Meet Arora Akanksha, the 34-year-old who wants to be head of the UN

ByDipanjan Sinha & Stuti Johri
May 22, 2021 12:11 PM IST

An audit coordinator at the United Nations since 2016, Arora now wants to run for secretary-general. Because it is time for the old ways, the old systems, to change, she says.

Everyone’s felt it — the sense that they could do a better job than their boss. Sometimes, that feeling drives an ambitious person into the position. Sometimes, dramatic change follows as a result.

‘Lip service is no longer enough. Tweets ‘condemning’ tragedies are not enough. The UN has a responsibility,” Arora says. PREMIUM
‘Lip service is no longer enough. Tweets ‘condemning’ tragedies are not enough. The UN has a responsibility,” Arora says.

That’s what Arora Akanksha is hoping for. Except her workplace is the United Nations, and the boss she’s looking to replace is the head of the UN.

The current secretary-general of the UN, António Guterres, will be up for re-election in 2021. These re-elections usually go uncontested, with UN heads generally retiring from office after serving two five-year terms. Now, Arora, a 34-year-old Indian-origin Canadian and audit coordinator at the UN since 2016, is trying to throw her hat in the ring (she’ll need an endorsement from a member state, under new rules; something she’s still working on).

“There were three defining moments that built on each other to convince me this was the right move, the only move,” she says. “My first encounter with Guterres, an accident that almost left me grievously injured, and a reforms project that turned out to be a mere reshuffle.”

The meeting with Guterres was marked by the fact that he bypassed all staff. Then, in February 2018, Arora was hit by a New York taxi. As she was being driven to the ER, she says she thought, “If I die today, what will my obituary be?” “And so I decided to dedicate my life to a reforms project that concluded in 2019, only for it to result in a minor reshuffle.”

Colleagues talked about things needing to change, but nothing was changing. With no one else stepping up, she says, she felt compelled to. Arora spent the next two years studying the UN and getting a Master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

Typically, the head of the UN is a seasoned politician or diplomat. If elected, Arora would be the youngest-ever and the first female secretary-general in the global body’s 76-year history. That is unlikely to happen. Arora insists she stands a chance, but admits that she is running almost as much to make a point — the old order, the old guard, the old ways of doing things, it’s time for them to change.

Her biggest motivation for running, she says, lies in a fundamental belief in the UN’s power to protect human rights. “A fresh perspective is key to fulfilling the UN’s promises to the world.”

Born in Rohtak, Haryana, to a doctor and a microbiologist, Arora talks of family values as her inspiration and strength, and says being the grandchild of Partition refugees has shaped her vision. She’s running on a promise of greater transparency in decision-making and use of funds, and a promise of a better record on human rights.

“Lip service is no longer enough. Tweets ‘condemning’ tragedies are not enough. The UN has a responsibility to resolve conflict and mediate. The pandemic has shown us the power of technology, and we have a pool of talent already within the organisation. We need to harness this and engage the younger generation in making an impact,” Arora says.

“I’m sure she has no chance, and equally sure that she knows that,” Edward Mortimer, a former UN official who served as chief speechwriter to Kofi Annan, told The New York Times in February. Arora emphasises the process rather than the outcome: “All I want is a chance to be heard, and for member states to honour a fair election process.” She takes comfort in the fact that even her challenge to the status-quo increases representation for young women of colour. She wants, she says, to pave the way.

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