Tag Archives: United Nations

That fabulous politician recycling machine that is the United Nations (example #1): Philippe Douste-Blazy


In 2001, a local social movement in Toulouse called ‘Les Motivé-e-s’ won four seats in the French municipal council elections. Their campaign song ‘Allez Ouste! (Douste-Blazy)’ became a national hit and made the movement known across France. The target of the song and campaign was Toulouse’s mayor Philippe Douste-Blazy who was accused of managing the pink city’s fortunes in all too obscure fashion. Douste-Blazy managed to stay in power in these elections but he gave up his position as mayor three years later when he became, first, Minister of health and family under Jean-Pierre Raffarin, then Foreign Minister under Dominque de Villepin and Jacques Chirac. Like others who were close to Jacques Chirac he has disappeared from France’s political scene after Chirac’s fiercest rival Nicolas Sarkozy was elected French president in 2007. He didn’t fall hard, though. Since 2008 he is Special Adviser on Innovative Financing for Development at the United Nations, at the rank of an Under-Secretary-General, and Chairman of UNITAID. The innovative financing in question is a levy on airline tickets to finance HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis drugs in developing countries. UNITAID sees itself as facilitator. It does not have own projects but supports programs of other organizations. The creation of the organization goes back to an initiative of Jacques Chirac — does someone else hear the bells ringing?

In 2011, Jacques Chirac has been, by the way, sentenced to two years of prison (on parole) for the creation of feigned employments at the City Hall of Paris when he was mayor of Paris from 1977 until 1995. The scandal of ’emplois fictifs de la mairie de Paris’ is only one of several financial scandals involving Chirac and his closest aides; the obscure financing of his party and electoral campaigns, on national, regional and municipal level, have also been since long in the eye of the prosecutors of the French republic. There is no doubt that Chirac and his ‘clan’ (as his close party mates were often called) have solid experience in ‘innovative financing’… honi soit qui mal y pense…


Women at the UN: what is at stake?


Since Helen Clark is in the race for the next Secretary-General of the United Nations, everyone talks about gender equality at the UN (and international organizations more generally). The UN is certainly one of the places in the world where the discrepancy between the discourse of equality and its reality of gender and race based marginalization is absurd. Indeed, it needs a white woman from a high-income OECD country to make a female UN Secretary General imaginable. In 2016, the UN is still far, far away from what has become possible at the British National Student Union, namely the election of dark skinned woman of ‘Muslim’ origin (inverted commas as the category ‘Muslim’ is a really silly rubbish bin category to squeez all those people in who have not been to Brownies). Helen Clark’s female competitors (Irina Bokova from Bulgaria, Susana Malcorra from Argentina, Maria Angela Holguin from Colomba) have received much less attention from Western media even though their track record as workers for humanity is at least as good as Clark’s if not better; one wonders why…

Apart from the fact that she is from a rich country, one reason Helen Clark is so spoilt by many Western media is that she is considered to be able to promote women’s issues and equality at the UN. She herself plays the women card very loudly in her campaign by claiming that women are a force of peace or that by giving TED talks about women and leadership. She emphasises how much she has done herself to promote women in government while she was New Zealand’s prime minister and chair of the World Council of Women Leaders.

But being a woman and woman senior leader does not automatically lead to greater gender equality in an organization. The UN is a particularly stubborn place when it comes to the promotion of women. This article on the opendemocracy website has some really uncomfortable charts to show this. As the article says: “At the current rate of increase [of women in senior positions] during the current Secretary General’s tenure—from 20 percent in 2007 to 22 percent in 2015—it would take another 112 years to reach 50/50 gender parity in the UN’s senior leadership.”

In peace missions, however, the share of women has noticeably risen. In 2006, not one single mission was led by a woman. Today, the UN misisons in Haiti (Sandra Honoré), Lebanon (Sigrid Kaag), Côte d’Ivoire (Aïchatou Mindaoudou), South Sudan (Margaret Løj) and Burundi (Karen Lindgren) are headed by women. Before this there had been only one mission that had been led by a woman, the first UN peace mission in Angola under Margaret Joan Anstee (a vivid account can be found in her memoirs and Marrack Goulding’s).

Most of these women are in sort of mid-career stages and it is probable that their current position as special representative will lead to further advancement. Even though overall the share of women has not increased in UN senior management in recent years, there is a little hope that in peacebuilding, at least, women’s presence might well be just taking off. Having a female secretary general, whether Helen Clark or someone else, does intuitively make believe that the careers of these female Heads of Missions would not be stalled in the same way Anstee’s career came to an end after the Angola experience and Boutros-Ghali’s installation as Secretary General.

However, the problem is that we don’t know. Having a woman at the top of the UN might as well have no effect whatsoever on the gender gap in international organizations. To start with, the UN is not doing particularly worse than any other socio-professional or political sector; it is actually doing better than many countries, including advanced industrial countries. Worldwide women hold only 12% of seats on executive boards of major business corporations (same page). Men still earn about twice as much income as women. According to the World Bank, worldwide parliamentary representation of women has increased to 23%, however it is a bit puzzling to see particularly high representation of women in parliaments that are utterly dysfunctional (e.g. Cuba or Iran). One explanation is that some countries generously count in these statistics female representatives in parliamentary chambers that have not direct legislative powers (e.g. Bolivia which has about 50% women in its lower chamber but none in its higher parliamentary chamber). Having a female head of state or government has not had any direct impact on women’s representation in parliament as the case of Germany for instance shows. According to the UN women programme, 11 women served as Head of State and 10 served as Head of Government as of August 2015 and only 17% of ministers worldwide were women.

Compared to this, the UN is actually doing ok with its 22% of women in senior leadership positions. But this also means that there will be a hell of resistance to take active measures to further increase women’s representation at the UN. For many male-dominated organizations, one woman in a room represents already parity. The best means to increase women’s representation has been up to now the introduction of quota. However, in an organization like the UN that is already riddled and divided up by numerous formal and informal quota it is unlikely that such a proposition would get anywhere even if it were seriously on the table. There are, of course, numerous other ways of supporting promotion of women in organizations like flexible working times, child care support (which in the case of the UN should include family friendly expatriate arrangements) and active support for promotion for instance through mentoring and gender sensitive promotion structures.

It’s in this last respect that much is expected from a female UN Secretary General. However, simply having a woman at the top cannot by itself lead to better support for female colleagues; on the contrary, single women leaders have shown a tendency to frustrate junior female careers rather than to support them. This has become known as ‘queen bee’ phenomenon and a well-known plot of Hollywood films. In mild forms the queen bee effect can be seen in female leaders’ refusal to support any kind of active policies to reduce gender gaps (‘we do the same work as men’), whereas more aggressive forms can take the form of active obstruction, for instance by precisely asking more effort and better results from women colleagues. The reasons for queen bee’s existence have been explained in various forms but some research argues that it is, actually, a result of gender inequality, and not a cause.

Researchers point to two factors that determine the severity of the queen bee phenomenon: the ‘maleness’ of the organizational culture and the socio-cultural socialization of the female leaders. Simply said the more sexist an organization is the more it is likely that a woman has complied with and assimilated gender stereotypes. She will apply these sexist standards to female junior staff in order to get her own achievements acknowledged. From other contexts, we know that an organization is the more sexist and gender discriminating the more it is dominated by men only. There is, hence, a vicious circle between male dominated organizational cultures and queen bee syndrome. Unnecessary to emphasize that sexist organizational cultures are more likely to exist in settings in which gender equality is less developed and where women generally participate less in the workforce.

Consequently, one of the surest ways of breaking through the vicious circle of queen bees and male organizational culture is female leaders’ awareness of this and other stereotyping phenomena. If female senior leaders lend active support to end gender discrimination, the effect on the organization is overall positive (not only for women!). Women who come from gender egalitarian backgrounds show less incidence of the queen bee syndrome than women who were socialized in gender discriminating cultures (whether national cultures or sector-specific cultures).

Hence, when looking for a UN Secretary General who will promote female careers, the actual fact of being a woman does not by itself promise change. Rather it is necessary that this woman is committed to promote junior women and that she actively engages in combatting discriminatory culture, policies and practices. This is easier in an environment in which women are already well represented and on the rise (as it is the case of the UN in the past decade). That means, however, that women like Irina Bokova from Bulgaria where the employment rate of women is high and the income gap comparable to New Zealand (13.5% in Bulgaria, 11.8% in New Zealand), and who has two children of her own (unlikely Helen Clarke who is childless) might even be a better choice to promote women in the UN. But then, Helen Clarke is not the candidate supported by Russia…


The lazy bugger myth


The Guardian just published a list of 11 tips how to make a career in the UN, most of them giving advice on how not to work. Of course, the list is a satiric take on the myth of the UN’s lazy buggers who only pretend to save the world when they are actually playing minecraft or hanging out at the pool, or even worse, abusing the power they have. There are many such lists and articles (here and here); ineffectiveness or stupidity is also commonly laughed at on the very popular blog ‘Stuff expat aidworkers like’ (which has seriously lost speed in the past years); and there have been a number of books written on the UN’s ineptitude (see for instance the highly tainted and disputed memoirs of Pedro Sanjuan).

But the laziness of UN staff thus decried is a myth. UN workers do work their bottom off. Especially in field missions Un staff usually does not have 9 to 5 working hours or a four-day working week. On the contrary, stress is a major problem of UN work. In my 2012 survey of civilian staff in peacebuilding missions which I did for my book project, a third of the respondents said that they felt extremely or very often stressed. More than 40% of the respondents found it very difficult to balance family and work life.

2012 survey of civilian staff in UN peace missions

2012 survey of civilian staff in UN peace missions

So, the problem is not that UN staff doesn’t work. If it is not the real laziness of UN staff that is at stake, then the myth has another foundation. The problem is that their work is not very visible to the outside world. As this graph shows from the same survey, most staff is in regular contact with other UN agencies or international organizations during their working day, however they deal little with, however defined local agencies. They also draw their information and ideas less from locals than from international sources. Even though many read local newspapers or say that they are in regular contact with people living in the country and that they know many since a long time, they still privilege international newspapers and expert advice as information sources.

UN work (and probably also of any other international agency) is highly self-referential. Hence, it might appear irrelevant and remaining aloof of the reality of the goals to be achieved. The world seems to go on very well without the UN. The 2015 Millenium Development Goals for instance were successfully met largely because of China’s formidable economic growth that took place entirely independently from any UN work (and with economic policies which, according to some, defied the development politics’ wisdom).

Yet, this is only part of the story. As it is true for all administrations and bureaucracies the UN is most successful if not seen or heard. Ideally, the UN (and its affiliated organizations) is in the background and provides the conditions of possibilities for other– NGOs, national or local governments, local organizations etc. – to act. The critique that the UN is bunch of lazy buggers, hence, also expresses extreme unease with the organization’s elusiveness. The UN appears unaccountable, byzantine and far removed from the people it is supposed to serve. The contradiction is particularly disturbing where the UN is engaged in ‘empowerment’ or ‘democracy’ projects; whoever is the beneficiary of UN aid is her/himself utterly powerless and excluded from any major decision-making (despite the rhetoric of ‘consultation’) – an impression which is reinforced by the self-referential nature of UN work where the views of headquarter officials are more important than the views of the people on the ground.




Who killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the cold war and white supremacy in Africa, by Susan Williams, New York: Columbia U.P., 2011.


Dag Hammarskjöld is undisputably a modern hero for many, including the author of this book. Without his vigorous stewardship, the United Nations would most certainly not be in charge of 17 peace missions nowadays, employing more than 121,000 people and costing billions. Yet, in the cold war and the painful decolonization process of Africa, his actions and personnality were not liked by all. Consequently, his death in a plane crash while on mission in the Congo has since always been a huge inspiration for conspiration theorists. Three inquiries into the causes of the crash have been undertaken: one immediately after the crash by the Rhodesian government concluding a pilot’s error; another one by the the UN in 1962 which already expressed doubt over the pilot error’s hypothesis; finally, a parliamentary investigation in Sweden in 1993 more clearly said that the hypotheses of a criminal cause could not be excluded. In July this year the UN set up a new inquiry commission in order to investigate the hypothesis of Susan William’s book that Hammarskjöld’s plane was either shot at or sabotaged by white mercenaries.

Indeed, the empirical material carried together by Susan Williams is impressive and first of all shows how incomplete and neglectant former inquiries had been. She not only retraces numerous inconsistencies in the way witness testimonies and essential data were recorded; she also unearthes interesting materials about the activities of white supremacist mercenary groups in Africa between 1960 and the 1990s. She retraces in detail how these mercenary groups had important government contacts in Rhodesia and South Africa. She makes a plausible case that Hammarskjöld was sufficiently loathed by white settlers in Katanga, Rhodesia and South Africa to make them, at least, not regret his death. Yet, although impressive, this material does not allow beyond doubt imputing the plane crash to these groups and Williams carefully refrains from drawing any absolute conclusions. She makes very honestly clear that she cannot prove the authenticity of the documents she is discussing and she is also very sceptical about the veracity of the accounts former mercenaries have given her and other informants.

And even if a safe prove could be produced that mercenaries attacked Hammarskjöld’s plane or had placed a bomb in it, this would still be more than unsatisfactory. Mercenaries wouldn’t be commercial soldiers but political terrorists if they had acted on their own and become political at that point. They would have needed broad, powerful and rich support from political actors in order to attack directly the Secretary General of the UN. Williams is quite right when she notes that the logic consequence of this thought is to assume the involvment of right-wing groups in the former colonial powers, notably the UK, and white supremacists in Africa, notably in the Rhodesian and South African governments. Yet, chances are nil that evidence of that kind will ever come into the public domain. Neither the UK nor France, Belgium, the Netherlands or Portugal have in the past shown in any way that they are mature democracies enough to fully confront their colonial past. Admitting having participated actively in a plot against the Secretary General of the United Nations (assuming that they did, of course), the very institution these governments like to invoke today to justify their bombing of Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places? No way.

Williams insistence to steer through this white supremacy-colonialism mud puddle is admirable. She does sometimes, however, muddle up dates and presents curious narratives which undermines partly the credibility of her account. She presents Hammarskjöld as supportive of Lumumba which was certainly not the case (see John Kent and Ludo de Witte on this relationship); she also argues that Hammarskjöld from the outset wanted to end Katanga’s secession which is also not the case; she furthermore asserts that some of the mercenaries in Katanga were former Organisation Armée Secrète soldiers (a group of French army colonels in Algeria, mostly paras, who fought to keep Algeria French) and therefore close to the French government which is simply nonsense as the OAS was explicitly set up to overthrow the government of Charles de Gaulle (and although certainly attached to French grandeur, de Gaulle’s absolutely outstanding quality was to have understood, admittedly late, how futile Europe’s grip to power in Africa and Asia was: “If you want independence, then take it!”). These are not minor factual errors but important misconceptions of main narratives of the events of the time. A second edition of the book (which will most hopefully come as paperback to make it more widely accessible) should correct these.



Syria and the politics of naming


Violence has erupted again in Syria, indicating the failure of the UN special envoye Kofi Annan to find a peaceful solution to the conflict between the Syrian government and … yes, well, how would you call them? The government calls them “terrorists”, the international press calls them mostly “rebels”, some say “resistance fighters” and they call themselves mostly “revolutionaries” and refute the label of “civil war“. Of course, it is a common place that one’s terrorists or another’s freedom fighters. But the politics of naming are not simply an ideological word game but they conceal more important debates about the epistemology of conflict analysis and about the ontology of conflicts. As Jacob Mundy and Yves Winter point out, these name tags say a lot about the legitimacy that is conferred to the armed action and to the response. The question is not only whether the terms “terrorism”, “rebellion”, “revolution” capture accurately the violence displayed by a violently protesting group; the question is also which means of response and repression become legitimate for the government and international actors who might be involved. The legitimate means with which to respond to violence are certainly different whether we treat violent actors as criminals, rebels, terrorists or revolutionaries.

But, as Mundy argues, getting the name right also means getting the cause analysis right. In this perspective the naming is part of the conflict itself. Rebellions are much more short-sighted and are closer to riots than to the to the ideas of changing entire socities which are expressed in the notion of revoutions. Revolutions seek fundamental change in politics, society and economy, and are more profound and usually ideologically framed. The belittlening of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere as “Arab Spring” has concealed much of the revolutionary, and ideological impetus. Consequently, although the violence in Syria is often described as resulting from the movements of last year, the political and causal relationship becomes murky once the Syrian revolutionaries are called rebells or violent protesters. Rebels and protesters are a conjectural, punctual phenomenon; they can be — maybe — “sold off” through two, three policy measures and the regime could live on. Revolutionaries  want President Bashar Al-Assad’s head and those of his regime; they want another economy and they are trying to imagine another society.

Revolutionary situations are not merely situations in which human rights are violated — This is how the UN are presenting the story in Syria. Reducing such a situation to human rights violations wrongly infers that human rights would be, in principle, respected in this country but that they are not now, at this moment and more or less accidentally by this government. The fundamental legitimacy of the state’s goverment to act and to represent a, however configured, state of law is not disputed when such situations of collective violence are barely presented as human rights violations. However, in a revolution arbitrary violence by the government is neither accidental nor can it be dissociated from the already vanished legitimacy of this government. The human rights violations are secondary to the alltogether disputed legitimacy of the government itself. And this also means that ending arbitrary bombings, arrests, torture etc. will not restore Assad’s legitimacy…as the recent bombings in Damascus have shown. Naming wrongly means understanding wrongly means not being able to solve the conflict.

Revolutions are not civil wars, however, they can easily develop into such. But again, the name tag “civil war” implies yet new meanings which may or may not capture the causes and dynamics of the ongoing violence. In contrast to revolutions, which mark the overthrow of an existing order, civil wars are rather associated with long lasting violence, attrition, and the idea of homogenous groups confronting each other (e.g. confederates vs. yankees; Reds vs. Whites). They imply militarization (as contrary to armed violence), strategy, planning and long-term organisational formations. This may include ideological training and development that would not be observable in simple uprisings.

Yet, the reality on the ground of civil wars is also much more messy with pouches of protest and resilience within the government, splinterings of groups, a large variety of in-group fighting, diverse actors with different goals, ideological and political changes etc. Not all who are fighting in a civil war are revolutionaries or they actually might be but not forcibly the same…What they are cannot be decided a priori and from the outside but only after a careful analysis of the motives and causes of the violent actors. Whoever wants to understand the complexities of revolutionary wars might want to read through David W.P. Elliott’s “The Vietnamese War“.

Whereas media might be excused needing a handy and quick category for violent situations like in Syria, academia and policy circles at least should show more awareness that naming implies knowing and understanding the motives and causes of the violence. For Syria, this is seemingly not what is happening though.



Bosnia revisited: a very, very quick relational analysis of the Bosnian war


In 2002, Rogers Brubaker published a fascinating paper “Ethnicity without groups” discussing different ways how the emergence of ethnic groups can be understood. The paper, and the later book of the same title, are extremely illuminating as they constitutes a clear departure from the reified identitary view of ethnic groups (that view that only speaks in the collective singular) through using a strictly relational analytical framework. Later on, Andreas Wimmer has developed this as “configurational analysis”, explaining the dynamics of ethnopolitics and ethnic conflict. In the 2002 paper, Brubaker refers mainly to Bourdieu’s theorizing about the genesis of social groups, exploring how the mutual perception and the mutual tit-for-tat between social groups may lead to ethnicization of a group or not, and to what kind of ethnopolitics.
Inspired by this paper, I tried, some time ago, to apply such a relational framework to the Bosnian case. While puzzling the different relationships together, I started drawing charts where different actors were positioning themselves and against whom in the space of the Bosnian conflict.

The result is the graph above which shows a quite complicated, almost fractal assembly of dichotomous conflicts in which there is always a primary competition between two or three actors in a smaller political field (often the national field, but in the case of the EC also the European field) and which is influenced and related to the competitive struggles in the larger field of the internationalized Bosnian conflict.
Pushing this relational framework further into the time after the war, this graph comes out:

What is striking in the comparison of the two is the orderly impression the last graph makes. The United Nations (in form of the UN mission to Bosnia, SFOR and the Office of the High Representative) seem to have bundled the struggles and relations between all actors like a prisma bundles light rayons. If the real mission of the UN, hence, consisted in absorbing competitive struggles on the global area and to serve as catalyst for conflicts on the local, national or regional level?