For many people around the world, the United Nations has long been associated with struggles for equality and racial justice – due to its work in the era of decolonization and its support for the American civil rights movement and the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
However, in a year of global protests for racial justice, the world organization is increasingly coming under fire for failing to promote equality within its own ranks, particularly in hiring and hiring workers from developing countries for the most sought-after positions.
With its 193 member states, the U.N. one of the most diverse institutions in the world – and yet, according to its critics, the agency has a diversity problem.
The United Nations continues to employ more people from the United States – about 2,531, or 6.75 percent of the total UN workforce – than from any other country. This emerges from an April 2019 UN report on employee demographics, although the Trump administration complains to the agency about America's dwindling power and the oversized influence of other countries.
Many European powers, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain, are viewed as over-represented by the United States' calculations, which means they have more employees per capita than most other countries in the world.
There are numerous field jobs for people from developing countries in conflict areas such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Mali. But the highest paid and most managerial jobs at U.N. headquarters in Geneva and New York go disproportionately to Westerners.
Nowhere has this gap between rich and poor countries been more evident than in the United States' Emergency Relief Agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. OCHA was established by the United States General Assembly in December 1991 to coordinate the activities of the myriad United States relief agencies in response to natural disasters or complex emergencies caused by conflict or political collapse.
The hiring practices at OCHA have fueled criticism from employees – including Western nationals in senior positions – who say the humanitarian aid agency functions like a neocolonial fiefdom with a particularly Anglo-Saxon complexion. The glass ceiling of the United States was particularly difficult for Africans to crack, although there were some prominent African leaders of the United States, including former secretaries-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali from Egypt and Kofi Annan from Ghana. At OCHA, according to internal foreign policy data, members of the African country blocs make up 23 percent of all jobs, but are largely invisible in the top positions of the agency at the headquarters of the United States. The Asian, Latin American and Eastern European blocs fared even worse, accounting for only 16 percent, 4 percent and 3 percent of the OCHA employees.
The western slope of the department starts at the very top.
For the past 13 years the facility has been run by four former UK government officials, each accepted for the job through a non-competitive recruitment process. All were white men, with the exception of Valerie Amos, a black woman who was born in British Guiana (now Guyana) and served as a British politician before heading OCHA from 2010 to 2015.
The vast majority of senior executives are recruited from Western countries donating to relief efforts in the United States, although the majority of the agency's operations are in Africa and Asia. Around 54 percent of US posts in humanitarian offices around the world are held by nationals of the United States Western Bloc – more than the positions of nationals from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe combined.
At the New York headquarters of the United States, the figures are weighted even more heavily in relation to the West: 71 percent of jobs are occupied by citizens of Western countries. At least 90 percent of the workforce in some departments and industries, including the policy and strategic communications departments, are Westerners.
The inequality has led to growing employee resentment against Mark Lowcock, an economist who served as permanent secretary in the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) before joining OCHA in September 2017.
“OCHA has a problem with racism and neocolonialism. And it starts at the very top, ”wrote an OCHA employee in a formal complaint to the United States' internal regulator in March. "Mr. Lowcock has consistently given or retained key positions of power and influence within the organization to the Whites and British."
“One look at OCHA's leadership website means being immediately and visually impressed by the consequences of white privilege and the continued dominance of white gaze in international aid. Twelve of the 15 photos on the page are from white people, ”said the complaint that was examined by foreign policy. “Only three are from People of Color. And none (yes, ZERO) is black. "
All but one of the ACHA senior national team are members of the western bloc.
Britain, which played a fundamental role in shaping the United States of America after World War II, is one of five permanent members of the United States Security Council who have secured virtual monopolies on the most sought-after positions of the cabinet-level body.
Chinese diplomats have headed the Ministry of Economic and Social Affairs for over a decade and use the office to promote Beijing's signature trade and infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative. For more than 20 years, French government officials have led the United States' peacekeeping division, which oversees missions in Africa and the Middle East, regions where France still wishes to exert its diplomatic influence. Former US State Department officials have headed the United States Political Affairs Bureau since March 2007. Russia, lacking a high-level job at United States headquarters, managed to appoint a former Russian official as the newly established tsar of the World Counter-Terrorism Organization.
Jeffrey Feltman, a former US diplomat who served as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, said it was "inappropriate" to bring his own Washington staff to the department he heads. The department's staff were already dominated by American, Japanese, and Italian nationals (although many of these officials' families were from developing countries). "I have always been concerned that given the fact that we have worked on policy issues, political surveillance and policy developments, our staff had to reflect the overall membership," he told Foreign Policy.
United States Secretary-General António Guterres expressed concern about what he believed to be underrepresented developing countries at the United Nations, particularly in Africa, saying it was a “delusion” to believe we live in a post-racist world.
“The founding of the United Nations was based on a new global consensus on equality and human dignity. And a wave of decolonization has swept the world, ”Guterres said at the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in July. "But let's not fool us. The legacy of colonialism is still reflected."
"Africa was a double sacrifice," said Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who was one of four Western Europeans to hold the top non-acting position in the United States. “Firstly, as a goal of the colonial project. Second, African countries are under-represented in the international institutions created after World War II, before most of them achieved independence. "
But the U.N. boss also stumbled upon race issues. In June, as protests against racial justice erupted around the world, Guterres ordered United States officials not to attend and noted the need for United States officials to remain neutral in the face of social unrest in member states. After critics objected and found that the institution's most famous African American official, Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, at the height of the civil rights movement, Guterres lifted the ban.
In a subsequent town hall meeting, Guterres assured the employees that the instruction “in no way indicates that employees should remain neutral or impartial in the face of racism. On the contrary, there is no prohibition of personal expressions of solidarity or peaceful civic engagement as long as these are carried out in a completely private capacity. "
In August the U.N. forced to use a "U.N. Racism Survey ", where respondents were asked to identify the color of their skin and" yellow "was added to the options. The question sparked an uproar, as yellow was historically viewed as a racial fraud against Asians. The other categories included black, brown, white, mixed / multi-ethnic, and others.
In response to the George Floyd assassination in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests against racial justice, an association of United States officials conducted a survey of workers of African descent in June to rate perceptions of racism. The United Nations' Association of People of African Descent, which received responses from more than 2,000 people, found that around 52 percent had experienced some form of racism.
"We are discriminated against in all areas – employment opportunities, promotions, training opportunities, etc.," said an anonymous respondent. Another noted that "it is very difficult to see Africans appointed at the headquarters level." A third complained that nationals of the Western group received a disproportionately high number of executive employees.
"As an African, I have the impression that my career path is limited to dangerous places of employment," said a fourth. A copy of the poll was shared with foreign policy.
The U.N. Charter states that staff must be recruited on a merit basis. “However, this must take into account the importance of recruiting on the broadest possible geographic basis.” Several officials complained that Guterres' office did too little to expand opportunities for developing nationals in OCHA .
An OCHA spokesperson admitted that the department needed to do more to promote diversity, but said OCHA has made gains since acquiring Lowcock, the current United States Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, in 2017 have.
"We are determined to increase the diversity of OCHA's workforce and we are taking steps to achieve that," said Zoe Paxton, spokeswoman for OCHA, a UK national who previously worked for Lowcock at the UK's leading development agency. "This includes recruiting various external talent for senior positions, promoting national employees to international roles, and investing in leadership development."
Paxton said OCHA recently appointed two nationals from outside the Western Bloc to senior positions: Ramesh Rajasingham, a dual French and Sri Lankan national serving as Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and Muhannad Hadi, a Jordanian national, became the regional humanitarian coordinator this month set by the United Nations for Syria. The office has a number of vacant executive positions that offer an "opportunity to make progress in increasing the proportion of (non-Western) employees." Since 2016, OCHA has also reduced the proportion of employees from the western bloc from two thirds (63 percent) to around half (54 percent), said Paxton. But she vowed that "there is more to be done and we are not going to stop now."
Some of the most significant improvements are in field jobs, where the percentage of Western nationals has fallen from 49 to 42 percent since 2016. The United Nations also reduced the proportion of Western nationals in the youngest skilled workers from 60 percent to below 60 percent 42 percent.
However, no profits were made in the higher ranks of the agency, where Western candidates have the best chance of advancement.
A published list by OCHA's 15-strong leadership team includes only one national from a country outside of the Western group. The OCHA spokesman, who served with Lowcock in the UK Auxiliary Office DFID, and the Undersecretary's personal office are run by three Western staff, including a UK Chief of Staff who also served at DFID, a Swedish Deputy Chief of Staff and a Canadian Personal Assistant.
The United States Humanitarian Office relies much more on voluntary contributions to its budget than any other division of the United States Secretariat. This gives leaders more freedom to hire and develop employees without going through the United States budget committees looking to get broader geographic representation.
Critics within the organization argue that Lowcock used these forces to fill his top positions with Westerners. According to numerous OCHA employees, several major new hires were recently made, including nationals from Sweden, Italy and Norway, without posting the job for other employees to apply. OCHA contends that it relied on experienced HR managers when hiring to ensure that "all rules are strictly followed".
The lack of upward mobility, according to insiders, has hurt the humanitarian organization's morale, particularly at its New York headquarters. A 2019 in-house employee survey across the company found OCHA scores were lower than other departments of the U.S. Secretariat, reflecting concerns about work-life balance, innovation, and retention. It found that "less than half of OCHA employees (47%) believe that people at all levels are held accountable for unethical behavior."
At the head office, where the employees felt “not empowered and supplied with energy” compared to their on-site colleagues, the work ethic was considerably worse. Field workers also registered more positive views about their working life and a greater sense of equality between women and men.
"The employees at the head office are significantly less satisfied than their colleagues on site in every area," the survey said. "They report a higher level of stress, less trust in the management level and greater dissatisfaction with their career opportunities."