Who will take the 'hardest job at the UN'?

Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environmental Program. Photo by: University of Michigan / CC BY

At least one United Nations staffer working under Achim Steiner believes it’s time for the executive director of the U.N. Environmental Program to move on.

“He’s changed UNEP, he’s made huge strides and improved it immensely,” the UNEP employee who wished to remain anonymous told Devex. “But he can do better.”

By “better,” the source was referring to rumors that Steiner is set to become U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Behind the scenes of the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Steiner confirmed to Devex that he’s being considered to replace Antonio Guterres, who has held the position as head of the Office of the UNHCR since 2005.

“Being a serving U.N. staff member I can’t say anything else, but yes, I can confirm that I’m a candidate,” Steiner told Devex. “Now I can just wait for the process to unfold.”

Steiner and Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, have in common exceptionally long careers at the U.N. Both are close to breaking records as the longest-serving heads of their respective agencies. March marked a decade for Guterres as head of UNHCR, next March will mark a decade for Steiner as head of UNEP.

When the their respective four- and three-year mandates ran out, both men saw their terms extended — twice.

“[Steiner] could stay at UNEP forever,” the UNEP employee said. “They would just keep changing the rules to keep him there.”

In Steiner’s time at UNEP, the agency’s budget has more than doubled, triggering a realignment of UNEP’s financial priorities and the establishment of a U.N. Environmental Assembly. Before UNEP, Steiner was executive director of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, with the — perhaps unusual — mandate of influencing governments to shape climate policy and legislation worldwide.

If elected, Steiner would shift from managing UNEP’s 1,000-member staff and $631 million annual budget to leading one of the largest agencies in the U.N. system, with a more than $6.8 billion budget per year and a 9,000-strong staff, 88 percent of whom work in the field, often in fragile or conflict-affected areas.

With almost 60 million people displaced globally, according to a UNHCR report released in June, the agency is also mandated to tackle what many, including Guterres, believe to be the largest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.

“Displacement around the world is increasing exponentially,” Guterres told Devex during the Global Philanthropy Forum in April in Washington, D.C. “Needs are growing exponentially, and yet resources are harder to come by. It’s no longer possible for humanitarian action alone to clean up the mess, because we don’t have a handle on it and it’s only going to get worse.”

Colleagues of Guterres are calling for another extension of his term, which was already prolonged earlier this year for six-and-a-half months and will expire in December. When the U.N. General Assembly approved the most recent extension of the Portuguese, delegates told press they hoped extending his term would — at a time of crisis — preserve a sense of continuity and purpose at UNHCR offices.

In an email to Devex, an employee based in Lebanon with UNHCR commented that while her work generally kept her “pretty removed from Guterres’ impact,” she did feel that even during a short trip to her mission, Guterres tried “to advocate on many issues that are impacting Syrians living in Lebanon.”

Despite calls for another extension from the UNHCR executive committee, U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon will proceed with elections as scheduled, Reuters News Agency reported last week.

Members of the committee expressed concerns that Guterres’ exit might create a vacuum at UNHCR at a precarious moment in the refugee crisis, but Ban appears to be moving forward with a shortlist of candidates, which Devex understands includes Steiner, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and former United Nations Relief and Works Agency Commissioner-General Filippo Grandi.

Meanwhile, some at UNEP are nervous the shift will create a similar vacuum at a delicate — some might say defining — moment for the agency. In the wake of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals last month, and in the run-up to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference — or COP21 — in December, one UNEP employee wondered how a shift at the executive level at UNEP will affect some of the more sensitive climate talks.

“Much of the work he’s been doing culminates with [COP21],” the UNEP staff member told Devex. “It’s hard to imagine someone just picking up where [Steiner] left off.”

Achim Steiner speaks with Devex at the Social Good Summit in New York City on the adoption of the Global Goals and what the global development community should do to tackle climate change.

Steiner, for his part, acknowledged that many of the conversations at COP21 — particularly around finance — will be tricky.

“The level of ambition in the lead up to Paris and what Paris is likely to deliver is not going to be identical, we all know that,” he told Devex.

Still, the UNEP chief pointed to the submission of more than 150 countries’ intended nationally determined contributions two weeks ago as a milestone that “gives us reason to believe that Paris, struggle as it may in terms of the negotiators and the negotiating terms, such as finance, is most likely to signal to the world that a much faster, much more ambitious approach toward a low-carbon, global economy is now going to unfold.”

UNDP chief on the convergence of climate-sensitive development

Environmental and human development must move together as one, according to Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Program. On the sidelines of last month's Convergences Forum in Paris, Clark sat down with Devex to discuss the challenges ahead for the international community.

Said the UNEP staff member of Steiner: “His climate leadership makes him a strong candidate [for high commissioner], but being as indispensable as he is at UNEP and for Paris, [it] might play against him.”

Steiner, a career diplomat with dual Brazilian and German nationalities, doesn’t fit the profile of more recent high commissioners, many of whom previously held political office as prime ministers or ministers of finance. Still, the longest-serving and arguably most popular UNHCR head in the agency’s history, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, brought both a diplomatic history and an ecological mindset — novel for 1966 — to the position, and is credited for reorienting the agency for the shifting landscape of displacement worldwide.

With his own ecological and environmental credentials and hardened by his experience from a decade at the top of UNEP, all eyes are now on Steiner to see whether it will be him to provide crosscutting expertise in climate and finance to nurture UNHCR through its most testing period.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.