The Unprecedented–And Still Undemocratic–Race To Be The World’s Top Bureaucrat

The UN is electing a new secretary general. You don’t get a vote. But this election, for the first time, you are allowed to learn who the candidates are–and even watch some of them debate.

The Unprecedented–And Still Undemocratic–Race To Be The World’s Top Bureaucrat

Sitting in a not-quite full basement auditorium in midtown Manhattan last week, I had come to see a segment of what has been billed as a “job interview in front of the world.”


In person and on a live stream, 3 candidates–of 12 in the running–took the stage to answer questions from the public, debate controversial issues, and make their case that they were most qualified to be the next secretary general of the United Nations, replacing South Korea’s Ban Ki-Moon when his second term ends in December. It was one of the last of a handful of public forums in which all 12 candidates have been participating in recent months.

The debate I attended–which posed questions that were crowdsourced and voted on by the public–was full of the platitudes, flatteries, and question dodging you’d expect from candidates competing to be the world’s top bureaucrat. But the fact that it was happening at all is what is remarkable.

Since the UN was created in 1945, the secretary general has been chosen in a secretive process by the five permanent members of the Security Council: China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S., and then rubber-stamped by the full General Assembly. There has never even been an official nominating process for candidates. But this time around, some member countries and a major NGO campaign, called 1 For 7 Billion, emerged to challenge this closed-door process. This advocacy forced the UN to release a public list of candidates, who have now had to state their policy positions to the General Assembly and take questions from member states and the general public.

“For us, these are all big, huge process wins,” says Simon Moss, who organized the night’s debate on behalf of Global Citizen, a social action platform supporting the 1 For 7 Billion campaign. “We don’t think it’s okay in the 21st century for a position that is so influential and so important to be decided by a couple of people in a closed-door room.”

The timing is important because faith in the United Nations is probably at an all-time low. Its inability to provide solutions for the ongoing refugee and migrant situations and mass atrocities and violence in many parts of the world have exposed its failure to adapt to today’s particular form of modern, borderless crises. It is also dealing with two of the worst scandals in its history. After the Haiti earthquake, its peacekeeping troops are accused of bringing cholera into the country, setting off an epidemic that has killed at least 10,000 Haitians–and infected nearly 800,000–since 2010. Then there are the more than 100 accusations of sexual assaults and other abuses committed by its peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.

The hope is that from this new public vetting emerges a candidate who is more accountable to the whole world, not only the five security council powers, which would presumably encourage a more effective and reform-minded leader. Still, this race is no democracy: The Security Council still chooses one victor, submitting the name for an up-or-down appointment to all 193 nations. That the only voters that matter are the five countries and not the people can be clearly seen in the rambling tenor and polite tone of the debates. This is no Republican Party primary, I’ll put it that way.


“I think there is a real tension in the candidates between saying what they want, what they believe, and not provoking the countries that have the voting power,” says Moss. “I think the level of candor we got on Thursday night was pretty good, considering.”

On Thursday, which is only a very limited sample of candidates and their public statements so far, H.E. Vuk Jeremic of Serbia did talk about the need for a “radical overhaul” of the UN’s peacekeeping mission, Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica said the UN should assume responsibility for its role in the Haiti disaster, and Danilo Turk of Slovenia said that that he would want to challenge rich countries by ending fossil fuel subsidies. But more often they made bland, relatively inoffensive statements about topics such as gender violence, whistle-blowers, and refugees.

What many hope will emerge is a leader who can stand up to someone like Vladimir Putin or even a future President Trump and speak without the typical layers of jargon that usually define internal UN discussions. There is no clear front-runner yet, but many also hope the UN will see its first female leader–and one possibly from Eastern Europe, the region that has never had a representative in the secretary general seat. The Security Council will hold its first informal “straw poll” (which will likely lead to some of the 12 candidates dropping out) to be conducted on July 21–and the 1 For 7 Billion campaign plans to continue its push for more accountability and transparency (see a full list of their reform proposals here).

“We need someone who is going to be fantastic in the media and who is going to engage the public—and not just talk in six-minute sound bites,” Moss says. “While it’s not as sexy as the [U.S.] presidential election and certainly not as cutthroat, I think it’s just about as important for the world.”

Correction: This article formerly stated that 770,000 Haitians had died from cholera. That’s how many Haitians have been infected. We regret the error.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.