Science Advisor to
the Prime Minister of Malaysia
In June leaders from around the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro to mark the
20 year anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, a summit that was largely
responsible for setting up the global governance architecture for environment.
High among the priority issues is recognising the grim reality that the current
governance arrangements for environment have failed to meet expectations;
indeed, have not reversed or even contained the decline of the environment over
the last decades. Hence, today leaders must face facts that taking the modest
and incremental approach they took in Rio 20 years ago is not enough and that
only a major overhaul of the governance system will heed the reforms needed to
address the challenges of environmental sustainability.
The most sensitive issue that will be discussed is the creation of a World
Environment Organization (WEO) to anchor the global efforts for the environment.
Almost instinctively, the words “world” and “organization”, when heard together by
developing country diplomats, makes them react, “We are against it, it would be
another World Trade Organization (WTO) and that’s the last thing we need.”
It’s a deeply embedded and suspicious view expressed time and time again in
New York’s diplomatic circles.
The reality is that there is a serious need for a WEO and that proposals for it look
nothing like a WTO. Most United Nations specialized agencies actually are not like
the WTO at all. Most, such as the WHO, FAO or UNESCO, are organizations that provide consultative and facilitative
functions and assist countries to
meet the global commitments derived
from mutual agreements. They are
not at all regulatory, like the WTO,
which sets standards and reduces
barriers to trade.
A WEO is the kind of organization
we need now badly; more than ever.
Right now environmental issues
are governed internationally by a
hodgepodge of institutions spread
across the UN. In fact, there are more
than 40 different UN agencies with
environmental programmes. Over the
years the international community
also has adopted hundreds
of multilateral environmental
agreements, all with their own
secretariats and administrations.
Last year there were more meetings
than there were calendar days
in the year. The last five years of
meetings from only a fraction of
these agreements have produced
over 5,000 decisions that countries
are supposed to act upon through
The system has become insanely
complicated and virtually impossible
for developing countries to
participate in meaningfully. The only
countries that cope with the system
are the richest countries of the world,
while the poor developing nations are
There must be change. Developing
countries need to think clearly about
their needs for the environment
and get over this stigma that the
“environmental agenda” is only for
the rich. Environmental issues are
paramount for the poorest nations.
The environment goes to the heart
of development and livelihoods and
the well-being of all of us.
Moreover, there is a growing
economy based on market niches in
green technology, and green goods
and services. A market opportunity
that Malaysia and many other
Asian countries are quickly realizing.
History has shown that most of the
global organizations that we have
today were actually designed and
negotiated by the developed world
while developing countries have
stood on the sidelines and watched
it all take place. We have been too
busy pushing for more financing
and development, which of course
are needed, but we haven’t realized
that the operators of the system are
the global institutions and they are
skewed in favor of the North.
We have to change this approach
when it comes to redesigning a new
environmental governance system;
it must have a development focus
and be better aimed at responding
to developing countries’ needs. This
means a WEO must have certain
and distinctive priorities. It must be
a democratic body with universal
membership where each country
has one vote, not weighed voting
as in the case of the many financial
assistance agencies where donor
countries have more votes compared
to recipient countries.
Developing countries need
implementation support, especially
technical assistance, capacity
building and technology support.
A WEO therefore must have an
implementation arm to respond to
developing countries’ needs. Right
now implementation support falls
through the cracks in the UN system
as no one agency is responsible
for this within the environmental
sector, meaning that in the end it
is developing countries which are losing out. This is especially the
case for multilateral environmental
agreements where there are
many promises of support but
only a few mechanisms and no
clear institution to help countries
implement their commitments.
Science must be at the heart of
the WEO as many of the emerging
environmental issues are coupled
with development therefore
requiring innovative and progressive
approaches in dealing with them.
The science must also be inclusive
with wider participation of developing
country scientists and universities.
We need a WEO that will help
develop new ideas, share experience
and assist countries to make a
transition to a Green Economy.
We have to help the poorest
nations become partners in a
Green Economy and not create a
parallel development track, one for
the haves and one for the have-nots.
A WEO must be the anchor that can
rationalize current environmental
governance and ensure that
developing countries are equally
represented and able to participate
in the system within their own
If we agree that these are the
elements of a new system then we
need to engage in the debate and
form a proposal that takes our needs
as developing nations to Rio+20.
Malaysia, as an advanced developing
nation, has a lot of experience it
can bring to the table. It should lend
its experience to lead developing
nations to form a position around
Otherwise, let’s not complain if
we end up with yet another global
organization that is established
without our needs in mind, or
worse, with the status quo which
is marginalizing the developing
country’s brothers and sisters.