UNICEF values diversity. Except at the top.

The Berlin Conference of 1884 established that in European eyes, the fate of Africa was something for white Europeans to decide.

by Sasha Alyson

The infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 is often remembered as the occasion when European powers carved up Africa for themselves. Actually, the “Scramble for Africa” began much earlier. The 1884 conference, writes Patrick Gathara in Al Jazeera, played a different but important role:

“It established the rules for the conquest and partition of Africa, in the process legitimising the ideas of Africa as a playground for outsiders, its mineral wealth as a resource for the outside world not for Africans and its fate as a matter not to be left to Africans.”(1)

The Western powers no longer divide the geographic map. Instead, they divide responsibilities – with eerily similar presumptions. Only U.S.A. citizens get the top spot at the World Bank; only Europeans at the International Monetary Fund.

Here is a third case: UNICEF has always been run by white Americans.

The facts

UNICEF was founded in 1946. It has had eight Executive Directors since then. All eight were citizens of the United States, and all were white.

This is not a formal policy; it’s just reality. Officially, the U.N. Secretary-General makes this appointment in consultation with the UNICEF Executive Board. In reality, he rubber-stamps whoever the United States recommends. Devex.com, which reports on the development industry, wrote of the 2017 appointment: “The top UNICEF job has historically gone to the American candidate, so her [Henrietta Holsman Fore’s] nomination would likely lead to her selection.”(2) The latest, in February 2022, is a long-time aide to Joe Biden.


I can find no statement by the U.N., nor the U.S.A., explaining why.

The U.S. is a major donor to the U.N., and also to UNICEF. If UNICEF is essentially a business, then those putting up the money will naturally expect to run the show. But if it’s intended to benefit children in developing regions – and perhaps, though not stated, to assuage the guilt, in some small way, for centuries of looting and violence by the West – then why would U.S. nationality be so important?

No one tries to publicly justify this. They don’t talk about it at all. They just do it.

Is this a problem?

It shouldn’t be necessary, in 2023, to discuss whether a willful lack of any diversity at the helm of the U.N.’s second-largest agency is a problem.(3) But since it keeps happening, here are a few thoughts.

Someone from the global South is likely…

… to be a role model.

…to know, hire, respect, and mentor talented people who still have roots in the regions where UNICEF works, and not just those who have become a part of the aid industry.

…to spend more time in developing regions, and to understand them better. In 2013 NPR ran a story about cash transfers – the idea of giving aid funds directly to the poor, as cash, rather than paying Westerners to set up aid projects on behalf of the poor. Carol Bellamy (UNICEF Executive Director 1995-2005; before that she headed up the Peace Corps) told NPR that she thought cash transfers wouldn’t work because recipients might just waste it on gambling and alcohol. Numerous studies have found her stereotype to be wrong.(4) At best it is paternalistic; many would call it downright racist. But we must assume this perspective shaped UNICEF policies during Bellamy’s tenure.

…to know, and deeply care, that even though school enrollment is up, education quality is declining in regions where the U.N. has pushed its policies. Someone from the South would see this. Neighbors and relatives would tell them…. perhaps scream at them. Yet after three decades, UNICEF has begun giving occasional lip service to quality but continues to focus on enrollment – which is the only sphere in which it can claim to have achieved anything.

Another white U.S.A. director, on the other hand, is more likely…

…to bring a Western perspective, which sees people in developing regions as “needy” objects of charity.

…to be influenced by corporate ties. Henrietta Holsman Fore (2018-2022) came from a corporate background that included the ExxonMobile board and Coca-Cola. Climate change and junk-food encroachment are two looming threats to children where UNICEF works; do we really want someone with Fore’s connections at the helm? Ann Veneman (2005-2010) walked through the revolving door and joined the board of Nestle after leaving UNICEF.

…to bring a U.S. mentality which focuses on growth as the definition of success. That means building the UNICEF brand, creating public-private partnerships through which Western corporations, arm-in-arm with UNICEF, get a toehold in the South.(5) U.N. agencies aren’t technically profit-driven; but they are money-driven. In this case, the money goes toward further expanding their influence, and to the staff in the form of generous salaries, perks, and pensions… not to mention lucrative consulting jobs and board memberships after they exit.

Some questions

Why does this issue get no attention? There was considerable outcry in 2016 when the U.N. – after 71 years in which only men sat at the top – again selected a man as Secretary General. (To show that its heart was in the right place, however, the U.N. appointed Wonder Woman – yes, the comic book character – as an honorary ambassador.) There was no such outcry the next year, when it picked its seventh white American to run UNICEF.

What is the official rationale for this? Or does the U.N., in its arrogance, feel no need to offer any rationale?

Let’s assume the U.N. is simply pandering to the United States. Why does the U.S. feel it must always fill this position?

Follow the money

Do they (those who decide such things) believe people from the South are less qualified to head agencies such as UNICEF?

After 3 generations of the U.N. providing “development” assistance to the global South, what does this tell us about the quality of that assistance? About their opinion of people in the South? If they do think the South has produced capable people – but still want an American to run UNICEF – what does that tell us?

A superiority complex may be one factor here. But, as with so many things, money is also a factor. The head of UNICEF can channel funds toward this country or that one. Potentially this power could be used to influence how a country votes at the UN, especially on the Security Council. IS the position used to sway votes? Researchers looked at the data and concluded: Yes. It’s one of several concerns I’ve looked at in Monetizing the United Nations.

At that 1884 Berlin conference, the Western powers sought a way to legitimize “the ideas of Africa as a playground for outsiders, its mineral wealth as a resource for the outside world not for Africans and its fate as a matter not to be left to Africans.”

Has anything changed?

Comments from Twitter

We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments.

karsten.gjefle, @GjefleKarsten: As a former UNICEF staff member (Morocco 1996-1999) I hope this practice stops immediately. The USA has discredited themselves to such a degree in terms of constructive contribution, destruction and lack of respect of international law that UNICEF needs freedom to select next CEO.

V Shankar, @vshank16: The UN is managed like a cosy club. There is no attempt to move away from colonial era attitudes, which vitiates the relevance of these organizations.

Notes and Sources

Photos at top of story: Maurice Pate by Bjorn Fjortoft, CC-BY-4; Henry R. Labouisse, public domain; James P. Grant, by David Barbour; Carol Bellamy by Centre for Distance Education, CC-BY-SA-2.0; Ann Veneman, public domain; Anthony Lake by Janwikifoto, CC-BY-3; Henrietta Holsman Fore, public domain

A related story: Soon after we published this, The New Humanitarian noted that another position, head of humanitarian affairs, “is a British fiefdom.”

1. Berlin 1884: Remembering the conference that divided Africa, by Patrick Gathara.

2. Former USAID chief Henrietta Holsman Fore possible pick for top UNICEF job, by Amy Lieberman, Adva Saldinger, Devex, 13 November 2017.

3. On its website, UNICEF makes grand statements such as “A diverse and inclusive workforce is part of UNICEF’s DNA” and “UNICEF has a zero-tolerance policy against discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and abuse of authority of any kind.”

4. What Happens When You Just Give Money To Poor People? by David Kestenbaum, NPR, 25 Oct. 2013.

5. In UNICEF backpacks: Educational aid, or branding campaign? I’ve told how UNICEF distributes truckloads of UNICEF-branded backpacks in the third world, turning schoolchildren into walking billboards who promote its brand while doing nothing to improve education quality.

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5 thoughts on “UNICEF values diversity. Except at the top.

  1. All US-backed aid agencies come across to me as imperialist tools to sustain world domination by the US whose credentials are now exposed by the 2020 elections. John Perkins in The Confessions of the Economic Hitman and Secret History of the American Empire disclosed more

  2. It is a matter of imperialism and imperialist ideology.. The more impoverished south & (Africans), should as a matter of social interest, protect its level of participation and also break out the colonial heights in their region and continent at large.

  3. It’s a closely held club of a bunch of bureaucratic buddies, most of them trained in the Fletcher School, always eager to pat each other, but, don’t have the time of the day nembers for the needy children of the world. Oh! Yes, they love to sing “we’re the world.” What if the UNICEF is disbanded tonight. Nothing will happen except the world will have to come up with a huge amount to pay for the pension and perks of the club members. All UN agencies are like this. A drain on the world taxpayers.

  4. Leave Africa to be Africa. The only way they are addressing this is mass emigration to Europe. Let them evolve more 50 years without us interfering.

  5. Good points in the article, but one more argument needs to be shared, further strengthening the case: everything UNICEF does is basically support countries to implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and there is only one country in the world that has not ratified the Convention: the US. So, the US should be the first to be excluded in having a national head the agency.

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