When the best options are unavailable: what space do we really have?
Though our much-derided International Environmental Governance (IEG) regime has a good deal of success to its name, it is clearly not up to the task of meeting our global environmental challenges. This is not simply the voice of a disgruntled NGO representative. Others have said it more than once, in public. Even if all the proposed reforms that are currently being discussed were to be adopted and faithfully implemented, they would hardly make a dent on our global environmental problems. They would certainly not reverse the current downward trends.
So, to adapt an American expression, if it’s broke, why not fix it? As anyone who has tried to refurbish an old house will have discovered, it is often easier and cheaper to tear it down and start from scratch. And given the state of affairs in IEG, this option might genuinely be the best one. The IEG system resembles an overloaded vegetable cart that has been hit by a truck. The pieces are spread all over the square. Our array of international environmental conventions - all 150, or 250, or 800 of them, depending on who you talk to, have rolled away from the scene of the accident. Gathering them together seems hopeless. But the same is true of environmental funding mechanisms. It is true for environmentally-related capacity building. Virtually every branch of the United Nations’ dysfunctional family has an environment division, programme or unit. Surely it makes sense to consolidate, to streamline, to draw together, to meld, to combine and to eliminate overlap?
Easier said than done, as decades of failed institutional reform attempts in the intergovernmental system seem to attest. The pattern is familiar: we start with high hopes – our problems are manifold and growing and our tools are inadequate to the task. Let us forge the right tools, mobilize the armies and march out to confront the threats. But, gradually, reality begins to dawn. All of the mobilizing cries for greater coordination, streamlining, elimination of overlap, vertical integration, mainstreaming and many others hit up against a massive obstacle, looming like a high cliff in the road.
I refer to the reality that virtually all reform must be undertaken without touching what is already there in any significant way. It makes sense for UNEP to corral the herd of Multilateral Environment Agreements (MEAs) and to seek to give them a semblance of order. Fine, provided that the sovereignty of the Conferences of the Parties is not touched. UNEP can propose to cluster MEAs dealing with similar issues, as it has done with the chemicals-related conventions. It can suggest common administrative services and a consolidated system of human resources management. But it cannot touch their autonomy, their power and their independence. Yet nothing more that modest efficiency gains can come from clustering and common services. Reform requires reshuffling the cards.
The same is true of funding mechanisms. The Climate Change community creates funding mechanisms like bakers produce loaves. The GEF operates the largest of the environmental funds, but it is administered by the not-always-environmentally-kosher World Bank, and has its own Council of guardians to fight off any approaching threats to its pre-eminence.
Every UN agency worth its name is involved in the environment. UNESCO coordinates environmental research capacity. FAO looks after forests, fisheries and rangelands. WHO looks at environmental health. UNDP delivers environmental programming in the developing countries…and so on down the line. Every organization has its castle, complete with drawbridges, moats and guard-towers. UNEP, in many ways the weakest of the lot, has the comical mandate to pull all this together, but nobody has given it the password, so the drawbridges remain up, the moats filled with crocodiles and the guards in the guard towers armed with arrows and boiling oil.
And what is true of the environment, is true of the wider world of IFSD. CSD can be rewarded for twenty years of abject failure only by promoting it and kicking it upstairs. We can reform ECOSOC, that famous black hole for good ideas only by giving it a stronger, expanded mandate. Because, in the UN, despite all evidence, failure is not an option. That is, failures must be dressed in the clothes of success and we must all pretend that the Emperor is wearing a multi-coloured cloak.
It won’t work. Any reform worth its name will require deconstructing before reconstructing. It will require making some agencies stronger and others weaker. It will require a significant redistribution of the cards and a realignment of forces. If this means that a handful of sinecures in Nairobi or New York are uprooted, transferred, or closed down, so be it. The future of our children demands nothing less.
The opinions expressed in these articles are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of UNEP