4/8/2020 NAJIB SAAB

Preventing the Next Pandemic is the title of a timely report about breaking the chain of diseases transmitted between animals and humans. It warns of further outbreaks unless governments take active measures to tackle the source of the problem – which can largely be traced back to unsustainable farming and food production practices. It was surprising that some media outlets attributed this significant report to the United Nations Environment Department, a non-existent entity.

After further scrutiny, it turned out that the body behind it was the United Nations Environment Programme, commonly known as UNEP. So why was UNEP, the longstanding international agency with its autonomous governing assembly that had been leading global environmental action for almost a decade, dropped from news stories?

This is one of the repercussions of an arbitrary measure imposed by former UNEP Executive Director, Erik Solheim, during his short tenure between 2016 and 2018. Without going back to the UN secretariat or UNEP governing bodies, Solheim unilaterally mandated dropping the word “programme” from the name, changing it to “UN Environment”, and banning the established acronym UNEP, even in social media domains.

Solheim seemingly had good intentions, most notably to simplify things for ordinary people who often do not understand the meaning of vague sentences and acronyms that are common to international reports. He even confided to me, in a meeting upon his appointment, that when he started his political career in Norway he used to ask his grandmother to read the drafts of his speeches and reports, in order to amend what she could not comprehend.

I was excited about his approach, as I shared his view that what primarily hinders the messages of international organizations reaching decision makers and the public alike is their ambiguity, which prevents turning them into public policies. Solheim envisioned transforming UNEP meetings from a “dialogue of the deaf” among experts living in a virtual world and officials looking for solutions, into a dialogue that uses comprehensible language, and what would lead to measurable results. Solheim also wished to deliver environmental issues directly to the publlic at large, so that people would be an essential part of the change.

However, practice did not reflect these good intentions. Bringing the environmental message directly to the people did not necessitate traveling away from the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi for 529 out of 668 days – the entire length of Solheim’s tenure. Causing such a large carbon footprint was not to be expected from a head of the global body entrusted with saving the environment.

Although travel irregularities was the official reason given for Solheim’s forced exit, the greatest damage he did was to single-handedly change the name and identity of this deep-rooted international agency.

A well-established brand name, that was built over half a century, was systematically destroyed. Despite repeated warnings that UN Environment was an expression devoid of meaning, especially when translated to languages such as Arabic, the change was enforced by an inner circle around the director. To make matters worse, millions of dollars were wasted on re-branding across the board, from letterheads and publications to social media, including domain name and e-mail addresses. People were unable to understand whether UN Environment stood for an initiative, a department, an office, a programme, or an organization.

This revealed a significant deficiency in governance within the United Nations, for how could the director of an agency that is part of the Secretariat in New York pass such a radical change without the approval of the Secretariat and UNEP’s governing bodies?   Upon Solheim’s departure, UNEP started to restore its original name in full, including its acronym. But it was obvious that the damage would take long to repair, as reflected in various media outlets still portraying UNEP as a department within the UN Secretariat.

Would anybody have dared to switch “United Nations Development Programme” to “United Nations Development”, “Food and Agriculture Organization” to “United Nations Food and Agriculture” or “United Nations Children’s Fund” to “United Nations Children”? International agencies legally fall under two types. The specialized agencies, which are 17 autonomous international organizations governed by their member states, coordinate their work with the United Nations through negotiated agreements. Among these are the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The international programmes, of which there are 14 including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), are agencies with their own governing bodies made up of country representatives, but they are subject to the rules of the UN Secretariat and their heads are appointed by the UN Secretary General, with subsequent approval by the UN General Assembly.

If the removal of the word “programme” from UNEP’s name aimed to bypass the failure to formally transform the agency into an autonomous organization, as had been attempted several times over the years, it became evident that this had only backfired by diminishing its status as a great global agency to a mere department. The role expected of UNEP is to lead international environmental action. It was transformed from a small secretariat that included a few dozen dedicated staff when it was founded back in 1972, into a big organization today with around 1,000 employees overseeing hundreds of programmes and initiatives and coordinating the work of many international environmental treaties and agreements. With the adoption of Agenda 2030, UNEP’s main task became managing the implementation of the environmental content within the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Instead of wasting time and effort on name change, it would have been more beneficial to focus on achieving UNEP’s mandate and strengthening its position as a pillar of environmental policy within the United Nations system. One of its most important tasks is to pursue collaboration and partnership with various international agencies by developing specific environmental initiatives led by specialized bodies, to avoid duplication and overlap with the work of other organizations. For example, matters related to food safety and security would be handled by FAO, health by the WHO, and environmental education by UNESCO. Another UNEP priority is to constantly review international environmental conventions and agreements, comparing the set goals to actual achievements, in order to close gaps and improve performance. After organizing dozens of them under thematic clusters such as water, energy and food, UNEP should coordinate with the secretariats of environmental conventions, in the spirit of support rather than competition.

Besides enhancing the scientific content of the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) issued periodically by UNEP, the science-policy aspects should be strengthened, so the report can respond better to current challenges and serve as useful tool for changing environmental policies at the national level, not only provide abstract information and intangible ideas.

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that the true measure of an organization’s success should be what it achieves, not what it promises. This requires a periodic performance appraisal, undertaken by an independent and external specialized consultant. While international funds adopt this procedure by subjecting their work to periodic review by an external consultant, this has not happened so far at the United Nations Environment Programme. Millions spent on changing UNEP name would have been better used to conduct a comprehensive review of the agency’s work and performance, by a qualified external consultancy. This might be the most urgent task for the new UNEP leadership.