Ex-Intern’s Reflections on the Post-Rio Future of United Nations Environment Programme

by Dochka Hristova

You have heard of the WTO (the World Trade Organization) and of the WHO (the World Health Organization), but have you heard of the WEO? Probably not, despite the efforts of France and others to push for a World Environment Organization during the recent Rio+20 Summit. Countries gathered at the summit last June to discuss how to reshape the current condition of global environmental governance and achieve sustainable development on a worldwide scale.  While one might think that with global environmental challenges such as climate change, water and air pollution, and resource depletion, a WEO makes a lot of sense, governments at the Rio summit proposed instead to simply “upgrade” and “strengthen” the existing United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  What do words like “upgrade” and “strengthen” mean in the context of UNEP?  The debate is on-going, but they could mean more financial power (i.e. more money from the UN regular budget) and more symbolic power, such as universal membership of its Governing Council.

Would those reforms really address the internal problems of UNEP, and could an organization be strengthened and upgraded if its internal effectiveness remains dubious? These are the questions that the current UNEP employees and former interns that I have talked to are asking. This article is an ex-intern’s perspective on what some of those internal problems might be.  It places them in a historical context, because lessons from the past have not been given substantial attention in the post-Rio discussions on UNEP’s future. The article also suggests an out-of-the-box solution, which, though dismissed by many involved in the process as politically naïve, may prove very effective if taken seriously by those who consider is politically unfeasible.

In 1972 environmental problems had become big enough to require a coordinated governmental response at the UN level, so UNEP was created at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. UNEP’s founders had been wary of creating tensions and competition between existing UN agencies working in the environmental sector, so they had proposed a solution: first, governments would agree to give a “programme,” rather than “agency,” status to UNEP; and second, they would entrust UNEP with a “normative,” rather than “operative,” mandate. The normative mandate came with the realization that the new environmental authority must not replicate existing efforts in the environmental sector, but rather coordinate them. Specifically, General Assembly Resolution 2997 instituted UNEP in December 1972, putting the Governing Council in charge of “co-ordination of environmental programmes within the United Nations system,” while the Executive Director (ED) was given the responsibility to “co-ordinate, under the guidance of the Governing Council, environmental programmes within the United Nations system, to keep their implementation under review and to assess their effectiveness.”

While the monitoring mandate has been somehow neglected ever since, coordination has been recently reiterated in paragraph 88 of the Rio+20 declaration. The GA Resolution 2997 also provided for the creation of an Environment Coordination Board, “for the purpose of ensuring co-operation and co-ordination among all bodies concerned in the implementation of environmental programmes,” which was to be chaired by the ED. The current version of this is the Environment Management Board, but general resistance of other UN bodies to relying on UNEP for coordination has also been projected onto the work of the Environment Management Board, significantly impeding such coordination.

UNEP’s international status was at the center of the founders’ debate over how best to facilitate the coordination function of UNEP. There were three options on the table: subsidiary body, agency, or unit. First, subsidiary bodies (e.g. UNEP) are created under Article 22 of the UN Charter. Their role is to address emerging global problems. They come in the form of programmes, funds, boards, committees or commissions. They usually have geographically representative membership and rely on voluntary funds, although some of the money can come from the UN’s regular budget. The important aspect in UNEP’s case is that subsidiary bodies work directly through the UN, facilitating coordination within the system. Second, the UN agencies are autonomous organizations, linked to the UN through special agreements and usually having universal membership and mandatory financial contributions. And finally, the unit within UN Secretariat, such as the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, has overarching coordination functions and is highest in the hierarchy.

While it is clear why the founders rejected the second option – an environmental “agency” would have assumed existing functions of other UN agencies – it is less clear why they did not choose a unit. The best proposals, according to academics such as Maria Ivanova, included setting up a unit, placed at the highest possible level in the UN structure (i.e. the Office of the Secretary-General). What emerged from the intense political bargaining in Stockholm, however, was to adopt the first option – programme. Thus, today’s post-Rio speculations about elevating the status of the Environment Management Board to a unit level may seem to a historian as “old wine in new bottles.”

UNEP has had real trouble living up to its normative mandate because it has suffered from chronic underfunding as well as marginalisation within the UN system. This is partly due to its being headquartered in Nairobi, which lacks effective communication capacities. Geneva would have been far better option than Nairobi, as was widely believed at the time. But Kenya had once lost the battle for the headquarters location of UNIDO in 1966, and was this time prepared to fight until the very end to host UNEP’s headquarters. India was one of the strongest candidates among the countries competing for the placement of the new UN body, but the Kenyan government insisted that New Delhi drop its candidacy, threatening to expel its Indian population. In addition, many voted in solidarity with the Group of 77, supporting Kenya. Thus, there was a decisive vote for Nairobi. All developed countries and Eastern Europe abstained, and the one opposing vote came from the United States. The location of Nairobi continues to pose a communicative and coordination challenge.

Money is another growing obstacle. There are two official sources for UNEP’s money – core funding to the Environment Fund or funding to specific projects via earmarked funds, which has increased significantly with the cost of the fund. Initially, the Environment Fund proposal – as elaborated by the US – called for the largest consumers of energy, and thus the largest polluters, to contribute on an escalating curve to the fund. No such basis was adopted however, and while environmental problems have been growing, money in UNEP’s account has been decreasing. This has meant less flexibility and stability, and opened up a potentially dangerous loophole. Currently 2/3 of UNEP’s money is earmarked for specific projects; yet UNEP’s mandate was about coordinating projects, not operating them. If 2/3 of the money goes for the latter, the former function is doomed to decay. Were there more resources, notes Ivanova, they could be invested in monitoring and evaluating environmental flows, volumes and impacts. This is urgently needed, and completely in line with the coordination mandate. Finally, it’s not really about money, but leadership and effective management. The WTO for example has a budget similar to UNEP’s, yet retains significant global influence. What prevents UNEP from doing so?

Nothing, really. So, here’s one way how UNEP could go about solving these problems: merging UNDP and UNEP into a United Nations Sustainable Development Programme. UNDP and UNEP would no longer compete for projects, and could benefit from being integrated into the organizational culture and effective structure of UNDP. The two UN bodies have increasingly had an overlap of activities. We no longer talk about development alone, but about sustainable development, and UNDP has embraced UNEP’s idea of a Green Economy as an instrument to achieve sustainable development. Realizing this fact and merging them together could open many opportunities for effective environmental leadership and global action.

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