 percent since 2016. The U.N. also reduced the proportion of Westerners in the most junior professional staff from 60 percent to under 42 percent.
But gains have not been made in the agency’s higher ranks, where Western candidates have the best chance of advancing.
A posted list of OCHA’s 15-member leadership team includes only one national from a country outside the Western group. OCHA’s spokesperson served with Lowcock in the British aid office, DFID, and the undersecretary-general’s personal office is managed by three Western staffers, including a British chief of staff who also served at DFID, a Swedish deputy chief of staff, and a Canadian personal assistant.
The U.N. humanitarian affairs office relies on voluntary contributions to its budget to a much larger degree than other departments in the U.N. Secretariat. That gives the leadership greater freedom to hire and promote employees without having to go through the U.N. budget committees, which seek to enforce broader geographical representation.
Critics inside the organization argue that Lowcock has used those powers to fill his top ranks with Westerners. Several key recent hires, including nationals from Sweden, Italy, and Norway, have been made without posting the job so other staffers could apply, according to numerous OCHA staffers. OCHA contends that it has relied on experienced human resources managers to ensure that “all rules are scrupulously followed” in hiring.
The lack of upward mobility has sapped morale in the humanitarian agency, particularly in its New York headquarters office, according to insiders. A 2019 internal staff survey across the organization showed that OCHA’s scores were lower than other departments in the U.N. Secretariat, reflecting concerns about work-life balance, innovation, and staff retention. It revealed that “less than half of OCHA staff (47%) think that people at all levels are held accountable for unethical behavior.”
Morale was considerably worse in headquarters where workers felt “not empowered and energized,” compared to their colleagues in the field. The field workers also registered more positive views on their work life and a greater sense that women were treated equally to men.
“Staff at HQ are significantly less content than field-based colleagues in every single area,” according to the survey. “They report higher stress levels, lower confidence in senior leadership, and greater dissatisfaction with their career prospects.”
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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