Q&A with UN Secretary General Candidate Susana Malcorra

8 minute read

The United Nations is selecting a new Secretary General this fall. TIME foreign affairs columnist Ian Bremmer spoke with Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister, about how she would change the UN.


What is the single most important thing that a UN Secretary-General can do to make the United Nations a more effective institution?

The UN Secretary-General can have unparalleled impact in leading with the strategic vision required for the Organization to be centred on the primacy of people, planet and shared prosperity; driven by issues; and focused on delivering impact.

The complexity and interconnectedness of today’s global landscape demands a United Nations that embodies this ethos of interconnectedness in how it tackles challenges; that is forward-looking in anticipating issues around the horizon and forward-leaning in its solutions and partnerships; and that makes the Organization work for people and the planet based on what will yield the greatest sustainable impact, rather than makes issues conform to pre-existing organizational arrangements.

The Secretary-General must be at the forefront – and indeed propel – this cultural shift through her/his strategic leadership and managerial know-how to reorient the Organization to more effectively, efficiently and creatively meet the priorities elaborated for it by Member States and live up to the expectations set for it by those it serves around the world. Serving the UN flag obliges us to always do better in striving to remain relevant and fit for purpose in addressing not only those challenges facing us today, but also in pre-empting those challenges which will confront us tomorrow.


What aspect of the UN’s work do you believe is in greatest need of reform?

Whether supporting UN peace operations, providing humanitarian relief or responding to the unprecedented large movements of refugees and migrants, the United Nations today is overwhelmingly focused on keeping up with seemingly mounting emergency needs. While the Organization must continue to be responsive to these needs, it must become more proactive, and less reactive, through ensuring that its responses and actions build resilience as a preventative strategy. When the United Nations is called upon to respond to a crisis or emergency, it must respond in ways that strengthen and build upon national and local capacities wherever possible in order to bolster resilience and reduce vulnerability to future shocks. This requires an Organization that can respond simultaneously with the immediacy of ameliorating suffering in the short-term, but also with a view towards building resilience and reducing the vulnerability in the long-term that will otherwise trigger crises and incite conflicts. It is only through this more holistic approach that we will be able to collectively manage the shocks that come, while also preventing some of these shocks and mitigating their potential impacts. Supporting this shift requires that we place greater priority on prevention and preparedness. It means promoting holistic action across the Organization that moves us out of the silos that divide us to the issues that connect us. We must remain responsive in the short-term with an enhanced view of what is required in the long-term and be more effective at working with both objectives in mind at all times. This more holistic action must be reflected in the way we work and organize ourselves, in the way we finance and in the way we approach every challenge.


What personal qualities are needed for an effective Secretary-General?

Mobilizing the Organization to deliver impact in today’s world requires a Secretary-General who is an apt listener. S/he must be able to understand, discern and navigate the many competing priorities and perspectives of the United Nations’ 193 Member States. Recognizing that the United Nations derives its strength from the collective power of its Member States, s/he must prioritize national ownership. Sh/he must exercise the good offices to build confidence and cultivate trust to find common ground in order to advance progress. An effective Secretary-General is aspirational but also humble in recognizing that the Organization can and indeed must always aspire to do more to live up to and be accountable to the promise of the UN Charter. Leading by example, this spirit of humility and accountability – to the ideals of the UN Charter, the people the Organization seeks to serve, and to its Member States – must permeate the entire organizational culture. S/he knows that the only way to deliver – and indeed multiply – impact is through working in unison with local, national, regional and international partners and in overcoming the silos that divide us. Finally, the Secretary-General must have the courage of conviction, the visionary leadership and foresight, and the managerial capacity to steer the Organization to deliver effectively and efficiently on the mandates entrusted to it by Member States.


What did you learn about the role of Secretary-General during your tenure as current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s chef de cabinet?

During my service as Chef de Cabinet, I witnessed first-hand the possibility and potential, but also limitations, of the Secretary-General’s role. I have seen where, for example on reaching agreement on the sustainable development goals, the personal sustained commitment of the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon contributed towards facilitating the adoption by Member States of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. I have also seen situations where solutions are elusive and the role of the Secretary-General cannot substitute for the political will that can only emanate from the strength of the United Nations’ Member States to act. It has been impressed upon me that, to be effective, the Secretary-General must build trust with Member States and establish the rapport to create the space for quiet diplomatic efforts. It has also been impressed upon me that a United Nations that is united with a shared sense of purpose can exceed expectation in what it can accomplish and the impact it can deliver.

While serving the United Nations over the last eleven years across humanitarian, peace and security and management sectors, I have seen how a spirit of innovation has supported the Organization in more effectively and efficiently responding to unprecedented challenges through leveraging the ingenuity and expertise that comes through partnership. Drawing inspiration from my work in the private sector, as Secretary-General, I would be outward-looking in inculcating this ethos of partnership and in building and leading teams to multiply impact. Effectively serving at the helm of the Organization also demands accountable and efficient leadership and management expertise. This culture of accountability and efficiency is ingrained in me from my private sector training. It would support me in providing the managerial oversight to inculcate this culture within the Organization, ensuring that the Organization is accountable to its key stakeholders to yield results and deliver the greatest impact through the most efficient use of resources. As the central role of the Secretary-General is to provide the oversight to hold the Organization accountable to its membership, to the people around the world it aspires to serve, and to the ideals codified in the United Nations Charter, this focus on results is fundamental.

My private sector experience has equipped me to provide the strategic direction, dynamic, accountable leadership, and managerial oversight that a global institution as complex as the United Nations requires. I bring to it a management style premised on results that is not prescriptive or linear, but adaptable and iterative in adjusting solutions and approaches to the feedback from the communities we serve. This client-based perspective stems from my substantial management expertise.


No institution can be all things to all people. What things do you believe the UN should avoid trying to do?

While no institution can be all things to all people, the UN – by virtue of its founding and the promise of the ideals codified in the United Charter – does at times represent all things to all people and can be the last bastion of hope for many around the world in dire circumstances. In order to effectively serve these ideals, the United Nations must exhibit the humility and clear sense of purpose that it does have limitations and prioritize accordingly. The United Nations must exercise a spirit of inclusivity and partnership to leverage the capacities of others to multiply impact in support of a shared vision, while also recognizing when the United Nations has the unparalleled legitimacy to make a difference.

The United Nations must be both a catalyst and convener in promoting a shared vision and sense of purpose and mobilizing the Organization’s capacities, those of its Member States and those of other local, national, regional and international partners in translating this vision into meaningful impact on the ground.

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