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Monday, 12 February, 2001, 15:45 GMT
UN green programme: An endangered species
The Unep is fighting to protect the planet
A personal view by environment correspondent Alex Kirby in Nairobi

The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) sounds like a global answer to a planetary problem. That certainly was the idea of its founders, the people who called for it to be set up at the Stockholm environment conference in 1972.

Today, though, beset by funding problems and caught in the cross-fire of UN turf battles, Unep has a struggle to survive.

Deriding it as a futile and expensive talking-shop, its critics hope it will expire. But this endangered species, unlike some of the wild creatures it seeks to protect, is putting up a fight.

The annual meeting of its governing council has just ended here, after a week spent largely on internal issues rather than the world's environmental threats.

Confused roles

One of Unep's besetting problems is that it overlaps and competes with many UN bodies that exist to do different parts of its job.

There are conventions, or programmes, or offices responsible for tackling ozone loss, climate change, the disappearance of species and habitats, and the spread of deserts, for example.

The planet
A number of UN bodies monitor climate change
There is a whole new commission trying to promote sustainable development, one of the key mantras of environmental protection.

So why, the critics ask, keep Unep in being to hold expensive and time-consuming conferences, to pay salaries to its staff, and to duplicate other peoples' efforts?

Apart from that, the organisation has been through years of low staff morale and veiled criticism, not all of it justified, of senior officials who have now left.


The head of the programme, the former German environment minister Dr Klaus Toepfer, is well aware of the dangers.

He told the start of the conference: "We do not need new priorities or new visions. What we need to do now is to implement."

Later, over a beer in a Nairobi bar, he told BBC News Online: "My job is to reinvent Unep, and that inevitably involves taking risks.

"I took a risk by investigating what had happened after NATO used depleted uranium weapons in Kosovo. It was Unep that took the initiative, not the World Health Organisation, or the International Atomic Energy Agency, or any other UN body."

Toepfer perhaps runs an even greater risk, in today's go-getting economic climate, in voicing his deep doubts about what the global market's onward march will mean for the world.

We do not need new priorities or new visions. What we need to do now is to implement

Dr Klaus Toepfer
He sees globalisation as perhaps the most fundamental change of the last ten years.

"It is the main new topic since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992," he told delegates in a formal session.

"We have to do our utmost to bring people and parts of society together again. We need to make globalisation the instrument for closing the gap between the rich and the poor."

But the late-night Toepfer, glass in hand, is less guarded.

"The market is necessary, but not enough," he says. "Left to itself, it always means the big will win - unless we make sure that it doesn't."


He almost left Nairobi soon after he took over as Unep's executive director in 1998.

"I'd discussed the job at great length with my family, wondering whether I should come here," he explained.

"We were all unhappy with the beggar-my-neighbour approach of so many people. So I did come here. But I spent the first week convinced that it was all an awful mistake. All the same, I am driven by the hundred per cent conviction that unless we change the structures and the situation we have today, we shall pay an enormous price tomorrow."

Toepfer is a religious man, a Catholic, but says it is not that that motivates him. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell once said: "Remember your humanity, and forget the rest." Does that speak to Klaus Toepfer? "Yes", he replies. "It does."

So he will go on flying in the face of UN tradition and taking risks. The chances are that Unep will confound its critics and be around for some time yet.

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08 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
UN launches one-stop green website
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