Consult the Community: Picking the Next UN Humanitarian Chief

On February 7, Mark Lowcock announced his retirement as the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator and head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Lowcock’s announcement, after a tenure marked by a series of substantial humanitarian challenges, has led to widespread speculation in the humanitarian community as to his successor. Attention immediately turned to the United Kingdom for suitable candidates; the last four heads of OCHA have hailed from the United Kingdom.

As UN secretary-general (SG) António Guterres considers the next OCHA head, he should carry out a transparent and open process. Identifying the best person to lead OCHA should not be based on arbitrary allocations of senior posts to permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) or humanitarian funding levels, but rather should be based on the proven ability to lead the humanitarian community and galvanize humanitarian action in an increasingly complicated political environment. Ultimately, the UN secretary-general retains the authority to appoint whomever he or she deems most fit for the position, but the selection process remains opaque and exclusive, and critics assert that the process is governed by realpolitik rather than merit.

Following the pattern of allocating under-secretary-general posts based on nationality would be out of sync with the political realities of today. In the past, OCHA leadership has been largely determined by an unspoken political arrangement, whereby certain UN member countries are granted key leadership positions. The United Kingdom, for instance, has held the top leadership position in humanitarian affairs for the past 14 years. These individuals are recommended by member states and tend to be political allies of the member state’s ruling party.

In the case of the emergency relief coordinator, the United Kingdom is in weak position to make a compelling case for leadership of OCHA. First, the Tory government in power has announced a substantial reduction in foreign aid spending from 0.7 to 0.5 percent of gross national income. This funding decrease is already evident in reductions in commitments to some of the world’s most pressing crises. At the recent Yemen donor conference, the United Kingdom’s commitment dropped to less than half of previous years, demonstrating the immediate impact of the overall cuts. An appointment of a British national at a time of budget reductions, and in the face of rising needs, would send the wrong message, in effect rewarding London while it is reducing its humanitarian commitments.

Further, on account of Brexit and the decision to withdraw from the European Union, continental governments may no longer consider the UK candidate as representative of their bloc. Rumors abound about candidates from European donors, notable as the EU European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) contribution to humanitarian action now substantially exceeds that of the United Kingdom. Scandinavian countries as well seem eager to get in the mix, premised on their self-perception as principled humanitarian donors, and possibly drawing on the success of the tenure of Jan Egeland of Norway, who remains well regarded for his willingness to challenge UNSC members for inaction in responding to major crises.

There is also no formal reason for OCHA to be led by a British national. Prior to the appointment of John Holmes in January 2007, OCHA was led by a Swede, Dane, Brazilian, and two Japanese, along with Egeland. The practice of selecting a UK national has to do with UNSC politics and practice rather than the need to identify the right person for the job. Prior to Holmes’ appointment, the United Kingdom held the under-secretary-general for political affairs. In 2007, however, that appointment went to an American, and as something of a consolation prize, the OCHA position was offered to the United Kingdom. Security Council observers describe an informal agreement among permanent members, whereby the United States leads the Department of Political Affairs, the French the Department of Peace Operations (Peacekeeping), the Chinese hold the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and the United Kingdom OCHA, akin to a modern-day Sykes-Picot agreement.

There is an intuitive rationale for the head of OCHA to have a nuanced understanding of the politics of the Security Council and a relationship with leading donors to humanitarian action. Humanitarian challenges are growing, with funding needs for basic lifesaving assistance soaring and with a desperate need for political solutions. However, merely assigning such a crucial function to the United Kingdom without a consultative process would send a very mixed message to a humanitarian sector increasingly seeing agitation from within, as well as from the populations it seeks to serve, to become more diverse, representative, and transparent about its processes and decisionmaking.

Now more than ever, an open and transparent process is vital to restore confidence in the UN leadership of the humanitarian sector. OCHA’s website highlights the importance of community engagement in humanitarian action, emphasizing the need for two-way dialogue between crisis-affected communities and humanitarian actors. Community engagement is essential for effective humanitarian response; an open and transparent process to select the future head of OCHA would demonstrate that the principle applies to the agency itself.

Skepticism abounds as to the openness of the process. While Guterres has put out a public call for applicants, he should now also lead a widespread and inclusive consultation to identify suitable candidates from across the world. A consultative process need not be onerous, expensive, or drawn out, but it must be inclusive, transparent, and thorough. Discussions should be held with leading donor states, governments of conflict-affected areas, representatives of populations experiencing humanitarian need, nongovernmental organizations, and other civil society representatives. Already, leading coalitions of humanitarian organizations have outlined the qualities necessary for an effective candidate. Drawing names of potential candidates from those coalitions and their member organizations is a logical next step.

Such a process held in the open through the virtual events that dominate today’s professional environment could culminate in a list that is presented to the SG. Ultimately, the decision remains that of the SG, and not without good reason. Due to its multiple responsibilities, OCHA must have a good working relationship with the SG’s office, along with the members of the Security Council. However, a candidate that emerges out of such a process, even if from the donor states, would at minimum retain a higher degree of credibility and legitimacy then a candidate selected in an opaque process, with stakeholders excluded.

As the humanitarian community undergoes a reckoning internally and operationally, the last thing it needs is a diplomatic parlor game for its most visible position. Guterres and the future head of OCHA would both be well served to set aside past practice. While unorthodox, times are changing. The secretary-general himself is facing an ambitious challenge from within the UN system, and adapting positive and forward-leaning approaches to filling high-level positions would set a meaningful standard for his own approach toward another term.

Jacob Kurtzer is the director and senior fellow of the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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