The Writing Life: Why Did The United Nations Not Choose A Woman As Its Next Secretary General?

The United Nations Security Council reached what Somini Sengupta of the New York Times termed a surprisingly swift consensus Wednesday on its choice for the next secretary general of the 193-member organization. The General Assembly is expected to vote on the Security Council's choice today (Thursday, October 6), a vote that should be a formality.

The Times, like most news organizations, said that the Council's choice, António Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who headed the United Nations refugee agency for 10 years, had been the clear front-runner, and was apparently the choice of the otherwise deeply divided Security Council, which has five permanent members, and 10 rotational ones.

The Times's report added: "We have a clear favorite and his name is António Guterres," said Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations who is presiding over the Security Council this month. The current secretary general, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, will relinquish his job at the end of 2016, ending a second five-year term.

Ms. Sengupta wrote: "He [i.e. Mr. Guterres] would preside over the United Nations at a time when it has faltered in carrying out its chief mandate -- to stop the scourge of war -- and confronts an ever-widening rift between Russia and the West."

In my view, the Security Council - and especially its five permanent members, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France - missed out on two major opportunities in selecting Mr. Guterres:

One, it's well past high time that the UN had a woman as its secretary general. Since its founding on October 24, 1945, the world organization has overlooked several eminently qualified women. This year, it would be appropriate to ask why the UN couldn't find a single such nominee among the world's 7.5 billion people. The French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) says: "The number of men and women in the world is roughly equal, though men hold a slight lead with 102 men for 100 women (in 2010). More precisely, out of 1,000 people, 504 are men (50.4 percent) and 496 are women (49.6 percent). For every 100 girls, 107 boys are born, but males have a higher risk of dying than females, both in childhood and at adult ages. So at a certain age, the numbers of men and women even out. In France this occurs at age 25 (in 2010). Beyond this age, women outnumber men and the numerical difference between the two sexes increases with age. In France, eight centenarians in ten are women..."

Second, why could the Security Council not find a qualified female candidate from developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America or Eastern Europe? These developing countries contain more than three billion people, or close to half of the current world population.

The jargon of the development community allows for different terms to characterize countries that are fundamentally poor. In 1952, the French demographer Alfred Sauvy came up with the term "le tiers monde," or "the third world." The term "first world" applied to the industrialized countries of the West, and to Japan; and "second world" was usually a reference to the erstwhile Soviet Union and its vassals.

Usuage of these references in developmental jargon later came to embrace terms such as "emerging markets," and "less developed countries."

Whatever term one might use, poor countries suffer from the fact that their denizens earn the equivalent of less than $3 daily.

While the UN is a world organization, my own belief is that its leader - the secretary general - should have a clarion voice and a consistent method on behalf of the poor. Sociology shows us that women down the ages have traditionally shown far more empathy for the dispossessed: they heal, not hurt; they nurse and nuture and nourish, and their magnamity and largeness of heart far exceeds those of men.

None of this is to suggest that António Guterres of Portugal - a "developed country" - is incapable of being a healer. But secretaries general of the United Nations typically dance to the agendas of the Security Council's five permanent members. Those agendas often pay lip service to the idea of alleviating poverty. And sprawling bureaucracies in the UN "common family" - which include institutions such as the World Bank - have proliferated ostensibly to bring speedier economic progress in "le tiers monde," the cohort of the world's poor is increasing.

It pays to be a povertycrat in such bureaucracies - fat salaries, generous pensions, and endless opportunities to become wealthy consultants after their tenure in the international system.

But how well do these povertcrats serve their constituencies, men and women and children who don't enjoy access to the perks and privileges of those who get handsome sinecures in "The System," and whose performance while in office is rarely subject to consistent scrutiny and accountability.

I wish António Guterres well. Being selected as the UN's next secretary general must be exhilarating. I hope he translates the honor of office into something noteworthy for the world's poor. And I hope that his successor will be a woman. It's high time. In fact, it's well past high time.