Ms Ameerah Haq is the former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Field Support who has nearly 40 years of experience as in international civil servant. She still engages in national and multilateral development work and recently served as the Vice-Chair of the UN High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations. Her long career included serving as Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) in the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste, Deputy SRSG and UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan, as well as Deputy SRSG and UN Resident Coordinator in Afghanistan. Ms Haq held senior positions at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) as UN Coordinator in Malaysia and Laos. Ms Haq currently serves on the Board of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, on the Board of Peace Operations Training Institutes (POTI), the Advisory Board of the International Peace Institute (IPI) and is a member of the Global Board of BRAC and is a Senior Adviser of the UN Foundation.
International Women’s Day was the focus of our conversation. Especially lifting the call to action for accelerating gender parity and to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women around the world. We started with exploring Ms Haq’s long working life in the United Nations and kicked off by asking what she thought about the role of the UN. What were the top three things that came to mind?
‘There has been quite a lot of discourse on whether the UN really reflects ‘We the Peoples’ of the United Nations or whether in practice it really is ‘We the Member States’, she said. Continuing to ask ‘Is the UN a reflection of whatever government is in power at the time or does it truly represent the will of the ‘We the Peoples’. Ms Haq highlighted this as ‘the number one challenge for leadership at the UN’.
At the moment, people look for leadership of the UN especially in humanitarian contexts such as in Ukraine, and the recent earthquake in Türkiye and Syria. There is a great deal that goes on at the UN behind the scenes, such as the vast numbers of humanitarian workers who steadfastly provide lifesaving services to those in need and coordination of humanitarian efforts.
Ms Haq understands that ‘the UN has been subject to a lot of criticism’. She expanded on this point of view and said: ‘There has been a big assault in the past decade on multilateralism. We see the rise of nationalism and isolation. Despite that, I still feel that the world and the people want and need a UN. Very often we hear the question ‘where is the UN?’ coming from fragile countries, in many contexts where there are gross violations of human rights the default position in many people’s minds [are] that the UN is the world body that can solve all these problems. In that sense, I think there are huge expectations vested in the UN and in the leadership that it can provide.’
Reflecting more on the current situation Ms Haq said that ‘what makes the headlines is leadership of the UN particularly in peace and security matters such as conflicts, wars and tensions between countries’. She argues that the ‘leadership that is exercised by the UN in normative and in policy work isn’t that much appreciated or known’. She cites the example of the ‘work that has been done by the UN in conflict prevention, since it doesn’t make the headlines because they’ve been prevented, including all the work that is being done behind the scenes to prevent conflicts.’
Bringing the conversation into contemporary times, Ms Haq reflected on the UN’s humanitarian leadership. ‘At the moment, people look for leadership of the UN especially in humanitarian contexts such as in Ukraine, and the recent earthquake in Türkiye and Syria. There is a great deal that goes on at the UN behind the scenes, such as the vast numbers of humanitarian workers who steadfastly provide lifesaving services to those in need and coordination of humanitarian efforts.’
She expanded on this point by talking about the ‘criticism that surfaces because people are unaware of the UN’s response to crisis, and it is very difficult to distinguish between what Member States want or demand as opposed to what the UN does in terms of advocating, negotiating, mediating and trying to put issues on the table.’
Ms Haq says further; ‘If the UN didn’t exist today, there would be calls for a UN’. Emphasising ‘it is imperative to understand that in this world, regional solutions for many issues are not sufficient, particularly when we look at big issues staring us in the face that require [a] global response. There’s a lot of work going on already about, for example, on the peaceful uses of outer space and standards and norms for the use of digital technology.’
Bringing up an example of important cooperation Ms Haq stated that she always quotes the Law of the Sea. Saying that it ‘took about 15 years to finally be presented and adopted by Member States. When I talk about prevention, it is precisely the Law of the Sea [which] set up parameters and other clauses that reduce conflict and tensions, because there is an agreed upon instrument in terms of understanding how countries determine ownership and use of the seas that form borders of many of them.’
I would say that in recent years, whether it’s the conferences that are happening or related to women’s rights including side events held in parallel, outside the formal conference halls, which is equally important in terms of forming global coalitions of civil society groups and sending out clarion calls for key messages around which to coalesce.
‘So, I think the leadership of the UN is very much needed, it is being exercised in many ways. Some people might say that the voice of the Secretariat is not strong enough to sway the positions of certain Member States. That’s not easy to do. I very often refer to those who work in the corporate world or non-governmental world, and say, ‘imagine having a board of directors of 193 people!’ In the end that’s how we work at the UN. Member States need to agree to many issues the world body is grappling with and it’s not easy to bring them all together. But nevertheless, the normative work, the policy frameworks that the UN has achieved thus far is outstanding and a remarkable feat, given under what complex circumstances they were navigated and agreed upon.’
Our conversation explored the idea of the greatest threats to UN leadership today. Ms Haq said she thought that the biggest threat is the rise of nationalism in many Member States. ‘These are Member States where the concept of multilateralism, global goods, global solutions are not on top of the national agendas, and therefore, a multilateral organisation like the UN, is not seen as relevant and is equated with motives that are not congruent to the [UN] Charter’.
Arguing that this was ‘one set of challenges’ she said the second is the disconnect in the views of the people of a Member State and their governments. Saying further that ‘very often the people of these countries are thinking, well, the UN is not reflecting our voices or acting on our concerns. And these are often related to human rights, where people feel that they themselves are not being protected by their governments.’
Taking us back to the points raised earlier, Ms Haq continued her exploration of ‘whether it is truly a representation of ‘We the Peoples’. Speaking in the context of International Women´s Day she said, ‘I would say that in recent years, whether it’s the conferences that are happening or related to women’s rights including side events held in parallel, outside the formal conference halls, which is equally important in terms of forming global coalitions of civil society groups and sending out clarion calls for key messages around which to coalesce. The UN has to work on conscientiously lifting up the UN’s role as a provider of a ‘convening platform for civil society groups and other voices to get that balance between Member State positions and the positions of the people’.
Ms Haq shared frankly about her work life saying, ‘I had my career at the UN for 40 years, it’s almost 10 years [since] I retired. Fifty years ago, when I started, words like civil society just weren’t in our jargon. Now when establishing policy or starting work on some kind of normative framework or bringing people together around an issue like the Sustainable Development Goals, we discuss issues of representation beyond Member State governments such as civil society and women’s groups. So, all of these measures for inclusion are steps in the right direction.’
She extended her ideas to the youth saying, ‘I also think that the UN needs to build a bridge with youth and young people. Civil society groups do seem to have sort of an older generational representation, but I think the UN needs to bring in younger voices, and those who are going to be succeeding us and they need to be drawn in earlier than has been in the past.’
Ms. Haq’s nearly forty years of UN experience is grounded by 19 years in the field, and it was thus fitting to explore how to enable access to leadership positions for women at the field level and how she would propose to achieve greater gender equity and parity at the UN?
Sometimes it may mean encouraging women by giving them a boost of confidence by simply saying ‘you can do this’.
Ms Haq’s answer started with the fact that she has ‘reflected on this for a long time’. She then shared that when she started her ‘career at the UN, the leadership was exclusively male, there were very few women leaders. She highlighted the ‘steps in the right direction, [with] calls to Member States to promote, or to nominate women candidates for jobs that are available.’
‘I would say, at the entry levels there is much stronger emphasis on recruiting women into jobs, and then as the levels increase there are less qualified women available for more senior positions. I think the UN system really needs to pay attention on how to train women better and we’ve got to give them opportunities more often’, she said.
Ms Haq cited the example of particularly complex peacekeeping or political missions, where most are non-family duty stations. Sometimes it may mean encouraging women by giving them a boost of confidence by simply saying ‘you can do this’.
It requires a lot more investment and a lot more support from the system to enable women to take these positions, particularly in non-family duty stations.
She dares to raise the issue of how perhaps the UN is still looking at life situations in society. ‘Very often, the woman is the one who has the prime responsibility for planning children’s education and wellbeing, and is the caregiver of the family, whereas it is easier for men to go to non-family duty stations knowing that their family is being well looked after by their spouses’, she said. Mentioning there are ‘women who have done this [and] have been able to make it work’. But she argues that ‘it requires a lot more investment and a lot more support from the system to enable women to take these positions, particularly in non-family duty stations.’
She emphasised that ‘the system needs to be doing a lot more for those women who are entering the UN, through training and mentoring’. Stating that the ‘UN needs to build confidence and promote them, even if it means taking risks, just as the organisation has taken risks by putting men in higher level positions for so many years. ‘Just as with men’, she said, ‘some of them worked out well. But some of them didn’t’.
However, Ms Haq also said, ‘I think that the organisation has to appoint more women staff into positions with leadership responsibility. Her example is what she sees in the development sector.
‘I feel very encouraged when I see a lot of women who worked for me as junior officers, and they’re all Resident Coordinators and Resident Representatives now. It’s wonderful to see that they are being given the opportunities and that they are rising to the challenge. This Secretary General has put a lot of emphasis on gender parity. But as you said, the numbers just don’t speak. I think the policies and the frameworks are all there. We just have to walk the talk now’.
Women who are in senior positions in the organisation have a tremendous role to play, not only to implement the policies and practices that are there by, promoting women, but also in terms of mentoring younger women.
Prompted more directly on how women in leadership positions can help to reduce the gender gap, and how can they support other women, Ms Haq started by sharing her experiences as the UN Resident Coordinator in Malaysia from 1993 to 1997.
‘When I was in Malaysia, I met many brilliant women such as the Chairman of the Central Bank, Minister of Industry, women heads of research institutions, NGOs and journalists. I would always encourage them to apply to the UN’. She even ventured to say that ‘some decisions to appoint women were not very popular with male staff’. She cited examples of her last position at headquarters where ‘a number of people weren’t happy’ when she promoted or appointed women to be in charge of certain departments. She recalled a male staff member telling her that she would realise that she had not made the right selection. She wished there were more positions to promote the male colleagues. ‘But all things being equal, gender parity needed to be a priority’.
Ms Haq followed this up by reiterating… ‘So, again, this is what I also say, as a woman leader. When you put someone in a position of higher responsibility, you cannot allow them to fail’. She said it is important to provide support, confidence building, nurturing and mentoring. ‘This applies to all leaders, male and female. In some instances, woman to woman is a good way to provide mentorship.’
‘Women who are in senior positions in the organisation have a tremendous role to play, not only to implement the policies and practices that are there by promoting women, but also in terms of mentoring younger women’, she said.
Venturing to take the issue forward Ms Haq talked about her many conversations, predominantly with young women who faced decisions when ‘at the P3/P4 level. Should I enter into this relationship? Should I get married? Should I follow my spouse? Should I take a position at headquarters at the same level, with little prospect for promotion, for the sake of my family?
Ms Haq related ‘that [it] in the end it is very much an individual decision because there are many complexities that come to bear on it. She shared that she very often counselled her staff that she thought it might better for couples to ‘be together at this time, not to split the family apart.’
Yet, she acknowledged that ‘it’s not to say that that’s the way it always has to be. I think that as women leader, it is very important that you provide the space that they can come to you and really bare their souls and tell you this is what they are grappling with’. For her this was ‘a role that all leaders should be playing. Women leaders should be aware that young female staff look up to them to provide this kind of guidance and advice.’
The reason I feel ´that I can say it so forcefully is because I did it myself. I did it, you can do it too’.
Ms Haq advocated to look at other areas to achieving gender balance and sensitivity such as ‘in recruitment policies, even in procurement’. She gave the example of some of the work she did in a field such as aviation, where there is just a lack of women. Other instances she remembered was when she went to capitals particularly related to peacekeeping requesting them to provide women peacekeepers. Their answer would be: ‘Look, we’re trying to increase our own gender parity, and if we send these women to the UN, we lose the gender parity in our national statistics. This highlights the fact that there’s a very small overall number of female personnel and everyone’s tugging at them to keep up their statistics’.
‘And the answer to that is really to increase the overall numbers of women from the bottom up. That’s the challenge. That’s where the investment of the UN has to really be. The UN needs to invest in their preparedness as future leaders’, she said.
A piece of advice to leaders is to give honest performance assessments. It is important to tell people where their strengths and weaknesses are.
Our interview concluded with asking Ms Haq if she had advice for aspiring young women in the UN system?
A firm ‘you can do it’ was her first response. She qualified this with the following: ‘The reason I feel ´that I can say it so forcefully is because I did it myself. I did it, you can do it too’.
Broadening her response Ms Haq said that she often spoke to women who were comfortable in headquarters positions and encouraged them to pursue a position at the field level, where she was fortunate to spend most of her career.
However, she recognised that this was a daunting decision. ‘When I got posted to Laos, I found out that there is no international school for my children to go to. We formed one once I got there and it is still there in Vientiane.
On another level she said, ‘a piece of advice to leaders is to give honest performance assessments. It is important to tell people where their strengths and weaknesses are’.
In closing Ms Haq said that she remembered a male colleague, ‘very liberal, with a brilliant, successful career’, who told her that although he understood the gender equality, he thought sometimes things went a little too far. He did not understand ‘what gender has [to do] with procurement, for example, in a comment that he had heard from someone recently?’
‘Gender has everything to do with procurement processes I told him’. This is the illustrative example she shared from her experience in the field. ‘In Laos we conducted the first census, we trained a number of female enumerators to travel in all provinces to collect data, so we wanted to procure bicycles for all the enumerators. The procurement committee ordered bicycles, but because there were no women on the committee, nor was the gender breakdown of the enumerators specified in procurement documents, the bicycles ordered were not made for women, they were only men’s bicycles. It was very hard for the female enumerators to ride them. I told him that this is where gender dimension in procurement comes in.’
Ms Haq concluded by saying that even today ‘feminism is misinterpreted as radicalism, as being combative and militant. It is considered by many as pejorative. This is something that women live with. And that is why we have much more work to do. We should not be frustrated by it, but we need to hold together and to acknowledge that it is a long, long struggle to achieve social, political and all other rights of women equal to those of men.’