Issue 149 - August 19 - OCHA Selection Process Critiqued, Amos to Begin September 1

New York, August 19, 2010 - The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) will have a new Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator on September 1.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed Valerie Amos of the United Kingdom on July 9 to replace current Director John Holmes, who will step down at the end of this month. Amos is currently the U.K.'s High Commissioner to Australia.

Ban's selection process has been critiqued by humanitarian groups and others on several grounds, outlined below.

About Valerie Amos

In addition to her current post in Australia, Amos has served as:

  • Member of Committee on Commonwealth Membership - 2006-2007
  • Leader of the Labour Party, House of Lords - 2003-2007
  • Secretary of State for International Development - 2003 (6 months)
  • Minister for African Affairs in British Foreign Office - 2001-2003

Amos holds the title of Baroness, conferred by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997, as she joined the House of Lords.

The UN said that Amos "brings to this position extensive background and experience coupled with well-honed leadership skills and the ability to forge consensus, coordinate delivery of results and work with diverse stakeholders.... John Holmes ... said that she will bring to the job a lifetime of commitment to issues of economic and social justice, and huge political experience, not least in Africa, where so many of our operations are."

Role of Director

The role of Director of OCHA is at the Under-Secretary-General level.

The USG is responsible for oversight of all emergencies requiring UN humanitarian assistance and acts as the focal point for relief activities involving governments, intergovernmental agencies and NGOs.

Selection Process and Critiques

Criticisms of Ban's appointment practices to date have been based on two primary concerns:

  1. Claims to key posts by specific donor countries, and
  2. Politically-motivated, rather than expertise-based decisions.

In the case of selecting a successor to Holmes, both concerns were voiced.

Member State Entitlements

The practice of donor countries and other powerful countries laying claim to key posts has long been a concern in high-level appointments. Some posts, such as the Executive Director of UNICEF, have been claimed by the same donor government for decades (in UNICEF's case, the United States). In the past, the U.K. has had influence over the head of DPA. U.K. nationals held this USG role from 1971 to 2005, when Kofi Annan appointed Ibrahim Gambari of Nigeria to the post. Gambari was succeeded by Pascoe, DPA's current head.

According to Foreign Policy's blog Turtle Bay, diplomats have criticized Ban's demonstrated preference for political appointees over experienced practitioners. In the case of the OCHA appointment, the list of individuals that was reported to be under consideration by Ban largely consisted of high-ranking U.K. politicians, seemingly confirming the continued practice of reserving top UN posts for diplomats or politicians from powerful or donor countries. Civil society groups, as well, have challenged this practice.

Before the OCHA appointment was made, some anticipated that the post would be filled by another U.K. national, or a national of another major donor country. "It is no secret the [U.K.] would like to have that job back," said one observer.

However, OCHA has not been consistently led by the national of one country, as have other offices. The former directors of OCHA are:

  • Sérgio Vieira de Mello (Brazil),
  • Kenzo Oshima (Japan),
  • Jan Egeland (Norway), and
  • John Holmes (United Kingdom).

Upon Amos' appointment, a spokesperson for Secretary-General Ban was asked whether there was a "set formula" for assigning specific high-level posts to specific countries. The spokesperson said, "Obviously there is an effort to make sure that there is a diverse range of nationalities appointed to jobs at the United Nations. But there is no set formula, no."

More than previous Secretaries-General, argues Turtle Bay, Ban Ki-moon has favored political appointees. Ban reportedly "accepted the favored candidates of each of the UN's powerful permanent five members in his first year in office, according to senior UN officials."

Political appointments can present conflicts with the independence of the office. Appointing someone on the recommendation of a donor state not only risks compromising qualified leadership of the office at stake (as discussed below). It also could undermine the sworn political independence of the appointee. At the very least, it can create the perception of a conflict of interest.

Prior to Amos' appointment, Turtle Bay quoted the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, a major humanitarian network, calling for Ban to "appoint the new emergency relief coordinator on the basis of qualification and experience, instead of that person's nationality.... We don't want a political appointee who might require a year-long training and induction program on humanitarian response. We need someone who understands humanitarian organizations and their work."

The UNelections Campaign does not support the traditional claims by donor governments to selected high-level posts in the UN Secretariat. While the individuals nominated may be qualified in their respective fields, the motivations of a political appointment could prevent the selection of the best person for the job from any region or background. Perhaps more importantly, the tradition that the most powerful Member States wield control in the UN via political appointments to key positions implies, and can result in, compromised independence for the UN body.


The national claims to key posts, described above, can have an effect on the weight given to qualifications in selection processes.

Political appointments can compromise the expertise of the office. The article in Turtle Bay - "The Decline of the International Civil Servant" - characterizes how high-level UN jobs are given out, and it is not a process that depends on relevant expertise: "[M]ost experts in the field need not apply. If history is any guide, Holmes's replacement will be selected from a small pool of influential countries who are rewarded with the most important U.N. jobs. It's more likely Holmes' successor will be a diplomat or politician than someone who has experience managing relief operations."

The blog Global Memo, which focuses on high-level appointments, noted the British government's "desire that the selection process be ‘open and merit-based.'" The first steps to achieving this goal would be for the Secretariat to outline criteria for individual nominees and to consider nominees from any Member State, not only the most powerful.

In addition to these two frequent critiques, the UNelections Campaign has noted the lack of transparency in Ban's recruitment process, in particular the refusal to release "shortlists" of final candidates to the public, as was done in previous appointments including the 2005 selection of António Guterres the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.