When UPU Director General Bishar A. Hussein and Deputy Director General Pascal Clivaz were elected to the UPU in 2012, they promised to take the organization to the next level. Nine years later, they reflect on their progress and the current state of the Union.
The Kenyan-Swiss team were first elected during the 2012 Universal Postal Congress in Doha, taking up a second mandate after their re-election during 2016 Congress in Istanbul.
“This is a very reflective moment for me, looking back nine years to when I was elected the first Director General from sub-Saharan Africa,” says the Director General.
Mr Hussein, who hails from a remote pastoralist community in north-eastern Kenya, enjoyed an enriching career in the Post leading up to his initial election. The Director General first joined the then Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation in 1984, eventually becoming the first Postmaster General of the Postal Corporation of Kenya in 1999. He later went on to represent Kenya as head of the country’s delegation to the UPU, serving as Chair of the 2008 Congress and then representing Kenya as Council of Administration Chair from 2008 through his election in 2012.
His counterpart, Mr Clivaz, shares a similar legacy in the postal sector. The Deputy Director General joined the Swiss Post in 1995 as an International Affairs Adviser, at a time when the operator had begun its transformation into a liberalized company. He later served as its Director of International and Regulatory Affairs until joining the UPU in 2005 as its Director of Finance.
Speaking about his time as UPU Director of Finance, Mr Clivaz recalls the drive to undertake reforms. He notes new standards he and his team helped implement, including making UPU one of the early adopters of International Public Sector Accounting Standards within the UN system.
“It became clear that one way for me to be more proactive for the UPU was to be in an elected function,” Mr Clivaz continues.
With such an intimate knowledge of the sector and the workings of the UN’s specialized agency for the postal sector, the pair were ready to hit the ground running upon their election.
“We had two choices. Either to play the usual diplomatic role and give good speeches and travel to exotic destinations, be friendly with member countries and do nothing, practically. Or we could examine the Union critically, find out its challenges and take the bull by the horns to undertake major reforms,” Mr Hussein explains. “We took the hard road consciously and deliberately.”
For his part, Mr Clivaz adds, “We decided to deliver as one – the two of us together. Nobody could interfere between the two of us. Of course, we were not always together on how to do things, but at the end of the day you need to decide what is best for the UPU and, for this vision, we were always together.”
Eye on the target
On his priorities upon joining the Union, Mr Hussein notes, “I came in on a ticket of reforms.”
Throughout his election campaign, Mr Hussein vowed to manage the Union and its resources more efficiently, transform the organization and the sector to meet rapidly changing consumer expectations, and to uplift developing countries, who he felt had been excluded from the workings of the organization. Likewise, Mr Clivaz had committed himself to an inclusive, efficient and transparent UPU.
Mr Clivaz explains, “What we did from the beginning was we thought ahead to the format of the UPU of the future and we had this Vision 2030. This was the beginning of our mandate.”
“The idea we had was to modernize the UPU in a lot of different areas, starting from the institution up to the final production,” he adds.
With their intentions on reform clear, Mr Hussein and Mr Clivaz were careful to develop a concrete action plan, taking into account the organization’s global situation.
“Our first six months in office were about observing,” reflects the Director General.
One of their first steps was to order an audit of the organization to map its greatest risks, which identified its role and relevance and financing as two of the UPU’s top concerns.
The Union’s zero nominal growth budget would end up becoming a persistent challenge to its work over the course of both cycles. To compound this, the Union had also lost 13 contribution units during the 2012 Doha Congress, just ahead of Mr Hussein and Mr Clivaz’s mandates.
“I realized that all the resolutions and decisions and recommendations which came from Congress plus the budget were not matching,” says Mr Hussein. “It was four very difficult years with more demands from member countries, less budget and long Council sessions.”
To cope, their first reforms focused on a restructuring of the organization’s secretariat at the International Bureau (IB) to ensure staff could keep projects moving forward while managing shrinking financial resources. Part of this undertaking included ensuring more balanced and equitable gender and geographical representation among staff, explains the Director General.
“Today, we have fairly equitable distribution of our senior professional staff in the five regions of the Union and, of course, with more women now taking senior responsibilities,” he says.
According to IB recruitment figures, gender balance has been close to parity since 2016, eventually reaching parity in 2019. Regional representation has also shown signs of improvement.
Next, they strove to define the necessary reforms to promote faster decision making and greater efficiency; ensure the equitable representation of member countries and regions; secure the effective management of resources; and enhance the role and relevance of UPU.
The process inspired intense debates and took a total of six years of hard work between member countries and the International Bureau to complete.
“The challenges are always the same when you have in mind a vision to change or to reform or to adjust. There’s resistance, conservatism, and some people are afraid about the future,” says Mr Clivaz.
To overcome tensions, Mr Clivaz explains, “We held a lot of discussions, a lot of negotiations, a lot of campaigns for our ideas in the regions, but also here in our meeting rooms. We were meeting with governments, high officials, heads of state, prime ministers in some countries, to sell our idea of the future of the UPU.”
“We can be proud of what we achieved,” he adds.
The 2016 Congress in Istanbul decided a first round of reforms, such as adopting a new set of working principles as a basis for the structures and decision-making processes of its governmental and operational pillars, agreeing to shorten Council meetings and place more emphasis on decision-making.
Reflecting on the 2016 meeting, the Director General asserts with pride that the Istanbul Congress was able to make substantial progress on issues he describes as having lasted over decades and that had been had been “scuttled” during previous Congresses.
To find a way forward on the issues it could not decide, that Congress established an ad hoc group to report to the Council of Administration and present further changes at the 2018 Extraordinary Congress in Addis Ababa.
Two years of additional consultation ahead of the Extraordinary Congress ultimately led to its success. That Congress was able to push forward additional improvements to the speed and efficiency of decision-making, as well as to the Postal Operations Council electoral process, ensuring all regions would receive equitable representation in the decision-making body.
“We shortened the long sessions of the Councils, we reduced the decision-making cycle – we now have two decision-making sessions every year – and we cut down on all the documents, conferences and meetings. We gained a lot of efficiency in managing the resources of the IB,” says Mr Hussein.
The Director General and Deputy Director General had also aimed to stand behind developing countries to ensure they could move ahead as postal advancements accelerated.
“I had to champion many countries,” recalls the Director General.
The pair lent their support for small island developing states (SIDS) at the Addis Ababa meeting, where the countries expressed their dismay over the disproportionate cost of contributions – in some cases exceeding their own yearly budget – and the restrictive sanctions that followed their inability to pay. The decision taken at the Extraordinary Congress created a special contribution class allowing countries with a population of less than 200,000 that are recognized by the UN as small island pacific states to pay only 0.1, or 10 per cent, of a regular UPU contribution unit.
In addition to support for SIDS, Mr Hussein proudly recalls the many technical assistance initiatives put in place during the team’s two mandates. One achievement he proudly recalls was the establishment of postal training colleges in Uruguay, Barbados, Cameroon, Tunisia, Egypt and Russia.
The Integrated Index for Postal Development (2IPD) was also developed under their leadership. The composite index uses postal statistics combined with big data to measure the performance of posts against four indicators – reach, relevance, reliability and resilience –, resulting in an annual global ranking. This ranking is then used to identify any areas within or between regions where development gaps may be growing.
Over the course of their two mandates, Mr Hussein and Mr Clivaz also faced two of the greatest challenges in the Union’s history: the potential fracturing of the Union as one member threatened to withdraw, and a global pandemic that shook not only the postal sector, but the world economy.
On October 17, 2018, the UPU Director General received a letter from the United States government notifying the UPU of its intent to withdraw from the Union’s treaties in one year’s time. The country cited the remuneration of small packets as its main concern. Other countries soon began to come forward with similar concerns, causing worry that the Union’s 192-member family would begin to split if a solution was not found quickly.
“We had just one year, a couple of months, even, to find a solution and bring the Union back together as one,” says Clivaz.
The Council of Administration fast-tracked discussions on remuneration, with the Union quickly deciding to call an Extraordinary Congress in Geneva in September 2019 to find a solution ahead of the withdrawal date.
With the support of the Director General, Deputy Director General and the secretariat, members were able to devise and unanimously approve “Option V,” which would allow interested countries to begin self-declaring their rates, while providing protections for low-volume and developing countries.
But the Union did not have much time to revel in the accomplishment before the next major challenge presented itself. The COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world in early 2020, with international travel coming to a near halt in the Spring and countries scrambling to figure out how to obtain and deliver vital sanitary and medical equipment to stave off the virus.
In Berne, the International Bureau was working to help keep the supply chain moving to ensure essential items continued to be delivered the world around. At the same time, preparations for the 27th Universal Postal Congress came to a halt as the pandemic made it impossible to meet. It was decided to try again in 2021.
It was the third time in UPU’s 146-year history a Congress had to be postponed. The Madrid Congress was postponed from 1912 to 1920 due to the developments leading up to the First World War. Similarly, the Second World War led the Paris Congress to be moved from 1944 to 1947.
With the pandemic extending into 2021, the Council of Administration decided to go ahead with the Abidjan Congress. Not only was it the first-ever regular Congress held in sub-Saharan Africa, it was the first to take place in a hybrid format. It’s an achievement both Mr Hussein and Mr Clivaz use as yet another example of how quickly the UPU can change when circumstances require.
“I was happy to note that we delivered the first-ever UPU hybrid Congress in history,” says Mr Hussein.
“Now, after the 27th UPU Congress, we have proven that we have done the necessary reforms and that we were able to digitalize.” says Mr Clivaz. “Looking back, to the nine years in office as a Deputy Director General, the main achievements were to rethink the UPU, to modernize the UPU, and, of course, towards the end, to digitalize the processes of the UPU.”
These rapid transformations hold promise for the opening up of the Union to wider postal sector players, a matter that the pair will hand over to Mr Metoki and Mr Osvald upon their departure. The Abidjan Congress decided to hold a fourth Extraordinary Congress in 2023 to decide on concrete plans for the opening.
Mr Hussein’s position on the way forward is clear. Speaking about the matter, he says, “We cannot call ourselves the Universal Postal Union when the whole industry is not with us anymore.”
“I think everyone has agreed that we need to open up our Union, but the question of what to open, how to open, when to open – these are things that still need to be sorted out. I do hope that member countries will be able to discuss this seriously in 2023 and resolve this issue,” he adds.
As the sector continues to transform and evolve, Mr Clivaz adds that the UPU will have to facilitate these changes through governance.
“I started with a sector in Switzerland that was considered civil servant status, administration, and 26 years later we are here competing with Amazon,” says Clivaz. “In 26 years, the sector has completely boomed.”
He adds, “After COVID we saw how citizens, the customers, have changed their approach to the way they need to order things on the Internet – the way they use the Internet has boomed – and now we need to think again about the business model for the UPU as well, not only in operations, but also in how to regulate this sector.”
Passing the baton
As Mr Hussein and Mr Clivaz prepare to hand over the keys to the International Bureau, their work has come full circle.
The pair recently ordered a last audit of the organization’s risks. Despite the accomplishments made in the past nine years, the top two risks remain the same: the Union’s role and relevance, as well as its financing.
On the handover process, the Deputy Director General explains, “Anybody who aims to be the next Director General or Deputy Director General is coming also with a lot of ideas, so we cannot tell them what’s good or what is wrong. But at the end of the day, we have set up a good basis for them to start with.”
He adds, “We were able to mitigate the risks to a certain extent, but of course, the financial situation of the UPU is not good and they need to continue and find ways forward.”
The Director General also expressed his concerns about the Union’s future finances. “The Pension Fund is in critical condition. I have raised it many times to the attention of member countries that we need to solve this problem, but unfortunately they were not able to address this to my satisfaction … That is going to be a challenge for the next administration.”
“I’m very proud to say that I’m leaving this Union in a better place than I found it and that was my mission.”
To the new management, his principal advice would be: “Please stay the course. Defend the integrity of the International Bureau secretariat.”
From 1 January 2022, Japan’s Masahiko Metoki and Slovenia’s Marjan Osvald will be responsible for overseeing the Union’s affairs.
The new team was elected during the 27th Universal Postal Congress in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in August. Mr Metoki won the position of Director General in the first voting round with 102 votes, while his counterpart, Mr Osvald, was elected in the second voting round for the position of Deputy Director General with 86 votes.
The UPU will benefit from the pair’s extensive experience in the postal sector. Mr Metoki most recently served as the Senior Vice President of International Affairs at Japan Post and represented Japan as Chair of the Postal Operations Council from 2012 until 2021. Mr Osvald served as Director of International Mail at Pošta Slovenije, but has also worked to coordinate developments across the sector through his involvement with PostEurop, the Postal Union for the Mediterranean and the International Post Corporation.
Ahead of his election, Mr Metoki made four principal commitments to the UPU’s members: to pioneer new business opportunities for the sector; to help posts contribute towards social responsibility in support of the UN sustainable development goals; to stabilize the management of the UPU over the long-term, particularly with regard to its financing; and to harmonize communication across the UPU network of stakeholders.
In a video released during his campaign, Mr Metoki said, “I am eager to create a bright new future for the UPU together with all the member countries.”
For his part, Mr Osvald focused his sights on reducing gaps in postal development while encouraging innovation; helping members adapt to new information and communication technologies; facilitating a sustainable universal service provision throughout the world; engaging in dialog with responsible postal owners, including private and governmental; strengthening dialogue with consumers and other stakeholders; and providing for a more future-oriented, innovative and cost-efficient operation of the UPU.
In a campaign video, Mr Osvald stated, “I am committed to doing the best job I possibly can to help the postal industry survive and thrive in the digital age.”
When asked what he will miss most about his time at the UPU, Mr Clivaz answers immediately, “There is zero ambiguity for me – it’s the family spirit. The spirit we have here in the postal sector and the UPU is unique.”
He is sure to also mention his team. “The staff, for me, is the asset of this organization and we need to do everything that is possible to make sure there is a future for them. We need to ensure that we can keep jobs, we can ensure a certain growth of this organization to bring a new potential dimension to the staff in the future and to keep the talent,” he says.
To this, Mr Hussein adds he will miss the intense planning and strategy-building sessions with his management team, as well as the coordination and mobilization of member countries. He adds that he will miss the bonds he made while meeting stakeholders in the region.
“I will take home a lot of good memories. I will miss my staff a lot, I will miss the member countries who have supported me all along and, of course, I’ll miss those who challenged me,” he says.
While his time in the highest office of the postal sector brought with it challenges, Mr Hussein proudly states, “I did it with a passion – I love the post office.”
“I am very grateful for the opportunity I was given, the trust, the respect, the responsibility that was conferred upon me by member states. I am forever grateful to them and I hope I have not let them down. I hope I have delivered on their expectations.”
Though their mandates officially end on 31 December 2021, Mr Hussein and Mr Clivaz will say their final goodbyes to the UPU during a handover ceremony organized at the International Bureau on 5 January 2022.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 edition of Union Postale magazine.