Louise Fréchette, a Canadian, was the first United Nations deputy secretary-general. Appointed by Kofi Annan, she took office in March 1998, bringing to the job qualifications that exceeded those of most UN secretaries-general. She had spent a quarter-century in the Canadian foreign service, including as ambassador to several Latin American counties and to the UN; was associate deputy minister of finance in Canada, specializing in international finance; and later, deputy minister of national defense, where the budget dwarfs that of the UN. She moves flawlessly between English and French and also speaks Spanish.
“So you put them all together and it was a very good preparation for the DSG job,” Fréchette said in an interview from Montreal, where she lives. “There’s hardly any subject I hadn’t some familiarity with — and I had the management side.”
Her advice to a new deputy secretary-general is to be “extremely professional” while politically astute, and to cultivate good relations with diplomats in their UN missions but never wade into the domestic politics of member nations. To her, that seems very important now regarding the United States, as UN officials have been outspoken in their criticisms of president-elect Donald Trump, who will lead the nation that contributes most to the organization.
When Fréchette became the first UN deputy secretary-general, she capped an era of strong women in top UN positions, including the heads of Unicef, the World Health Organization, the World Food Program and the Population Fund.
Her experiences in essentially inventing a new high-level UN position with scant details in the General Assembly resolution that created it, are instructive as a new secretary-general, António Guterres, chooses his person for the job.
“The DSG job has almost no function,” she said, allowing a secretary-general and his deputy, along with his chief of staff, to agree on a workable arrangement. “The General Assembly . . . wanted the DSG to pay particular attention to economic and social issues, which makes sense since the secretary-general is so tied up with political crises,” Fréchette said, “and there was the notion of supervising reform, which at the time meant, essentially, administrative reform. Everything else that was built around the job was the result of my initiatives and Kofi’s expectations.”
Fréchette arrived with strong instincts. “In my case, I was not inclined to play a public role,” she said. “I think he [Annan] would have been comfortable if I had played a somewhat more public role, but I didn’t think that that was required. Either you’re the secretary-general or you’re an undersecretary with a detailed knowledge of an area.” She did not want to encroach on either, particularly not in the direction of powerful and politically sensitive departments, such as peacekeeping or political affairs.
“I saw much merit in being turned toward the inside of the system, and I saw myself as someone not at a new level of authority — because there are enough chiefs in the system, enough bureaucratic layers — but as someone who would be the chief problem-solver, the chief coordinator, the chief prodder of change and improvement in behavior and performance. That’s the way I would describe how I functioned.”
Fréchette served as deputy secretary-general for eight years, returning to Canada in 2006 to become a distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario. She led a Canadian project on nuclear energy and the challenges of global governance, which concluded with a 2010 report. In 2012, she published a study titled “UN Peacekeeping: 20 Years of Reform.”
She currently serves on or chairs numerous boards. including at CARE Canada and CARE International. She is also a member of the board of Essilor International, a French company working on eye-related solutions in a hundred countries, and chairs its committee on corporate social responsibilities.
At the top of the UN, Fréchette said, she and Annan, a Ghanaian, and his chef de cabinet, or chief of staff, then Iqbal Riza from Pakistan, formed a close working threesome. “In fact, if my tenure was reasonably effective, it’s in part because of the chef de cabinet, Iqbal. He was tremendously helpful in establishing the position. He made it known inside the Secretariat that Kofi and I and he were a triumvirate. Iqbal used to have a daily meeting with Kofi at the end of the day. He suggested that I should be part of that, and when Kofi was not in town he and I met.”
She emphasized that the key to being an effective deputy was knowing the boss’s mind. The atmosphere at the top during her years in the UN was aided by a “very, very fluid, very transparent sharing of information; I knew what was on Kofi’s mind and he always knew what I was up to.”
It was not always an easy time for Annan, who opposed the United States-led war in Iraq and was buffeted, mostly unfairly, by accusations of involvement in irregularities in the oil-for-food program, devised by the Security Council to ease the lives of Iraqis living under tough sanctions. It later was determined that most of the violators of sanctions were companies in the US and Europe or government officials and agencies, including in Australia, France and India.
The role that Fréchette established for herself and played during her years on the 38th floor of the UN was often that of a neutral person to go to for resolving differences among parties within the system or with the diplomatic corps, which is large in New York.
“I was not standing in the way of the USGs,” she said, referring to under secretaries-general. “They all continued to report to Kofi. I wasn’t there to do their jobs. I was just here to be helpful — to be helpful to them, to be helpful to the ambassadors, [to] just keep the machine functioning as well as it could.
“In a sense that reflects my own background, because I was a deputy minister, not a minister, in Canada,” Fréchette added. “A deputy minister’s job in Canada is to make sure that what the government wants to see happen will happen. And that was my attitude vis-à-vis Kofi. I wasn’t there to pursue my own goals. I was there to make sure that what he wanted done happened, and it happened in the best way possible.”
She had to work in a fairly rigid Secretariat environment, very different from the more kinetic, peer-friendly Canadian government. “This is quite a hierarchical Secretariat, which reflects the tradition in most countries, where leadership from the peer is not easy to accept,” she said.
“Because I was half a step above everybody, it was much easier to turn to me when there were conflicts or differences of opinion between departments. On more than one occasion, a USG would say, Can you call us all together? I wasn’t Solomon, but I could tease out a consensus that I thought could be acceptable to everybody. And the fact that I was the person offering the solution made it easier for everybody to accept it.”
There were frustrations. Ironically, one of them was the ability of the General Assembly to get in the way of change, which Ban Ki-moon, the current secretary-general, said in a recent interview with me was perhaps his greatest obstacle while in office. Fréchette singled out the Assembly’s Fifth Committee, which sets the organization’s budget priorities. Its members, diplomats assigned by their governments, “are not very senior people, who are not people who have had a great deal of management experience themselves but are good diplomats who understand the politics of everything.
“So when we judge the performance of the UN in the management or administrative sense,” she said, “it’s always important to distinguish between what is within the authority of the secretary-general — and if he’s not using his authority fully, why not — and what is really the responsibility of member states who have enacted the conditions and demands that result in the kinds of inefficiencies that you observe. I’ve never met a journalist who really showed much of an interest in these issues. It’s easier to just judge the performance than try to understand who bears what responsibility.”
In her years as deputy secretary-general, where she said that hiring good people was always a challenge, Fréchette tried to recruit more women for good UN jobs, urging governments to appoint truly qualified women when positions opened.
“It wasn’t always successful,” she said. She had told me in an interview while she was still in office that her pleas to governments often went unanswered or not even acknowledged. In this interview with her, on Nov. 9, she said that “Kofi was quite committed to attracting women. The UN was doing not very well, but probably better than most of its member states.”
When developing countries complained about the predominance of Western women in high positions, it was often, if not always, because many women around the world never had the opportunities Fréchette had as a Canadian. Rising through the foreign service in any country is not enough, she said in the recent interview, since diplomats rarely have management experience and financial expertise. “Foreign ministries are not great places to train managers,” she said.
In this year of major change at the UN, Fréchette said, “I would have been very happy to see a woman as secretary-general, but I really thought that you should get the best secretary-general you could get — man or woman.”
As for being the first woman to hold the deputy secretary-general position, she is clear about how she wants to be remembered.
“I didn’t see myself as a woman DSG,” Fréchette said. “I saw myself as the DSG. And being a woman I’m not sure had much to do with how I did my job.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.