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‘UN Leadership is a Failure’: Sec-Gen Candidate Akanksha Arora

If elected, the 34-year-old will be the youngest and the first woman to lead the UN.

South Asians
4 min read

Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma


"For 75 years, we have given the role of Secretary-General to one profile – all men, all older, all in politics and diplomacy. Where are we today? What results are we proud of," asks Akanksha Arora, the 34-year-old candidate for UN Secretary General.

Arora publicly announced her unprecedented campaign to run for Secretary-General on 9 February 2021, becoming the youngest and only contender challenging incumbent Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as the UN holds elections for the top post this year.

"My decision to run is to bring that new perspective, bring that missing link of a gender that has not been considered and a generation that is ready and prepared to take up the task," she tells The Quint, talking about why millennials must lead international organisations like the UN.

Arora was born in India and spent a few years in the country before moving with her parents to Saudi Arabia and later settling in Canada. She was hired by the current Secretary-General António Guterres to serve on the UN’s financial reforms in 2017. Prior to that she was a manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) Toronto and the youngest audit professor at University of Toronto at the age of 28, teaching audit at the master’s level.

Besides climate change, education, and technology, her top-most priority in the list of global challenges is the refugee crisis, which she aims to tackle in time. If elected, she will be the first and the youngest woman to lead the UN.


An Accident That Changed Everything

In six weeks of joining the UN, Arora was hit by a cab on the night on 9 February 2017.

With a broken knee and numerous bruises, she found herself questioning the purpose of her life at the emergency room in the hospital.

"You know, at 30 you think the best of life is ahead of you. You never think of death. You think death is an abstract concept. But here I am, lying in the ER, not knowing what the consequences of this accident would be. And in those moments I realised, wow if I died today what would my obituary read? Arora was an established person dedicated to the pursuit of happiness for herself alone."

A moment of epiphany at the hospital prompted her to make a difference, she says, asserting that this personal experience is one of the few reasons behind her decision to run for Secretary-General at the UN.

But more importantly, Arora found herself increasingly disgruntled with the leadership team at UN, which influenced her decision to challenge Guterres. She cited leadership failures which disillusioned her.

"I went to Africa, to Uganda for a work trip. I saw a child eat mud. It was a devastating event for me, you know like to see a child eat mud when I was living in a hotel and I was able to afford everything I wanted to. All I could do for the little girl at that time was to give her some cash and food. When I came back to New York, I asked one of our senior officials, why is the child eating mud why can’t we do things differently? And he said and I quote 'mud is good for children, it has iron.' So this is the leadership that can’t take care of the people they're supposed to serve," Arora tells The Quint.


A Campaign Fraught With Challenges

Arora's candidacy has been met with skepticism, with many pointing out her lack of experience in diplomacy. Former official of the United Nations, Edward Mortimer, went on to say she doesn't stand a chance before Guterres. But the 34-year-old is undeterred by it.

“What’s interesting is that comments like that have only been made by men,” she quips, adding that years of diplomacy alone cannot herald change.

"We have the highest number of refugees displaced and stateless people in the world. Climate, which is an existential crisis, we are nowhere close to solving it, we are just close to talking about it. For every dollar, 15 cents is going to nature-based solution. I can tell you, in 20 years from now, the question would not be who is the next Secretary-General, the question is going to be where are we going to live?" says Arora, stating it's time for an action-oriented leader to take the reins.


Arora has maintained that the UN is a paternalistic body, a reason why no woman has ever led the organisation in 75 years, she believes.

"You know, what do they mean by women empowerment, what do they mean by youth inclusiveness? Which box have I not checked for them to give me a chance. I have even submitted a vision statement that allows them to judge me on my merits and not on their biases and stereotypes around my age, my gender, my experiences. So, where I stand with it. I have reached out to countries, I have so far spoken to 10 countries and my conversations have gone in directions like where the members, the ambassadors are fully supported but are intimidated by European Union and Security Council retaliations," she says, adding the women are solution-oriented and need to be given more leadership roles.


On Israel-Palestine Conflict and India's COVID Surge

Arora says the UN doesn't engage in conversations enough to resolve conflicts. Talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, she says "It needs a two-state solution. How do you bring two sides together when they don’t trust each other?"

She says the UN chief didn't have an honest conversation with the Quartet, which can help broker peace between Israel and Palestine.

"They are ones who were supposed to broker the deal. Under Trump administration, the Quartet never met. The Sec-Gen should have initiated the conversation with the Quartet. In all of 2021, when we had a new administration, why did we have to wait so late?" she says, adding "we don't talk enough."

Arora maintains that the UN is failing to take the lead where it should. Citing the example of India's COVID-19 surge, she says it shouldn't have been the US to talk about lifting the vaccine patent first.

"The patent should be lifted right away and the UN should take lead in negotiating that to make sure all countries, today it is in India... the surge, but there are other countries that are struggling for not having access to vaccines," she signs off.

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