An audit coordinator, Arora Akanksha is challenging the status quo, declaring herself as a candidate to be the next Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Arora Akanksha speaks to us from New York in a bright African print dress, one of the nine colorful outfits in her wardrobe that she brought back from her trip to the African continent in 2016.
Every time she wears one of these dresses to work, walking down the streets of Manhattan, she receives compliments, she says, with people alluding to her as “an African princess”.
Looking up from those streets in Manhattan, at the towering, 154-meter glistening slab of steel that is the United Nations (UN) Secretariat, her hopes and ambitions run as high, as she boldly attempts to foray into a slew of unprecedented firsts.
The Indian-Canadian, who prefixes her name with her family name, joined the UN in 2016 and is the audit coordinator at the United Nations Development Programme. Today, she is known to her friends and supporters – and the global media she has recently approached in her personal campaign – as the 34-year-old bidding for the top job at the UN.
In February this year, Akanksha announced her candidacy, challenging incumbent UN Secretary-General António Guterres in the UN elections to be held later this year.
Hired to serve on the UN’s financial reforms, Akanksha says, prior to that, she was a manager at accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Toronto, Canada. She was also the youngest audit professor at the University of Toronto, at the age of 28, teaching audit at the master’s level. She graduated from Canada’s York University with a Bachelor in Administrative Studies and has a Master in Public Administration from Columbia University in New York.
Aiming for more firsts, Akanksha, who spent her formative years in Saudi Arabia and India, says she is “the first woman and first millennial candidate for the position of the UN Secretary-General and the first known candidate to challenge an incumbent”. If she wins, she will be the youngest-ever and first female Secretary-General of the UN in its 75-year history.
In early January, Guterres, a long-serving international diplomat and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, presented himself as a candidate seeking a second five-year term. To succeed as Secretary-General, any candidate must finally win the approval of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and France.
When contacted by FORBES AFRICA for a comment on Akanksha’s candidacy and details on all the candidates who have presented for the position of Secretary-General, Brenden Varma, Director of Communications and Spokesperson for the President, Office of the President of the General Assembly, says: “As of now, there is only one candidate whose name has been jointly circulated to Member States by the Presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council – and that is António Guterres of Portugal.”
The UN notes on its website regarding the selection and appointment process: “The position of Secretary-General is one of great importance that requires a person with the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity, and a firm commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Given that Akanksha has only been with the institution for four years – and that currently she is in discussion with member states to support her candidacy – what are her chances, I ask, and how is she responding to the naysayers?
She is not daunted.
“My decision to run for this position is not influenced by some long-held ambition. I believe in the UN and I know it is capable of doing great work,” she begins. “My candidacy is to restore the UN’s trust, credibility and respect in the world and to bring it back to serving people in humanitarian crises, in development needs and in climate action.
“The naysayers will always be there, and for me, I love to engage with them where I am challenged that I don’t have the experience as the Secretary-Generals of the past. I always tell them I acknowledge that I don’t have the same profile as them, but I do bring a lot. I was an auditor for PwC. I have written guidelines for elections in Canada, and in seven years working in audit, I have excelled and proven myself to be a leader in Canada and internationally. What I bring is the perspective of taking a decision and implementing it. As millennials, we have moved mountains in every profession… And I bring the force of an entire generation. We are ready to take the baton and make the UN an organization that serves all of us.”
One of the critical issues Akanksha wants to bring to the fore is the refugee crisis, especially on the African continent that’s home to more than 33 million of the world’s displaced people. She says she has a personal affiliation for the cause, hailing from a family of refugees.
“All four of my grandparents moved from Pakistan to India after the partition [in 1947], so I know what it’s like to be in a position to have nothing and build life back for yourself.”
On Africa, she adds: “We need to depopulate the refugee camps through repatriation, local integration or resettlement… Local empowerment, government engagement and listening to the people directly are what is critical, so I am proposing a development approach that empowers people on the ground through universal education and internet access.”
“As millennials, we have moved mountains in every profession… And I bring the force of an entire generation. We are ready to take the baton and make the UN an organization that serves all of us.”
Akanksha says her candidacy and her pressing call for a new UN has not been a surprise for her colleagues.
“My candidacy has been received well by the employees of the UN… Within the UN universe, people are expecting that we might be able to change things. Everyone is aware of the shortcomings but no one has dared to challenge the system and status quo.
“We need to shape the new world order, and we need a new UN, and specifically for Africa… Africans have always presented themselves with dignity no matter their hardships and been able to forgive and get to work collectively to move things forward… The UN has to give more to Africa, to give them adequate humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs.”
Akanksha’s daring candidacy has also found her positive endorsement as “the voice of young people”.
“Arora’s candidacy is important,” says Simone Filippini, a senior Dutch diplomat and President of the Leadership4SDGs Foundation in the Netherlands, when contacted for a comment by FORBES AFRICA. “She is a talented, smart young woman of the world. She has a clear view of what needs to happen to make the UN a more effective and inclusive organization in her perspective… We need disruption and Arora is a disruptor; she is courageous to challenge power and deserves admiration and support… I hope that she will be able to get the support of many, especially of the younger generation.”
Agrees Agustin Matteri, Senior Portfolio Manager, Climate Change Unit – Latin America & Caribbean, UN Environment, about the need to spread the voice: “Her chances are high, but only if we make common people aware of the importance of the UN in their daily lives.”
At the moment, Akanksha is preparing to submit her vision statement and is on leave from the UN without pay until the conclusion of the election, but does she have a plan B if she does not win?
“I am in this to win,” she affirms. “I am so optimistic in the member states to realize that the world after Covid cannot go back to the old ways of doing things… I have no plan B other than serving those not served by the system.”