June 24, 2021
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Is India Losing The UN?

There was a time when Indians headed UN agencies, shaped policy and exercised greater influence, but today the story is different. Why can't Delhi see beyond the headquarters in New York?

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Is India Losing The UN?


Is India slowly losing the United Nations with a diminishing presence and a weaker voice at policy-making levels? There was a time when Indians headed UN agencies, shaped policy and exercised greater influence, but today the story is different. India recently lost two major attempts at securing a higher profile but there is much more to the UN than the post of the secretary general and a permanent seat. An organization is not merely a head but body and limbs, fingers and toes as well.

Mourning period over, New Delhi must develop a strategy for an effective multilateral presence that embraces a wider arena spread across all cities where UN agencies are located, not just the shining skyscrapers of Manhattan. A fresh look at the United Nations system might help if India wants to grow political muscle to match its obvious economic strength. You can’t become a great power merely on the basis of large foreign exchange reserves. Both experienced and younger candidates need to get into the system for India to be heard. And India has much to offer to specialized UN agencies dealing with agriculture, food and health.

The United Nations may be much reviled and abused by powerful countries, but it remains the only playing field for the rest. It is the forum often of the first and always the last resort where the less powerful can debate the giants. Sometimes even fight and stymie them. The UN is still a noble idea even though it has been used for ignoble means. But over the years, India has been losing senior positions within the system and with the departure of Shashi Tharoor as UN under secretary-general for communications and public information and the retirement of Phrang Roy, assistant president of UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, there are hardly any Indians at the second level. True, there is the newly appointed Vijay Nambiar, chef de cabinet of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon but his role will be more that of a confidant than a policy maker. Ban and Nambiar have been friends for more than three decades since the time when they were both in Delhi as diplomats. The other senior Indian is Atul Khare, who was appointed UN’s special representative to Timor-Leste last December, making him the only person with an independent charge.

Go back to the 1970s and the picture was quite different when senior Indian experts headed at least three independent UN entities and India was well represented. C.P. Srivastava was the director-general of the International Maritime Organisation for four terms from 1971 to 1989. He was awarded an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth for his service to the world of shipping. Then there was S.S. Gill, director-general of UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation while Arcot Ramachandran was executive director of the UN Centre on Human Settlements from 1978 to 1991 where he is remembered for launching several new initiatives on shelter for all and sustainable cities. He is now chairman of Tata Energy and Resource Institute.

Fast forward to 2007 and there are no senior Indians at UNHCR or UNICEF. There is one assistant director general at UNESCO. In Rome, where three major UN organizations are based – Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP) and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) – there are no Indians in the first or second tier. There "Indian quota" at mid- and lower- levels may appear full at UN agencies across the board but many of them have graduated to professional services by taking an internal exam. They are not a pool from which senior positions can be filled. Those are awarded after governments stake a position.

In the game of political give and take, lobbying behind the scenes and cutting deals, India is lackadaisical. Even when positions are offered on a platter, New Delhi can’t get its act together to search and offer a candidate. Or it shies away from grabbing power because of outdated calculations. A western ambassador in Rome told me India was asked to propose a candidate for the director general ship of FAO in 2005 because of discontent against Jacques Diouf, the incumbent whose style of functioning was seen as questionable. Diouf had already served two six-year terms and many countries felt a change was needed. Support was promised but India stayed silent and Diouf went on to win a third six-year term. As one senior Indian in the UN system said, "Now our relations with the United States are such that we can talk about these things candidly."

Indian diplomats on the UN beat say that Delhi is disinterested in UN agencies other than the headquarters in New York. One former official told me how despite careful reporting of prospects and positions in three Rome-based organizations, not a paper moved in Delhi, forget a systematic effort to spot a candidate. Another Indian working in New York said that "most government officials don’t push for an Indian unless it is themselves." There are other problems as well. Many senior officials consider postings other than New York to be "punishment" and don’t want to relocate from their comfortable fiefdoms. The younger brains are more attracted to the private sector. Besides, the vacancies are usually announced in The Economist, a magazine not accessible to many in India. But as a retiring official suggested, the government of India can always re-advertise in Indian papers.

And as always, the Chinese are ahead of the curve. They have been getting more and more qualified people into the system. China won the director generalship of the World Health Organisation last year with the appointment of Dr. Margaret Chan and recently Ban Ki-Moon chose Sha Zukang, China’s permanent representative to UN in Geneva, as the UN under secretary general for economic and social affairs, a key position. It is apparent China flexed some muscle in securing Sha’s appointment, placing a key man in New York to watch the other permanent members while tending the "developing world" constituency. It is a double whammy for India because Sha was one of the fiercest and most acerbic critics of Indian nuclear tests in 1998. He beat down American doors to punish and isolate India, arguing vehemently for maximum outrage.

India is also nowhere to be seen in the lucrative consultancy corridors of the UN. Western consultants scandalously dominate the business, grabbing short-term positions to advise poor, needy African countries at hundreds of dollars a day on management, agricultural, computer. It is a cartel that needs to be broken and some real altruism brought in. India can send eminent people like Narayanmurthy to advise UN agencies. They will do a better job at a fraction of the cost. A panel of experts, who have retired from their jobs, could be created and offered as advisers to specialized UN agencies. As a bonus, UN members would get some real developing country-solutions for their development needs.

And finally, India could offer to increase its contributions to agencies where clout is directly proportional to the amount of money you put in. What good are huge foreign reserves if they don’t buy you something?

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