"A REVITALISED UNEP is essential to assist the international community in its efforts to reverse environmentally unsustainable trends," stated a declaration made by the governing council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at its 19th session in Nairobi from January 27 to February 7. The council, comprising ministers and representatives from more than 100 nations, was meeting to take stock of the progress made by the UNEP on the path of sustainable development, the goal set at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
The 25-year-old environmental agency has been getting lot of flak for some time now. It has been accused of failing to become a vibrant and effective Organisation. The issue came to a flashpoint after the UNEP released its first Global Environmental Outlook report on the state of the global -environment barely a week before the session began. The findings of this report are chilling. While developing regions like
Africa are tottering on the brink of environmental disaster due to wide-spread poverty and spiralling population, industrialised nations like the us are letting their economic priorities cloud environmental concerns. (US today accounts for 21 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, says the report.)
Elizabeth Dowdeswell, executive director of UNEP, spelt out a couple of "indispensable elements" of a reform package to revive the sick UNEP. First, the council has to come up with a focussed and agreed upon role for the body. And, more importantly, the funding base must be adequate. It must also be predictable so that the secretariat can formulate its future programmes.
The Nairobi declaration on the role and mandate of the UNEP reflected a distinct thawing in the attitude of
the delegates. The UNEP's primary task, said the council, must be to analyse the state of global environment and to assess the regional trends. In fact, the council expects the UNEP to function
as a 'consultant', offering its services to governments and other relevant institutions on policy issues.
The issue of funding, usually a contentious topic, was also settled quite amicably. The UNEP's programme of work for 1998-99 and a programme budget of US $75 million was approved. The council pledged to contribute US $34 million to the UNEP kitty.
But it was not smooth sailing all the way. The council bitterly bickered about the governance structure of the UNEP. The participants fell out on whether the UNEP should be governed by bureaucrats from different countries who are based in Nairobi or by ministries operating from their respective capitals. Delegates from developing countries like India have been lobbying hard for more decision-making authority. But the council was in no mood to indulge them. The issue was hotly debated and the meeting had to be temporarily adjourned on February 7. It was a big blow for Dowdeswell and her team as the US, the UK and Spain announced that they would withhold their financial contributions until this issue is resolved.