Some see Arora Akanksha as the insider taking on the might of the establishment — the United Nations. To its critics, the UN is a creaking institution established after World War II that remains closed to new-world realities. But Arora wants to change old-world attitudes that prevail in the UN and is serious about reform that she believes must come from within. The odds, on paper, may be stacked against her, but the millennial UN staffer says she’s in the contest for the post of secretary-general to win and doesn’t want to be dismissed as an also-ran. “We cannot solve the challenges of the 21st century through 20th-century thinking,” she tells us.
Excerpts from the interview:
The obvious question: why did you jump into the fray?
I joined the UN four years ago to serve on the financial reforms under the current secretary-general António Guterres. When I joined the UN, I did not have intentions or goals to run for the position at the UN. I was thrilled and excited to be part of an organisation and looking forward to making a difference in any small way I could.
The UN was created 75 years ago with a great promise to ensure we have peace and security, to protect human rights for all and allow sustainable and equitable development and promote rule of law. But today, it is failing. We have a record number of refugees and displaced people. Our humanitarian relief programmes are falling short. And we are observing growing inequality.
Everyone within the UN system knows these problems exist but nothing is being done. For far too long, the UN flaws have been accepted as normal.
But I couldn’t accept them as normal and live with it. You can say I am an optimist, I am a firm believer and supporter of the UN and its mission, and I don’t want to give up on it.
Realistically, what are your chances? Or is your candidature intended to make a statement?
I am in this race to win it. I want to make the process of selecting the next secretary-general as transparent as possible. The UN is supposed to be serving people, so why aren’t people part of the process? My goal with my campaign and, if elected secretary-general, is to bring power back to the people. I am giving
people a chance to make their opinions and ideas known. You can choose to vote for change on my website (aroraforsg.org) by sending an email to your country’s ambassador. I hope this will allow member states to see that the world is ready for this change. My candidacy is unprecedented but not impossible. My goal is ambitious, but it is very clear — to fulfil the UN’s promise to the world. It takes someone willing to be bold and take the first step, and I hope others will join me.
Do you agree that the UN has failed in its job in the modern era? It’s looking more like the tower of Babel.
I think the UN has gotten off track from its original mission. We have the highest ever number of refugees and displaced people in the world — 85 million. Over the last 40 years, we have tried so many academic versions of Reaganomics where we have given money to the top and hoped that the benefit would trickle down to those at the bottom. We need to now adopt a different approach to development that is rooted in the power of people as change agents. The UN has all of the building blocks for success — financial resources and some of the best employees in the world. However, the leadership has failed in prioritising people.
How do you intend to reform the UN?
My focus, if provided the honour of being elected secretary-general, would be:
• Refugees and displaced people: Ensuring that we invest the financial resources (cash assistance or other) needed to meet the basic needs of all 85 million refugees and displaced people. Provide them with the means, tools and opportunities to build back a normal life. Invest in voluntary repatriation through cash or other incentives. Engage with governments to support local integration and refugee settlement initiatives.
• Climate action: We need to invest in nature-based solutions. We need to empower young people to take charge. Invest in climate entrepreneurs: Replace consultants, technocrats and bureaucrats with local entrepreneurs who can create innovative, eco-friendly systems and solutions.
• Development through investing in technology and education has proven to deliver the best return on investment for countries transitioning from low income to middle/high-income countries. We will ensure all parts of the world have access to the Internet. We want to create a free, online education platform for K-12 classes. This online learning platform will be supported by a mentorship programme that will allow anyone over 18 to be a mentor. This enables all children to learn without any geographical or physical restrictions.
The world body has been hamstrung by too much bureaucracy. Can it ever become independent of global powers?
It’s important to distinguish there are two UNs. There’s a decision-making aspect of the UN and the implementation aspect. The decision-making UN includes the security council for peace and security matters, the general assembly and the economic and social commission. Yes, the veto power in the Security Council does create an unfair environment, but we need to shift the narrative to talking about the UN that is responsible for directly making a difference to the lives of people: the implementation side of the UN. This UN has a budget of greater than $50 billion and has close to 100 entities. Yes, there is a lot of bureaucracy in the implementation side of things. For every dollar received, only 29 cents is used for the cause and rest goes towards bureaucracy. We have to ensure that the taxpayer’s dollars we receive helps people and doesn’t just fund the bureaucracy. The UN doesn’t need more money; it needs to spend what it has wisely and prioritise the suffering of people.
There is a growing trust deficit about the UN. Do you agree? Could it be losing credibility?
Yes, there is a trust deficit about the UN and rightfully so. The world is tired of the UN making promises but not delivering on those. The general public thinks of the UN as a “castle on the hill” that’s only accessible to the elite and powerful. The UN record on diversity is poor. It preaches gender equality to the world but hasn’t yet elected a woman secretary-general. I want to restore the world’s confidence in the UN and its ability to serve and make the world a better place for everyone. The world needs a UN that is relevant again. For us to be relevant, we need to open ourselves to new ideas and allow the young generation to be involved in more substantial ways.
How will your campaign be different? Ultimately, it’s about the backing from different blocs.
My campaign is a reflection of the values in which I want to lead the UN — care for the people and being open and inclusive to everyone. I am all about transparency and putting power back in the people’s hands. People have until the end of April to submit my vision statement as Secretary General. Throughout the month of April, I am asking them to submit their thoughts, opinions, and ideas on what they would like to see from the UN. I will use this to form my vision statement so that people genuinely feel as though the UN is working for them. I am confident member states will see the value in my candidacy as it aligns with our common goals of making a UN that works and serves people.
Polarisation is real. The world is divided. Can you, as a future UN chief, bridge it, and how?
The world is polarised because our institutions and systems are not serving everyone. They serve only a select few. The UN is one such system and institution that has not served those it is supposed to serve — people. As a leader, I want to ensure that we are serving those impacted by the humanitarian crisis, the most vulnerable amongst us. I want to ensure we are bringing 21st century tools of universal Internet and universal online K-12 education to everyone. We cannot solve the challenges of the 21st century through 20th-century thinking.