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UN Says its Own Eco-Management Out of Control

EXCLUSIVE — A special U.N. investigative unit has warned that the United Nation's management of all worldwide treaties and programs for environmental protection is completely out of control and approaching chaos.

One of the major results is that even as U.N. budgets balloon for environmentally related activities like "sustainable development," agencies actually charged with policing environmental treaties are getting less attention-and less money, in proportion to the swelling U.N. environmental coffers, to do the job.

In some cases, the report says, major U.N. organizations are in effect squeezing their weaker partners, taking funds that are supposed to support treaty organizations charged with protecting such things as biodiversity, the ozone layer, endangered species and global wetlands.

That, however, may be the least of the problems outlined in a confidential, 37-page, report on how the United Nations manages its environmental responsibilities and mandates, prepared by a special U.N. watchdog known as the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU). The report was ordered up in April, 2007, and submitted to the U.N.'s top management late last year. The JIU reports to the General Assembly and is mandated to improve the U.N.'s efficiency and coordination through its inspection process.

When it comes to environmental activities, the report makes clear that the entire system of U.N. environmental management (or "governance," a term that comes up often in the densely worded document) is not improving, but if anything growing rapidly worse.

The report points to widespread systematic waste and duplication of effort by U.N. organizations supposedly involved in environmental activities, and lack of coordination on the part of the entire U.N. system when it comes to environmental efforts, along with the neglect of treaty organizations that are actually supposed to manage protective activities.

In a small but telling detail, the report also notes that virtually all U.N. organizations — two minor exceptions are cited — have failed to put into effect internationally recognized environmental management standards ostensibly designed to improve the environmental performance of virtually any form of major organization. The standards, known as ISO 14001, are recommended by the U.N. itself-but apparently only for everyone else.

Among other things, the report chides Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for personally ordering additional manpower in various U.N. agencies, ostensibly to strengthen coordination in the area of climate change-but without letting other agencies involved in the same efforts know what he was doing. And it specifically tasks the Secretary General with the main responsibility for clearing up the mess.

Click here to read the U.N.'s report on its management of the environment.

Meantime, the growth of international treaties (known in the report as Multilateral Environmental Agreements, or MEAs), agreements and U.N. mandates is continuing to proliferate without coordination, alongside an explosion of global environmental initiatives, partnerships and activities that are funded across much of the existing U.N. system.

The report says there are now more than 500 international treaties and other environment-related agreements in existence, including 45 global MEAs.

These include agreements under the direct auspices of the U.N., others adopted by conferences and negotiating committees convened by the United Nations Environment Program — the world organization's supposed environmental spearhead — and still others where their relationship with U.N. management is "institutionally linked," but not "fully integrated."

The vagueness in the last set of relationships is never clearly explained. Included in the last category is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCC, which was responsible for the Kyoto Treaty and is the organizer of this December's Copenhagen treaty session, which is intended to succeed and surpass the Kyoto accord.

One reason for the fractured bureaucratic focus, the report says, is that new international agreements often include their own separate secretariats to oversee their functions. And these secretariats are then often further buried within existing major U.N. institutions. Along with its own bureaucracy, for example, UNEP maintains seven separate secretariats for nine global agreements, and protocols, and eight more for eight regional treaties.

The duplication is both confusing and costly. As one example, the report notes than when bureaucrats overseeing three different environmental agreements on chemicals met to discuss cutting costs, they ran up a bill of $112,500 per meeting on travel and per diem living costs along. The outcomes of those expensive meetings won't be approved until 2010.

Moreover, the lack of coordination means that sometimes products identified as enemies of the environment by one organization are defined as friends by others. The report cites as an example differences between the 1987 Montreal Protocol to defend the earth's ozone layer, and the Kyoto Protocol aimed at limiting greenhouse gases. Under the Montreal agreement, the report says, chemicals known as hydrochlorfluorocarbons (HFCs) as allowed, with some restrictions, as alternatives to chemicals more threatening to the ozone layer. But they are not restricted at all under the Kyoto accord.

So tangled is the U.N.'s environmental organizational structure, and so disorganized the central control, that the report says is not even possible to know how much money the U.N. system is spending on simply managing its environmental actions. (Such records, the report demurely states, "are not available.") But even a "rough estimate" is breath-taking: about $1.65 billion in 2006, the last year for which statistics were apparently available.

In one 2004 study, the report says, UNEP identified 60,000 environment-related projects being funded by various donors, and suggested that some kind of "information sharing system" about such projects would be advisable. It never happened. Despite repeated prods to action, the head of UNEP hasn't come up with any program that even identifies the "roles, responsibilities and activities of U.N. agencies involved in the field of environment and MEAs."

Moreover, the managerial chaos is growing steadily more acute, as U.N. anti-poverty agencies increasingly jump on the environmental bandwagon and build overlapping and conflicting initiatives on environmental protection and "sustainable development" without clarifying the difference between the two activities.

Click here to view the U.N.'s "fragmented" governance chart.

The reason, according to the report's JIU author, is fairly simply: the people he interviewed in U.N. development organizations have hijacked the environmental issue as an additional rationale for what they were doing previously. The interviewees "believe, given their core mission to promote growth and reduce poverty, that environmental degradation as a corollary of poverty can be reversed through the eradication of poverty."

As a result, the author found that the U.N. development agencies, which are led by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) show "little evidence of conscious efforts to mainstream compliance with [environmental treaties] in their operational activities." In the meantime, most of the organizations actually devoted to policing treaties are "unable to secure adequate funding."

From 2000 to 2006, the report points out, annual environmental protection spending by UNEP —once conceived as the spearhead of U.N. environmentalism — actually declined between 2000 and 2006, from $139.8 million annually to $132.5 million.

Meantime, environmental spending for development purposes by U.N. agencies nearly doubled, from $176.7 million to $332.7 million, while their overall anti-poverty spending nearly tripled, from $6.5 billion to $16.4 billion.

One of the results was growing duplication of effort, the report notes "under the slogan of mainstreaming environment into sustainable development, or integrating the environmental dimension of sustainable development into the development process."

Amid the semantic confusion came an even bigger loss to management control, as the U.N. in 1999 gave up a longstanding four-year planning system that was used for setting policy. UNEP made things worse the same year when it gave up a similar planning system that was supposed to keep track and coordinate all the environmental activities of the entire sprawling U.N. confederacy.

Even the raw materials of such a program appear to be missing. According to the report, UNEP doesn't even have a database that provides "a comprehensive overview of all environmental programs, projects, expenses, Memorandums of Understanding and letters of commitment exchanged with other U.N. agencies and bodies" regarding the plethora of international environmental treaties.

Instead, the JIU inspector was informed, UNEP in September 2007 had a "sample list" of 49 joint projects and programs covering world climate impact assessment, biodiversity, marine pollution and a handful of other themes.

One way of looking at the U.N.'s environmental chaos, the report makes clear, is by measuring the spectacular decline in the competence of UNEP, which was established in 1972 with a mandate to "promote international cooperation in the field of the environment and to recommend appropriate policies to this end."

That mandate began to erode rapidly in the 1990s, with the hoopla and accelerated lawmaking that surrounded the Rio Earth Summit and its follow-up a decade later on "sustainable development." The confusing marriage of environmentalism and development, which the JIU inspector sees as central to the chaotic current situation, reached formal heights in 2005 with the adoption of the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals, which are now a U.N. mantra. (These include halving the level of extreme world poverty by 2015, and integrating the principles of "sustainable development" into country policies throughout the world.)

Along the way, new environmental treaties multiplied, as did other U.N. bodies that popped up to analyze and administer environmental problems. And so did new and often undefined funding mechanisms, like the multi-billion-dollar U.N. Global Environmental Facility, or GEF, a global funding partnership that is jointly managed by the World Bank, UNEP, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

Among other things, according to the report, the GEF is supposed to provide funding for the implementation of international environmental protection treaties. It is supposedly governed by the so-called Conferences of Parties made up of treaty signatories.

But instead, the report says, the GEF, headquartered in Washington, "is legally and practically autonomous" from the treaties it serves. Its own ruling bodies "play a significant role" in deciding its policies and setting its funding levels, without guidance from the bodies set up to monitor treaty compliance — another reason, the report indicates, that the bodies that police environmental treaties are short of funds.

Moreover, the report notes, GEF definitions of how it spends money to meet what it now calls "agreed global environmental benefits" additionally "blurs the distinction between financing for sustainable livelihood" and environmental protection.

Just as destructive as the downgrading of environmental protection in favor of development goals, according to the report, is the way that larger U.N. organizations have obstructed international environmental treaty organizations they are supposed to support.

In the case of UNEP, the report notes that treaty organizations housed within UNEP "indicate that they had no online access to real time information on their trust fund accounts," and had to rely on manual accounting. Their legal advisors were likewise constrained.

In 2004, the report says, UNEP, which is headquartered in Nairobi, decided to establish a new and expensive center in Europe to help provide administrative services for the treaty organizations under its care. The treaty organizations were never consulted. When they objected, UNEP went ahead anyway.

When completed, however, the new support center did not provide support services, such as accounting or payroll distribution. Instead, the report says, it "performed financial, personnel and general administrative tasks, similar to those of an executive office."

Rather than help the treaty organizations, in other words, UNEP used the money to administer them.

For its services, the report notes, UNEP charges 13% of each subordinate treaty organization's budget — charges that the report says often draw complaints that they lack transparency and fail "to adequately reflect the actual services provided." And other U.N. organizations also tack on additional constraints that also leave the treaty secretariats with "few resources to support substantive programs and project activities."

What needs to be done to alleviate the mess?

The JIU inspector, for one, thinks that Secretary-General Ban needs to rethink the entire U.N. jungle of environmental administration and submit to the U.N. General Assembly "a clear understanding on the division of labor among development agencies, UNEP and the MEAs." Ban should also "encourage" the heads of his 32 agencies, funds and programs to return to a framework of joint planning and coordination on environmental issues.

Meantime, the General Assembly, according to the report, needs to restore UNEP's mandate to coordinate environmental policy across the sprawling U.N. system.

Is it likely to happen?

The report does not offer an answer.

George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.