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The United Nations environment programme (UNEP) and the UN conference on desertification (UNCOD)

In the latter part of the 1960s the United Nations and its Member States began to recognize that environmental quality was important not only for aesthetic reasons but also because environmental quality could pose very real limitations to health, food production, and the general standard of living. As a result of these concerns the UN Conference on the Human Environment was convened in June 1972 in Stockholm. The main outcome of the conference was a recommendation for a new specialized agency and, equally important, a commitment of financial support from the major donor countries. Later that same year the General Assembly, realizing that many UN activities were already related to the broad theme of the environment, carefully crafted the United Nations Environment Programme to have a strong co-ordinating, catalysing, and financing function. Thus, each existing UN organization was still to retain responsibility for the environmental aspects of its own programme, while UNEP was to provide a mechanism for coordination and appropriate scientific input.

TABLE 15. UNEP fund allocations for 1973-1977 and 1980-1983 (million $)

Programme area Expenditures 1973-1977 Commitments
1980-1981 1982-1985
Human settlements and human health 15.0 5.6 5.5
Support 17.3 11.5 11.2
Environment and development 4 7 4.0 4.2
Oceans 8.7 6.3 6.3
Energy 1.6 0.8 1.3
Environmental management, including environmental law 1.5 1.2 1.4
Terrestrial ecosystems 16.9 8.9 7.7
Natural disasters 0.3 0.2 0.2
Earthwatch, including the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals 7.8 11.8 11.0
United Nations Habitat and Human Settlements Foundation 4 0 0 0
Environmental data 1.4 1.2 0.5
Arid lands, including desertification NAa 5.5 4.8
Other 0.9 0.6 0.8
Total 80.1 57.6 54.7

Sources: UNEP 1978b, 1982a, 1984
a Included with terrestrial ecosystems.

Operating from a voluntary Environment Fund, UNEP began life with contributions of just under $100 million for 1973-1977. As a new agency, UNEP required a few years to establish a structure and initiate projects, so it spent only $400,000 in 1973 and $5.5 million in 1974 (UNEP 1975). It thus had 94 per cent of its five-year budget available for the final three years, and built its financial commitments up to a peak of $34 million in 1977.

Contributions, however, did not increase to match UNEP's ambitious plans but peaked in 1979 and 1980 at just under $32 million. Since 1980, contributions have generally shown a slight decrease in absolute values. When combined with the effects of inflation, this has forced a continuing reappraisal of UNEP's activities and objectives. Further disruptions in planning and programming have been caused by uncertainties over the precise amount of contributions that could be expected. This was particularly true in the case of contributions from the United States, which was providing one-third of UNEP's budget yet delayed both pledges and payments until the last minute. This uncertainty over funding is still a serious problem. For example, the target budget for 1984-1985 was tentatively set at $35 million per year, while an alternative budget of $25 million was prepared in case donations were further reduced (UN Chronicle 1983). Actual contributions are running about $29 million per year (UNEP 1985a).

Thus UNEP has occasionally been forced to dip into the programme reserve established in the first couple of years of operation. In 1981 this reserve contained $25 million, with just half of this in readily convertible currencies (UNEP 1982a). Since an average of 13 per cent of UNEP's annual contributions are in non-convertible currencies and it can't spend these quickly enough, it appears that UNEP will maintain a substantial cash reserve consisting of an ever higher percentage of non-convertible currencies.

Table 15 indicates UNEP's expenditures by programme area for 1973-1977 and its commitments for 1980-1981 and 19821983. Given the pattern of past contributions, one would expect these latter figures to be revised downward by about 10 per cent. (The political solution to budget controversies seems to be to set high targets and then let contributions fall short.)

Each of UNEP's programme areas is relevant to one or more of the Sahelian countries, but activities designed specifically for the CILSS countries appear to be relatively few. Presumably this is because UNSO's dual mandate for the rehabilitation of the Sahel and anti-desertification activities leaves little room for UNEP. Since UNEP by definition is not an operational agency, field projects are actually implemented by agencies such as ECA, Unesco, and a variety of local institutions. As suggested above, UNEP's own diversity means that there are any number of projects directly or indirectly relevant to the Sahel. Some examples are the regional seas programme for West Africa, feasibility studies for the protection of wildlife, and rural energy in Senegal. Many of UNEP's other projects are different types of seminars and training courses, which typically involve one or more participants from each country in a particular region.

Initially activities relevant to arid lands and desertification were based in the general programme of terrestrial ecosystems. However, as a result of the heightened interest in arid lands resulting from the UN Conference on Desertification and the creation of UNEP's Desertification Branch, a separate programme area was established about 1979. Since then a wide variety of projects have been undertaken, ranging from ecological research to conferences on training needs and preparation of state-of-knowledge reports. Various groups are involved as collaborators or executing agencies, although FAO and Unesco tend to handle most of the field activities.

As mentioned before, responsibility for anti-desertification activities is shared with UNSO. UNEP has set up a small desertification unit to help co-ordinate, formulate, and implement national and regional projects, but UNSO is responsible for the Sahel and most of sub-Saharan Africa. For this reason UNEP is not very active in anti-desertification activities in the Sahel. In fact, UNEP contributes about $1 million per year to UNSO to help it strengthen its antidesertification efforts (UNDP 1984d).

In addition to its catalytic functions, UNEP is supposed to coordinate all environmental activities within the UN system. The Environment Co-ordination Board (ECB), the main mechanism set up by UNEP to carry out this function, consists of the heads of all relevant UN agencies. However, each agency also designates a "focal point", usually the person in charge of the most relevant division. It is at meetings of these "focal points" that the most useful exchanges take place. As another attempt at coordination, UNEP regularly requests other agencies to provide information on their activities in a given field, which UNEP then collates to produce extensive documents of dubious value. The demands by UNEP for information and co-ordination meetings have become so great that some agencies are complaining to the ECB's parent body, the Advisory Committee on Co-ordination (UNEP 1980).

To cope with the increased interest and activities in desertification since 1977, the ECB created a separate body, the Inter-agency Working Group on Desertification, to co ordinate anti-desertification activities within the UN system. The working group utilizes the Desertification Unit in UNEP as its secretariat (UNEP 1978a). Completing the picture is a body called the Consultative Group on Desertification Control, a broad-based group whose two main functions are to discuss ways to mobilize funds, and to act as a forum where government agencies, UN agencies, and nongovernmental organizations can get together to discuss desertification control measures. To a large extent the effectiveness of this entire mechanism has been limited by staff and funding problems. UNEP has been unable to provide much support, and the staff members contributed by UNDP and UNFPA have been withdrawn as funding within those agencies became more limiting, leaving the Desertification Unit short-staffed (UNEP 1982b). Project proposals put forth by the Consultative Group have generated little interest among donors. In fact, very few countries are even approaching UNEP to request assistance in preparing national plans to combat desertification (UNEP 1985b). The absence of a specific programme of activities, independent of other agencies, has also made it difficult for the Desertification Unit to carve out a distinctive niche.

In summary, UNEP seems destined-at least for the medium term-to languish at its present level of funding or slowly decline in real terms. Staff and other support costs will remain, thereby taking an increasing proportion of its budget. Efforts to establish trust funds and open other windows of funding have been only moderately successful. To a large extent UNEP is dependent on the contributions of the United States and Japan, who have been the major donors, but the United States has fluctuated in its attitude towards UNEP. Many of the developing countries favour an increased role and increased contributions for UNEP, but there is certain to be continued resistance to this even as the world economy recovers (Nature 1982). The system wide medium-term environmental programme was a major undertaking, but its general nature failed to ignite much interest. The entire antidesertification mechanism seems ponderous and unable to generate much support. UNEP must look to the future instead of the fading beacon of Stockholm 1972 and somehow convince the industrialized world that its efforts are essential to achieving the broad goals of environmental quality.

United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD)

The 1977 UN Conference on Desertification was another in the series of specialized conferences that followed the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment. In line with the format used for the conferences on food, population, water, and habitat and human settlements, a series of background papers were prepared together with a Plan of Action. Since many governments, especially the traditional major contributors to the United Nations, have become leery of setting up new and costly agencies, UNCOD proposed a small but permanent co-ordinating secretariat on desertification within UNEP, while the follow-up activities would be carried out by the existing agencies according to their respective spheres of competence. This was generally accepted and UNEP was given the lead role, but the necessary financial support was not as simple to arrange. Knowing the difficulties in obtaining new donations, UNEP proposed a small tax on certain international business transactions, such as the export of selected nonrenewable raw materials. Since many countries did not want to set such a precedent, this proposal was rejected and UNEP was left with its Plan of Action but no real support to execute it with.

The Plan of Action, as it was finally approved, contained 28 recommendations. These covered, explicitly or implicitly, nearly all the physical and social aspects of desertification as well as the questions of implementation, co-ordination, and financing. The intergovernmental nature of the conference forced the recommendations to be encyclopaedic in content and lacking in specific priorities, but the conference did contribute to a wider recognition of the problem. As an example of the work of the conference, Recommendation 5 is reproduced in full (except for the introductory paragraphs) as follows:

It is recommended that comprehensive measures for soil improvement, soil and water conservation and soiI moisture management be introduced to combat desertification in rainfed farming.

To implement this recommendation national action would be required to:

(a) Survey affected areas to determine land capability, degradation hazards and climatic risk, and put forward proposals for conservational land use.
(b) Assist the introduction of improved, appropriate crop systems, including cover crops, rotational systems with legumes, rational use of organic and chemical fertilizers, careful soil cultivation and tillage and proper use of plant remains, to reduce exposure of soil and maintain fertility and soil structure.
(c) Assist with the reconstruction and introduction of works such as terracing for soil conservation and water spreading.
(d) Encourage the adoption of measures to counter erosion, such as strip cropping, shelter belts, protective forest belts, structures for water control, use of soil conditioners, etc.
(e) Reclaim degraded lands by such actions as stabilizing sand surfaces, levelling dunes and checking gully systems.
(f) Assist the revegetation of watersheds and the protection of upland pastures from excessive grazing or cutting for fuel.
(g) Encourage diversification in farming systems, with appropriate inclusion of livestock and arboriculture
(h) Encourage changes in land tenure systems which are incompatible with introduction of improved agriculture.

The recommendation implies regional action to develop through national and regional institutions such as universities and research establishments, improved agricultural techniques which resist desertification, and drought-resistant crop varieties. [UN 1978]

From this recommendation it should be clear that any concrete results will come not as a result of the recommendations but as a result of individual governments or international agencies making a specific commitment. Thus the ongoing series of UN conferences may serve as a useful stimulus and create a mandate to deal with a given set of problems, but the inherently political nature of these conferences tends to limit their practical results. Israel, for example, has had considerable experience in making arid and semi-arid lands productive, but during the presentation of its case study at UNCOD all the Arab and most of the African countries walked out as a political protest.

In addition to the general recommendations of the Plan of Action, six more specific transnational projects were formulated: (1) management of the major regional aquifers in north-east Africa and the Arabian peninsula, (2) establishment of a transnational green belt in North Africa, (3) management of livestock and rangelands to combat desertification in the Sudano-Sahelian region (SOLAR), (4) monitoring desertification processes and related natural resources in arid and semi-arid areas of South America, (5) monitoring desertification processes and related natural resources in arid and semi-arid areas of south-west Asia, and (6) establishment of a Sahelian green belt to combat desertification. While each of these projects may have a scientific basis, the political difficulties in getting countries to co-operate has prevented any significant collective action. For example, the SOLAR project would set up a series of zones whereby cattle and other animals would be slowly moved south to allow final fattening close to the major markets of Abidjan, Lagos, and other West African coastal cities. However, this would require not only substantial changes in the traditional patterns of animal husbandry but also a degree of co-operation and freedom of movement of animals across international boundaries that is presently impossible. Only in the case of the transnational green belt in North Africa has there been much progress. In this case a subregional training programme has been organized together with a variety of national projects (UNEP 1982c).

As implied above, one positive result of UNCOD was the collection and synthesis of knowledge about desertification. The general background paper"Desertification: An Overview" (UNCOD 1977c) was widely regarded as an excellent synopsis of the problem. On the other hand, the overview maps prepared for the conference were on such a large and generalized scale that their usefulness is rather limited (Mabbutt 1978). Other, more detailed maps of different regions and case studies were prepared, which may not point out the global dimensions of the problem but are more useful for planning and administrative purposes.

The other significant event stimulated by UNCOD, although not formally a part of the conference, was the meeting sponsored by six national academies of science on the indicators of desertification. At this purely scientific meeting held before the conference, it was decided to investigate a number of physical, biological, and social variables for use as indices of desertification. Working groups were set up, and, even though projects are on a voluntary basis, their joint efforts may eventually result in a more practical set of standards for measuring certain features or processes of desertification (AAAS 1977).

As discussed previously, UNEP was given the responsibility of overseeing the implementation of the Plan of Action but no funds to work with. An account was established for voluntary contributions, but after five years only three countries had donated a total of $25,000. Similar problems have afflicted the Desertification Unit in Nairobi, which is supposed to coordinate and stimulate UNCOD-related activities. These problems have not significantly affected the Sahel, as UNSO was given the responsibility for following up the Plan of Action in the Sahel. The advantage of UNSO is that it may well have better contracts with governments, but, on the other hand, its expertise is more in the field of technical assistance than desertification. As mentioned in an earlier context, there is often a tendency to identify a project as "anti-desertification" because that is a politically desirable label, when in reality the project is not substantially different from many other technical assistance projects. This then makes it impossible to assess the real impact of a conference such as UNCOD, and the effectiveness of UNSO in implementing the Plan of Action.

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