David Cameron’s hopes of parachuting senior Tory Andrew Lansley into a top UN humanitarian role have hit snags amid an increasingly bitter “jobs for cronies” row that threatens to impact on Britain’s diplomatic standing.
The prime minister is keen on Lansley becoming the next UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, a position that traditionally goes to a Briton. But sources familiar with the process say the former health secretary is no longer a frontrunner, and it may go to someone from another country when Baroness Amos steps down next month. This would be a major humiliation for Cameron and a diplomatic snub for Britain, which has positioned itself as a champion of disaster relief.
Experts say appointing a politician can no longer be justified when the world faces unprecedented humanitarian crises. More than 50 million refugees are displaced around the world, while the Ebola crisis has highlighted how localised crises can quickly become international in scale.
There is acute pressure on UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to ensure that the position does not become a “jobs for the boys role”, in the words of one humanitarian aid expert who asked not to be named. Britain is believed to have submitted a shortlist of three names, with Lansley still its preferred candidate. The others are Caroline Spelman, former shadow international development secretary, and Stephen O’Brien, a former under-secretary of state in the same department.
Failure to secure the position for Lansley would raise questions about Britain’s influence in the world. Key UN jobs tend to go to people from particular countries. France normally provides the head of the UN peacekeeping mission, while an American usually heads Unicef.
Failure to appoint a Briton to the emergency relief role would suggest an end of the status quo. It would also be a sharp rejoinder to Cameron, who has vigorously defended allocating 0.7% of Britain’s income to overseas aid and said maintaining its commitment to helping to alleviate humanitarian crises around the world is a source of personal pride.
However, the signs are that Britain can no longer consider itself a shoo-in. Ban has appointed a panel of experts to help the UN decide who should replace Amos. Interviews will be conducted in the next couple of weeks. Some 70,000 people have signed an online petition on the Avaaz website protesting against Lansley getting the job.
“Being old friends with David Cameron isn’t a globally recognised qualification for a senior UN job that millions of refugees and Ebola victims rely on,” said Sam Barratt, campaign director at Avaaz. “In pushing so hard for Andrew Lansley, the prime minister has put Britain’s diplomatic credibility on the line. Seventy thousand people are calling for David Cameron to drop support for Lansley and for Ban Ki-moon to hire a candidate on the strength of their CV, not the colour of their passport.”
More than 80 non-governmental organisations have signed a letter to the UN calling on it to seek someone with profound expertise in disaster relief. “It should be a robust, open and transparent process, given how demanding and important the job is,” said Maya Mailer, head of humanitarian policy and campaigns at Oxfam.
Some insiders suggest Ban would prefer a woman from the southern hemisphere to get the job. Amina Mohamed, a Somali lawyer in the Kenyan government, is considered a strong candidate.”
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