The UN’s Humanitarian Aid Agency, Ready for a New Boss and Possibly a New Management Style

The departure of Mark Lowcock presents a chance for a new management style to be instilled in the Ocha, some staff members suggested.

by Laura Kirkpatrick. Read more on PassBlue.

Mark Lowcock, the UN “relief chief.”
Mark Lowcock, the UN “relief chief.”

The United Nations’ top agency for humanitarian aid is poised for a new boss to arrive, one who could instill a management style far removed from what some of its staffers call a “neocolonial mind-set” under the outgoing head, Mark Lowcock, a Briton. As Secretary-General António Guterres decides on who will next lead the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, some people in the agency say it needs major changes in how it is run. That includes gender and racial diversity in its hiring and promotion practices, people familiar with the organization told PassBlue.

According to an AFP tweet, the post may be filled by Nick Dyer, a Briton who is a veteran of the country’s aid agency; or Olof Skoog, the European Union’s ambassador to the UN and a Swede. The agency has been run by four Britons in a row, a dominance that has been bemoaned publicly by nongovernmental organizations like UNA-UK as well as a former UN special envoy, writing in an op-ed for PassBlue. Lowcock emailed his 2,100 staff members on Feb. 7, announcing that he was resigning to spend more time with his family in Britain.

The head of the UN agency is expected to provide crucial responses to emergencies, natural disasters and other dire situations like famine. The leader is also in charge of policy development, advocacy and fund-raising. It may be a high-profile operation worldwide but it invariably struggles for financing, with only five percent of its money each year coming from the UN’s regular budget and the rest from voluntary contributions, primarily member states and the European Commission. The latter is the largest donor in 2021, while Britain is fifth.

Ocha, as it’s known, is a coveted post for any country seeking the benefits of running a global humanitarian network that can offer invaluable insights into the places where aid is delivered. Although Britain significantly cut its own foreign aid this month, retaining the head humanitarian position at the UN keeps its profile visible in the field without making more financial commitments.

When Lowcock was named the UN “relief chief” in 2017, the appointment was met mostly with eagerness by people in the organization, PassBlue was told, as Lowcock brought a civil service background in economics and development in humanitarian contexts, as well as extensive field experience in Africa.

His first development and aid job in Africa was in 1985, working on the famine in Ethiopia. He then held various jobs as a civil servant for Britain in Central and East Africa in humanitarian and development sectors. (He had previously worked as a teacher in Kenya.)

He arrived at the UN after a stint as permanent secretary, the highest civil service ranking, in Britain’s national aid agency, the Department for International Development (Dfid). (The agency was closed last year and merged with the Foreign Office to be called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.) He left after apparently clashing with the head of the agency, now Home Secretary Priti Patel. (Lowcock would later say that he witnessed bullying by Patel in the workplace.)

The anticipation surrounding Lowcock’s arrival quickly faded at Ocha. As his tenure ends, current and former staff members are voicing complaints and concerns, albeit anonymously for fear of reprisals, to seize the moment to draw attention to problems in the workplace culture.

Numerous people — all women — spoke to PassBlue from New York City and elsewhere, on what they considered some of the work-environment problems. During Lowcock’s tenure, staff members said they had been scared of retaliation and even demotion for seeming to question him or appearing not loyal enough. Give and take under Lowcock seemed to grind to a halt, some staffers said, garnering him the reputation of instilling an “Anglo-Saxon” management style, as described in a Foreign Policy article last fall. It was a style similar to that of Patel’s approach in Dfid. “A culture of favoritism prevailed where individuals from his inner circle were promoted or given preferential treatment,” one source said.

Repeatedly, sources said that Lowcock has a problem with “strong women,” especially women of color. Women of Middle Eastern and African descent described having promotions or new positions offered and then rescinded for being “too vocal” or “not a right fit,” they said. One woman described being phased out of meetings in favor of male colleagues.

Sources often mentioned the case of Ursula Mueller, a former assistant secretary-general for Ocha, who left the organization in March 2020. Mueller, a German, had spent more than 30 years working in international affairs, global issues and development financing before she became the deputy of Ocha. She served as the executive director of Germany to the World Bank from September 2014 to February 2017, where she handled strategy, policy and budgeting and helped to create closer cooperation between the bank and the UN, her UN biography reads.

While at Ocha, Mueller pushed for personnel policies to help address burnout, a job hazard for people in humanitarian work, as well as the appointment of women and more diverse candidates, sources said. Mueller, her defenders noted, had been excluded from management discussions and eventually left not just Ocha but the UN. She reportedly discussed workplace problems with Ana Menéndez, Secretary-General Guterres’s senior adviser on policy, including the gender parity strategy, as well at least two other women in the Secretariat, Amina Mohammed, the deputy secretary-general, and Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, the chef de cabinet. An attempt to contact Mueller by PassBlue went unanswered.

Menéndez is tasked with overseeing that gender parity is reached inside the UN, but in an interview with PassBlue in 2019, she conceded that the organization’s bureaucracy is the main obstacle to sweeping change.

The flaws in Ocha’s workplace were apparent in a 2019 staff survey that found that overall women held a more negative view of the organization than men across all survey areas. Women in Ocha headquarters, in New York City, responded with the most negative views. Generally, staff views on “empowerment” and “equal treatment of women in the workplace” dropped from 2017 to 2019.

More than half of all respondents, male and female, felt that there was a lack of accountability for unethical behavior and that staff were not treated with respect. Over a third of the staff said their own stress levels were unacceptable, with women reporting higher levels than men. The survey examines problems a year before the pandemic hit.

A letter sent personally to Menéndez last summer, on behalf of a “group of OCHA staff” and read by PassBlue, wrote to “alert you to deep and growing concerns regarding the way in which OCHA has been mismanaged during the tenure of Under Secretary-General (USG) Mark Lowcock, and the devastating consequences this has had: a) for diversity, inclusion and respect for OCHA staff (particularly women); and b) in perpetuating outdated and problematic models of international aid at a critical moment in history.”

The letter detailed how Lowcock “consistently handed or maintained key positions of power and influence within the organization for British and Western Europe and Other Group (WEOG) people, in clear violation of the UN rules and regulations which require a competitive process and due regard for geographic diversity.” (This was the same issue that was reported in the Foreign Policy article.)

The letter was sent to Menéndez through a third party’s cellphone app. A source told PassBlue that Menendez shared the letter with UN upper management (known as the “38th floor”), including Mohammed and Viotti, who both report directly to Guterres.

A request sent by PassBlue to Menéndez’s UN-email address for comment was instead answered by Stéphane Dujarric, Guterres’s spokesperson. Dujarric told PassBlue by phone that “no one on the 38th floor has a recollection of seeing any such communication,” with the caveat that Menéndez does not have the appropriate apps on her phone to have received the letter.

But the complaints about Ocha’s preponderance of Westerners in top jobs was answered by the organization’s spokesperson to PassBlue, saying by email: “We have been determined to increase the diversity of OCHA’s workforce and have made progress as a result — since October 2016 we have reduced the proportion of our staff from the ‘Western European and Others Group’ from two thirds [63%] to around a half [54%] and we have improved our gender balance, especially at the director level which has increased from around a third female [33%] to nearly half [47%]. But there is more to do and we will not stop now.”

As the deadline for submitting applications for the relief chief job closed on March 15, the new boss may soon be announced.

Independent Coverage the United Nations. A project of The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation.