By Ramesh Jaura
BERLIN | NEW YORK (IDN) – The appointment of Achim Steiner as head of the prestigious United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is of profound significance for the German government, which declared its candidacy in 2016 for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council for the 2019‑2020 two-year term.
The announcement of Steiner’s selection came amid unconfirmed reports that UN Secretary-General António Guterres wishes to appoint former German President Horst Köhler, a vocal advocate of Europe-Africa relations, as his personal envoy on Western Sahara. a disputed and partially Moroccan-occupied territory in the Maghreb region of North Africa. It has been on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories since 1963.
UNDP – on the ground in about 170 countries and territories – is the largest of the independently funded UN agencies, which, under its special General Assembly mandate, leads the world body’s work on eradicating extreme poverty and promoting good governance in the developing world.
Steiner replaces former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark who served two successive terms as UNDP Administrator and was an aspirant for the post of the UN Secretary-General, which was bagged by former Portuguese Prime Minister Guterres.
As UNDP Administrator, Steiner will become the highest-ranking German at the UN. It was not surprising therefore that German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who was on a trip to Iraq, lost no time in expressing his “delight” at Steiner’s appointment.
In an official statement on April 19, he said: “Given all his experience, his passion for development and his great commitment, Achim Steiner is just the right person to head the UNDP. He proved this in earlier roles within the United Nations system, especially as long‑standing head of the United Nations Environment Programme.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres appeared to agree with Gabriel. Announcing his four-year appointment, the UN chief said that Steiner brings to his new position “extensive senior leadership experience both at the grassroots and at the highest levels of international policy-making addressing environmental sustainability, social equity, and economic development.”
The view that Steiner is “just the right person to head the UNDP” is underlined by the fact that he is a ‘truly global citizen’. Born in Brazil in 1961 as the son of a German farmer who had emigrated to the Rio Grande do Sul, he holds German as well as Brazilian citizenship.
Steiner went to school in Carazinho in Brazil and at Dover College close to London. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Oxford and a Master of Arts from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, specialising in development economics, regional planning, international development and environment policy. He also studied at the German Development Institute in Berlin and the Harvard Business School.
Steiner started his career in 1989 at the Rural Regional Development Department of what was then GTZ, the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, a forerunner of GIZ, the German Corporation for International Cooperation.
From 1991 to 1997 he worked for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Southern Africa and Washington DC. He was Chief Technical Adviser of the Mekong River Commission (1997-1998) before becoming Secretary-General of the World Commission on Dams, South Africa (1998-2001). In 2001 he returned to IUCN as Director-General.
Five years later, he was appointed Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a post he held until 2016. Steiner had since then been Director of Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford and Professorial Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford.
Highlighting the significance of what Steiner has been tasked with, Foreign Minister Gabriel said: “During the last few years, UNDP has done much for international development cooperation. However, major challenges lay ahead, in particular, the implementation of Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals.”
He added: “Only if we work together can we master the immense task of improving the quality of life for millions of people around the world, something for which the acronym UNDP stands. Germany will do everything in its power to support it.”
Development Cooperation Minister Gerd Müller remarked: “Germany is taking on more responsibility. That’s the message the world is receiving. Selecting Achim Steiner to lead the UN Development Programme shows a deep appreciation of this fact.”
Welcoming Steiner’s appointment, President of the UNDP Executive Board, Ib Petersen, Permanent Representative of Denmark to the UN, said, the new Administrator “brings a wealth of experience, expertise and dedication to this hugely important role,” adding: “I am certain he will make an enduring and positive impact on UNDP’s development work around the world.”
A long-time UN observer told IDN: “Steiner’s credentials are impeccable. But unfortunately, Steiner and Guterres are at the wrong place at the wrong time — and during a hostile Trump administration.”
What the observer has on mind is that in 2015 UNDP received 4.5 billion dollars in voluntary funding. The United States was among the top government contributors to the UNDP in 2015, giving $266 million, but the administration of President Donald Trump is pushing cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid.
A view going the rounds is that the UN decided in favour of Steiner and sidelined France’s Environment Minister Segolene Royal, a serious contender for the post, hoping that Germany, which is an important donor for the UNDP, would come to its rescue filling the void expected to be left by the U.S.
This view is said to be backed by the enthusiastic response of official Berlin to Steiner’s selection as the UNDP head. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 April 2017]
Related article: UNDP Succeeds in Diversifying Funding Sources
Photo: UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner. Credit: UNEP
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