15 November 2006

The idea to open up all top U.N. posts for serious competition is an excellent one -- if you intend to really do it. A mere pretension of "transparency" no longer works during this age of information at the speed of light. Word will get out. Politically excluded competitors will feel slighted. Their governments, however habitually helpful, will grumble. Varied versions will be leaked to accommodating reporters. Your Spokesman's hairsplitting will make it worse. Either you do it or you don't. If you do it, then stand firm regardless, particularly when you are on your way out, leaving a legacy. If you feel that circumstances would be hotter than you could take, then handle the matter quietly and discreetly. An open process could only be open when the chances are equal. We raise the issue because of grumblings about a most recent appointment.

There must be a reason why traditionally the post of Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) went to an American. The U.S. government pays about 40% of the budget (about $2 billion this year). Catherine Bertini, a "moderate" Republican, held the post for years under varied U.S. administrations. Not only did she introduce practical reform but she injected an added commitment to promoting human dignity while combating poverty. Similarly, Carol Bellamy, a prominent New York Democrat, led UNICEF inspiringly during varied U.S. administrations.

A claim to an open process to select a new head of WFP to succeed James Morris (an American) attracted seriously qualified applicants. They included a Canadian, Swiss, two Americans and several others who made interview trips to New York and Rome. Officially, the nomination is made jointly by the U.N. Secretary General and the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization. There were several solid candidates: Robert Fowler, a former Permanent Representative to U.N. Headquarters is well-known for his active role at the Security Council. He led an investigation team into the destruction role of diamonds in conflicts. Walter Furst, Switzerland's Development Minister is equally qualified. A third short-listed candidate was Tony Banbury, an American who runs WFP's Asian operation. Then there was Ms. Josette Sheeran, U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs, clearly the candidate of the current U.S. Administration. Mr. Banbury had links with the Clinton White House. In fact, the competition was between two Americans with opposing connections. The grapevine has it that New York was edging towards Mr. Banbury, not necessarily for political calculations, but due to a series of connections. His competitor Ms. Sheeran was described as a follower of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. She is a former editor of the Washington Times. According to more than one source, it was a telephone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Secretary General Kofi Annan that tipped the balance. It is noted that the announcement was made on 7 November -- Election Day, which shifted the power in Congress from the Republicans to the Democrats. Any day later would have been too late -- politically at least.

Josette Sheeran may turn out to be an excellent choice. She already made announcements about her determination to help children, fight hunger, and save lives. Her religious interests are her private affair. What matters will be her public service.

The question is not about selecting Ms. Sheeran. It is about a misleading claim of a truly open process when political facts are more than clear. If it is already recognized for practical reasons that only an American acceptable to the Administration in power could be selected then handle it gracefully -- and quietly. No need for claims of an unprecedented open process. And no need to string along distinguished accomplished people.

They feel awkward. And believe me, you don't look good either.