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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 22:08 | SYDNEY

The next UN secretary-general: How to avoid ''hitting the ground stumbling' (part one)

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10 October 2016 14:36

This is part one of a two-part series that looks at the task ahead for the next UN secretary-general. The first post will examine the immediate staffing challenges and part two will offer strategies to address gender issues, communication, and consultations.

With the UN Security Council recommending Antonio Guterres as the next secretary-general (SG) last week, the competition to succeed Ban Ki-moon is all but over and the 'race is on to join team Guterres at the UN'. The President of the General Assembly plans to present a presidential text on Guterres to the Assembly early this week for action at a meeting on 13 October. Assuming the General Assembly approves the Council's recommendation, the former Portuguese prime minister who most recently served a 10-year stint as UN refugee chief will replace Ban on 1 January 2017 for a five-year term.

Member states and UN watchers alike agree that the next SG must hit the ground running, given the 'daunting to-do list' on the UN's agenda. SG candidates' informal dialogues with the General Assembly highlighted the concerns of member states, including implementing the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the Paris climate agreement, improving conflict prevention, and reforming the organisation's peace operations. UN experts have also shared their views on priorities for the next SG: Richard Gowan focuses on the next SG's peace and security agenda; Karin Landgren on leadership; Thomas Weiss and Tatiana Carayannis on reform proposals; and Gowan, Lawrence Woocher, and Daniel Solomon on preventing mass atrocities.

As the next SG, Guterres will undoubtedly face direct comparisons to Ban, just as Ban did to his predecessor Kofi Annan. Ban famously struggled in his first 100 days. Global headlines like The Australian's 'UN chief hits the ground stumbling' and the Financial Times' 'Ban's month of muddle' swirled before the paint was dry on Ban's new office. It's now Guterres' turn to tackle what many have called 'the most impossible job in the world,' and while he will be taking the helm as an insider with deep expertise in the UN and its organisational culture (unlike Ban), there are several things he should keep in mind to ensure he avoids the pitfalls that vexed his predecessor.

Get the staffing ducks in a row

Senior appointments are critical for several reasons. First, the SG needs the best people by his side to deal with escalating global crises and the UN's draconian bureaucracy. Second, the leadership picks play a big role in how member states initially judge a new SG, and there are literally hundreds of appointments to make (around 100 at the under-secretary-general level alone).

Although Ban had a longer transition period than any of his predecessors, some of his early decisions related to senior appointments sparked questions as to how wisely he used his transition time. By appointing Mexican biologist Alicia Barcena as head of management and British diplomat John Holmes as humanitarian chief, Ban's selections immediately raised concerns about his vetting process and his ability to find qualified candidates. Ban made matters worse by appointing then-foreign minister of Tanzania Asha-Rose Migiro as his deputy SG after speaking with her on a six-hour flight. Ban erred badly again when he asked top managers to tender their resignations at the beginning of his term without a plan for which he would accept or how he would replace so many officials at once, which left many in limbo. And on top of all of that, UN insiders criticised Ban for 'importing a Korean mafia' – five officials he brought from the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs – to his executive office, claiming it showed disrespect for the UN's multinational structure.

With nearly three months before he assumes the SG post, Guterres has hopefully already starting thinking about how best to take advantage of own transition period to line up his team. Instead of using an ad hoc group of transition advisers who went on to hold new UN posts (as Ban did), Thant Myint-U suggests that a properly managed transition team 'with its own temporary structure and clear principles on potential conflicts of interest' could be of 'immeasurable assistance' to the next SG.

Guterres will also need to find a way to balance increasing demands from developing countries for greater geographical representation in the UN's senior ranks with efforts by the Security Council's permanent five members to hold certain posts for their nationals. It's still unclear whether Guterres has made any staffing promises, if at all, to Council members in exchange for support. It wouldn't be surprising if he has, particularly with the Russians who were initially pushing for an Eastern European candidate.

In addition to appointments made at the SG level, the UN's general recruitment and staffing mechanisms are badly in need of repair, and Guterres would be wise to address them head on. As of earlier this year, it took on average more than 200 days to fill a position. Megan Roberts explains, 'Although staffing issues may seem a dry, administrative issue, the next SG would be wise to exploit his or her early window of opportunity to push for a timely, competitive, and merit-based recruitment model.'

Read part two of this series here

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Lev Glick

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