The untold story of the United Nations Environment Program


Broadcast date: week of December 10, 2021

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A living logo outside the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: UNEP)

The United Nations environmental authority has worked in relative obscurity from its base in Nairobi, Kenya, for nearly 50 years. A recent book, The Untold Story of the World’s Leading Environmental Institution: UNEP at Fifty, presents the challenges and successes of the United Nations Environment Program and looks into the next half century. Author Maria Ivanova joins host Steve Curwood to talk about the creation of UNEP, its longest-serving director, and how it brought nations together on the ozone hole and marine pollution .


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb.

The United Nations‘ highest environmental honor was awarded this year to a cohort of inspiring women. The United Nations Environment Program “Champions of the Earth” award recognizes heroes for their impact and leadership in protecting people and the planet. The 2021 recipients include two women from Uganda and Kyrgyzstan as well as a group of indigenous women from Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands known as the Sea Women of Melanesia. And Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados was honored for her “powerful voice” for a sustainable world.

CURWOOD: We’ll get more of these inspiring voices in subsequent programs, but today we turn our attention to the United Nations Environment Program itself, the agency that gives these awards and often works in darkness from its base in Nairobi, Kenya. The Global South is the region of our planet that has long struggled to make its voice heard on questions of economy, health, pollution and more ardently, climate change, a crisis that it has not done much. thing to provoke. Professor Maria Ivanova of the Boston McCormack Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts has written on the United Nations Environment Program. Her 2021 book is titled The Untold Story of the World’s Leading Environmental Institution: UNEP at Fifty, and she spoke to us at a live event at the Living on Earth Book Club. Ironically, she notes, the United Nations Environment Program got its start in the grassroots organization that included the United States.

UNEP will be 50 years old in 2022, and Maria Ivanova’s book celebrates its successes and shows how it can be effective over the next half century. (Image: The MIT Press)

IVANOVA: The creation of UNEP was indeed a function of this country, the United States, which took the leadership following Earth Day, 50 years ago, when 20% of the population of this country is took to the streets and demanded a different response from his government. And this led to the creation of the institutions that we know in the United States: the Environmental Protection Agency, the various laws, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act. And then this country went to the international community and argued that we cannot solve the problems alone. And for that, we need an international institution. This is how UNEP was born. And yet, as you say, 50 years later not everyone is familiar with the United Nations Environment Program, when maybe everyone should. So why don’t we know? And there are various theories, perhaps one of which is that we should think about which international institutions are known. We mean the World Bank, the IMF; why do we know them? Because they are controversial. We hear the arguments against them, not necessarily all the positive impacts they make. And UNEP has not been in this sphere, has not been so controversial. But perhaps also, because the governments which provided funding did not really make it a priority. The United States has not really propelled UNEP’s visibility forward.

CURWOOD: Well that’s right, Maria. But to what extent have the United Nations Environment Program or UNEP kept their light under wraps? And what I’m actually thinking about is geography. You know, so many of these active organizations that you mentioned, or highly recognized organizations, are in Geneva or New York. And typically, for international diplomacy, not everyone goes to Nairobi. What impact do you think this has had?

Young people gather in the Karura Forest in Nairobi in solidarity with the Global Youth Climate Marches on March 15, 2019 (Photo: UNEP)

IVANOVA: Connectivity is a really important issue. Look where we are now. Listen, what we’re doing – without connectivity we couldn’t have any of this, this discussion! We have been grounded; the whole world has been anchored. And yet, we may be more connected than ever, because of this ability. But if you think about it, Steve, it’s recent. So you are right: when UNEP was created in Nairobi, it was radical. It was very radical in 1972 to create an international institution in a developing country. And so, I argue in the book that the location in Nairobi had an impact on UNEP, a profound impact on the organization. But also, the organization has had a profound impact on its host community, on its host country. And connectivity, indeed, has been a challenge. But it was also the impetus that drove Kenya to develop its technological might. And Kenya is now one of the hubs in Africa, for connectivity, for high-tech development.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about some of the successes that UNEP, the United Nations Environment Program, has had everything from oceans to ozone, both of these come to mind.

Mostafa Tolba was Executive Director of UNEP from 1975 to 1992, seventeen years. (Photo: UNEP)

IVANOVA: Yeah, so UNEP started with a vision of how we bring countries together to solve these problems that no country can solve on its own? Maritime policy is therefore one of the first issues on the agenda. And that was the Mediterranean action plan. And so, if you imagine the Mediterranean, the end of the 60s, the beginning of the 70s, a lot of countries with very different agendas, which essentially pollute the sea by just doing their normal economic activities, but all the outings, or outings. , entering the sea. And if you imagine the Mediterranean, its water does not turn very easily. And so, UNEP brought countries together. And so when you have Israel and Palestine, and Egypt, and France and Italy, and Greece and Turkey, sit around the same table and discuss a common natural resource that they share, and how to work to solve these problems, that was radical. It is a great success of the United Nations Environment Program. And it is often referred to as the jewel in the crown, the Mediterranean Action Plan. And then UNEP tried to repeat that in other issues, and you’re absolutely right. Ozone may be the only global environmental problem we’ve solved, and the reasons we often give as academics are the institutions, and the fact that the United States had a company, DuPont, that came find substitutes, and she pushed for a deal. But what I’m saying in the book in detail is the importance of leadership, of UNEP as an institution, and of its then director, Mostafa Tolba, as an individual.

CURWOOD: Yeah, what was his secret sauce? What was Mostafa Tolba’s secret sauce? And you could start by talking a little bit about its history, where it came from, because as you mention, in particular, back in Mediterranean history, it’s not exactly the, you know, it doesn’t. is not free of contention, to put it mildly.

The ecological headquarters of UNEP and UN-Habitat in Nairobi. (Photo: Maria Ivanova and UNEP)

IVANOVA: [LAUGHS] Nothing is free from discord, indeed! Thus, Mostafa Tolba was the Executive Director of UNEP, from 1976 to 1993, the oldest Executive Director, 17 years old. And he had a turnaround, he had a moment of return, because he said he went to Stockholm fully convinced that the environment was a trick of the developed north to prevent the south from developing. And he, he said, look, in the Egyptian pound we have a chimney. It is the symbol of industrialization, of progress: it is pollution. And yet he said that the whole Stockholm conference really made him come and see that the environment was the foundation.

CURWOOD: So of course you chronicle successes, and then there were things that weren’t so successful. How do you think UNEP got away with it and… and survived and thrived as well as it did?

Maria Ivanova is Associate Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Ivanova is also a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT. (Photo: courtesy of Maria Ivanova)

IVANOVA: You are right, it was very difficult for a very small United Nations body, hidden in Nairobi, to have the impact that it was intended to have. But also, Steve, UNEP has succeeded: by naming the issues, putting science at the forefront, saying, we have to work together and create certain policies and structures, conventions or as we also know, multilateral agreements on the issue. ‘environment. And I think now, with connectivity, how it’s improved, also seeing how important the environment is to pretty much every aspect of human life, I think in its 50th now, UNEP has a real chance to reinvent itself, to reinvent itself, to reconfigure itself to be the institution it was designed to be.

CURWOOD: Hopefully, we definitely need, we definitely need him to take action. Maria Ivanova is the author of. So thank you for joining us today, Maria!

IVANOVA: Thanks, Steve! Truly an honor.


Find the book here (affiliate link allows donation to LOE and local independent bookstores)

Learn more about the MIT Press book

Maria Ivanova’s website

About the United Nations Environment Program, UNEP

Interactive map of UNEP offices around the world


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