UNEP Executive Director Resigns and why - who could take his place?

The Background
As those who read this blog know I have been very critical of the way that Erik Solheim has led the United Nations Environment Programme from the moment I interviewed him after his selection.

I don't intend to go over those arguments again but you can read them in these blogs by me and others:
Interview with Erik Solheim the new Executive Director UNEP (July 1st 2016)

Statement by Erik  Solheim

On Saturday, I received the final report on the audit of official travel undertaken by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services. As I have maintained throughout this process – I have been and remain - committed to doing what I believe to be in the best interest of UN Environment and the mission we are here to achieve.

For this reason, after deep reflection and in close consultation with the Secretary-General, I am stepping down as Executive Director of UN Environment with effect from 22 November 2018. Moments ago, with a heavy heart, I informed the Secretary-General of my decision. He indicated that he will be shortly appointing an Officer in Charge of the Organization.

It is my most sincere hope that this proves to be in the best interest of UN Environment and the wider UN. Despite the challenges this moment brings, I also hope each of you will take pride in what we have achieved together.

From the historic announcement made by Indian prime minister Modi to phase out single-use plastics, the ever-growing list of countries ratifying the Kigali Amendment, the largest-ever gathering of leaders on pollution at the Third Environment Assembly, our incredible partnerships on nature-based farming in countries like Indonesia and India, and the remarkable signing of an agreement by 12 countries guaranteeing environmental rights in Latin America and the Caribbean - we can be immensely proud of our accomplishments and the momentum for action we have created. We have supported so many other great efforts including the Minamata Convention, the European Union platform on single-plastics and so many innovative partnerships with the private sector.

I will remain a committed friend of UN Environment and to all the wonderful individuals and dedicated professionals with whom I have had the privilege to serve.
read Guardian article for more details.

It is my understanding that he had lost the support of the UN Secretary General and i think is only one of two heads of UN bodies to be "asked to leave" - ever. The UN Secretary General has acted appropriately and we can only hope the former head of UNEP does that by keeping quiet.

The Deputy Executive Director of UNEP, Ms. Joyce Msuya of Tanzania, will be appointed as the Acting Executive Director while the Secretary-General launches a recruitment process, in consultation with Member States, to find a successor to Mr. Solheim. Ms. Msuya will be granted all the necessary support to ensure a smooth transition

Where now?

These are the candidates that applied to be Executive Director of UNEP - last time. Some thoughts on UNEP and the selection process.

How about like ILO the shortlisted candidates should have to hold a hustings in New York for member states and stakeholders. What is their vision of UNEP?  Clearly this was a huge problem with Erik - this cant happen again.

First a few comments on my thoughts on the issue. The present debate in the UN on 'fit for purpose' is very important as many UN organizations, including UNEP, are run like late 20th Century multilateral organizations with very vertical mandates and institutional structures. Erik was in favour of change but any change management consult will suggest the best change is done with the staff and not against it. 

The new Executive Director will need to create a more networked organization and this includes a real partnership with stakeholders. Is this possible? At the moment at UNEP there are problems around stakeholder engagement on the engagement rules with the new UNEA.  It is sad to see the discussions in Nairobi on stakeholder engagement at times it seems to be going back to pre Rio 1992. Hopefully this will be resolved in May positively.

If UNEP is to be relevant then it needs an effective partnership with stakeholders in both policy development and implementation. This may now become an issue for the new Executive Director.

One of the real challengers for UNEP is when they successfully secure a convention in a particular area that work then moves to the new body and UNEPs role is diminished.

A way of reversing this would be to have UNEP as an umbrella overseeing a clustering of the conventions around a number of themes such a chemicals, biodiversity, climate, oceans and seas. There is work to be done in continuing the clustering of conventions. Learning lessons from the experience of clustering the chemical conventions and then trying to accelerate the clustering of the biodiversity conventions. With UNEP acting as an umbrella there could be a number of benefits: .
  • Joint meetings of convention Bureaus within a cluster;
  • Joint meetings of the heads of the scientific and technical committees within a cluster and where relevant between clusters;
  • An overall head of each cluster;
  • Introduction of Knowledge Management within and between clusters;
  • Methodological framework utilizing indicators building on the ones developed for the SDGs and expanding to areas not covered by the SDGs.
The UNEA could then play a critical role in dealing with inter-linkages between the conventions.

I have announced myself to be a candidate for UNEP Executive Director 
Other candidates I know of include:
The new Executive Director should continue to strengthen the science base of UNEP.

The introduction of a UNEP Chief Scientist was one of the important decisions taken under the present ED. The strengthening  and increased funding of the Department of Early Warning and Assessment and its great products: including my favorite, the Global Environmental Outlook Report is needed. Often the products are great but the funding for outreach of them to key policy makers is not. I say this having had the pleasure of helping when I was Executive Director of Stakeholder Forum launching the GEO 2,3 and 4. In all cases there was very little money to take the product to the people who needed to see it.

Finally the new Executive Director may have to deal with a situation similar to 1993 where most Ministers will focus their work around the High Level Political Forum as they did around the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.  With the United Nations Environment Assembly  now meeting every other year is there again a need for on the other year Environment Ministers meeting? Could this be focused on the inter-linkages between the different conventions?

Back to the main reason for this blog, which is to look at the candidates for Executive Director of UNEP.  One of the clear requirements should be that they understand the 'insider UN game' to be effective  - Erik never understood this - but also that they can positively manage the external political complexities of working with the many stakeholders that could be part of a networked UNEP.  The danger is if the wrong person is picked then UNEP may become irrelevant to the post 2015 agenda.

But first let’s remind ourselves who has been Executive Director since its creation in 1973. Former Executive Directors of the United Nations Environment Programme have been:

Achim SteinerGermany (2006-2016)
Klaus ToepferGermany (1998-2006)
Elizabeth Dowdeswell:  Canada (1992-1998)
Mostafa Tolba: Egypt (1975-1992)
Maurice StrongCanada (1973-1975)

Who was in the running last for UNEP Executive Director?

I strongly believe that UNEP’s next Executive Director should come from a developing country

IbrahimThiaw (Mauritania) ex UNEP Deputy Executive Director. 
He took office in August 2013 as the Deputy Executive Director for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) prior to his appointment as Deputy Executive Director. He served as the Director of the Division of Environmental Policy Implementation (DEPI).. Before joining UNEP in 2007, he worked as the IUCN Regional Director for West Africa and later as the Acting Director-General of IUCN. (not standing)

Perhaps the most interesting is:Ambassador Macharia Kamau (Kenya) has guided us through the Sustainable Development Goals Open Working Group with Hungarian Ambassador Csaba Koros to an agreement on the 17 SDGs a task of considerable patience and leadership. Now then took us through the intergovernmental negotiations on the Post 2015 Development Agenda with Irish Ambassador David Donoghue - one cant but be impressed with these achievements. (not standing)

In the run up to Rio+20 Kenya (He was chief negotiator as the then Ambassador to UNEP) and Italy led the GA UNEP delegated International Environmental Governance process that was the precursor to the creation of the UNEP Assembly. 

In addition to his diplomatic assignments, Ambassador Macharia Kamau was International Consultant to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations AIDS. He has vast experience at the United Nations where he served for over twenty five years mostly in senior management positions at the UNDP, UNICEF and UNTAG. During this period, he was deployed in various countries in Eastern and Southern Africa as well as the Caribbean.

Adnan Z. Amin (Kenya): is Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency viewed to have done an excellent job at IRENA . 

Adnan served as Head of the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB) Secretariat. In this function, he was responsible for overseeing the Secretariat supporting the CEB in its UN system-wide policy coordination under the Chairmanship of the UN Secretary-General and comprising the Executive Heads of UN System organisations. The CEB is the highest level interagency coordinator framework in the UN system and oversees UN coordination on Policy, Management and Field Operations. 
He was also Executive Director of the Secretariat of the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel, co-chaired by the Prime Ministers of Mozambique, Norway and Pakistan, on UN System-wide Coherence. e Director of the New York Office of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Special Representative of the UNEP Executive Director.

Dr Ahmed Djoghlaf (Algeria) was the ADP Co-Chair for the negotiations of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. He is the former Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in January 2006. He was previously Assistant Executive Director of UNEP and prior to that was Director and Coordinator of UNEP's Division of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), where he played a key role for seven years, raising UNEP's profile and increasing the portfolio from six projects worth US$ 28 million to 600 projects worth more than US $1 billion in 155 countries. (not standing)

He was the General Rapporteur of the Preparatory Committee of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) of 1992 - better known as the Rio Summit; Vice-Chairman of the Eleventh Session of the Intergovernmental Committee on Science and Technology for Development; Vice-President of the Negotiating Committee on the Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as Chair of one of the two negotiating committees of the Convention to Combat Desertification. Prior to joining the United Nations, Dr Djoghlaf was adviser on environmental issues to the Prime Minister of Algeria and, prior to that, to three Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Algeria.

John Scanlon (Australia), has worked on environment and sustainable development issues at the international, national, sub-national and local level with government, the private sector, international organisations and the United Nations. 

He has specific expertise on law, policy, institutions and governance. He is theSecretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). 

Before joining CITES, he was Principal Adviser on Policy and Programme, and Team Leader of the Strategic Implementation Team, at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Director of the Environmental Law Centre with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Before that he was Chief Executive of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Aboriginal Affairs in South Australia (not standing)

Dionysia-Theodora Avgerinopoulou (Greek)  is a Member of the Parliament of Greecewhere she is President of the Environment Committee and the Watercourses Sub-Committee. 

She is an influential politician regarding environmental matters, a specialized attorney in International, Environmental and Sustainable Development Law, and the recipient of the Green Star Award awarded by UNEP, OCHA, and Green Cross International for her leadership in prevention, preparedness and response to environmental emergencies.She is a US Special Congressional Recognition, the Global Citizenship Award for Leadership in Assisting Humanity, and the Goddess Artemis Award by the Euro-American Women's Council. (not standing)

S/irpa Pietikäinen (Finland) is a Finnish politician from the National Coalition Party. She is a Member of the European Parliament since 2008, and re-elected in 2009.

She is a former Member of Finnish Parliament, former Minister for the Environment (1991-1995). Pietikäinen was the Chair of Finnish United Nations Association between 1996 and 2007. Pietikäinen was the World Federation of United Nations Associations chairwoman between 2000 and 2004. She has also worked for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and One World International. (not standing)

Jochen Flasbarth (Germany) Since 2013 State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety.Former President of the Federal Environment Agency (2009-2013) and  Director-General for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Use of Natural Resources at the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. From 1994 to 2003 he was Full-time President of the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU).  (Standing)

Other candidates
I would add to this list the new Ambassador for Barbados the UN Liz Thompson former Assistant Secretary General for Rio+20 and former Energy and Health Minister in Barbados and a UNEP Champion of the Earth. (not standing)

Dr. Edgar E. Gutiérrez-Espeleta former UNEP President  Minister of Environment and Energy of Costa Rica, Prior to his appointment as Minister of Environment and Energy, Dr. Gutiérrez was a Professor at the University of Costa Rica. He co-founded the project “State of the Nation” of the National Rectors Council of Costa Rica, and founded the Observatory for Development at the University of Costa Rica. (Standing)

Ms. Joyce Msuya Deputy Executive Director  and Acting Executive Director of UNEP. Is also a possible candidate. 

Christiana Figueres former candidate for Secretary General and Executive Secretary  of the UNFCCC for the Paris Climate Agreement is a very good and safe pair of hands. Though I am not sure she wants to come back into the intergovernmental field. Also from Costa Rica. (not standing) 

Final Thought
We need leadership from UNEP and this has been lacking over the last Executive Directors term. We need someone who can bring the staff together offer a clear vision in the context of the new 2030 agenda and someone who can inspire the next generation to join our ranks and fight for a more sustainable, fair and equitable planet


  1. Nice that you also mentioned some women, specifically Sirpa Pietikäinen who I would definitely support. BTW, UNCED took place in 1992, not 2002 as you say there. Johannesburg WSSD was in 2002.

  2. appreciate, as always, your incisive insights Felix !

  3. I always thought that Achim Steiner did a very good job at UNEP and was wondering how Erik would handle the job having quite different personality styles. I remember Ahmed Djoghlaf well from his time at UNCBD here in Montreal. He managed to heighten a little the understanding of a complex issue that the current incumbent is trying more to help the world join the dots on the importance of biodiversity. I think someone with a more refreshing approach would be useful and I think looking at Christiana Figueires' success at UNFCCC as well as the stature that Gro Brundtland gave, prioritizing a female choice would be useful. That doesn't mean that a masculine option should be precluded. Of the two female candidates given, neither have huge experience but Sirpa could be interesting. John Scanlon is clearly a man who has vast experience of opposition to environmental progress so if he is able to leverage this on a global scale to good use, that could be very useful. Could Cristiana Pasça Palmer make the step up from the UNCBD? That would certainly be an option to explore. Otherwise, I'm always available with a lot of knowledge, experience and personality to bring.

    1. At this moment in history, it would be good to have an experienced conservationist to lead UNEP -- we already have Achim ably promoting sustainable development at UNDP. A UNEP head having credible image in conservation can be a good ally to Achim and the SG. Central and Latin America can provide good options. Surprised you mentioned UN biodiversity head Cristiana Pasca Palmer, who was picked by Solheim and is doing more or less the same for what Solheim has been criticized for.

  4. As a community based organizer, we will miss him. He was an advocate for the small players ( the uneducated,and the poor). He was right about simplifying technical jargon for the common people, as well as, engaging 'big money' to be more responsible and accountable to the environment.

  5. i wish what you said was true but unfortunately exactly the opposite. Do read the UN audit report. and the previous blogs on this page which were highly critical of his knowledge and of his relationship with big business


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