THE BLOG
11/21/2014 04:44 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

Big Job, No Rules?

Imagine you're applying for a job. It's quite a big, important job. In fact, if you get it, you'll be the world's top civil servant. You'll report to 193 member states, oversee more than 40,000 staff and thirty separate funds, programmes and agencies. From climate change, to mass atrocities, your organisation will be responsible for tackling the world's most significant and complex problems.

But here's the thing: there's no job description, no specific qualifications or experience required, no set timeline for the appointment process, no campaigning rules and no formal interviews. A closed group comprising appointed officials from five powerful countries will debate your candidacy behind closed doors. Each has power of veto. You'll be palatable to some and not to others, but the criteria against which you're judged won't be made known, nor the horse-trading done to settle on you. If you emerge as the nominee, your name will be presented to the remaining senior executives for a vote. But not to worry; their job is simply to rubberstamp the decision that's already been made.

And, congratulations, you're the new Secretary-General of the United Nations!

PS. If you're female, you've achieved something no other woman has in 70 years.

This was the process that led to the appointment of the current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon (without the PS above) and, remarkably, his was praised as the most transparent and accountable in the organisation's history. For the first time candidates travelled around the world - sometimes even speaking at public events - there were campaign websites and increased dialogue between the Permanent Five member states and the General Assembly.

Yet this openness served largely to expose the extent of the system's inadequacies: prolonged Security Council indecision, negligible candidate engagement with the broader UN membership, and suspect campaign funding packages. The fundamental elements of accountability one might expect in any public appointments - nomination deadlines, a defined role and qualifications, publicised criteria for candidate evaluation - were still glaringly absent.

Other international institutions offer more of the same. The next Commonwealth Secretary-General will be decided behind closed doors at the 2015 Heads of Government meeting in Malta. At least with the Commonwealth, one might make an educated guess at the successful candidate's regional provenance, the leadership of the International Monetary Fund (where all eleven heads have been European) and the World Bank (where all twelve have been American) is the result of an ungentlemanly agreement from the old world order. The notion that merit alone might determine winning candidates appears lost in diplomatic horse-trading.

As those of us supporting the 1 for 7 billion campaign believe, the manner in which the next UN Secretary-General is appointed is hugely important. For me at least, the opaque appointment process points to a much bigger problem, a democratic deficit that festers at the very heart of our institutions of global governance.

At the national level all over the world, we are witnessing protests driven by a rejection of political and economic systems that serve and entrench elite interests. Research underpinning our 2014 State of Civil Society Report, showed the anger at the lack of political voice, even in the counties with reasonably sound electoral systems, and the lack of practical opportunities for people to shape decision-making.

But this democratic deficit is not limited to the national level. It is doubled, amplified and rendered more potent at the international level. So many of our international institutions and processes are outdated, unaccountable and inefficient. Since their architecture enables the wealthiest states and corporations to disproportionately influence international agendas and norms, these institutions stand accused of being complicit in promoting the interests of the rich. Operationally, they are geared towards meeting the wants of certain states rather than the needs of all the world's citizens. Indeed, global governance is remote and often disconnected from the people whose lives it impacts.

True, some international organisations are paving the way for change. Recent high-level appointments at the OECD, World Bank and some UN agencies prove that incorporating mechanisms of accountability into selection processes is both realistic and achievable. But the real problem may well be political - the opacity of the process is a deliberate attempt by states to jealously guard the control they currently exercise.

Unfortunately for those who want to protect the status quo, public outrage is gathering momentum. If the UN fails to keep pace, it risks fatally undermining its credibility and global authority. And by reforming the process by which their leadership positions are filled, international institutions can send an important message about their willingness to become more accountable to the citizens they serve.

The UN Secretary-General isn't there to serve the interests of a few states; he - or, let's hope she from 2016 - is for the 7 billion.

Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is the Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. He tweets at @civicusSG