Menu
Home

World

Former president back in spotlight in UN role

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is counting on the lavish dinners, cocktail parties and meetings of world leaders and wealthy executives as she travels to Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday to raise funds for the new United Nations agency promoting gender equality.

The World Economic Forum will be an international coming-out party for Bachelet, and the kick start of her campaign to raise $500 million over two years for UN Women, created by the General Assembly last year when it pulled together four existing U.N. bodies dealing with women's advancement under a single umbrella.

The swirl of social events also will give Bachelet the chance to prod some of the world's power brokers to give money and include more women in their ranks, and do more to ensure that 51 percent of the world's population gets equal treatment.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tapped Bachelet for the job last fall and his selection of the popular Latin American was greeted with widespread approval among the world body's 192 member states.

"It's a huge responsibility," Bachelet told The Associated Press on Tuesday, a day after welcoming the organization's new executive board and presenting her 100-day report. "The creation of UN Women has created really high expectations among member states and women in general."

Much remains to be done, including selection of a senior management team, but the basic $51 million operating budget is in place, along with a rough organizational structure.

The agency's initial focus is to promote the leadership of women in political and economic decision-making, an end to violence against women, a broader role for women in peacekeeping efforts, and the inclusion of gender equality in government planning at all levels.

"I've just been working, working, working," since moving to New York four months ago, Bachelet said, relaxing briefly between meetings at U.N. headquarters. "I go into the office early and I return home late at night."

Bachelet said she's seen little of New York since assuming the new job in September. Her life has recently has mostly involved intense meetings with staff, other U.N. officials, and ambassadors, and the daily walk between U.N. headquarters and her new Manhattan apartment.

After three days in Davos, she's headed to an African Union summit in Ethiopia, then on to Congo and Egypt.

"This is a whole new experience for me, to be part of the international system," said Bachelet, who was elected the first woman president of her South American country in March 2006 and served four years. A moderate socialist, she campaigned to maintain free-market policies while increasing social benefits to the poor.

"When you come here as a president, you just go and speak to the General Assembly," she said of the annual gathering of world leaders each fall. "But now, I have to learn all the rules and procedures, the details of contracts. There are lots of meetings."

"My life here has been interesting, but I miss my family and my people back home," said the 58-year-old separated mother of a son and two daughters, and grandmother of two boys. "They'll come to visit but not to live," she sighed. "Their lives are back in Chile."

Ranked by Time Magazine in 2008 as one of the world's 100 most influential people, Bachelet is down to earth and gracious, answering reporters' questions — both in English and Spanish — long after a news conference about UN Women's first few months has ended.

Standing about 5 feet (1.52 meters) tall in black slacks tucked into faux fur-trimmed snow boots, her round, bespectacled face framed with short, feathery blond hair, Bachelet looks more like the mild-mannered pediatrician she initially trained to be rather than the powerful world leader she later became.

The roots of the agency she now heads stretch back to 1995 in Beijing, where 189 nations adopted a platform to achieve equality for women. They called on countries to close the gender gap in 12 critical areas including health, education, employment, political participation and human rights.

Officially entitled "United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women," UN Women will work on policy issues, provide assistance to U.N. member states, and promote and monitor the U.N. system's actions to promote the advancement of women.

Operations at headquarters in New York will be funded by the U.N.'s regular budget, which all U.N. members contribute to. Field programs and operations will be paid for through voluntary contributions.

The combined budget of the four bodies being merged is about $220 million annually, but Bachelet is working to raise that to $500 million with the help of economically powerful donors. She hopes to double that to $1 billion within several years.

"The United States is deeply committed to ensuring this organization's success," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said at Monday's board meeting, adding that she was "delighted" Bachelet was chosen to head UN Women.

"With her deep knowledge, her commitment to improving the lives of women and children, and her demonstrated ability to build consensus, she is the ideal person," Rice said.