Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

McAskie One of UN's Few Women Special Representatives (June 7, 2004)
"Women, few as they are in this line of work, seem to get the toughest assignments."

Low-Tech Solutions Often Key to Third World Problems (May 31, 2004)
"Creativity born of necessity can help make life longer and better in the poorest countries."

A University in a Class by Itself (May 24, 2004)
"Not many people know that the UN has a university of its own. It has no basketball team nor even a traditional campus. It is a research institution that serves as a think tank for the United Nations."

Millions of People Worldwide on the Move (May 17, 2004)
"Migrations, particularly illegal movements of people, are cause for concern in every region. There has never been a migration study this big or ambitious. The topic has some built-in tensions, and opening it up for world scrutiny risks some hazards."

No Simple Place to Pin Blame for Iraq Oil-For-Food Problems (May 10, 2004)
"The U.S. General Accounting Office is documenting what a shambles the U.S. made of the oil-for-food program after it took over in November, and warning that the new Iraq must be watched closely or history will repeat itself."

Reducing Poverty Takes More Than Just Money (May 3, 2004)
"Poverty has so many other facets beyond what it takes to live from day to day.... Unless all countries and international financial institutions look at the big picture, people in developing countries don't stand a chance of significant gains."

Losing Faith In Democracy: A Warning From Latin America (April 26, 2004)
"The publication last week of an alarming report ... from Latin America will only confirm for many that the euphoria of the early 1990s over the spread of democracy is now history."

More from U.N. Notebook.


U.N. Notebook | June 7, 2004
 
from U. N. Wire McAskie One of UN's Few Women Special Representatives

by Barbara Crossette
 
....

Carolyn McAskie
Carolyn McAskie, the
secretary general's new
special representative
in Burundi (U.N. PHOTO)
   
UNITED NATIONS—The spotlight shining on Lakhdar Brahimi in Iraq, and before that in Afghanistan, has made many more Americans aware that the United Nations has its own corps of very skilled diplomatic troubleshooters known as special representatives of the secretary general. These envoys, like viceroys in the age of empire, can wield considerable administrative power and influence, especially when countries implode and need to be rebuilt, as Cambodia was more than a decade ago, or are in the process of being created anew, as East Timor was under U.N. guidance most recently.

A special representative, however, is almost never a woman, and more often than not is drawn from a background in politics or the military.

That makes the appointment of Carolyn McAskie to the top U.N. job in war-ravaged Burundi a newsworthy event. She is a development and aid expert from Canada.

Burundi, a small country in the Great Lakes region of east-central Africa, has been torn apart and terrorized by civil war and overrun by refugees fleeing brutality at home and the fallout of the vast and persistent conflict that has spun around the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Where a Burundian national economy should be, there is instead a huge hole between subsistence farming and the bank accounts of the rich elite, McAskie said in an interview Friday as she was preparing to leave for Africa.

Now, a U.N. peacekeeping force is on the way. An election is due in the fall. Development aid has been promised. McAskie's job will be to see that all this comes together to give Burundi a second chance at national life.

Women, few as they are in this line of work, seem to get the toughest assignments. Margaret Anstee was sent to Angola as special representative in 1992 by Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and struggled against impossible odds—an experience she wrote about in the book Orphan of the Cold War: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Angolan Peace Process. The title tells the tale.

Dame Margaret, who also wrote an entertaining book titled Don't Learn To Type: A Woman at the United Nations, cut a formidable and at the same time fashionable figure in the field. She took her Viennese cook to Luanda so that dinner parties would be up to scratch and had some vaguely military-looking tropical suits tailored in London to give her a rather more authoritarian appearance. In Angola, she lived through long periods of frustration punctuated by extreme danger. Angola's warring factions were not predisposed to listen to a woman.

McAskie says she is aware that a woman in the role of special representative in another African country is still a novelty.

"Well, it is an issue because to start with there aren't very many of us," she said. "But my sense is that you can turn that to advantage. Because of that people go out of their way to work with you and to give you respect."

McAskie, a former ambassador to Sri Lanka whose career in the Canadian government began in Kenya and included running the Canadian aid agency's Africa department, has traveled from crisis to crisis in Africa in recent years as a U.N. assistant secretary general and deputy head of the organization's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. She was part of the protracted Burundi peace negotiations begun by the late Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania.

At the peace talks in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, she said, "We were trying to get the Burundian delegations themselves to include women. The status of Burundian women is pretty poor, but amongst the elite there are women in senior positions, women ministers. I just had lunch in Ottawa yesterday with the Burundian ambassador to Canada. She's a woman."

McAskie is hopeful about Burundi. Out of the peace talks, she said, an "Arusha effect" has developed, linking people from all factions pledged to work on the country's future. The key to keeping this spirit alive, she said, is moving without undue delay toward national elections while persuading the last armed rebel faction to disarm.

More broadly, McAskie is upbeat about Africa. "I've seen a lot of changes in Africa and, frankly, I'm one of the people who's more optimistic than not," she said.

"Africa has suffered a lot of setbacks, but if you look over the horizon—you look across Africa right now—there are two things that are pretty remarkable," she said. "One is how many of the countries themselves are struggling to come out of crisis. Secondly, the fact is that the international community seems to be learning a lesson and supporting them. So you have, all of a sudden, all these new peacekeeping missions going to Africa, which would have been unimaginable five years ago."

Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, has been a violent place over the last decade. McAskie said she has been warned by some people that various factions, including in government, have shown a tendency to take the law into their own hands with little provocation.

"We have had cases where U.N. staff have been lined up against the wall and shot point-blank," she said. "But my sense is that those days are hopefully behind us. And I may be one of the more high-profile people in Burundi, but I'm also going to be one of the best-protected. So I have absolutely zero personal fear for my own safety."

McAskie is confident that she is a known quantity because of her participation in the Burundi peace process in recent years, and that she will not be treated as a stranger.

"In Bujumbura people know me and they're going to welcome me," she said. "What I do and say as soon as I hit the ground will set the tone, so I can't live on this forever, but it does give me a positive edge in that there will be a welcome there."


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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see NationalJournal.com.

Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.