UNICEF values diversity. Except at the top.

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

by Sasha Alyson

The infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 is often remembered as where European powers divided up Africa amongst 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 are allowed in the top spot at the World Bank; only Europeans at the International Monetary Fund.

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

The facts

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

This is not a formal policy; it’s what happens. 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 most recent appointment in 2017: “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)


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 to UNICEF. If the 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 just do it.

Is this a problem?

It shouldn’t be necessary, in 2021, 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 paternalistic stereotype to be wrong.(4) But we must assume it 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 a quarter-century, UNICEF has begun giving occasional lip service to quality but continues largely to focus on enrollment – which is the only sphere in which it can claim to have achieved anything.

Another 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-present) comes from a corporate background that includes the ExxonMobile board and Coca-Cola.(5) 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.(6)

…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.(7) 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 and perks… 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 of having only men at the top – again selected a man as Secretary General. (To show that its heart was in the right place, however, it 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?

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?

In 1884, the Western powers sought a way to legitimise “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. Please add your own comments at the bottom of this page.

Jack Rexton, @RextonJack: How is that when the USA has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

The gecko, @SupertechW: Why am I not surprised. It is even sad that Non-profits have borrowed nonsense from the corporate world of giving people jobs based on “connections” not merit. Its about who you know for you to get that top spot, and I bet country-mates rank higher.

Mabusi V Moran, @MabusiV: This idea that non-western people are not able to have leaders who decide what is best for them is rooted in control and power.

Suresh Hattangadi, @Sureshattangadi: Simple. Those who pay highest get all the rights to fill plum posts. And they malign those who can’t retaliate or their concerns are ignored giving glib answers.Their media does the dirty work of maligning govts not toeing their line. This is done with media of these countries. Clever.

2030GlobalVision, @2030GVision: Aid is not about lifting the poor out of poverty. It’s a massive money-laundering, bio-piracy colonisation effort of the US.

Jack Rexton, @RextonJack: There’s a geopolitical reason, brainwashing children to “western values”, specially those of the USA. Can you imagine having the power to shape the minds of many generation of millions of children? There’s no imperialistic dark past, only freedom, respect for HHRR & democracy.

Genevieve Marshall, @gy_marshall: Depressingly for me at least, development is an industry and worth billions. Our goal at iNGOs and development agencies should be to put ourselves out of business but it doesn’t benefit most of them of, course, to do so. Far easier to stay comfortable than relinquish power.

Schoolboy’s Own, @SchoolboyOwn: I’m probably one of the least woke persons you could ever meet but this account seems to tweet a ton of common sense.

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.

Rake, @LouisRivera268: The Breton woods institutions were designed for the USA and Europe to “lead the world”. That’s why world bank presidents have all been Americans and the IMF managing directors have all been Europeans. It will never change, it’s their system.

Your Bulawayo Son, @leo_mucci: Is this a deliberate measure to undermine development in Third world countries? Does a Western citizen understand and appreciate the developmental issues? At least, a new approach to this appointment should be considered.

Abdisalam Yassin, @AbdisalamYassi1: We’ve a proverb in Somali which says, “One can only satiate oneself by drinking with one’s hands.” I think the only way to build the developing world is to use its own hands and its own resources. Countries can’t develop with handouts given by others. Charity begins at home.

Narbada Ghimire, @NarbadaGhimire: Hmmm UN. Preaching and practising must be compatible.

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.” And so on with other top U.N. positions… and a lot of hacks get through. See “The next UN humanitarian chief should be picked on merit.

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.” But, obviously, this doesn’t apply to those at the top.

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

5. There are further concerns about having Henrietta Holsman Fore running UNICEF. In 1987, as a trustee (and graduate) of Wellesley College, Fore told an audience that her company had trouble keeping black assembly-line workers from going ”back to the street to earn more money” dealing drugs, while Hispanic workers were lazy, white workers resented having to work with machines, and Asians were productive but often moved on to professional or management jobs. At the time, she apologized and resigned as trustee. Eighteen years later, when she was nominated for a high-level U.S. State Department position, Senator Barack Obama raised the issue. Fore said the comments had been taken out of context. This seems like an effort to fog the issue long after memories had faded. In 1987, Fore’s office had said she was not available for comment; and an apology and resignation seem like an extreme response to being quoted out of context. I’ve not been able to track down anything more definitive. At best, Henrietta Holsman Fore seems to be someone born to wealth and privilege, who can’t understand why people born poor wouldn’t be delighted to work on her assembly line. Sources: New York Times 1987, New York Times 2005, Chicago Tribune 2005.

6. Health and nutrition groups were scathing in their criticism of Veneman for hopping from UNICEF to Nestle, a company notorious for pushing its baby formula in developing countries. Privately, many UNICEF staff also expressed dismay; publicly, UNICEF merely said “Ms. Veneman left UNICEF nearly a year ago and is now a private individual. UNICEF would not presume to comment on any personal choices.” Her move was in keeping with her past history, however. When Veneman was being considered for the UNICEF position, John Nichols described her in The Nation as “a veteran beneficiary of agribusiness largesse” who “turned the Department of Agriculture into an echo chamber for the advocates of free trade agreements… and for Monsanto and other firms that are seeking to force farmers to plant genetically modified crops.” The People’s Health Movement also protested her nomination: “Ms. Veneman’s training and experience as a corporate lawyer for agribusiness is totally inadequate to the task of leading the agency most responsible for the rights of children. There is no evidence… that she has the least bit of interest in the world’s children or their health and well-being. Indeed, her performance in [her previous] positions has been characterized by the elevation of corporate profit above people’s right to food.”

7. In another story — 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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