Who Should be the Next UN Leader? PART 4 - Maria Fernanda Espinosa

By Felix Dodds and Chris Spence
First published by Inter Press Service here 

With current UN Secretary-General António Guterres set to step down in 2026, who is in the running to replace him? In this seven-part series, Felix Dodds and Chris Spence reveal who might be in the running and assess their chances.

The potential candidates include Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria), Mia Motley (Barbados), Alicia Barcena (Mexico), Maria Fernanda Espinosa (Ecuador), Rebeca Grynspan (Costa Rica) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile). These are names that have come up in conversations with UN insiders and other experts. All six would offer skills and experiences we believe would be valuable in these fast-paced, uncertain times.

APEX, North Carolina / DUBLIN, Ireland, Apr 18 2024 (IPS) - Is the rough-and-tumble of leading the UN General Assembly a good preparation for the top UN job?

Maria Fernanda Espinosa served as President of the UN General Assembly from 2018-2019, garnering votes from 128 out of 193 member states. With her victory, she became only the fourth woman—and the first from Latin America—to run this important UN body.

Her time in charge of the General Assembly was eventful. During her year as its leader, Espinosa pushed hard for progress on women’s empowerment and gender equality, particularly in terms of boosting women’s political participation. On several occasions she gathered women heads of state and government, as well as other female leaders, for events aimed at advancing this agenda.

She also focused on the rights of refugees, presiding over the adoption of the Global Compact on Refugees, as well as a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Furthermore, she launched an International Year of Indigenous Languages and helped advance the international conversation on single-use plastics, supporting efforts to eliminate their use at UN headquarters in New York and Geneva.

Additionally, she used her tenure to urge greater progress on nuclear disarmament and on diseases like tuberculosis.

But her career began thousands of miles from New York. Her early focus was in the Amazon, working alongside indigenous communities in her native Ecuador. Later, she represented Ecuador as its Ambassador to the UN. She also served twice as her country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and in several other ministerial positions, including as Minister of Defense and, earlier, as Minister of Natural and Cultural Heritage.

Prior to holding these senior government positions, Espinosa was an associate professor and researcher at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. She also served as an advisor on biodiversity, climate change, and indigenous peoples’ policies. Later, she became regional director for South America for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a position she held from 2005-2007.

Espinosa’s track record on climate change is also noteworthy, as she has served since 2009 as a key negotiator in several climate conferences, including COP21 in 2015, where the Paris Agreement was signed.

Her early academic life was as broad and eclectic as her later professional career, with degrees in social science, Amazonic studies, anthropology, political science, and linguistics. She even won a national prize in poetry.

Assessing Espinosa’s Prospects

Could Maria Fernanda Espinosa’s wide-ranging experiences qualify her to be the next UN Secretary-General? Here is our assessment of her advantages and disadvantages, should she put her name forward.


Right Region: Like several of our other potential candidates, Espinosa’s Ecuadorian background and an apparent preference for a leader from Latin America and the Caribbean could work in her favor.

UN Experience: Espinosa has been both the President of the UN General Assembly, where she emerged with her reputation intact, and a UN Ambassador in New York. She has led the Group of 77 developing nations in UN negotiations and been a lead negotiator in key climate talks. These UN experiences should surely burnish her credentials.

Connections: Espinosa developed strong networks during her time leading the Group of 77 and as President of the UN General Assembly. She has strong connections among leading women’s groups and indigenous peoples. Could this robust set of networks among senior politicians and various important stakeholders help her become Secretary-General?

A Woman Leader: As noted previously, the UN has never had a female leader during its 80-year history. It is high time this changed. Espinosa would be another capable candidate. In addition, she has a clear track record promoting women’s leadership at the United Nations.

She is current Executive Director of the Group of Women Leaders for Change Inclusion, hosting a successful summit in Madrid early in 2024 that drew leaders from the UN system, as well as high-profile names such as Hilary Clinton.


Should Only Prime Ministers Apply? The current Secretary-General, António Guterres, was previously Portugal’s Prime Minister. While earlier UN leaders did not head-up governments, it is an open question as to whether Guterres’ appointment will set a new precedent or expectation for future UN leaders. If it does, Espinosa and other candidates who cannot boast of being a former president or prime minister may have their work cut out. That said, historically the UN Secretary-General’s role often attracted former foreign ministers to apply. If that earlier precedent is restored, Espinosa’s time as Ecuador’s foreign minister (twice) could be an advantage.

An ‘Outside’ Insider? Like Alicia Bárcena and some other possible candidates, Espinosa can claim both outside experience as a government minister, and ‘inside’ UN expertise heading up the UN General Assembly and playing a leading role at major UN negotiations. However, it is worth noting that Espinosa has never actually worked within the UN as a staff member; most of her UN experience was gained while she was with the Ecuadorian government. This makes it substantively different. Espinosa will likely have less true inside working knowledge than some other possible candidates of how the UN operates internally, possibly meaning her learning curve would be steeper.

Name Recognition: While those in UN climate circles and at New York headquarters will know her, Espinosa is not a household name. Could this tell against her?

Prof. Felix Dodds and Chris Spence have participated in United Nations conferences and negotiations since the 1990s. They co-edited Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy: Profiles in Courage (Routledge, 2022), which examines the roles of individuals in inspiring change.

https://www.ipsnews.net/2024/04/next-un-leaderpart-1/ Amina J. Mohammed

https://www.ipsnews.net/2024/04/next-un-leaderpart-2/ Mia Motley

https://www.ipsnews.net/2024/04/next-un-leaderpart-3/  Alicia Barcena

photo - María Fernanda Espinosa. (2024, March 3). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mar%C3%ADa_Fernanda_Espinosa  


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