Photo by: Rick Bajornas / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

UNITED NATIONS — It’s been nearly a year since António Guterres assumed his post as the leader of the United Nations. The former head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees took on the unenviable task of revamping an organization fractured by public relations challenges, from the U.N.’s role in bringing cholera in Haiti, to U.N. peacekeepers assaulting the people they are designated to protect.

Guterres, meanwhile, was also tasked with looking outward at a record number of protracted humanitarian crises.

The secretary-general launched plans for bold change. There was the initial pledge to finally make good on the U.N.’s promise of reaching gender parity — and a series of high-level appointments of women, such as Amina Mohammed as his deputy secretary-general. And, then, U.N. reform, a tiered process to reconstruct a complex, dated system that Guterres’ team said would become more effective and coordinated. U.N. reform is well underway, and U.N. agencies are working toward the goal of hiring equal numbers of women, at all levels, by 2030.

Pressure from the new U.S. administration and the threat of funding cuts likely only provided further stress as the U.N. responded to a record-setting number of people requiring humanitarian assistance from Yemen, to Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia. Next year, more funding than ever — approximately $22.5 billion — will be required to respond to the needs of 135 million people.

These efforts are being led by a new roster of leaders at the U.N. agencies, some of whom are already on board and others who will be announced in the new year. The United Nations Children’s Fund has yet to announce its new executive director and successor to Anthony Lake, and the U.N. will also be in search of a new human rights chief, as Zeid Ra'ad Hussein said this week that he will not seek a second term because of the “current geopolitical context.” 

Here’s a look at the new class of U.N. leaders and what they might be up against in 2018.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: World Health Organization director-general

Tedros Adhanom made history in 2017 when he became the first African to lead the WHO and the first director-general to be elected in a process involving the full World Health Assembly.

The WHO director-general enjoys wide support across the global health spectrum, including within his own organization. In Tedros’ first few months in office, he’s followed through on his campaign pledge and satisfied calls for more women in WHO leadership roles. He’s started to drive a cultural change within his organization by initiating engagement with staff and encouraging his directors to do the same. He’s also set-up a council that meets every two weeks to ensure the WHO is on top of every public health emergency taking place across the globe.

Tedros believes his role is not only to secure support for WHO, but to advocate for all organizations working in global health. He’s been to high-profile meetings, such as the G-20 in Hamburg, Germany, to drum up support for universal health coverage, and has met with world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin during the first WHO Global Ministerial Conference to end tuberculosis in Moscow in November.

Currently, one of his biggest challenges is winning member states’ support for his draft 13th General Program of Work. This includes proposals for the WHO to achieve a “triple billion target” — making 1 billion people safer in emergencies, giving 1 billion people health coverage, and improving the healthy lives of 1 billion people. During a special session in November, some member states voiced questions and concerns on these ambitious targets. The next official discussion on the draft program of work will be in January 2018.

David Beasley: executive director of the World Food Programme

When David Beasley was named executive director of the World Food Programme in March, it may have come as a bit of surprise, as the former South Carolina governor was little known to the development community. Some development observers and member states had also advocated for a more open process in selecting key leadership positions at top U.N. agencies in 2017.

Beasley — who is well-connected to the Trump administration — has proven to be an outspoken advocate for both continued and increased U.S. contributions to the WFP and to addressing hunger and food security globally. He has testified in Congress, met with U.S. policymakers, and used the media to call attention to crises from Yemen to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

His tenure has not been without some controversy. Beasley has linked food aid to national security, calling it the “first line of offense and defense against extremism and terrorism,” which has worried some in the development community. Some were also concerned that his links to the White House would be problematic, but he has not always toed the line or followed the lead of the Trump administration. Beasley has repeatedly called on Saudi Arabia to step up as a donor, particularly in Yemen, where Beasley has said the country should fully fund the humanitarian relief efforts, which are needed as a result of a conflict that the Saudis are directly involved in.

Beasley did not step in at an easy time, with four countries on the brink of famine, and a growing number of humanitarian crises with rising food insecurity. Many of those crises will continue in the year ahead and will continue to test Beasley’s leadership, particularly in the face of what are now considerable funding shortfalls.

Achim Steiner: administrator of the United Nations Development Programme 

Achim Steiner is no U.N. novice. The 56-year-old Brazilian native, who was raised by German parents, spent a decade running the U.N. Environment Programme until 2016.

Appointed by the UNDP executive board to run one of the U.N.’s largest agencies in April, Steiner told Devex in a recent interview that he sometimes reflects on the sheer size difference of the two agencies as he considers what’s at stake with his new job. Leading nearly 17,000 staff in 170 countries, Steiner will oversee a new strategic plan for UNDP, which will launch in 2018 and guide the agencies work through 2021. The plan has parallels to Guterres’ reform strategy — prioritizing “future focused,” cross-cutting work that better links all aspects of development.

A critical aspect seems to be a modern approach to development that considers factors that makes youth vulnerable to extremism — a connection UNDP stressed this year in a report on Africa, for example. It will be interesting to watch how Steiner, who also spoke about development as a “foundation for young people” at a youth and extremism forum this year, continues to push this dialogue forward.

As UNDP works to engage in work as diverse as climate change and reunification programs in Mosul, it will be key to also track how its new plan is actually implemented, as well as its success in financing it. The agency hopes to have 11 percent more in available resources over the next four years, increasing its budget from about $23 billion to $25 billion.

Natalia Kanem: executive director of the United Nations Population Fund

Guterres’ decision to appoint Natalia Kanem as executive director of the United Nations Population Fund was widely welcomed by the aid community in October. Kanem had been unexpectedly elevated to the position of UNFPA acting executive director in June, following the sudden death of her former boss, Babatunde Osotimehin. She already had four months experience on the job when her formal selection arrived. Kanem is the first Latin American to head the agency, and, as a woman, adds credence to Guterres’ pledges to improve equality within the United Nations.

While her appointment happened somewhat quickly, many sexual and reproductive health rights experts agreed that Kanem was a logical, popular choice. She offered a safe pair of hands to steer UNFPA through a turbulent political and financial time, especially considering the U.S. government’s policy and budget decisions, which reduced support to family planning.

UNFPA lost more than $32 million in core funding after President Donald Trump’s decided to defund the agency in April, depriving the organization of its second-largest donor. The expanded version of the “global gag rule” introduced by Trump at the start of the year has also put increased pressure on UNFPA funds and activities.

But UNFPA faces more than just opposition from the U.S. It also has to navigate the tricky waters of religious and moral conservatism present in many African nations. This was brought into the spotlight during last month’s meeting of the Inter-Agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises, or IAWG, which includes U.N. agencies and civil society groups.

A major agenda item was revising the Minimum Initial Service Package, or MISP, for Reproductive Health, the field manual for aid workers providing reproductive health services in the initial phase of a humanitarian crisis. Advocates pushed hard for the MISP to include access to safe abortion for the first time. Ultimately, UNFPA delegates negotiated a compromise in which safe abortion was included as a footnote, citing concerns that due to its sensitive nature, including abortion could cause some country governments to reject the overall package, as Devex reported.

Advocates will be watching closely to see whether UNFPA could be retreating from tackling divisive issues such as abortion and also comprehensive sexual education and LGBTQI-community rights.

Read more Devex coverage on the United Nations.

About the authors

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.
  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.
  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.
  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.