Shashi, pronounced like “Shushi,” and that is how he was called by everyone at the UN, came to the UN 29 years ago when he joined the staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, then he was the point man for Yugoslavia in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations under Kofi Annan. Eventually, in 2002, Kofi Annan appointed him UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information – the head of UN DPI. He worked with DPI before, and his intellectual grasp of things was well recognized. He leaves now this position of DPI chief, after a farewell party with the UN Correspondents Association on Thursday evening, and a much larger, and very nice party, offered by the UN Secretariat, Friday night March 30th.
Shashi’s roots are in Kerala, in South India, my personally favorite State in India – specially Cochin and the “backwaters.” He left for studies overseas, and can still speak the local language of Kerala – Malayalam, though he can not read or write his mother tongue anymore, but, nevertheless, his personality stood firm with two roots – India and New York – also author of literary books, and UN bureaucrat.
Shashi could be a peace maker, and had also the talents of a US politician. At the party – his right hand – Mr. Ahmad Fawzi – said that “Shashi could shake every hand in sight.”
Shashi wrote “The Great Indian Novel”, “Nehru”, “Bookless in Baghdad” – in total he turned out nine fiction and non-fiction books, and now he says – “I have decided to preserve my personal independence to think and write and speak, especially about India, and I will take on a couple of consultancies and advisory positions in the private sector to help pay the bills.” He will be back occasionally to the UN – the first such occasion will be in May when he will speak at an event of the “Alliance for Civilizations.”
Shashi will be best remembered for his speeches at public events at the UN. He always found the right words to make the audience comfortable.
As a bureaucrat/manager he liked to delegate authority, and when he sensed discord he was not shying away from letting know his decision to those that worked for him, but trying not to antagonize them. He managed thus to wipe away dissensions, and the clumsy UN bureaucracy was clicking along – though obviously, his heart was in the cultural matters.
Shashi was a very unusual UN figure – the intellectual manager – a good outreach person. Would he have made a good UNSG? Who knows? Was Kennedy a good President? Looking back now people have doubts – but at the time his grand sweeps managed to lift people’s spirits. Sashi had some of these qualities and everyone liked him.
I am writing these lines because I had several contacts with Sashi. I met Sashi before as I was an accredited journalist for several years under Culture Change Media, before that NGO and media under The Society for International Development, but when I decided December 2005 to switch to the new Sustainable Development Media, I ran into difficulties with the newly arrived Chief of Media Accreditation Unit – Mr. Gary Fowley. It was Shashi, who told me to see the News and Media Division Director, Mr Ahmad Fawzi in order to solve that problem. Mr. Fawzi received me with three of his office holders, and I got my accreditation. Nevertheless, Mr. Fowley, did not forgive me what happened, and Shashi was above the fray – the moment it became clear that he will eventually have to leave his position, I was destined to be in trouble again. I did not hold this against Shashi, and understood not to bother him with problems that are common knowledge among the UN correspondents, and others who watch the UN TV. Some of the arguments put up by DPI personnel are being questioned now by correspondents, and the DPI seems to be in serious need of reform as guidelines seem to be in part fiction, and not in pace with norms of western democracy. We will not delve into this more in what is intended as a real farewell note to Shashi. I even printed out my “Awstat” page from our website – to give him, when I saw him last night at the farewell party – the serious readership we have in the United Arab Emirates, his new main home, but he did not keep the pages, and turned them over to Mr. Fawzi. This did hurt my feelings, because it had nothing to do with our accreditation problems – it was a simple jest to Shashi – but his mind has already seemingly moved on.
So what now for the UN DPI? The new USG is a Japanese diplomat, Mr. Kiyotaka Akasaka, with lifelong experience in multilateralism and even with the problems of Global Warming/Climate Change as he was one of his country’s top negotiators in the Kyoto Conference on Climate Change in December 1997, and in various international conferences.
Mr. Akasaka has served last as the Deputy Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) since 25 August 2003 where his responsibilities include development, environment, sustainable development and partnerships with other international organizations.
He was Deputy Director-General in the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Multilateral Cooperation Department from 1997 to 2000.
He was Japan’s Ambassador to the U.N. between 2000 and 2001, and he has also held posts at the Secretariat of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the precursor of the World Trade Organization, from 1988 to 1991, and at the World Health Organization, from 1993 to 1997. He served as a member of a GATT panel on trade dispute.
Throughout his career, Mr. Akasaka has nurtured sufficient experience in handling communications and public relations issues. In the Japanese Foreign Ministry, he served as Deputy Director of the Press Division and then was the Ministry’s Spokesman on climate change issues for many years. In his current capacity of Deputy Secretary-General of OECD, Mr. Akasaka also has been deeply involved in the Organization’s public information activities.
Mr. Akasaka also demonstrated excellent management skills during his time at the OECD, where he is well known for a number of innovative reforms and initiatives to improve coordination between various departments and to strengthen efficiency of the Organization.
Mr. Akasaka joined the Japanese Foreign Ministry in April 1971, immediately after graduating from Kyoto University, where he obtained a B.A. degree in Law. From 1972 to 1974, he was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained a B.A. and M.A. in Economics as part of the Ministry training programme.
He is the co-author of books entitled The GATT and the Uruguay Round Negotiations (in Japanese) and The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (in English). He has also written many articles on trade, the environment and sustainable development in Japanese journals and newspapers.