Arora Akanksha, a 34-year-old staff member who works as an audit coordinator for the United Nations Development Program, has announced her candidacy for the job of UN secretary-general, so far the only person to challenge António Guterres, the incumbent. Guterres announced in January that he would run for another five-year term, which begins in January 2022. Akanksha, who is originally from India but has a Canadian passport, launched her grass-roots campaign, called UNOW, on Twitter and other forums on Feb. 9. (Her hashtag is #AroraForSG.)
She has a steep climb ahead for achieving serious recognition, given that she has no nation backing her candidacy, a tradition in the secretary-general selection process, among other big hurdles. She does have gumption.
“He’s failed as a leader in reforming the institution,” Akanksha said about Guterres, a 71-year-old former Portuguese prime minister and head of the UN refugee agency for 10 years. He was selected secretary-general through a quasi-open process in 2016 from a field of 13 candidates, including seven women, and has served since 2017, enduring the Trump administration’s harshness toward the UN.
“He’s failed as a leader to refugees; he was leading the refugee agency before coming here, so he knows the plight of refugees,” Akanksha, who describes herself as coming from a family of refugees, said in an interview with PassBlue. “He knows their pain, hope, better than most of us, because he served them. Yet when he came, he didn’t make any decision to prioritize resources to them.”
Having worked mainly in jobs focusing on audits and reforms at the UN for a few years, Akanshka has become disillusioned, she said, by the inability of the UN to create change. She thinks it is not fulfilling its original mission, which is to end wars and secure peace, as stated in the UN Charter. As such, she said that a nonpolitician could do a better job administrating the UN than Guterres has, even though he has made reform a top priority in his term, pressured by the US.
“I had been part of the reforms team for two years, and I had access to the upper echelon of our leadership,” Akanksha said, adding that she saw “how they are so risk-averse. . . .”
Born in India, Akanksha moved with her family to Saudi Arabia when she was 6 years old. She studied at York University in Toronto, Canada, where she received a bachelor’s degree in administrative studies. She has a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University. Although she holds an Overseas Citizenship of India and a Canadian passport, she said she hasn’t asked either country for an official endorsement. She is nevertheless hopeful that her candidacy could shake up the selection process; to succeed, any candidate must win full approval from the veto-wielding powers in the Security Council: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
“That’s something that we have to re-evaluate,” Akanksha said about the process. “Why is it that a charter of an organization that reads, ‘We the peoples,’ doesn’t allow people to be part of the process? We are giving people the opportunity to vote. You can go on our website, express your opinion that you stand for change and send an email to your country’s ambassador. Hopefully, that would be enough push for them to make the right decisions to do the right thing.”
In the most recent selection process, in 2016, candidates were officially presented to the president of the General Assembly by a member state. Before then, the process was virtually opaque. This year, however, the tradition of a national endorsement may not be essential. Brenden Varma, the spokesperson for the current president of the Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, said that General Assembly Resolution 69/321 does not preclude others from making nominations.
“As to prior self-nominations, there have been a few,” a former UN official who worked for the Security Council told PassBlue. “For earlier [secretary-general] appointments prior to 2016, when there was no formal nominating procedure, occasionally a candidate slipped into the Security Council’s consideration on their own initiative, by directly speaking with one or more Council members. If their initiative gained any momentum, that usually meant that their government then found itself in a position of not wanting to disavow one of its nationals as a candidate, but sometimes providing only lukewarm backing.”
According to the former UN official, informal discussions in 2016 as to whether member states could nominate candidates from another country concluded that it was legal but politically tricky.
Varma said on Feb. 11 that he still hadn’t received any formal nomination other than Guterres’s. Bozkir’s office has set up a website for the public to track updates.
Since Akanksha is employed by the UN, she is already discussing her candidacy with the ethics office and the human-resources department. She did not tell the UN about her desire to run before her announcement. One issue that could come up as a conflict of interest is donations to her campaign, since her website invites people to contribute financially and otherwise to her effort. When asked if he had any concerns about the ethics of her campaign, Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for Guterres, said at his briefing on Feb. 11:
“António Guterres is a candidate for the selection process. It’s not for him to comment on other people who may want to come forward. This is a process run by Member States. So, I’m not aware of any issues or problems with that. But again, I speak for the incumbent candidate, but we have no comment on anyone else who may wish to put their hat in the proverbial ring.”
Akanksha is financing the campaign herself, she said, but that will not be sustainable. “Given that I am a huge financial transparency expert, as we get the donations, we would disclose, but we will also do it because we’re a grass-roots campaign.”
While her situation is being evaluated by the UN, she may have to resign, as the UN Development Program’s special-leave policy states: “Special leave (with or without pay) shall not be allowed for governmental service in a political office, in a diplomatic or other representational post or for the purpose of performing any functions that are incompatible with the staff member’s status as an international civil servant (e.g. running for elected, political office), in which case the staff member is required to resign from UNDP.”
Akanksha says she has received positive feedback from her colleagues since her announcement. It has, however, raised eyebrows in the broader UN community, considering that candidates tend to be former heads of states, government ministers or elected officials, such as Guterres. Kofi Annan, who was secretary-general from 1997 to 2006, was the first person in the post to be elected from the UN staff.
Akanksha is not daunted despite her lack of experience in foreign and government affairs.
“I think it goes back to results; what results have you achieved by giving the elected officials the power for 75 years?” she said. “Where are we today? Have you made any dents in any of the areas that are important to people? No. So I think results speak for themselves.”
She also thinks her age will play to her advantage. “I think something we have to realize is half of the world population is under 30 right now,” she said. “So you would want a leader who knows what it’s like to be in that age group to be suffering, not having the economic freedom to do everything you want, not having the ability to get the opportunities that you deserve. If you want to see different results, you have to do things differently.”
This article was updated to correct when Akanksha’s family moved to Saudi Arabia and to clarify how many passports she holds.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.