Under threat

OUR PLANET 10.2 - UNEP - Looking Forward

Under threat


says that governments of industrialized countries are preventing UNEP from fulfilling its potential


Three short decades ago, the concept of environment was virtually unknown in any national government - and unheard of in intergovernmental fora. Today, it rivals global trade and peace-keeping in dominating international dialogue. The credit for this revolution is largely due to the dozens of global conferences organized by the United Nations, and particularly to the institutional outcome of the first of these held at Stockholm - UNEP. (The ultimate credit probably goes, in turn, to the vast number of civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other groups which created the demand for these conferences and institutions in the first place.)

UNEP, set up in 1972, was designed to be different from any earlier agency. Its overall mission was systemic: to promote processes of development that are in harmony with the imperatives of nature. Its objective was to get other United Nations agencies, governments and actors in civil society to internalize the environment into their decision-making processes. Its primary mode of operation was catalytic - to reorient their thinking and activities through small and temporary, but critical and highly-levered, inputs of knowledge and money. And, partly in recognition of the close connection between poverty and environmental degradation - and as a commitment to give the highest priority to these issues - it was the first major United Nations body to have its headquarters in a developing world capital, Nairobi.

Despite its relatively small secretariat, UNEP quickly succeeded in mobilizing governments all over the world to set up the machineries they needed to protect their environmental resources and to negotiate international agreements. In less than 10 years its efforts, and those of its partners, helped raise the number of countries with environment ministries 20-fold. At the same time, it established a wide range of global and regional programmes for monitoring the environment, exchanging information and taking cooperative action to protect fragile ecosystems such as the regional seas. Within another 10 years, it had effectively mobilized and finalized negotiations on international conventions aimed at protecting the global environment: the Montreal Protocol, the Basel Convention, the Biodiversity Convention and the Climate Change Convention. UNEP's successes compare favourably with those of any other United Nations agency.


A declining mandate

Yet, as it approaches the end of its third decade, UNEP appears to have become peripheral to many of the processes it so successfully set in motion. It is now surrounded by a host of progeny, each with its own mandate, its own conceptual walls, its own bureaucracy, its own location - generally as far away from the others as possible - and as a result, its own institutional ego and instinct for survival. With each successive global conference a new, permanent organization has been created to carve out for itself yet another part of UNEP's original mandate. Each global environmental convention has led to the setting up of its own secretariat. The Earth Summit in Rio resulted in two: the establishment of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and the adoption of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), closely associated with the World Bank, as the funding mechanism. All the while, UNEP's own mandate and budget have continued to decline.

UNEP, the 'environmental conscience of the world' and the agency ordained by governments to deal with threats to the planet's life support systems, now appears itself to be under threat.

Why? Is the organization's performance unusually poor? Or could it be inadequate for the tasks assigned to it? Or worse, is it becoming inconvenient for the global powers that be?

One thing is clear: nothing much can happen unless it is willed by the governments that set the international agenda and drive the negotiating process. Their motivations and methods take many forms.

Has UNEP underperformed? Yes, but UNEP is manifestly no more or less inefficient than any other international organization. Throughout its existence, UNEP has had to work within extremely tight budgets (sanctioned by the governments that primarily finance it), far smaller than some national and international NGOs working in the field of nature conservation. Yet - despite its many achievements - it has been constantly criticized for having inadequate impact (by the same governments). Certainly, the new entities set up to bypass UNEP cannot claim or even promise any better results.

Could UNEP have delivered on the hopes that the international community had placed on it after Stockholm? Perhaps not, but it was never given a chance to find out. Its mandate was quickly circumscribed in a manner that prevented it from taking many imaginative initiatives that could have made a difference.


Perceived threats

Is UNEP a problem for those who dominate the international negotiating table? Almost definitely, yes. Some of its nascent initiatives - such as those on consumption patterns and production systems - were ridiculed and quickly killed. Many of its successes were seen by some powerful governments as threats to their national interest. Narrowly conceived self-interest and political expediency have led to the withdrawal of support or the setting up of separate agencies, even though the issues are inextricably linked and can only be dealt with together. And the agencies' programme priorities have been set by those who contribute the most financial support to them, not necessarily according to the overall seriousness of the issues.

In the name of achieving quick results and minimizing costs, the donor governments insist on defining environmental problems in narrow and mechanistic terms and on artificially squeezing them into 'single-issue' approaches. Never mind that any simplistic solution which ignores the complex linkages inherent in environment and development is doomed to failure; this method also facilitates splitting agencies, a standard and effective strategy of divide and rule. The constellation of United Nations agencies with environment-related mandates is now fragmented all over the globe - Bonn, Geneva, Montreal, Nairobi, New York, Osaka, Paris. And not always with any great logic: the CSD, which purports to champion the concerns of the South, is domiciled in New York, while UNEP, which increasingly has to deal with the environmental concerns of the North, continues to be in Nairobi. Those nations which can afford specialized and well-staffed delegations for each topic obviously have considerable negotiating advantages over those who cannot.

A receding goal

As a consequence, the goal of sustainable development recedes into the distance, enveloped by a mist of institutional territoriality, knowledge gaps and growing transactional costs.

The sustainable development agenda has largely been written by the industrialized countries, but very few of them are willing to follow it in their own policies. Northern scientists discovered the threats to the global environment - first to the stratospheric ozone shield, then to the world's climate systems and then to the survival of our gene pool. All these have been caused almost entirely by actions in Northern countries over the past two centuries, but their governments have persuaded the rest of the world that it is now everyone's responsibility to do something urgently to mitigate them. Treaties have been signed and promises made that money and technology will be made available to countries in the South to help them design more sustainable development strategies.

Where are we, so many years after the various agreements were signed? Basically, nowhere. The only positive outcome seems to be the decline in the use of ozone-depleting substances. Biodiversity loss continues apace and carbon emissions continue to rise. Industrialized countries have not been able to slow down their energy consumption or carbon dioxide emissions. Now, they are trying to pass the onus on to others through such artifices as tradeable permits, joint implementation and even outright demands for the larger countries like China and India to cut back. JI, CDM and the rest of the United Nations alphabet soup, may well be sensible devices to improve energy efficiency at least cost, but they cannot be substitutes for domestic action to cut carbon emissions in the developed countries themselves.

Less than 1 per cent of the agreed international price tag to implement Rio's Agenda 21 has actually found its way into the GEF. And even that amount is controlled so rigidly that it can only be used for the two basic focal areas of climate change and biodiversity conservation. There is effectively no international money available for the implementation of Agenda 21, the sole instrument from Rio that deals directly with the immediate concerns of the half of humanity which is poor.

It is difficult to imagine how everyone's basic needs will be met and our environmental resources regenerated without fundamental changes in our consumption patterns, production systems and strategies to achieve a fairer world order.

But who, if not UNEP, is going to bell the consumption cat? After all, it is the dominant life styles and production systems that are causing these global problems in the first place. Under the present rules of the game, it is quite unacceptable to question these at the international level. Can we continue to assume that we can go on raping and pillaging the Earth as we - or at least some of us - have over the past 200 years, and continue to smear her with all our wastes and garbage, without any possible damage to her productivity and health?

Which international agency, if not UNEP, can evolve genuine solutions to the twin problems of poverty and population growth? And which can ensure the creation of sustainable livelihoods and genuine empowerment of people through entirely different forms of governance, technology and environmental care?

When Earth Summit 3 meets, as is now proposed for 2002, civil society will once again acquire a major responsibility, this time to persuade governments to rationalize the United Nations structures and inter-governmental processes in the field of sustainable development. To achieve any useful results, we must start work on this campaign now.

Ashok Khosla is President of Development Alternatives, New Delhi, India.

Complementary articles in other issues:
R.K. Pachauri: Start locally (Climate & Action) 1998
Jai Narain Prasad Nishad: Turning to the sun (Climate Change) 1997
A. Atiq Rahman: The South is acting (Climate Change) 1997
Anil K. Agarwal: Effective, but how fair? (Ozone) 1997
Razali Ismail: Litmust test (The Way Ahead) 1997
Shridath Ramphal: Now the rich must adjust (The Way Ahead) 1997
Vandana Shiva: Values beyond price (Culture, Values and the Environment) 1996
Laxmi Mall Singhvi: The East is green (Culture, Values and the Environment) 1996
Rachel Chatterjee: Designing sustainable solutions (Human Settlements) 1996

Contents Next Article


Home | Contributors | Hot Links |
Feedback - Environment Forum | Subscription | Mailing List

In case of difficulties with this site please contact the webmaster at:

Copyrightę1999 Banson
All rights reserved.