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MEA Bulletin

Guest Article

15 May 2006


By Susan Brown, Policy Analyst, WWF International

After two decades of environment and development conferences, good ideas, good will and a few good panics, an increasing gap has opened up between expectations of the multilateral system (chiefly the UN) and the outcomes flowing from it.  To use a plumbing analogy, the tap had been turned on, but there were all sorts of blockages in the implementation and operational pipelines.

Frustrated countries voiced their concerns in the World Summit last year, which gave birth to a number of reform processes.  One, System Wide Coherence (SWC), is tasked to clear the development, environment and humanitarian operational pipes of the UN.  Another, referred to as informal consultations on the environment (the 169 consultations), is dissecting the way environment is handled in the UN, focussing particularly on whether the UNEP system meets the needs of member countries.

The outcome of these sweeping reforms will change the way international priorities and operations are dealt with through the UN system and in individual countries as they move to meet obligations, many of which are environment and development related.  Simply put, donors want good results for their funding flows of around $US80 billion per year.  Developing countries say they need technical and financial support to meet these obligations and the current system isn’t working.  They also point to the burden imposed on the planet by developed countries, which too often resist their own multilateral promises.  Furthermore, say developing countries, don’t use these global agreements to restrict our shot at economic growth. 

As member countries and civil society hunt for synergies or new frameworks in UN environment and development management, or new and better ways to meet environment and development targets, NGOs will be calling on countries and management agencies to approach these reform processes from a context which pushes sustainable development rather than just development, which utilises the work of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which maximizes the potential of financing mechanisms to support the environment, which integrates environment and development work domestically, regionally and globally, and which assists countries to have the capacity to meet environmental treaty obligations.

‘Green gap’ fears alarm conservationists

While the SWC and the 169 consultations are obviously related, differing priorities and processes have fuelled fears in the NGO community that the holistic examination of the environment and development area and agencies that we believe is so clearly needed will be sidelined by a more secretively drawn up quick fix with an almost exclusively development focus. 

After confusion about overlap during the first 169 consultations, SWC panel director Adnan Amin tried to clarify the two processes by pointing out the 169 consultations were a General Assembly process, and the SWC was an expert outsider’s report to the Secretary General.  He noted there would be the odd informal link made to share information. By late April however, it was clear to NGOs that the SWC had changed its emphasis away from a thorough once over of each area of the UN listed in the terms of reference.  Instead, it appears that on the insistence of the G77 and the donor countries, the panel will now mainly analyse environment and humanitarian issues only where they cross development, and then mainly in an operational sense. 

Meanwhile the message from behind the 169 consultations was that the initial momentum of the environment consultations had slowed. A number of countries were saying privately they would hold fire on models, ideas, solutions and intensive work on the 169 environment consultations while they waited for a signal on the importance of the environment work and solutions that they expected would be suggested by the high level panel of the SWC. 

You won’t find this information on the web. The SWC panel, filled with high level political types, have been reluctant to publish their calendar, evolving documents, drafts or ideas before their report goes to the Secretary General, while full meetings are strictly closed with high security enforcing the no go zone. They meet again in full in Geneva, probably in July.  Smaller SWC sessions in half a dozen countries are inviting some NGOs in to give suggestions to mini-panel sessions.  Over at the 169 consultations it is a little more open, the closed sign is on the door, but civil society are tolerated in the bleachers.  We have found, despite no formal civil society process, tight time frames and high expectations, missions and UN staff are open to informal civil society input and are looking for case studies and ideas.

Across both processes, a number of radical proposals are being slid across tables.  These include guaranteed and increased funding for UNEP, fully implementing the Bali Strategic Plan and Cartegena Protocol, a revived, though gentle, EU push towards an agency level UN Environment Organisation, collapsing 38 UN agencies into just three, having just one super development agency (where environmental concerns would no doubt have to struggle to be recognised) or for single country co-ordinators to decide and arrange implementation of all UN in-country programs.

The chairs of the 169 consultations promised a further set of questions to countries, then a published update in June, together with their suggestion for further work possibly to be rolled through the next General Assembly in September.  If this is published in time, the SWC panel should be able to use it in their deliberations. 

It is anyone's guess whether this will make a difference to the SWC panel's slight sidestep from its terms of reference examination of environment, development and humanitarian program delivery to now do just development operations with a bit on the side.  What is clear is that the initial politicking and suspicion around UN environment reform is being treated seriously by the countries who say they want the UN and financing systems reformed to help them individually and collectively meet environment obligations and targets.

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