The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), based
in Nairobi, Kenya, is in deep trouble. Its funding has been
greatly reduced by the United States and other governments
throughout the world. The US says that the UN system is
corrupt, and it probably is in many traditionally corrupt
ways (mishandling of funds, hiring of friends and family,
competence not valued as a job criterion, etc. — although I
haven't yet heard of the UN Secretary-General renting out
space in the UN to those who want to influence UN
decisions). Despite all of the system's negatives, what
most often comes to my mind is the adage we use about
democracy: It may not be the best form of government, but
it is better than the others. Perhaps the same is valid for
the UN system.
In the absence of a global watchdog for the
environment, what organization is capable of mustering
enough political clout to get nations to pay attention to
common environmental concerns? Without a UNEP, would there
have been a climate convention to deal with global warming?
Would there have been a convention to end the use of ozone-depleting chemicals? UNEP was the first agency to form a
coordinating committee to monitor ozone depletion around the
world in the late 1970s. The attempt to halt the process of
desertification (the creation of desert-like landscapes
where none had existed in recent times) is yet another area
of success for UNEP, in the sense that it drew attention to
this creeping environmental degradation faced in a variety
of ways by almost all countries around the globe.
While UNEP cannot take credit for all actions at the
global level to save the environment, it should get a good
share of it. The work done and the morale of UNEP's workers
reflect the ethics and interests of the particular person
heading UNEP. Since its creation in 1972 at the UN
Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, there have
only been three Executive Directors: Maurice Strong,
Mustafa Tolba, and Elizabeth Dowdeswell. Dowdeswell was put
in charge to clean up the system; instead, she paralyzed it
with even more bureaucratic tasks. She has just resigned
amidst charges that the organization has been ineffective.
But is it her fault or the fault of the governments that
elected her to that position for political reasons and not
for her administrative talents?
Is it time to start opening up the UN system to leaders
of industry who have efficiently and effectively managed
companies with budgets larger than UNEP's? How about
finding a Lee Iacocca or a Ted Turner or some other
corporate mogul who has the ability to run the organization,
is concerned about the environment, is committed to
protecting what's left of the global environment, and who
knows how to generate funding at a time when money seems to
be disappearing for essential tasks such as environmental
What happens if UNEP disappears? Organizations with
poor track records on dealing with environmental issues and
which are under pressure from those who want to exploit
their resources (such as the World Bank) will step in.
UNEP is currently being reduced to a shadow of its
former self by severe budget cuts. It could be dismantled
completely. We should not let this happen. We should call
on national governments to look beyond their own narrow
political interests and establish a UNEP that is not subject
to the petty international politics of the day but, instead,
can operate with autonomy. An autonomous organization could
monitor environments everywhere and alert governments and
the global public about environmental practices and changes
that have the potential to harm us all. One example is the
rapid cutting down of the rainforest in tropical Africa.
Companies from Europe and Asia (regions that have denuded
their own forested areas) are now focused on Africa, which
is in dire need of cash. For a proverbial few dollars,
African countries are encouraged to chop down their precious
We can sit at home in Boulder or New York or LA and
shake our heads at such wanton practices, BUT where is that
tropical hardwood going? To North America and to Europe.
Where is the tropical wood from Southeast Asia going? To
customers in other developing countries? It is going to
Japan and to Europe. An old Pogo cartoon comes to mind
regarding this destruction — the one that says, "We have
met the enemy, and he is us."
The world needs a UNEP. What will it take to fund it
at a size that makes sense, so it can do its job effectively
(assuming that governments really want it to do so)?
Governments have to pick the right Executive Director and
then stand back. Instead, they seem to be trying to destroy
it by raising issue of bureaucratic corruption or
inefficiency (which, by the way, happens to plague their own
governments as well).