Former USAID chief Henrietta Holsman Fore possible pick for top UNICEF job

Henrietta Fore, former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator. Photo by: CSIS / CC BY-NC-SA

Editor’s note, Dec. 22, 2017: Henrietta Holsman Fore was named the next executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund on Dec. 22. Read our coverage.

UNITED NATIONS — Henrietta Holsman Fore will likely be the next executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund, with multiple sources telling Devex that she is set to be the candidate put forward for the role by the United States.

Fore, an American businesswoman and former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, has been unofficially floated as the U.S. choice for the job, according to sources close to the process. The top UNICEF job has historically gone to the American candidate, so her nomination would likely lead to her selection.

However, a senior United Nations official stressed to Devex that UNICEF has not yet received Fore’s formal nomination, and that the U.S. could ultimately present a different candidate, as the selection process is ongoing. The application deadline for the top UNICEF job closes Nov. 20, and the new hire would take the reins from Executive Director Anthony Lake in January.

Fore was the first woman to hold the top job at USAID. Prior to that she was undersecretary of state for management at the State Department. She also served as an assistant administrator at USAID during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, running the Asia bureau.

UNICEF’s executive director is appointed by the U.N. Secretary General in consultation with the executive board of the organization, a process so simple it could fit on a postage stamp, a former UNICEF board member told Devex. Though there is no mention of citizenship requirements in rule or law, the top UNICEF job has gone to the U.S. candidate since the organization’s first executive director, Maurice Pate, an American businessman who took on the job in 1947 and held the position for almost two decades. 

There are efforts now to make the pick for executive director more transparent, and there is a formal selection process underway, with a publicly posted job announcement, an open call for applications, and a panel of three people — appointed by U.N. chief António Guterres — who will conduct interviews.

Guterres has pledged that the selection of the UNICEF executive director would follow proper procedures and not be conducted with backdoor deals, said May-Elin Stener, Norway’s deputy permanent-representative, in a recent sit-down interview with Devex at the Norwegian mission in New York.

“It needs to be an open process — and [Guterres] has promised us that they will get all the applications and have a process according to the standard U.N. rules,” Stener explained. Norway is serving as a vice president on UNICEF’s board this year, and will take the helm as president in January.

Guterres has final say in selecting the UNICEF executive director, according to the U.N. charter. The country led executive board is not formally part of this process, but the board leadership has met with Guterres to discuss the proceedings and may sometimes be consulted, according to Stener.

The mission of Antigua and Barbuda — the acting president of the UNICEF board — did not respond to queries regarding the selection proceedings. Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for Guterres’ office, said that the proceedings were ongoing and they were not in a position to comment on the details of it.

Stener said that Fore is not yet the “official” pick and declined to endorse any candidate until the application process was completed. She said that Norway has a full understanding of other countries’ plans to endorse candidates.

Sources tell Devex that other potential candidates who have been mentioned include John Hewko, the general secretary of Rotary International and a former George W. Bush appointee and Josette Sheeran, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti and a former George H.W. Bush appointee.

So far, the U.S. has not “actively been pushing other countries” to support a candidate, Stener said.

UNICEF is the second-largest U.N. agency, with a budget of about $5 billion in 2017. The agency is entirely supported by voluntary contributions from governments, individuals and the private sector. Though it does not receive any funding from the U.N.’s core budget, it is still vulnerable to the risk of funding cuts that have hovered over other U.N. entities, as the U.S. historically has served as its largest country donor.

The U.N.’s public job listing calls for someone with leadership experience and “strategic vision and proven skill” in overseeing complex institutions, as well as an understanding of the “pace, scale and the opportunities and challenges in advancing the rights and well-being of children for inclusive and sustainable development.” A record of setting clear standards for accountability and zero tolerance to fraud and corruption, and a demonstrated ability of working “harmoniously” with a multi-cultural team are also listed as desired attributes. Women candidates are strongly encouraged to apply.

By those standards Fore, who served as the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2007 to 2009, would likely be seen as a highly qualified candidate, and she would fit with Guterres’ efforts to achieve gender parity in top U.N. roles.

The senior U.N. official said that she seems like a credible candidate with experience leading an institution, though he had not met her.

Fore took over USAID at a difficult moment, after the previous administrator resigned when he was caught up in a Washington, D.C. prostitution scandal. While she didn’t hold the position very long, she did oversee the expansion of USAID’s Foreign Service Officer Corps through the launch of the Development Leadership Initiative, which was created to hire 300 additional foreign service officers, a 30 percent increase in USAID’s career foreign service workforce.

She also relied on career staff to fill many of the positions during her tenure, rather than bringing in many political appointees, which won her greater support from staff, as Devex previously reported.

Fore helped USAID reclaim control of some of the budget and policy decision making that had been ceded to the State Department in previous years, and she also was involved in the early years of public-private partnerships at USAID.

Her appointment to lead USAID, though, uncovered a controversial moment.

In 1987, Fore gave a speech at Wellesley College, her alma mater, where she said that it was difficult for her factory to keep black employees because they preferred to sell drugs and that Hispanic workers were lazy, in addition to other characterizations of racial or ethnic groups.

Twenty years later, Fore came under scrutiny for those remarks during her Senate confirmation hearing in 2007, where she said the remarks were mischaracterized. “I made the statement in the context that what we had to do was fight these stereotypes,” Fore said, according to a New York Times article at the time.

Fore is now chairman and CEO of Holsman International, her family’s investment and management company, where she advises international corporations, including the Coca-Cola company. She also sits on the board of ExxonMobil and has roles at a number of development-related think tanks including the Center for Global Development and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Transparency in selecting the next UNICEF leader is said to be a priority for many UNICEF staffers. Guterres’ own selection as Secretary-General last year followed a uniquely, yet relatively, open process. Last year, for the first time, he and nine other candidates submitted applications and formally presented their positions on how they would lead the U.N. system.

Norway has maintained it would support someone who has “wide experience, is a very competent person,” and also “has the trust of the member states” Stener said.

The executive director has a “huge task, a very important task,” of directing policy and life-saving programs to assist tens of millions of children worldwide, she said. In 2016, UNICEF responded to 344 humanitarian situations, supported basic education for 11.7 million children in emergency settings, and delivered antiretroviral therapy to almost half of the children living with HIV.

“It is important they align themselves with the other U.N. agencies. UNICEF has a strong brand and they are very good at talking about themselves and doing a very good job, but we also think they need to make sure they don't duplicate work from other U.N. agencies and across the rest of the U.N., and that is the main priority for the Secretary-General,” Stener said.

Read more Devex coverage on the United Nations system.

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.