Selecting the World’s Top Ambassador for Children: Is Trump up to The Task?

Bushra, 8, attends class at a UNICEF-constructed school in Gari Habibullah, Northwestern Pakistan. Credit: Asad Zaidi

Bushra, 8, attends class at a UNICEF-constructed school in Gari Habibullah, Northwestern Pakistan. Credit: Asad Zaidi

**UPDATED DEC 22, 2017

The Trump Administration appoints Henrietta H Fore, former USAID Administrator, as the next executive director of UNICEF. Click here for the UNICEF announcement.

In the second major UN appointment since Inauguration Day, the Trump Administration has shown that it’s capable of making sound decisions that retain the credibility of the UN agencies of which it has appointment rights - the World Food Program (WFP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

In the former case, Trump selected Republican David Beasley - the Chair of the Center for Global Strategies and a former governor of South Carolina. He has been described as a non-nonsense politician. Since his appointment he has called out such regimes as Saudi Arabia for maintaining an extremely harmful blockade on Yemen. In a November 2017 interview with 60 Minutes Scott Pelley, Beasley urged world leaders put pressure on the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebel fighters to end the crisis. "You keep going like you’re going, there’s not gonna be anybody left. All the children are gonna be dead. It’s terrible," he said. 

And on Friday, the choice for UNICEF was announced - with Trump opting for businesswoman and former USAID Administrator Henrietta H. Fore. Also seen as a wise choice, Fore, a Republican, appears largely non-partisan and comes with impressive international experience - including as undersecretary of state for management at the US State Department and as assistant administrator at USAID during the George H.W. Bush presidency, running the Asia bureau.

Fore comes to the job with some controversy. According to Devex, in 1987, she gave a speech at Wellesley College that was interpreted as discriminatory against African Americans and Hispanics. The remarks came up during Senate confirmation hearings in 2007.

The upcoming holiday season is a time for  the world’s major aid agencies to massively ramp up fundraising with everything from star-studded galas to street corner solicitations.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is no exception: its iconic holiday cards and signature Snowflake Gala in New York City generate the massive sums of money that make accountants blush. 

But the festive season may not be so festive for the world’s most influential children’s rights organization this year.

By December UNICEF is due to receive a replacement for Executive Director Anthony Lake, a former US national security advisor, who was brought out of retirement to take the position in 2010 by then President Barack Obama.

Understandably there is a huge amount of apprehension at UNICEF headquarters in New York and here’s why: in the precincts of the UN, a well-known secret is that the United States holds “nomination rights” over at least two UN agencies - UNICEF and the Rome-based World Food Program (WFP). While UNICEF’s 36-member Executive Board is to be consulted on the appointment, the US has continued to unreservedly use its clout to install its own national in that post: all six UNICEF chiefs have been Americans since its inception in 1947.

The concern this time around? Many of President Donald Trump’s major appointments – the ones he has gotten around to making – have been climate change deniers or individuals who are directly at odds with the agencies they've been appointed to lead. Having such an appointee lead UNICEF could compromise the agency’s ability to operate in 190 countries and territories - in particular its programs designed for preparedness and response to climate-related disasters such as droughts, rising sea levels and monster storms.

In UNICEF, memories are still fresh of the last Republican nominee - former USDA Secretary Ann Veneman, appointed in 2005 and widely regarded as woefully unprepared for the position. Sadly, under her tenure, employees of the UN agency charged with ensuring the rights of the child were discouraged from suggesting that children have inviolable rights.

In fairness, there’s a widespread feeling inside and outside the organization that, under a timid Lake, UNICEF has remained silent on some major issues, quietly ceding its coveted ‘megaphone’ to other organizations such as Save the Children. What’s more he has been considered persona non grata in some countries where UNICEF has massive operations, notably Pakistan.

One of the most prestigious brand names in the world, UNICEF has been represented by goodwill ambassadors ranging from Vanessa Redgrave and Roger Moore to Charlie’s Angel Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan. Hundreds of commercial aircraft carry its logo and message to far-flung corners of the globe.

And with 34 national committees around the world that raise about one-third of its income, it’s the envy of such chronically cash-starved sister agencies as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Through its 71-year history, UNICEF has developed the influence and ability to intervene in wars, natural disasters and disease outbreaks. It has brokered so-called days of tranquility to allow vaccinators into rebel-held areas. It has been a lead player in rolling back polio to just three countries. As the word’s largest purchaser of vaccines it can take plenty of credit for virtually eradicating measles, mumps and rubella in the Americas. Its sheer size allows it to stand up to recalcitrant governments which don’t think twice about pulverizing women and children.

Last December, in South Sudan, I witnessed firsthand a UNICEF-supported operation to re-integrate child soldiers back into the community - an exercise it has performed in dozens of active conflict zones around the world.

At a time when natural disasters are happening with more frequency and severity, the agency is extremely well placed to respond to emergencies. It pioneered the practice of pre-positioning emergency supplies in disaster-prone regions of the world. Its army of emergency specialists, stationed in New York, regional and country offices around the word, is second to none.

UNICEF will need a steward who can meet the challenges of a more fragile and unpredictable world...What it certainly doesn’t need is another political appointee who cant tell the difference between Delhi and Dhaka. 

With more emergencies on the horizon, including the world’s worst cholera epidemic in Yemen and record flooding in Vietnam, UNICEF will need a steward who can meet the challenges of a more fragile and unpredictable world. And someone who does not shy away from calling out nations for gross violations of child rights. What it certainly doesn’t need is another political appointee who cant tell the difference between Delhi and Dhaka. 

In his address before the UN General Assembly in September, Trump said: “Major portions of the world are in conflict and some, in fact, are going to hell.”

He could have been referring to any number of “hell holes” where UNICEF has an established presence - Syria, Yemen, Iraq or the DRC. That’s why, when considering whom to appoint as its next executive director, Trump needs to prioritize statesmanship over partisanship in choosing what can arguably be described as the world’s top ambassador for children. Millions of vulnerable children around the world deserve nothing less.

** As of Nov. 19, published reports suggest one of the front runners is former USAID Director and US businesswoman, Henrietta Fore. The DEVEX website also identified former WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran and John Hewko, the General Secretary of Rotary International.