Meet Arora Akanksha who, at 34, is running to be the first ever female U.N. Secretary General

She's also the youngest ever to run and the first known candidate to challenge an incumbent.

When I meet Arora Akanksha on Zoom, her manner is warm, and she’s wearing a brilliantly bright patterned dress she tells me she bought on a work trip to Uganda. Yet, despite her friendly demeanour, she’s also firm with her message that change needs to be made – and soon.

The 34-year-old is currently standing to be the United Nations Secretary General – the youngest ever candidate to stand and the first known candidate to challenge an incumbent. If selected, she’d also be the first female Secretary General.

She’s clearly passionate about mixing things up. She speaks candidly about how the management of the UN needs to change, and once called the organisation a ‘bloated bureaucracy’ in a 124News interview. But she’s just 34-years-old – half as young as the current Secretary General, António Guterres, who’s 71-years-old. Plus, she’s only worked at the UN for four years, and has no diplomatic experience.

To say she’s an underdog, or at least different from the norm, would be putting it lightly. But that’s the focus of her whole campaign – championing the dark horse and challenging outdated systems that no longer serve the people they were designed to help.

So, question: is she running to win, or simply to get the world talking about her key campaign pillars? What would she change, if she won? And, why now?

Meet Arora Akanksha, the youngest candidate to run for UN Secretary General

Born in India, Akanksha comes from a family of refugees. “They weren’t educated, so the biggest thing for them was to educate their kids,” she explains to me over Zoom. After she and her family moved to Saudi Arabia when she was six, she was homeschooled, and then sent to boarding school aged nine.

By eighteen, she’d immigrated to Canada to go to college. She still maintains that education, for many, is key to overall success – “for us to reach anywhere, education is our foundation.”

From college grad to Secretary General candidate runner

But how did she go from being a passionate young college grad to the first ever known UN worker to openly challenge an incumbent? “I graduated, then I got a job as an audit manager, writing standards for Canada and guidance for elections,” she shares. “I basically became top of my profession. Then I got a call from the UN in 2016 [and got offered a job]. I was thrilled.”

Seeing the inner workings of the UN

So, what changed Arora’s career path so much? In short, a near-death experience and actually experiencing what working inside the UN was like.

“When I joined the UN, it was the current secretary general’s first day in office. On that day, it’s tradition to give a welcome address,” she explains.

“I got there early to get a good spot, and his entourage came and stood right in front of me, blocking my view. This is the leadership of the UN, showing such a sense of entitlement. It made me feel insignificant.”

Life changing accidents

She says seeing how the UN was being run didn’t quite sit right with her. But as for the accident? Well, it changed her whole life outlook.

“I was leaving work late, and [as I crossed the road], I thought the cab driver would stop, but he didn’t. I was taken to the ER with a broken leg and bruises, and had tests to see if there was internal damage,” she said.

“I think that’s when I realised that’s what life is,” she explains.

“You live by certain rules for professional and materialistic success. Yet, in the face of death, all I was left with was regret. I thought, if I died today, what would my obituary be? That I was a selfish person.”

She explains that the incident, in short, changed the trajectory of her life. “There was a shift where self became selfless,” she goes on. “I dedicated two years to the reforms, and became even more interested in doing the best I could, finding the courage to do the right thing, and to have a say in the new changes, policies and directions,” she shares.

Addressing bigger global problems

It wasn’t just the near death experience that changed her outlook – a work trip to Uganda changed her life course, too.

“When I was in Uganda, I saw a child eating mud. It was devastating,” she explains. When she got home, she went straight to senior officials at the UN to ask what they could do to help. Their response? “Mud is good for children, it’s full of iron”.

That’s when I realised we can’t rely on the current leadership to do the right thing, and show the moral and conscious courage that you need to stand up for others,” she explains. “Change is needed.”

So she spent years working hard at the UN in a fairly junior position, trying to make a change. But then, she had an epiphany, realising that unless she ran for Secretary General, she couldn’t legitimately make any long lasting change.

Her plans for Secretary General, if she wins

So, if she got the role, what does she plan to change? Her core focuses are humanitarian issues and basic education rights.

“I want to protect human rights and refugees, that is a huge part of my platform,” she explains. “I want to develop sustainable solutions to make sure all the basic needs of refugees are addressed: that means giving them food, clothing, and shelter.”

And once that’s done? “Once we address the basic humanitarian needs, then we really need to find a solution to getting them out of the refugee camps,” Akanksha shares. “The UN is not meeting the needs of the refugee people, not even basic needs. For example, the UN’s travel budget is close to 2.5 million for business and first class travelling. They need four billion dollars to meet the needs of refugees. Why not take half from the travel? Why do you need business class travel?,” she asks.

“How can you consciously spend money on this when you can’t meet the needs of refugees?”

Secondly, she wants to equip what she calls ‘change makers’ with the right tools to really make a difference. “We need to give the real agents of change the tools they need,” she shares. By this, she really means internet access. “It’s critical because the internet is our greatest educator today.”

And finally, she’s really passionate about actually kickstarting change environmentally. “We need to stop talking and start doing, and that specifically applies to climate change,” she explains. “We all agree that climate change is critical, but we need to shift from talking to actually spending money on major issues.”

Arora’s advice to the younger generation? 

She shares two things. “First of all, be yourself,” she says.

“As Oscar Wilde said, everyone else is taken. Have the courage to be who you are, as you are, and accept and embrace yourself, too.”

And secondly? “My other message would be to have courage,” she explains. “Often we think that life is about knowing all the facts. Of course knowledge is helpful, but life is about having the courage to act on that knowledge. History depends on your courage to act and refuse to stand back. We have to take ownership of the world: we are inheriting it, so we have to go and take the lead now.”

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