Analysis: American to run U.N. food agency

By ISAAC KARDON  |  Nov. 10, 2006 at 2:08 PM
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UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jacques Diouf are supporting Josette Sheeran of the United States for the post of executive director at the World Food Program.

After months of speculation, Sheeran's candidacy was finally confirmed by the two U.N. leaders and later endorsed Tuesday by the executive board of the WFP in Rome. She will succeed the retiring James Morris, who has declined his eligibility for a second five-year term as executive director. He will turn over the position at the beginning of 2007, four months before his tenure expires.

The colossal agency in 2005 had a total expenditure of $3.1 billion in assisting upwards of 97 million people with some 4.2 million tons of food. In addition to food, the WFP contributes its considerable logistics resources to a number of other U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations.

"Leading the world's largest humanitarian organization for the past five years has been a tremendous privilege. I am confident that Josette Sheeran's wide experience -- especially her most recent role at the U.S. State Department and on the High Level Panel on U.N. reform -- will serve the organization and its beneficiaries well," Morris said.

Sheeran currently serves as undersecretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs where she is responsible for economic issues including development, trade, agriculture, finance, energy, telecommunications and transportation.

Prior to taking her post with the State Department, Sheeran was deputy U.S. trade representative. Her career has not been confined to government service: She was president and CEO of Empower America, a Washington D.C. think tank, managing director at the Wall Street technology firm Starpoint Solutions, as well as managing editor of the Washington Times.

Her U.N. experience includes representing the United States at the High Level Panel on U.N. Reform in April 2006, after which she commented, "I am looking forward to helping the U.N. development organizations become more transparent and oriented towards activities that will bring real development results."

Sheeran's qualification for the post has been lauded by WFP and U.N. officials alike.

"Sheeran has outstanding credentials," said Morris, who added, "I have great confidence in Sheeran. Her dedication and humanitarian commitment will help WFP mobilize widespread support and concern for the millions of people worldwide who suffer from hunger each day ... Sheeran's knowledge of the news media will be a tremendous asset to raising the profile of this often neglected problem."

WFP Executive Board President and Ambassador of Pakistan Mirza Qamar Beg acknowledged Morris' comment on the high quality of Sheeran's credentials, a sentiment shared by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton.

Despite her seemingly impeccable resume, skeptics harbor a number of lingering doubts about Sheeran's appointment. Her selection has been questioned in some circles because of the timing of the appointment and her religious background.

Stephane Dujarric, Annan's chief spokesman, spoke about the appointment to reporters at U.N. World Headquarters in New York, fielding questions on the selection of Sheeran for the five-year post at the prominent food and logistics agency.

The date of the appointment is considered questionable because it occurred so late in U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's tenure -- he retires Dec. 31 -- and with little apparent input from his successor, Ban Ki-moon. In response to this concern, Dujarric said, "the selection process had begun before Ban Ki-moon was designated as the next secretary-general," though he added the secretary-general-elect was indeed consulted on the matter.

Sheeran prevailed over a few other short-listed candidates, among them an American, a Swiss and a Canadian. Speculation about the influence of the U.S. government on the selection centers on Washington's clear support of her candidacy, and a history of U.S. directors-general.

Donating roughly half of the organization's budget in cash and food supplies, the United States is thought to exercise considerable leverage on the WFP. The Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger commented, "Pressure from the U.S. government is thought to have been decisive," and further implied the generous support enjoyed from U.S. coffers might be withheld if Sheeran were passed over.

The subject of Sheeran's religious background has also been broached, notably her affiliation with the Rev. Sun Myung-moon's Unification Church. Said Sheeran, "I have no association with the Unification Church since I left the Washington Times in 1997." The newspaper is a part of News World Communications, which is owned by the church. Among News World's many holdings is United Press International.

Dujarric deflected questions on the subject, asserting "people's religious affiliation is their own," he said. "People are not judged on their religious affiliation."

All doubts aside, Sheeran has been confirmed for the prestigious directorship and will take the reins beginning in January 2007.

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