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  February 1998    

Towards a greener UN in the 21st Century
The UNU's third annual symposium on the United Nations System in the 21st Century (UN21 Project), held in New York from 14 to 15 November 1997, gave researchers working on the project a chance to publicly present their 1997 results. Twenty-eight researchers from academic institutions and international and national research agencies worldwide presented their findings to the 200 participants attending the symposium's five sessions: international organizations, state and sovereignty, global citizenship, regional institutions and market forces.

Researchers studying international organizations reckon that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) must be overhauled if it is to meet future environmental challenges. Marc Levy, a professor at Williams College, presented what he believes to be the three best ways of restructuring UNEP. His first suggestion is to streamline the organization into an international coordinating unit to provide policy-relevant information and advice. Second, he recommended giving UNEP a stronger role so that it would be able to steer international environmental agendas and broker agreements between otherwise weakly coordinated actors. And his third idea is to combine both of these functions into an organization that is able to make collective decisions and set compliance procedures.

Dr. Levy went on to suggest that UNEP must become financially secure. "It is counter-productive to UNEP's financial future to allow only biennial voluntary contributions," he said, adding " turning UNEP into a special agency or making members' contributions to it legally binding are much better ways to go." Dr. Levy further pointed out that UNEP's location is a problem. He thinks that the organization should be moved out of Nairobi and set up in either Europe or North America. "Its present location reduces its effectiveness," he said, citing Kenya's geographical distance from other UN agencies and the country's underdeveloped communications infrastructure. However, he realizes that relocating UNEP elsewhere would not be an easy thing to do. "Such a decision would be a political hot potato," he admitted. "But the benefits of moving it are clear."

The researchers studying state and sovereignty issues discussed how government and society can work together to overcome environmental problems. For example, Peter Evans from the University of California at Berkeley argued that a "state-society synergy" perspective is a good way of looking at Third World urban degradation and sustainability. According to Dr. Evans, state-society synergy means combining both public and private resources into such urban necessities as sewers, water delivery systems and transportation networks. He reckons that the contribution of local public institutions is extremely important in the struggle to make large cities livable in developing countries. "It is crucial to preserve the capacity of the state's public authority and to defend its legitimacy," he said.

Researchers studying global citizenship issues pointed out the importance of NGOs. Paul Wapner, associate professor at the American University, Washington, D.C., believes that NGOs are a vital source of scientific information on the cause and intensity of environmental degradation. However, he stressed that NGOs do not always represent the public's best interest: "While NGOs may be working for the well-being of the environment, they are not always free from other loyalties that may skew their understanding of ecological issues."

Researchers studying regional institutions found that intra-regional cooperation can be an effective way of securing sustainable sources of energy. ASEAN is a case in point. Lyuba Zarsky, from the University of California at Berkely, told the audience how cooperation among ASEAN members could nudge Asian markets towards environmentally sound energy development. However, member countries need to come up with a common vision to make this happen. "The first step is to develop a regional consensus about the goals and objectives of energy policy," she suggested. But Dr. Zarsky acknowledges that this may not be easy: "Big gaps exist in the level of economic development, and the region is wracked by political animosities." She lamented that it is unfortunate that in the foreseeable future cooperation among ASEAN countries will not be on environmental issues, as Asia's economic turmoil will take priority. "Due to investment time lags, the next 10 to 15 years present a crucial window of opportunity to lay the foundation for more environmentally sustainable energy use in Asia," she said.

Researchers studying market forces were not able to offer a unified assessment, because markets can both help and hinder sustainable development. For instance, Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, discussed water as an example. He reckons that over time inadequate attention to the role of markets has caused a lot of water to be misallocated and wasted. "Water must be treated as an economic good, and its market price should reflect this," he said. However, others argued that insatiable demand for certain agricultural and fish products on the world market have put tremendous strains on the environment.

The objective of the UNU's five-year UN21 Project is to analyse the role of international organizations and search for the next century's best UN model. Researchers are now preparing for the project's 1998 development theme.

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