British MP appointed UN human aid chief
UN chief Ban Ki-moon appointed British lawmaker Stephen O'Brien on Monday as the UN's humanitarian aid chief tasked with leading global relief efforts at a time of worsening conflicts.
O'Brien will replace Valerie Amos, who served as under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator for the past four years, earning high praise for her commitment in one of the UN's most demanding posts.
The 57-year-old Conservative politician served as Prime Minister David Cameron's envoy for the Sahel since 2012 and was parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development from 2010 to 2012.
The announcement was one of the most closely-watched appointments at the United Nations in recent years.
O'Brien will be tasked with leading a struggling relief effort in Syria along with major aid operations in South Sudan, Iraq, the Central African Republic and a dozen other trouble spots.
International organizations have been critical of UN efforts in Syria, where 210,000 people have died in the four-year war and close to 12 million have been displaced.
In announcing Ban's choice, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric made clear expectations were high.
"Mr O'Brien is expected to bring innovative and strategic ideas as a strong humanitarian advocate with more than 20 years of experience in international development and health care," Dujarric said.
Humanitarian aid groups expressed concern in a letter to Ban in December that a political appointee would be chosen for the top job over a qualified official with strong humanitarian experience.
Non-governmental organizations had raised alarm following reports that Cameron was pushing for the appointment of Andrew Lansley, who is known for a failed health care reform in Britain.
- Merit-based appointment? -
Ban had set up a special panel led by his deputy Jan Eliasson that included the president of the Red Cross to advise him on the choice of Amos's successor.
O'Brien will be the third British national since 2007 to hold the top post at the United Nations and was one of three candidates put forward by Cameron's government for the job.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant praised O'Brien as "extremely well qualified for the role," citing his work as Sahel envoy and in the international development department.
Born in Tanzania, O'Brien studied law and practiced as a solicitor before winning office in a by-election in 1999, as the member of parliament for Eddisbury.
In his home country, O'Brien does not have a high profile in politics, even though his work on combating malaria and other tropical diseases earned him some praise.
The Roll Back Malaria effort welcomed his appointment and praised him for "finding inclusive and sustainable solutions to overcome some of the most pressing development issues we face so that no one is left behind."
But the campaigning group Avaaz expressed disappointment with the choice and said it highlighted how the five permanent Security Council members keep a tight grip on plum jobs at the UN.
"Of the three names put forward by Britain, Stephen O'Brien was the best candidate. But with a world of humanitarian experts to chose from, this appointment shows the carve-up of senior UN jobs is still based on the color of passports, not the quality of CVs," said Avaaz campaign director Sam Barratt.
"For the good of the world, this old system of political patronage over meritocracy has to come to an end."
Joel Charny, vice president of InterAction, the US alliance of relief groups, also complained that the selection process was politicized.
"What we need to have an effective United Nations is for senior appointments to be merit-based," Charny said.
O'Brien is expected to take up his post in May.