The Brits will keep OCHA

Turtle Bay reports rumors that John Holmes’ successor as head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) will likely be his fellow Brit, Baroness Valerie Amos. A press officer with the UK mission in New York today was unable to confirm if the Lady Amos will be the nominee, however, and emphasized her government’s desire that the selection process be “open and merit-based, as we like to see for all such UN posts.” Obviously.

OCHA is one of those top-level positions in the Secretary-General’s cabinet that always goes to a major power, whether the person is qualified or not. While the UK has in the past instead often held the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) post, the government had to settle for OCHA in 2007 when Ban Ki-moon awarded DPA to the U.S. nominee. The UK Times suggests that this decision was a “calculated diplomatic snub in response to Britain’s lukewarm support” for his candidacy, but it as likely that Ban gave the seat to the U.S. in return for its support along with China getting the Economic and Social Affairs post. Those two states were most responsible for his 2006 nomination and likely got first dibs on which posts they wanted. Only after intense criticism did Ban decide to fill the OCHA post, giving it to Britain, and other top cabinet positions.

It was strongly considered that Britain would try to regain the DPA post, potentially playing musical chairs with the U.S., France and India over the top posts, but this idea appears not to have gain legs. The press officer at the mission would only describe such a decision as “confidential.”

Though Lady Amos has had a distinguished political career on development issues, her likely appointment comes as a result of the transparently politicized approach that Ban has followed throughout his administration. Turtle Bay notes the concern that major humanitarian groups have expressed about Ban’s selection process for OCHA:

“As humanitarian nongovernmental organizations, we want a meritocratic selection. The secretary-general should appoint the new emergency relief coordinator on the basis of qualification and experience, instead of that person’s nationality,” said Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, the largest global humanitarian NGO network. “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.”

UNelections Campaign echoes this view (and research done by this author) on the impact of appointing unqualified office-holders to key UN posts, noting that “When the appointed person is not well suited for the job, the office he or she leads likely will suffer both in effectiveness for the people relying on its services, and in terms of credibility.”

While Amos is considered the “favored” candidate by Turtle Bay, the Spectator‘s blog questions her selection as “an odd choice” both politically and given her lackluster performance at the UK international development agency, rather than the “heavy-hitter” that it had earlier suggested that London had to send to New York, “not only to enhance London’s influence, but  help buck up the Ban Ki-Moon’s administration.” Other candidates rumored to be on the short-list, according to Turtle Bay, include UN veteran relief official Martin Griffiths, Oxfam head Barbara Stocking, UN envoy Michael Williams, and UN veteran  health official David Nabarro.

“Either way,” writes the Spectator, “what the government decides will say a lot of how it intends to fill international slots in future.”

The UK press officer was not in a position to comment on how the FCO would go about choosing its final nominee, and would not state how SG Ban would go about making his decision.

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About Tony Fleming

Tony is a communications and advocacy professional with over 15 years experience in United Nations reform advocacy. He began blogging about multilateral elections in 2006 at UNSG.org. He and his wife currently live in Panajachel, Guatemala. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.