Multilateral comings and goings

While everyone else is amusing themselves speculating about Obama’s picks for his Cabinet, here in New York everyone’s focused on a different question: what it all means for senior posts in multilateral agencies.

Start with the one thing we know for sure (as of yesterday): Kemal Dervis is leaving his post at the helm of the UN Development Programme, citing personal and family reasons.  By and large most people think this really is why he’s leaving (his family is based in DC, so an NY-based job probably isn’t much fun). But at the same time, it also hasn’t escaped notice that Dervis might also be well placed to win another senior multilateral post, should one open up. He’s an intellectual heavyweight, not least on global governance reform (at a time when the G20’s evolving role makes that especially topical) – and he has impeccable economic credentials too.

So is another multilateral post likely to open up? With Strauss Kahn now clearly out of the woods at the IMF, speculation is revolving around two posts in particular: UN Deputy Secretary-General, and World Bank President.

The DSG post is currently held by Asha-Rose Migiro of Tanzania, the third holder of the post since it was instituted in 1997.  Theoretically the DSG is supposed to have a key role in bringing coherence to the UN’s development activities, but in practice the current postholder is generally regarded as having underwhelmed.  With everyone wondering just how robust Obama’s commitment to multilateralism will prove to be in office, some are speculating that this would be a good moment for Ban Ki-moon to shake up his top team – and with Migiro’s post soon due up for renewal anyway, a new face in the DSG’s office might be just the ticket.

Bob Zoellick, meanwhile, has been terrific for the World Bank.  He’s been outstanding on the food price crisis (not least thanks to his alliance with WFP head Josette Sheeran, another former State Dept minister under Condi Rice), incredibly thoughtful on multilateral reform and he has brought calm to the institution after all of the Wolfowitz shock therapy.  So why might he leave? 

In a nutshell, because of the new Administration.  To be sure, Zoellick is greatly respected by Republicans and Democrats alike; and there’s no precedent that a World Bank President (to date, always an American, though this convention may be crumbling) must leave when an Administration of a different political stripe arrives.  But another precedent, one that may worry Zoellick, is that a World Bank President in such a situation can find himself eclipsed to some degree by the arrival of a new and powerful US Executive Director on the Board.  There’s no sign of any whispering campaign against Zoellick – but he may decide that it’s a good time to move on anyway.

Kemal Dervis would be a credible candidate for either of these positions, of course – so who knows, perhaps some of this analysis features in his thinking.  But there’s another angle to the story too: the UK dimension.  From a British perspective, the departure of the UNDP Administrator and potentially of the DSG as well must have people at the Foreign Office and DFID thinking hard. 

Historically, the UK has always had two USG posts at the UN.  Until Mark Malloch Brown moved over to the SG’s office (first as chief of staff, and then as DSG), the two Brit posts were at the top jobs at UNDP and at the UN Department of Political Affairs.  But when Mark became DSG, muttering about British over-representation started to be heard – and so the Foreign Office allowed an American to become head of DPA when Kieran Prendergast retired.

Today, the UK is more modestly represented.  It still has two USGs, yes – John Holmes at OCHA and David Veness at Safety and Security.  But these posts are rather more junior than DSG or DPA – and in any case, David Veness is leaving.  (He resigned over the bombing of UN offices in Algeria – a deeply honourable action, taken simply on the basis that it happened on his watch, when in fact there’s universal agreement in the UN that Veness has been a truly outstanding head of security, who has delivered a quantum leap in the quality of UN security around the world.  Ban Ki-moon was crazy to accept Veness’s resignation, but there it is.)

So with a vacancy open at UNDP, and another potentially opening up in the DSG’s office, the question in London must be wheter this is a chance to make up lost ground.  Lists of senior Brits with international development experience are doubtless being compiled even now…