UNEP set to navigate a new course

The United Nations Environment Programme, which had previously advanced legal instruments to solve global environmental problems, is now promoting facilitative rather than punitive instruments and approaches

By Ravi Sharma
Published: Tuesday 31 August 1993

-- THE NAIROBI-based United Nations Environment Programme has been asked by its governing council to focus less on monitoring the global environment and more on advising and helping developing countries. This new responsibility, termed capacity building in UN parlance, means UNEP will promote environmentally benign technology and "skills" to developing countries through an expanded network of regional offices.

In this respect, the new executive director, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, said she would make the UNEP staff "a source of intellectual competence and excellence." In her report to the governing council, Dowdeswell says, "UNEP may not have all the muscle needed to row the boat, but it can have the intellectual capacity to help steer it."

This is a major departure for UNEP, a body that has in the past decisively advanced legal instruments to solve such global environmental problems as ozone depletion, loss of biodiversity, climate change and toxic waste dumping, and in the process challenged the major polluters: industrialised countries. The "new" UNEP plans to promote "...consensus building and the development of facilitative rather than punitive instruments and approaches" and may now consider politically low-profile actions, such as not contesting influential countries in the UN.

It is highly unlikely that the "intellectual competence" that Dowdeswell talks about will be secured by industrialised countries. The willing recipients of such advice are likely to be the poorest countries. As a senior UNEP official said, on condition of anonymity, instead of securing an equitable share of global environmental space for the poor countries, UNEP is likely to join the World Bank in sermonising on good governance and help in the transfer of insignificant technology and skills only as a by-product.

Ironically, some of these changes have come about as a result of resolutions promoted by developing countries. It was at the instance of G-77 and China that UNEP's governing council slashed the proposed $7-million atmosphere-protection programme to zero and increased the budget for capacity building by the same amount. Similarly, on a G-77 recommendation, the allocation for Earthwatch data and early warning system was reduced from the proposed 20 per cent of UNEP's core budget of $130 million to 8 per cent while completely scrapping the international law unit.

These are considered achievements by some developing countries, which presume they gain more by securing increased budget allocations for "technical capacity building" than by spending money on global monitoring. As a Malaysian representative remarked, UNEP could become another United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) agency, dispensing project funds to the delight of several developing country bureaucrats.

In the changing UN structure, global environment monitoring may be shifted to the New York-based Commission for Sustainable Development with UNEP's role limited to providing technical support. The reduction of UNEP's political profile will partly remove the attraction it provided to funders, who are unenthusiastic about investing in capacity building. This was demonstrated amply in UNDP's Capacity 21 fund and UNEP's $130-million budget, both of which have received pledges for only half the required amounts.

The 58-country governing council, which includes India, approved the secretariat's suggestion for "making UNEP known throughout the system (UN) as a cooperative partner" and took steps to make UNEP a part of the UN system rather than an agency with an open-ended agenda. The council also discussed internal management of UNEP, which Dowdeswell promised to make "the flagship of good management in the UN."

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