By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 10 2019 – The nominations of Christine Lagarde of France as the first woman to head the European Central Bank (ECB) and Ursula von der Leyen of Germany as the first woman to lead the 28-nation European Commission, have been described as significant landmarks in the higher echelons of international institutions long dominated by men.
The two women, who broke through the glass ceiling, take leadership roles at a time when fiscal policies of some European countries, including Greece and Italy, are in disarray while there are growing demands for urgent economic reforms in the Eurozone.
As Lagarde once famously said: whenever the situation is really, really bad, “you call in the woman” (as they did when she was Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund for eight years beginning 2011).
But even in the most trying circumstances, the United Nations and the World Bank (WB), where leadership has been the exclusive privilege of men, have refused to “call in the women” – primarily for political reasons.
Asked whether the two male dominated institutions will follow in the footsteps of Europe, Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, former Under-Secretary-General and UN High Representative, told IPS: “As a consistent believer in women’s equality of participation at all decision-making levels, I would always welcome when a woman is appointed or elected to a leadership position in an organization which has been a man’s prerogative so long.”
‘In the same breath, I would say that unless the organizational and institutional culture of patriarchic thinking is simultaneously overhauled, nothing would change substantively,” said Chowdhury, whose initiative in March 2000, as President of the Security Council, led to the adoption of the groundbreaking UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on the role of women in peace and security.
Chowdhury said the same thing happened when Lagarde was heading the IMF, an organization which continues its arrogant imposition of policy prescriptions to the vulnerable countries without any concern about their negative impact on common people.
“I have no comment on the ECB and Lagarde at its helm as she is in her home-ground,” he added.
Although the UN has lacked a woman Secretary-General, the current incumbent, Antonio Guterres, a former Prime Minister of Portugal, has been credited with achieving one of the world body’s long-term goals: increasing the number of women at senior levels.
Asked about the UN’s longstanding policy of gender parity, UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS: “Yes, we announced last year that there was an equal number of men and women in his senior management team.”
According to UN Women, the United Nations made significant strides in increasing women’s representation in UN leadership in 2018, with both the Senior Management Group at the headquarters and Resident Coordinators in the field, reaching gender parity for the first time.
Barbara Crossette, former UN Bureau Chief for the New York Times (1994-2001), told IPS the United Nations and the World Bank are in a sense separate and different cases.
“Geopolitics plays into choices in both and it seems that a qualified woman could run either, if she has the necessary background. Start with the expertise and not with the idea that being a woman is the most important factor”.
The UN, she pointed out, which covers everything, from peacekeeping and security to refugees, and climate change, as well as being a repository of treaties and other documents, may be said to need an administrator or manager more than a visionary or creative thinker.
“The UN bends under intense political pressures from governments and regions seeking to grab good jobs — sometimes, it seems, whether or not a candidate has the requisite experience,” she declared.
There are many women around the world with very strong management skills and instincts, and Christine Lagarde at the IMF is an exceptionally good example, said Crossette, a senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation.
Chowdhury said: “If I am asked about Ms. Lagarde’s move from IMF to ECB opening the door for women to lead the United Nations or the World Bank, I would only say “not so fast”. “
“Well, the decision-making for the choice of heads of these two organizations are controlled by UN’s veto system and WB’s veto-like voting system”, he pointed out.
So, the bottom line is that all depends on one country which enjoys control of both. It is therefore a reality that only that country’s backing a woman candidate for either or both posts would make that happen – not because Ms Lagarde has been moved from IMF to ECB, he added.
Chowdhury said it is significant to keep in mind that the appointments of the WB and IMF heads are shared by US and Europe respectively as part of a post-World War II deal which needs a major overhaul in view of the widespread change in global political and economic scene.
Arancha González, Executive Director of the Geneva-based International Trade Centre (ITC), told IPS the recent nomination by European leaders of two women for its four most senior posts – head of the European Commission and European Central bank – is clearly a step in the direction of a more equal world.
“It adds to concerted efforts by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to achieve gender-balance across the UN’s top leadership.”
Momentum is there, she said, adding that “this trend is not something we should take for granted”.
“We will have to continue working – every day – to ensure that women are treated on an equal footing to men, and not only in the leadership positions in international organizatons, but at every level and in every country,” she added.
Crossette said development is more central to the Bank’s mandate in research and work, and is thought have a staff with greater expertise, independence and analytical skills in the field.
Politics aside, it may be much less difficult to find a woman for the World Bank who is very much focused and experienced in social and political development in this disruptive, bombastic global environment where people don’t see their lives getting better.
“The question is why there has not already been a female Bank president’,” she said.
At the UN, Crossette argued, the current UN secretary-General was perhaps chosen over a group of female candidates because the political, geopolitical and security aspects of the job were seen as ‘too important’ for a woman — an old-fashioned, out-of-date concept at best, bringing the P5 (the five permanent members of the Security Council, namely the US, UK, France, China and Russia) to the fore, and handing them the final say on who would be the most pliant servant of the powerful.
“Maybe the Europeans can change that now”, she declared.
Sascha Gabizon, Executive Director of ‘Women Engage for a Common Future’ (WECF), told IPS Lagarde is looked at critically by some parts of the banking sector for not being “an economist”.
“My take is that it will be quite a difficult job, especially with Italian populists wanting to go heavily into debt, but that Lagarde is a highly experienced leader, and a feminist, and she understands the social dimensions of monetary policies. So, she’s a good choice”
“We will have two women in leadership roles, both from conservative party backgrounds, who have worked in typically male dominated ministries/positions, and both are able to manouvre international difficult environments,” she added.
Besides Guterres, the men who have headed the UN include Ban Ki-moon of South Korea; Kofi Annan, Ghana; Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Egypt; Javier Perez de Cuellar, Peru; Kurt Waldheim, Austria; U Thant, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma); Dag Hammarskjöld, Sweden and Trygve Lie, Norway.
While the head of the IMF has traditionally been an European, the Americans have held onto the presidency of the World Bank, including Jim Yong Kim, Robert B. Zoellick, Paul Wolfowitz, James D. Wolfensohn, Lewis Preston, Barber Conable, Alden Winship Clausen, Robert Strange McNamara, George David Woods, Eugene Robert Black, John Jay McCloy and Eugene Meyer.
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