More Representatives, More Diversity

The selection of Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley to serve as the U.S. Department of State’s chief diversity and inclusion officer is an exceptional opportunity to push for improved representation within the ranks of the federal government. It should also be a pivot point for more inclusive representation within international organizations. This wide mandate would serve to reinvigorate and improve U.S. representation in the multilateral system. By building a qualified, diverse, and inclusive talent pool, the United States has an opportunity to close a generations-long representation gap in multilateral organizations and advance diverse U.S. interests therein.

Learning from Early Success inside the U.S. Government

The attention of the Biden administration to increasing diversity in the ranks of the federal workforce has been impressive both in rhetoric and implementation. The recent executive memo, Revitalizing America’s Foreign Policy and National Security Workforce, Institutions, and Partnerships, stated the underlying objective of “prioritiz[ing] diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility as a national security imperative” by ensuring that “our institutions reflect the American public they represent, both at home and around the world.” This commitment is playing out real time, as both high-level and staff level political appointments are the most diverse in history.

In creating his Cabinet, President Biden stated that he was “going to keep [my] commitment that the administration, both in the White House and outside in the Cabinet, is going to look like the country.” The resulting cabinet, which is nearly 55 percent nonwhite and 45 percent female, is the product of a concerted effort to understand and address the structural barriers and inequities that typically restrict the pool of talent for such jobs. We see the same commitment to diversity playing out as the administration turns to appointments in individual agencies, including the Department of Defense and the State Department.

Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley and her staff will have to work quickly to apply the approach that the Biden administration has taken to political appointments to more traditional (bureaucratic) hiring systems, which have contributed to the State Department’s notorious diversity problem. They have their work cut out for them: only 3 percent of the Senior Foreign Service staff is Black. Moreover, from 2002-2018 the percentage of Black women employees at the State Department was just 2 percent, and only rose to 3 percent in 2018. Recent analysis by the Truman National Security Project found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender; those with disabilities; and women continue to face challenges of both recruitment and retention. Efforts to close these gaps in the professional ranks will rest on innovative efforts to build and sustain talent pipelines for candidates from diverse and historically underrepresented communities through existing and new pathways.

Applying a Successful Framework outside the U.S. Government

At the same time as the federal government is working through improving diversity and inclusive practices to its own internal systems, U.S. representation in international organizations, like the United Nations, should also reflect the country’s diversity. The overall U.S. track record on representation in international organizations is, simply put, not good. As it stands, Americans are broadly “underrepresented” (against U.S. funding and shareholding status) at almost every major international body. Americans from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds are especially underrepresented in these roles. This is most stark for technical standards bodies.

There are a number of reasons for this trend, including what can only be called a dramatic overcorrection in response to our short-lived overrepresentation from 1945-1960 and other member countries increasing their presence and influence within these organizations.

Indications of waning U.S. representation in important technical UN bodies first appeared in a 1979 Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit, which called on the State Department to take measures to improve pathways for Americans to work in multilateral organizations. The solutions, from the State Department, or otherwise, have been few. Short-lived offices and initiatives, such as the Obama administration's Office of American Citizen Employment at the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization, sought to improve U.S. citizen representation in the international organizations but was stood down in 2017.

Other recent efforts to improve U.S. representation in international organizations, include a 2019 Office of Multilateral Competitiveness to counter Chinese influence, including in leadership elections. A new website aggregates information vacancy across organizations. However, these efforts fall short of giving concrete guidance so more Americans and, more importantly, a more diverse pool of Americans, can pursue multilateral positions. Candidates have few to look to (in the system) for advice. And the pipelines of talented U.S. candidates that exist are often not unlike those pipelines into the federal government itself: lacking critical diversity across a number of categories. Moreover, there has not been a cohesive, whole-of-government strategy toward the United States’ broader interests and staffing in the multilateral system, much less one that places diversity and inclusion at the center of its approach.

The United States must “catch up” on its representation at all levels, both high-level leadership positions and mid-level and junior staff appointments. And it should do so in a diverse and inclusive way. For example, of the five American professional staff that serve in under-secretary positions within the UN system, none are people of color. If you extend this to include executive directors of funds and programs (such as UNICEF and the World Food Programme) at the equivalent leadership level, still none are people of color. While the breakdown of professional-level staff would be impossible to ascertain, it is likely to follow a similar pattern.

Diverse Influence

The reason why U.S. representation matters is influence. Many of these organizations have significant influence over standards setting—from the future of 5G to sustainable development to intellectual property. To maintain low representation, or homogeneous representation, in these international organizations, is to forfeit U.S. interests in global public goods, international standards, and even the values of transparency and equity.

The question becomes: how to apply what the government is learning in real time to enhance U.S. internal diversity and equity efforts in an external-facing way. This task is not easy as it requires improving the diversity of the civil service. In an international setting, it also entails accelerating our overall representation in multilateral as well as the composition of that staff. For this vision to be realized, the United States needs to build out a pipeline of talent that reflects its diversity and design formal mechanisms so that talent reaches those organizations. Certainly, this will be a steep learning curve for the U.S. government and will involve significant investments.

There are some “green shoots” of success. One is a new internship program at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The program recruits students from Clark Atlanta University, a historically Black college and university (HBCU), and works to cost-share living and travel expenses for students who are selected with a stipend. The program is part of a larger effort by the U.S. Office of the Executive Director to improve representation by Americans in the EBRD. The other multilateral development banks should study, adapt, and replicate this model.

Next Steps

CSIS’s early work on improving the diversity of the development workforce through engaging with veteran communities and HBCUs, along with early research on international organizations, has yielded some lessons for how the U.S. government can strategically approach this challenge.

First, the U.S. government should make improving representation and diversity within international organizations an explicit objective of its efforts to improve diversity at the State Department. The State Department’s new position of chief diversity and inclusion officer, held by Ambassador Abercrombie-Winstanley, should actively consider U.S. representation in international organizations as part of its core mandate. A recent Senate hearing about diversity programs at the State Department, while impressive, was absent any discussion over U.S. representation within international organizations. One practical outcome of linking these objectives might be connecting and bolstering fellowship programs such as Rangel, Pickering, and Payne Fellowship programs to early placements in international organizations or training to better understand them. Simply put: the U.S. government cannot wait for its domestic departments to become more diverse before pursuing improved representation on the world’s stage.

Second, with a clear-eyed strategy in place, the United States must do a better job identifying the positions of interest where we want Americans to serve, including what agencies and what levels. We would recommend a focus on technical standards-setting bodies—such as the International Telecommunication Union—that lead on issues such as technology and intellectual property. By mapping the “demand” side of the challenge, the U.S. government will have a better picture of where to place qualified, diverse U.S. staffers and the (multilateral) relationship necessary to do so.

Third, the U.S. government must examine the “supply” side by improving existing programs, such as the U.S. participation in the United Nations Junior Professional Officer (JPO) program and mid-level professional exchanges, such as those between the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, or between the Department of Labor and the International Labor Organization (ILO). This will include identifying diverse internal talent that can detail into important international bodies.

Fourth, it will be vital to engage with wider system reform. The U.S. government should advocate for international organizations to have fair, open, and transparent hiring practices that support inclusive recruitment and retention. The 1979 GAO audit lamented the low levels of U.S. women in the UN system and dedicated time and attention to better gender balance. Today, the United Nations is reaching greater gender parity, through concerted attention and advocacy by the United States and others.

Last, we recommend that nongovernmental organizations (like those that help build talent pipelines to staff the Biden team) should create analogous efforts for international organizations. Their lessons are hard fought—and critical. As put by one interviewee, these networks exist, but the government must do a better job of using them. The United States should build relationships with Americans in the system to ensure that there are role models to inspire others to take on international placements as well.

As the United States works to make diversity a key tenant of its foreign policy going forward, it should also set an example to the rest of the world that diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and others enhance the quality and breadth of policymaking. Improved representation at international organizations can help do just that. The diversity and inclusion agenda should be an embedded expectation that is a part of the staffing, programming, and other activities of all levels of the U.S. government and will signal to the world that the United States celebrates and empowers the entire population rather than a privileged subsect.

Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kristen Cordell is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development
Kristen Cordell

Kristen Cordell

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development