UNITED NATIONS — American diplomat Josette Sheeran has been chosen to head the U.N. World Food Program, which assists millions of hungry people around the world. The selection of the former conservative newspaper editor to a post traditionally held by an American reveals the influence of the United States on the U.N.'s top jobs.
With a new secretary-general scheduled to start a five-year term in January, non-American applicants were reassured that the competition this year would be based on merit and experience. For the first time, the United Nations placed an ad in Economist magazine to attract nongovernmental candidates.
A panel in Rome, where the food program is based, screened more than 60 applicants, and flew several of them to New York for more extensive interviews. A short list of candidates emerged: Walter Fust, the Swiss development minister; Robert Fowler, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.N.; Tony Banbury, the WFP's director in Asia with ties to the Clinton administration; and Sheeran, the U.S. undersecretary of State for economic, business and agricultural affairs.
Diplomatic sources said they had heard that Fust and Banbury were at the top of the list. But Sheeran, not Banbury, was the official State Department candidate, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to remind him of that, said a U.S. diplomat who asked not to be identified.
Rice's message was that the U.S. government should have a say in the selection of the WFP director proportionate to its contribution to the program. The U.S. provides more than 40% of its budget, and for 14 years an American has run the program, which helps feed about 90 million people.
"Kofi and [his deputy] Mark Malloch Brown didn't know what to do," the diplomat said. "But it's a fact that the U.S. pays the bills, and so the U.S. has a say."
Annan also consulted incoming Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, because Sheeran's five-year contract will fall under his watch. Ban had no objections and did not try to influence the selection.
Swiss Ambassador Peter Maurer, who closely followed the selection process, said he had no complaints about it and noted that although Fust is highly qualified, Switzerland is not a major contributor to the WFP.
Sheeran, 52, had strong backing from the Bush administration from the outset. Before her current State Department job handling development and trade issues, she was deputy U.S. trade representative. She previously served as managing director of Starpoint Solutions, a technology firm, and as president and chief executive of Empower America, a think tank founded by Republican Jack Kemp, a former congressman.
She said Tuesday that she was pleased to be selected to head the food program.
"It's a tremendous honor. It's a fantastic organization that saves lives everyday," she said.
Sheeran, who will take over Jan. 1, will oversee a worldwide staff of 10,500 who deliver food staples to people in 80 countries.