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

The next UN secretary-general: How to avoid 'hitting the ground stumbling' (part two)
Published 11 Oct 2016 

As discussed in part one of this series, Antonio Guterres will have his hands full with lining up a team to support him when he is expected to replace Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary-general (SG) on 1 January 2017. In addition to staffing, he should address these three issues to set himself apart from Ban and take advantage of his transition and honeymoon period:

Prove a commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment

Advocates for the UN’s first female SG are understandably disappointed by the Council’s selection of a ninth male leader, particularly since there were several well-qualified female candidates in the field. The current SG Ban Ki-moon claims to have increased the number of women in senior positions by more than 40%, representing the highest in UN history. However, research from this year indicates that the rate of female appointments for top posts has stalled, and data from 2015 shows that 84% of Ban’s senior appointments in that year were male.

In this environment, Guterres – who claims to have achieved gender parity at the UN’s refugee agency for positions under his control – should seize all opportunities to follow through on his pledge for gender parity at the UN. As Peter Nadin noted last week, Guterres would do well ‘to seek out a strong female administrator’ as his deputy SG.

Beyond the staffing issue, Anne Marie Goetz suggests that Guterres should take new steps toward adopting the feminist agenda in his first 100 days as a confidence-building measure. She writes:

The agenda combines desperately needed internal reforms to address profound sexism within the UN, with actions to unblock its political and operational work on women’s rights. It also requires early and sustained collaboration between the new appointee and women’s organizations around the world to set priorities and develop a timeline for the fifth World Conference on Women.

Prep a communications strategy

After 10 years of Ban’s behind-the-scenes approach and ‘self-consciously labored public speaking style’, communication skills became an important factor in this year’s SG race. One of Ban’s initial gaffes involved a press conference on his first official day in the office when he said that the issue of capital punishment is for each and every member state to decide, which flew in the face of the UN’s long-standing policy against the death penalty. His staff spent the rest of the day attempting to explain his comment and reassure human rights activists. [fold]

Guterres’ more outspoken and charismatic leadership combined with his deep understanding of UN policies and culture will be a welcome change. He should think carefully about a broad strategy for improving the UN’s communications among staff and member states as well as in demonstrating the organisation’s efforts to the public, especially its successes that often go underreported. The only SG candidate in this year’s race without a Twitter account, Guterres may want to hire some outside communication experts to help with the UN’s online presence. Finally, a clearly articulated vision at the start of his tenure would boost morale among UN staff and add to his credibility with member states.

Listen, consult, and listen again

In the protocol-conscious and at times territorial culture at the UN, it’s important for the SG to be attuned to the current preferences and concerns of member states and staff across the organisation, especially before proposing reforms or engaging in negotiations. During his second month on the job, Ban ran afoul of developing countries when he moved forward with plans to divide the UN’s peacekeeping department and to reshape the disarmament office without the proper consultations.

Guterres will need to lean on his reputation for talking to everybody and listening to everybody. He should use his transition period to consult widely with individual states, regional groups and organisations, voting blocs, staff unions, NGOs, the private sector, etc. These consultations should contribute to Guterres’ reflections on critical questions, such as how he will handle crisis management both within and outside the organisation, how he will deal with tensions among great powers and those between developed and developing countries, how he will move forward with reform proposals, and how the UN can better partner with outside actors to promote its goals.

Looking ahead

While former Deputy SG Mark Malloch-Brown warns that the SG’s time in office is a marathon and not a sprint, he argues that the SG’s first 100 days are critical for winning friends and laying the strategy for the rest of his tenure. In the face of crises ranging from Syria to South Sudan, peacekeeping scandals, and tensions in the Security Council, Guterres will have his fair share of challenges to address. By using his transition wisely to line up a skilled senior team, prove his commitment to gender equality and women’s empowerment, formulate a communications strategy, and listen to the concerns of key stakeholders, he will stand a better chance of establishing his credibility and hitting the ground running.

Photo by Rodrigo Cabrita/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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