Message from Erik Solheim Executive Director of UNEP

A shorter form can be found here  on facebook.

Dear colleagues,

I am just back from the first Chief Executive Board meeting since António Guterres took office. Nearly all United Nations leaders were present, including the Secretary-General and the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed. Our very own Achim Steiner also took part as incoming head of the Development Programme.

One thing is very clear – this is a new era for the United Nations. So, I want to share this positive news with you. It was a completely new atmosphere with incredible energy and much less formality.

The Secretary-General insisted that, within the family, we call him Antonio and not Mr. Secretary-General. He wants to see fewer ties and more efficiency; he wants people to challenge him more; and he wants tangible results.

To make the point he even wore a sweater. The group responded by reminding António that he may be Secretary-General, but he still is not the most famous from Portugal (Ronaldo is way ahead)!

Then, we took him at his word with an open debate about how to shape the United Nations when many are questioning both our values and our value. I cannot stress enough that this meeting set a new tone for the United Nations. There will be no more ‘business as usual’ or doing things because we always have. This is a dramatic change in leadership culture and there is no going back. In UN Environment, we have already made a start in many areas.

This meeting signals an opportunity to really make this new culture our own and to help the rest of the United Nations do the same. I know that for some this will mean stepping outside our comfort zone. Just remember, if the Secretary-General can be informal, oppose hierarchy, encourage challenging opinions and new ideas, then so can the rest of us!

As you have now heard me saying on many occasions, in UN Environment, we need to see this new culture across every level of staff and management. Everybody contributes, whatever your job category, your level and your main tasks. Nobody can succeed without the others. The United Nations is radically changing and we all need to embrace it. We desperately need everybody's ideas.

We all need to inspire each other. There are three areas where wide-ranging reforms are a priority for António Guterres: peace and security, development and management.

The Secretary-General has reorganized his own team on the 38 floor along those three main areas and proposals will soon be forthcoming on how all of us can respond.

The entire board agreed that this was not about slight changes. It is about fundamental, radical reform. Obviously, this is easier said than done, but since it is now said, then let’s make sure it happens! There were equally strong demands for change in several other areas, not least that we need to be one United Nations.

This is not about the “One UN” initiative that makes people roll their eyes. It is about recognizing that nobody outside the United Nations is interested in all our different entities. They think that the first half of our name means we already work together to promote our common values and deliver concrete results for people. They believe the taxpayers money that Member States entrust us with will be used efficiently to make that happen. In UN Environment, we already work this way with the UN Climate Action and the World Health Organization.
However, there are many, many other areas where we can and must work together more effectively. For example, there is overwhelming consensus that the Resident Coordinator system needs to change. It needs to separate from the Development Programme, to allow better representation of all parts of the United Nations. Everybody also agrees that we must stop wasting precious time and money on bureaucratic reporting and monitoring. Those resources would be better spent delivering something tangible for people or fighting the political struggles for our values.

The Secretary General’s position could not be clearer: “It’s not acceptable that we are this inefficient – change it!” He wants this at every level of the United Nations – no exceptions.

Let us immediately take action and stop all our self-inflicted bureaucracy.

This will help us gain precious time. This will help us focus on the essential priorities. This will help us save money at a moment when resources are limited. In this vein, I have asked the senior management team to propose a plan to drastically reduce the number, length and cost of our reports, and to dramatically overhaul the style in which they are written and presented. I hope to finalize our plan over the next couple of weeks.

Only through telling interesting stories about the benefits we deliver, can we inform and inspire people all over the world. If we are asked for unnecessary reporting by New York or anywhere else, we must push back and ask if it is really what the Secretary-General wants. If it is, we still have to ask if it can be done in a simpler way, with less resources.

Every hour wasted on bureaucracy is a staff-hour that could be used creatively. Every dollar wasted on paper pushing could be spent achieving something concrete for our planet and millions of human beings. I have just received the perfect example through the post. 

The United Nations 2012 yearbook: 1,600 pages, single sentences that span several pages and a foreword from the departing Secretary-General signed four years later in December 2016. It is all wrapped up in glossy hardback and sent around the world physically by mail. In this digital age, the thousands of hours of staff time, the print and postal costs – let alone the environmental footprint – could have been much better used. And I am not afraid to say: it is such an un-inspiring read!

Likewise, there is clear recognition that the private sector is adopting a new leadership role when it comes to the environment, development and even, at times, in areas of crises and war. Some of us are still hung up on the risks of working with companies that are not squeaky clean. But I have yet to find any country or large organization that can honestly claim to be above reproach – including the United Nations.

We will get much further if we encourage efforts in the right direction instead of looking for areas where we can criticize. Some of our own partnerships are showing the way – like with Ants Financial of China, German Covestro, Discovery Channel, Volvo Ocean Race and Formula E of electric cars. 

Soon we expect to sign agreements with Kenya Airways and with Build Your Dreams, the world’s biggest producer of electrical vehicles. I will send a further message on this next week. I am proud we are spearheading this change within the United Nations.

Our approach to the private sector is supported at the highest levels - up to and including the Secretary-General.
here was equally unanimous agreement that the only way we can drive this change in culture is to change the way we communicate! Everyone on the board is absolutely convinced that we must reach out more to ordinary citizens and that we must do it using language they can all understand. You guessed it: no acronyms! If you think I am alone to go on about this, please listen to the Secretary-General who says he never use acronyms. At the meeting, I quoted a memo we got about SEA. I expected something on oceans, only to discover it was about sexual exploitation and abuse. They are both important, but it should not be so easy to confuse them. So, please let’s make UN Environment the first acronym free institution of the United Nations.

It is the responsibility of everyone of us to do it. I could not be more serious on this issue. Of course, there was also discussion on the big issues of our time. What was interesting is that there were two opposing perspectives.

On one hand, there was a positive view. It focused on the millions of people being pulled out of poverty, private sector leadership and life expectancy having increased from 46 to 71 in the lifetime of most people on the board. On the other hand, there was a more cautious outlook. People felt that we live in a more dangerous world, with a complex set of interrelated conflicts through the Sahel and the Middle East.

Opposing perspectives, but equally true – depending on whether you view the world from the daily destruction of Aleppo or the gleaming skyscrapers of Shanghai.

The challenge of the United Nations is to reconcile both points of view and deliver results for the people caught on either side. António Guterres will spend a lot of time trying to prevent conflicts and drive diplomacy in places like Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia. UN Environment will hopefully play the role of best supporting actor, assisting on the environmental aspects of peace and security but also in continuing to contribute to Agenda 2030 and a greener, more sustainable planet.

None of this will be easy, especially in the current political climate. There is no shortage of questions in front of us. Deep down most people also understand that the big issues of our time - peace, development, environment and trade - can only be resolved together. It is entirely in our own hands to win this global debate. When the Secretary-General was in Nairobi he said that for all the theories about people trying to bring down the United Nations, nobody could beat us.

We are killing our organization and its reputation by excessive bureaucracy, inefficiency and waste. If we continue to exist in an inward-looking bubble, we will fail. If we can deliver progress for ordinary people that they can recognize, see and feel, then we will succeed. It is the only way to answer the questions and criticisms being raised about our future.

Ultimately, the role of the United Nations is to inspire the world and to make life better for the people we serve. So, we must protect and promote the values on which we were founded 70 years ago, but we must do it with a spirit and an agility that makes us fit for purpose today. This starts at home, in UN Environment, with less focus on process, more on results and a willingness to embrace a new way of working. Either we will be part of this change or we will be left behind. With or without us, it will happen. So, I count on you all to change the way you are working. Focus on concrete issues that bring tangible results to real people. Prioritize your work and spend time on what matters to protect our planet and change the way people live.

Consult, use your expert judgement and take decisive actions rather than call for process-heavy meetings, organize inward looking workshops or produce lengthy notes and reports that nobody will read.
Take risks, challenge the way we have been doing things so far, do not ask permission on every single step. Be bold and creative. Advocate. Make partnerships. I also challenge every one of you to share your perspectives and ideas on these reforms. 

The United Nations needs to bring itself bang up to date and we need every one of you to help make it happen. Thank you and best wishes, Erik


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