The way ahead

The way ahead


evaluates UNEP's achievements over the past
25 years and suggests a clarification
of its future role

Maurice Strong

UNEP was officially born on 15 December 1972, when the United Nations General Assembly established it as one of the main outcomes of that year's Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. That same evening - after the General Assembly had elected me as UNEP's first Executive Director - I departed for Nairobi to plant the flag of the new organization, the first global United Nations body ever to be headquartered in the developing world. Reconciling its ambitious mandate - literally to help ensure a secure environmental future for our planet - with a small secretariat and modest resources clearly presented a formidable challenge.

Those were heady days for the environmental movement, as UNEP found itself at the centre of a growing network of new government ministries and agencies, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, all building on the momentum generated by the Stockholm Conference.

From inception, it was clear that UNEP's role was as a leader, catalyst and coordinator - as a bridge between science and policy, between governments and non-governmental activists, and between environment and development. It acted rapidly to establish the foundations of its Earthwatch network - the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS), the Global Resource Information Database (GRID), the International Environmental Information System (INFOTERRA) and the International Register for Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC) - to monitor and assess scientific evidence about the condition of the environment and to provide early warning of emerging issues. Drawing on this information, it took the initiative in launching the international negotiating processes which produced a series of important conventions, notably those on ozone depletion, climate change, biodiversity and the regional seas. With these and other measures, UNEP led the process of developing an international legal regime for the environment.

One of UNEP's principal early tasks was to foster the establishment of ministries, agencies and policies in developing countries, to help them to participate fully in the processes of international environmental cooperation and governance and to strengthen their capacities to deal with their own domestic environment and related development issues.

After these early years, the growth and development of UNEP was led by the distinguished Egyptian scientist and administrator, Dr. Mostafa Tolba, who succeeded me as Executive Director in December 1975 after initially serving as my Deputy. He, in turn, was succeeded in 1992 by an outstanding Canadian, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, who presides over the secretariat at a time when it, and UNEP's Governing Council, face a difficult and challenging period of austerity and change.

Our perceptions of the environment, and our responses to the challenges it poses, have been evolving rapidly since Stockholm first put the issue on the international agenda. It is not a separate and distinct issue in itself but, rather, an important dimension of each of the wide range of human activities that have an impact on the environment. Environmental management therefore requires an integrated approach to the policies, planning and management of these activities: thus, governments, ministries and agencies must - like UNEP at the international level - be watch-dogs, catalysts and coordinators. Unfortunately, all too few of them yet have a major voice in the broad economic, fiscal and sectoral policies which so largely determine the health and quality of the environment.

The intrinsic relationship between the environment and economic development was the principal insight arising out of the Stockholm Conference. But all too little effect was given to this subsequently in the policies and practices of governments, development financing institutions and other intergovernmental organizations. It was, however, given new impetus in 1983 when the United Nations General Assembly established the World Commission on Environment and Development, headed by Norway's Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Its report, Our Common Future, four years later, made a strong and persuasive case for sustainable development, integrating the environmental and social with the economic dimensions of development as the only viable pathway to the human future.

Based on its recommendations, the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 mandated a new Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 on the 20th anniversary of Stockholm. This produced agreement by virtually all the world's governments, mostly represented at the highest level, on a Declaration of Principles, the Declaration of Rio and a programme of action, Agenda 21, to give effect to them - and on framework conventions on climate change and biodiversity. It also launched the process which has since produced agreement on the Convention to Combat Desertification.

This was a noteworthy achievement. But like Stockholm before it, the Earth Summit has not yet given rise to the fundamental 'change of course' to which both Conferences pointed. It is particularly disappointing for developing countries that the 'new and additional resources' and easier access to the new technologies required to enable them to make the transition to a sustainable development pathway have not been forthcoming: indeed, official development assistance has declined.

Nevertheless, there have been some positive developments on which we must build. There has been an explosion of initiatives by people, businesses, the professions and local communities. National Councils for Sustainable Development, or similar bodies, have been established in some 100 countries to facilitate consultation and cooperation amongst the various elements of civil society and between them and their governments. The professional bodies of engineers and architects have committed themselves to sustainable development. The World Tourist and Travel Council, representing the world's largest industry, has adopted its own Agenda 21. The International Road Transport Union has established an environmental charter based on Rio's Agenda. Some 1,600 cities and towns throughout the world have similarly adopted their own local Agenda 21s under the aegis of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

Despite a recession in political will following Rio in some key countries, such as the United States, support for the environment is proving to be pervasive and resilient. It is particularly encouraging that many developing countries have initiated their own national programmes of sustainable development in response to the recommendations of Rio, without waiting for new external resources. The Central America Alliance for Sustainable Development, formed by the seven countries of the region and led by Costa Rica, is a notable example.

woman in her house with animals

An essential asset

UNEP has played an indispensable role - far greater and more effective than is generally appreciated - in all these events. Its shortcomings largely reflect the general softness of political will to undertake the measures required to deal seriously and effectively with the major environmental issues on the international agenda - and to support them financially. What UNEP has accomplished with resources that are modest by any standard represents, I submit, an exceptionally good investment by the international community. This is a critically important asset that must not be allowed to wither.

But we all recognize that what has been done is not enough: UNEP must be strengthened and its role clarified within the context of the sustainable development to which the international community is now committed as a result of the Earth Summit. There is a tendency in some quarters to confuse environment with sustainable development: this has led to some uncertainty as to UNEP's role, particularly in relation to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) that was established as a result of Rio. Unfortunately there has, to date, been some tendency for the CSD to overlap with or even supplant the work of UNEP's Governing Council, largely because environment ministers are the principal participants in each.

Division of labour

In my view there is a clear and logical basis for a division of labour between these bodies and for the clarification of UNEP's future role. This derives from the fact that sustainable development is based on a positive consensus between the environmental, social and economic dimensions of development. UNEP must be seen as the coordinator of the environmental input into this nexus, not as an all-purpose sustainable development agency in itself. This means it would concentrate, as it largely does, on its monitoring, assessment and early-warning functions, providing a link between science and policy, pointing up the need for new legal initiatives and strengthening its capacity to facilitate and reinforce the work of national ministries and agencies.

To do this, it will need further to develop its links with other intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. Its public information role is of critical importance in this, and should not be sacrificed to current austerity measures. The highly successful newspaper it launched in Latin America, TierrAmerica, and this publication, Our Planet, are beacons in the field: UNEP must continue to be a leader in this area.

Critics of UNEP complain that its location in Nairobi inhibits its effectiveness. There is some validity in this, not because Kenya is a developing country, but because of the distance which separates UNEP from the other organizations with which it must work closely. But these problems can be largely overcome or mitigated with modern communications and the continued close cooperation of the host Government of Kenya.

This year - on the fifth anniversary of the Earth Summit, and the 25th anniversary of the Stockholm Conference - a special session of the United Nations General Assembly will be convened to review progress since Rio and to provide new impetus and direction to following up and implementing its results. This comes at a time when the entire United Nations system is under immense pressure, both political and financial. The acute financial crisis, which has resulted in severe cutbacks in UNEP's budget, is as much a result of a crisis of confidence as of the budgetary pressures experienced by all governments.

The process of reforming and restructuring the United Nations, which has been the subject of interminable study and discussion, must now be accelerated. All too little real progress was made on reform until Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali initiated the most stringent measures for cost reduction and improved efficiency that the United Nations have ever experienced. The crisis now seems to have reached the point where further radical change may be possible. This must consist of more than mere slash-and-burn budget cutting. There must be a reorientation of the United Nations' resources around its central priorities, particularly those that meet the needs and serve the interests of developing countries.

International conscience

Accordingly, 1997 will provide a unique and timely opportunity to revisit the role and functions of UNEP within the United Nations system and to reaffirm and strengthen its capacity to serve in the period ahead as the environmental agency and conscience of the world community, with principal responsibility for the environmental component of sustainable development. Concentrating on these functions will mean that UNEP will have to resist the temptation to encumber its agenda with issues that are not central to its core priorities. This is particularly true of the UNEP Fund: this has been financing some activities that could just as well be financed by the United Nations Development Programme, which has, in any event, become the principal source of funding for environmentally related sustainable development.

After 25 years, the objective need for UNEP is greater now than when it was created. Environment issues, I am convinced, will move to the centre of the international agenda in the 21st century, and remain there, as the need to maintain the integrity of the environment, natural resources and life systems of our planet is recognized as an indispensable prerequisite to a secure and sustainable future for the human community.

Maurice F. Strong, UNEP's first Executive Director, was Secretary-General of both the 1972 Stockholm Conference and the 1992 Earth Summit. He is currently Special Advisor to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Senior Advisor to the President of the World Bank, and Chairman of the Earth Council.

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