The Upcoming ITU Election: Go Down-Ballot

While the election for the secretary-general (SG) of the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is still over a year and a half away, efforts to amplify the candidacy of U.S. national Doreen Bogdan-Martin are in full swing. Secretary Blinken recently highlighted Bogdan-Martin's background as a long-standing technocrat with decades of experience in the organization. Bodgan-Martin is the right person at the right time and would make history as the first woman to serve as SG.

In May of this year, CSIS detailed steps that U.S. policymakers can take in support of Bogdan-Martin; however, the SG spot is not the only one that matters, and the government must also strategize in support of down-ballot races. There are four other posts of significance within the ITU’s leadership structure—including notably the position that Bodgan-Martin will vacate as the director of the ITU Development Sector (ITU-D). Looking down-ballot is something that U.S. strategic competitors, including China, are doing across the United Nations, and it is paying off. While focus on the top is important, down-ballot races build a strong base of up-and-coming staff to ensure that the organization upholds the standards for free and open internet systems that are so critical to the United States.

The future state of the ITU matters immensely for the future of the internet. The legal and regulatory processes encapsulated within the organization have a profound impact on the type of internet systems, national regulations, and accountability that result. The ITU-D plays a particularly vital role in supporting multilateral cooperation for fair and open internet governance through trustworthy deployment of digital technologies in the developing world. Policymakers in the United States must work closely with like-minded governments to prepare for down-ballot elections in the fall of 2022, with an emphasis on the potential to backfill Bogdan-Martin’s empty chair in the ITU-D. This will require a concerted and strategic effort to identify quality candidates, a deep understanding of the future issues that will be influenced by those candidates, and a long-term approach to building a pipeline of future candidates.

Down-Ballot Races

During the Plenipotentiary Conference (“plenipot”) in September 2022, the ITU member states will vote to elect a new SG. They will also vote for the deputy SG and the directors for the ITU Radiocommunications Sector (ITU-R), Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T), and ITU-D. Candidates for these posts are limited to two terms, which is why the current (and controversial) SG, Houlin Zhao, is not running again. The incumbent deputy often runs for the SG spot, especially when faced with term limits. However, there is no indication that the current deputy, Malcolm Johnson from the United Kingdom, will do so. The deputy spot will be opened, with South Korea and Lithuania indicating interest in running national candidates.

Like the deputy spot, director-level positions are also important training grounds for the SG position. The ITU-R is focused on ensuring fair and open radio systems, which include a mixed bag of mobile services, emergency telecoms, meteorology, and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). It also manages spectrum technology. The current director, Mario Maniewicz, was elected in 2018 and is seeking a second term. Maniewicz is Uruguayan, and his candidacy is unlikely to be opposed or controversial. The ITU-T, responsible for setting international standards on issues such as internet connectivity and 5G technology, will also elect a new director.

The ITU-D provides technology training and capacity building on topics such as broadband, internet infrastructure security, cybersecurity, 5G planning, blockchain ecosystems, and competition analysis. Of the three directorates, ITU-D is perhaps facing the most important moment. With a remit to address development challenges in access to digital and online spaces during the onset of Covid-19, the potential for the sector is vast. In her 2018 director bid, Bogdan-Martin’s campaign vision called for the bureau to help governments "ensure digital development strategies emphasize human capacity, digital skills, and empowering people.” Her efforts have resulted in moving digital inclusion closer to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by focusing on closing the access gap for some 3.9 billion people. In backfilling Doreen’s position, like-minded donors should push for candidates that have an equally affirmative vision and are well equipped to handle the specific digital challenges associated with responding to Covid-19 with respect to digital inclusion, information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure across the developing world, and last-mile connectivity challenges.

In the next five years, the ITU-D will be tasked with building capacity in developing countries for digital ecosystems that are most critical to their values, while also restoring a multilateral approach to digital inclusion. The multilateral system, guided by the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap released in 2020, is critical to ensuring that post-Covid development efforts do not leave anyone behind. The ITU-D director will lead efforts to strengthen the digital ecosystem and infrastructure, recognizing that the decision a country makes about its digital foundation can have significant impacts on other areas such as democracy, transparency, and human rights. In fact, the UN Human Rights Committee just recently recognized that new technologies such as artificial intelligence have significant potential to both contribute and challenge long-standing progress on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

To this last point, the ITU-D director will need to work closely with the new SG to manage the potential bifurcation of internet systems in the developing world, carefully negotiating the impact of great power politics. This will require focus on upholding the principles for digital development, linking the values of good development to digital connectivity and building partnerships that can advance these objectives (including with the private sector).

While no candidates have formally declared their candidacy to lead ITU-D, having a woman from the developing world would be a potentially important signal of the organizational change needed at the ITU (where Bodan-Martin was the first woman to head any bureau).

Even Further down the Ballot

The down-ballot races at the ITU offer an important opportunity for the U.S. government (USG) to build and sustain coalitions around the substantive and value-based issues the ITU leads on. This will require a comprehensive approach to ensuring U.S. values are represented at all levels of international organizations with important standard-setting responsibilities. Bogdan-Martin started her career at the ITU through a USG personnel detail, made possible by Executive Order 11552. The order has been in place since 1979, supporting U.S. civil servant personnel in taking on technical positions within international organizations for up to eight years without resigning from government.

U.S. agencies including the Departments of Energy and Commerce and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have used the authority, with the CDC currently running the largest secondment program, supporting some 30 professionals at the World Health Organization each year. However, the use of the executive order has been limited and ad hoc.

Like in most international organizations, the United States is poorly represented at the ITU staff level. As of 2016, of the 350 professional staff, only nine (2.6 percent) are U.S. citizens—well below the level of U.S. financial contributions to the agency. Increasing representation of qualified, diverse U.S. citizens in the ITU and other standard-setting UN bodies is extremely important. It will require both demand side and supply side action by the USG to identify, place, and support quality candidates for positions at all levels. 

Looking toward Election Day

The USG has just over a year to prepare for the ITU’s leadership elections, which will take place at the 2022 Plenipotentiary Conference. The good news is that U.S. policymakers are taking the importance of the election seriously. The challenge is that the election process is unwieldy and will require almost constant attention right up to the end. The USG enthusiasm will need to be accompanied by concentrated and tailored resources and the attention that the mechanics require.

To win the election, the candidates for SG, deputy SG, and ITU-D director positions must have a simple majority of the vote. The SG is elected first, followed by the deputy and the bureau heads. If no candidates receive a majority in the first round, the ITU begins successive intervals of voting until a majority candidate emerges. Country heads of delegation to the ITU plenipot have remarkable autonomy with the secret ballot process. While their initial vote may be determined by the capital, they have the ability to vote for any candidate in the rounds thereafter.

This election typology will require like-minded countries to ensure strong relationships with both the government and the head of delegation. It will require constant strategizing and coalition building with critical allies such as Japan and Estonia, who have proven to be trusted and strategic partners on the intersection of digital governance.  

It will also mandate strong private sector partnerships. While the ITU’s 700 or so private sector members do not vote in the official election, their role cannot be understated in the wider process. Private sector members of the ITU have vast reach and resources to support candidates for key positions. The private sector has the coverage to engage with a number of interim events and convenings that will offer an opportunity to show support for Bogdan-Martin and other candidates, including the upcoming Internet Governance Forum in late 2021.

In coming together to support Bogdan-Martin’s bid, the United States has an opportunity to undertake a strategic approach that encompasses but is not limited to winning the SG spot. The approach should prioritize down-ballot leadership (specifically the top five positions) as well as down-organization secondments and appointments of qualified U.S. personnel. This will ensure that Bogdan-Martin's victory is not a singular one, but instead signals the advent of a new era for an ITU aligned with open, transparent, and inclusive digital systems and values.

Kristen Cordell is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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.

Kristen Cordell

Kristen Cordell

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