No.39-March 2016

by Stephen Browne, Fiona Curtin and Thomas G. Weiss

The Next UN Secretary-General: Views from UN watchers


The results of the latest FUNDS survey of global experts, conducted during the winter of 2015/16, contains clear messages about the next UN secretary-general: s/he should be a world leader with integrity and political courage who will prioritize UN reform; and the election process should be open and transparent. 

There is more room for genuine leadership and independent initiatives by the UN’s executive head than many believe. Thus, the election of the ninth UN secretary-general (SG) between now and December 2016 is crucial to the future of the organization. The next leader will either help steer the UN back to a more central position in world affairs or preside over its continuing marginalization. Choosing the right person with the right qualities is essential.

A total of 768 people from 114 countries completed the survey, all of them individuals known to FUNDS and interested or engaged in UN issues. People who have worked in or for the UN at any time made up 39 percent of those surveyed. The results were recorded for the whole population, and then filtered by UN (past and present) respondents, by gender, and by location in the North (OECD) or Global South (non-OECD) origins. You can download the full breakdown of Survey Results here.

In the UN Charter, there is a single sentence devoted to the election of the world’s most senior diplomat: “appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” In practice, SGs have always been chosen by a cabal of the five permanent members of the Security Council (United States, Russia, China, France, and United Kingdom) on a no-objection (no veto) basis, while adhering to an informal regional rotation. Female candidates have rarely been put forward, and there has never been a woman SG. This process eschews detailed examination of the merits of individual candidates and is manifestly undemocratic for a position of such importance.

A better process is clearly needed and some welcome changes are being put in place for the next election, responding in part to the clamor for change from movements such as the 1for7billion campaign and growing media attention. This latest FUNDS survey is intended to feed into the deliberations on the next SG. The FUNDS project will also be organizing its own public hearings for SG candidates – the first in New York on 3 April, and the second in London on 3 June -- in collaboration with the UN Association of the UK and The Guardian newspaper.

The FUNDS Survey put forward six questions, asking respondents about:
1.       Their general perceptions of UN effectiveness.
2.       The most important personal qualities in a UNSG.
3.       The most relevant experience needed by a UNSG.
4.       The most urgent areas of concern for the next SG.
5.       The length of an SG’s term.
6.       Changes to be made to the selection process.

This briefing provides a summary of the most significant findings.

Respondents were invited to name a preferred candidate and one fifth did so. The most frequently named person was Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and most of the top ten suggested by our participants were women. While an unlikely prospect, Chancellor Merkel represents the high calibre that many people would like to assume the world organization’s highest position. This is also reflected in the answers to the question about the required personal qualities. Political independence, integrity, and courage was identified as important by 88 percent of those surveyed, and an even more decisive 91 percent of female respondents. This call for a strong leader is the most unambiguous finding of the survey.

This survey shows that people are actively favoring the appointment of an SG with the political courage and strategic vision to lead the UN to the forefront of global governance. The choice will determine whether the UN continues to be relevant or becomes a relic. It is the people with the most at stake in UN operations—those in fragile, conflict-prone states and those whose human rights and basic needs are not fulfilled—that will most benefit from the right kind of leader. These findings are a reminder, particularly to the Security Council’s five permanent members, that the next secretary-general should be a leader for the entire world, not just for the electoral college of five. The results of the FUNDS survey indicate the following:

1. The public wants a strong, courageous, independent leader—a person of high integrity ready to stand up to powerful states and act decisively in times of crisis, and with a clear political vision for the UN.

2. The SG should be a prominent and charismatic public figure, who is able to effectively and forcefully represent and communicate with the global public.

3. More easily delegated skills, such as management and the ability to speak multiple languages should not necessarily be central to the selection process.

4. The SG must be a proven reformer with the experience and background to make the UN fit-for-purpose; and the successful candidate should be prepared to rock the boat, with the determination to take difficult and unpopular internal decisions.

5. Changes already made to introduce transparency in the selection process are welcome. This trend should be strengthened and consolidated to ensure a clearer and more open system for electing not only the Secretary-General but also the heads of all UN organizations.

An increasingly informed and engaged global public are calling for more democracy and transparency in the manner in which the world’s top diplomat is elected. The 2016 selection must not revert to the old ways—the people are watching.

Download the full briefing paper 'The Next Secretary-General: Views from UN watchers' in pdf.

The results of this FUNDS Survey are also the subject of an article in The Guardian on 30 March 2016: "UN workers want open race for next secretary-general, survey reveals."

Stephen Browne is Co-director of the Future of the UN Development System (FUNDS) and Senior Fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York and former Deputy Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, Geneva. He is the author of several books on development and the UN, including United Nations Industrial Development Organization (2012), The United Nations Development Programme and System (2011), and co-editor with Thomas G. Weiss of Post-2015 UN Development: Making Change Happen? (2014).

Fiona Curtin is the Communications Advisor of FUNDS, helping to coordinate the project’s communications and social media activities. She worked for more than ten years at the UN and in the NGO sector in Geneva before becoming an independent consultant in London, where for the past five years she has been involved with a wide range of organizations and institutes focusing primarily on human rights and sustainable development.

Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science and Director Emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center; he also is Co-director of the FUNDS Project and of the Wartime History and the Future UN Project. Past President of the International Studies Association (2009-10) and chair of the Academic Council on the UN System (2006-9), his most recent single-authored books include Governing the World? Addressing “Problems without Passports” (2014); Global Governance: Why? What? Whither? (2013); Humanitarian Business (2013); What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It (2012); and Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas in Action (2012).



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