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Carol Bellamy, the outgoing head of the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), has bemoaned the lack of women in top U.N. posts. The organization that preaches gender equality to national governments needs some “affirmative action” to put women in senior positions, she said, adding that other organizations such as the World Bank and the U.N. Development Program should also look to female chief executives.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan agreed. Official figures cited in a news report earlier this month showed that only 9 of the 27 jobs as a U.N. agency or program head as well as 12 of the 54 senior posts in the U.N. Secretariat in New York are held by women. It is good to see a prominent women leader make a public issue of it.

All sectors of global society could do with better gender representation. But few people realize that the plight of Asians in senior positions is proportionately even worse than that of women. So where are the prominent Asian leaders publicly demanding attention to this issue?

There is a bit of a turmoil at present in the senior ranks of the U.N. The secretary general’s chief of staff was replaced in December. Most recently, the high commissioner for refugees, Rudd Lubbers, resigned Feb. 24 under pressure from New York. Other top-level changes are anticipated this year. Thus the opportunity is there to redress both gender and geographical imbalances.

This immediately raises fears of fair representation being forced down the throats of organizations at the cost of efficiency. Some commentators blame the U.N.’s human resources crisis on “counterproductive quotas, nepotism and outlandishly generous tenure policies” that ultimately make “senior appointments a challenge.”

Is the human resources crisis caused by quotas? On close scrutiny, this turns out to be a myth. Senior appointments are more a mix of power and money than quota politics. The success rate of governments using pressure to get their nominees appointed is directly proportional to the location of the countries in the international power and wealth hierarchy and, to a lesser extent, to their numbers in U.N. geographical groups.

The quota system serves as a scapegoat for the failings of mainly Western senior managers. Almost all the powerful and big-budget senior posts in the Secretariat and in the United Nations system are filled by Westerners, including peacekeeping, political affairs, management, development and environment programs, the children’s fund, human rights, refugees, etc.

Viewed from Asia, the top of the U.N. looks decidedly Atlantic. A former senior Asian ambassador to the U.N. commented at a regional seminar in Sydney last year that it was difficult for Asians to connect with the U.N. when its senior officials dealing with Asia were non-Asians. Other ambassadors and ministers at the seminar concurred.

Hood’s main target was peacekeeping staff. By geographical grouping, Asians contribute about half the U.N.’s total peacekeepers and one-quarter of its regular and peacekeeping budget (almost three-quarters of this comes just from Japan). They have also suffered around one-quarter of total U.N. peacekeeping deaths. But a year ago, there was not a single Asian in the senior ranks of the peacekeeping department. Two-thirds of senior DPKO staff are Westerners.

In the U.N. Secretariat overall, Asians comprise a mere 17 percent of senior U.N. staff at the grades of director and above (and 12 percent of high-level representatives). Much attention is focused on promoting women to senior posts. With women making up one-third of senior posts, they too are under-represented, but fare better than Asians.

(It is worth slaying another myth — that the U.N. is top-heavy. Of the 2,500 professional staff in the U.N. Secretariat a year ago, 13 percent were in the senior ranks.)

Of the senior staff, nearly one-third are from the five permanent members of the Security Council. Among them, Canada (9) and the United States (47), together with 5 percent of the world’s population, have the same number of senior staff in the Secretariat as all of Asia, which has 60 percent of the world’s population, contains some of the world’s oldest civilizations and is not short of experienced and sophisticated diplomats. This situation exists in an organization that supposedly promotes popular and national sovereignty.

Moreover, Asians tend to be high achievers. U.S. census data for 2004 show that Asian-born Americans had the highest median income with $62,551, compared with $55,714 for European-born, $33,962 for Latin American-born, and $42,677 for all foreign-born.

Asians’ underachievement in the U.N. system is, at best, a curiosity that needs investigation and explanation; at worst, it is a scandal reflecting the fact that Asians are the least united and cohesive of all the regional groups in the U.N. system.

Making a public fuss is alien to the Asian way. But in the culture of self-serving and self-advancing arguments at the U.N., the result is a failure by Asian government representatives to promote the interests of their people in the U.N. system. They should be more assertive in proposing competent Asians for senior posts and then in lobbying for them.

Maybe the U.N. has not been very effective in rebutting recent charges against it, including those related to the Iraq oil-for-food scandal. Perhaps the organization needs to revamp its grievance procedures so that: genuine whistle-blowers and victims are protected from the wrath of vengeful or lecherous bosses; managers are protected from mischievous charges laid against them by disgruntled employees whose hopes for rapid advancement have been frustrated; and staff and the world at large are given prompt and satisfactory accounts of action taken.

Whatever faults may exist at the senior levels of the U.N., the blame for them does not lie in geographical or gender quota appointments.

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