Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed British lawmaker Stephen O’Brien as the next UN humanitarian chief on Monday in a closely watched move sparked by controversy over whether Britain should keep the high-level post.
O’Brien, a lawyer who was born in Tanzania, brings to the job “extensive experience in multilateral diplomacy and advocacy,” business and management skills, and more than 20 years of experience in international development and health care, Ban said.
O’Brien has also served as British Prime Minister David Cameron’s special representative for the Sahel since 2012 and won the 2014 Champions Action Award for his leadership in mobilizing campaigns against malaria and neglected tropical diseases.
He will replace Valerie Amos, a highly regarded member of Britain’s House of Lords who was highly praised by Ban. He expressed his “utmost gratitude” to her for her service to the U.N. in tirelessly advocating for the world’s neediest people.
Amos, who has held the job as undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator since 2010, has overseen the most serious humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic as well as many other sparked by conflict and natural disasters. She followed another Briton into the post, John Holmes.
When Amos announced that she was stepping down, there were many calls for greater openness and transparency in choosing her successor solely on merit, not because he or she was from one of the five permanent nations on the Security Council. There are no written rules, but traditionally each of the five — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — gets a top post in the U.N. Secretariat.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s first choice to replace Amos was former Conservative Cabinet minister Andrew Lansley, whose lack of experience was criticized by aid organizations. Britain then nominated two other candidates, including O’Brien, and there was a shortlist that included several non-British candidates as well, U.N. diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions were private.
The global campaign group Avaaz, which launched a campaign in January to get Cameron to remove Lansley’s nomination and for Ban to select on merit, said of the three British names O’Brien was the best. But it said a survey of over 200 U.N. staff who are Avaaz members found only 8 percent thought the British candidates were qualified.
“With a world of humanitarian experts to choose from, this appointment shows the carve up of senior U.N. jobs is still based on the color of passports, not the quality of CVs,” Avaaz said. “For the good of the world, this old system of political patronage over meritocracy has to come to an end.”