UNEP and the private sector: a complicated relationship?

Who leads UNEP?
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is – at its core – an organization driven by member states, particularly with the setting up of United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) after Rio+20. However, stakeholders play an important role in the organization, providing guidance in the realms of policy and science. This is to assist member states in making good decisions and to work in partnership in delivering these decisions within the framework of the UNEP Programme of Work.
UNEP’s functions are inherently political, and member states define such core functions of UNEP has in the normative and political convening spaces in the programme of work. Any work with stakeholders, including the private sector, needs to be anchored in that programme of work.
The hope of many member states and stakeholders is that their concerns about the recent direction of UNEP have been heard and are being acted upon by its leadership.

Volvo Ocean Race: a bad example of engaging with the private sector?
I want to state right at the beginning I am not against working with the private sector - but it is important who that is and how it is undertaken.
The recent media stories about UNEP providing over $600,000 in financial support to Volvo’s Clean Seas campaign, “Turn the Tide on Plastics,” for the Volvo Ocean race has raised alarm and questions among both governments and stakeholders.
Should UNEP be giving the private sector money? Is the use of UNEP money for what many would see as an elitist sport a good use of taxpayers’ money? What was the decision-making process behind granting this financial support to Volvo? Does it need a review? Would that money have been better spent in developing countries helping them address plastics? 
These are a few of the questions I hope member states will ask. I would add that, as far as I know, this is the only instance in which UNEP paid a private company. The conversation around this decision with UNEP, member states and stakeholders will hopefully be a lesson in the need for more increased transparency and accountability.

Why attack civil society?
A second issue still causing concern is the divisive comments by Erik Solheim, the Executive Director of UNEP, towards NGOs and other stakeholders at UNEA 3 in December 2017.
His comments triggered a Twitter storm at the UNEP Stakeholder Forum on November 28, where he was reminded that many grassroots organizations were risking their lives to protect the environment. He then repeated his comments on November 29, when he gave a speech to the official delegations at the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR)(; the Committee of Permanent Representatives prepares the meetings of the UN Environment Assembly and regularly reviews the implementation of its decisions). At this meeting, Solheim said:
“Civil society is everything from the worst to the best. Civil society is those driving the green change, but civil society frankly is also those groups that supported the ISIS terrorism in Europe, those groups propagating for that, for wars in many parts of the world. So civil society is everything from the worst to the best.”
IPEN, a global network of public interest NGOs working together for a world in which toxic chemicals are no longer produced or used in ways that harm human health and the environment, responded on Twitter:
“Dangerous @ErikSolheim speech threatens safety of public interest orgs across the globe #UNEA3 #ErikMustApologize”
He did meet with stakeholders where he “justified his comments,” but his original response can be found in his tweet below:

He is right to indicate that stakeholders questioned his support for industry. He seems to not acknowledge THE companies that are acting against the public interest in slowing down, stopping or reversing environmental regulation. A sobering fact that has been noted by UNEP itself is that four environmental defenders are killed every week while working to advance a more sustainable planet.
This is a different position than the one he took in an interview with me just before he assumed office, where he said:
“We should be naming and shaming and naming and faming. I want to speak positively of companies that are doing well because other companies can learn from them. But if they do less well, then we should name and shame them.”

Civil society or stakeholders?
It doesn’t help that he uses the term ‘civil society.’ In the sustainable development world, we use ‘stakeholders’ and not ‘civil society.’
Why? Because the term ‘civil society’ excludes key stakeholders and merges others into one group. 
Maurice Strong, the father of sustainable development, understood this in 1992, which is why he adopted the term ‘stakeholder’ in his discourse. UNEP recognized this evolution under Klaus Toepfer, changing the name UNEP division dealing with stakeholders from ‘the civil society department’ to ‘the Major Groups and Other Stakeholders department’ in 2003. His successor, Achim Steiner, continued this approach as did and do other UN bodies. This now seems to have been reversed under the UNEP’s current Executive Director.
To be clear, the term ‘civil society’ excludes Indigenous Peoples, academics and local and sub-national government; some definitions include industry. The merging of different stakeholders into one group reduces the rights of women and youth, in particular, two groups the 1992 Rio Summit highlighted as vital to delivering Agenda 21 and that have been recognized in a similar way to delivering the 2030 Agenda.

Should the UN get private sector funds?
Returning to the issue of the private sector and the UN more generally… there is definitely a worrying trend within the UN that is seeing the reduction of core funding, UN bodies are increasingly looking to the private sector for funding.
Member states and stakeholders might question if this is a good idea.
If the UN and its Agencies and Programmes need to remain ‘member state’ bodies, then surely governments need to fund it adequately – which they clearly are not and have not been doing for a long time. Governments have moved away from core funding the work programmes they agreed would be funded through assessed contribution. Now, much of that work for the different Agencies and Programmes comes through voluntary contribution. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) has an 80/20 budget with only 20% coming from assessed contribution. Incredibly, at times the Gates Foundation has given more money to WHO than the US government. 
Is this good?
I would remind everyone the original idea behind the setting up of UNEP’s Environment Fund was NOT as extra money for UNEP but for collaborative work with other UN Agencies and Programmes
UNEP’s Guidelines for Engagement with the Private Sector say that they want to see:
“Enhancing the participation of the private sector through financial and non-financial contributions in UN Environment Programme’s activities;”
This will need to be monitored vigilantly by the CPR and stakeholders.
I would share with the readers that there was concern raised in the UNEA plenary in December from Germany that the private sector was far too much represented at UNEA. This had been one of the issues that caused some concern with stakeholders. The UNEP Executive Director, in his speech to the Committee of Permanent Representatives, said:
“When I come into UN Environment and the UN system at large, I take it as one of my absolute priorities to change the way we work with business.”
An example of this might have been the meeting with Shell on November 30, 2018, over cleanup in Nigeria (Shell is not as yet a partner of UNEP). This meeting was related to an agreement in 2015 on a $68.62 million settlement with the Bodo community after accepting liability for two pipeline leaks due to corrosion that contaminated their land. UNEP had released its Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland in August 2011 – over seven years earlier! My memory might be playing tricks on me, but I seem to remember a similar promise from the early 2000s from Shell made to Nigeria and to the then-Executive Director of UNEP Klaus Toepfer.
There is some concern that UNEP - though not alone in the UN family - are cozying up to the companies that have been slowing down political action on climate change and plastic pollution.
More recently, there was a meeting of the Nordic countries with the UNEP Executive Director in April and the UNEP Press Release of that meeting said:
“Close engagement with the private sector was commended, with the Nordics highlighting the need for high ethical awareness and strategic alliances that do not compromise the organization’s values and the need to continue working closely with civil society and other stakeholders, as well. They noted that regular communication with Member States was critical to retain current and attract new funding partners, as well as for transparency.”
On the surface, this looks very positive. However, if you read the press release in light of the above information, then another reading might suggest UNEP should not work with bad companies, deepen partnerships with other stakeholders, and DO NOT compromise the organization's values!
The UNEP press release also noted that:
“regular communication with Member States was critical to retain current and attract new funding partners, as well as for transparency.”
This might be interpreted as a warning: if you do not change, we will not continue to fund you. This is a very clear shot across the bow.
The publishing of the Report by the Secretariat on UNEP’s Private Sector Engagement to the 142nd Committee of Permanent Representatives on the 10th May was a good step.

Are there principles and guidelines?
The UN Environment Assembly’s resolution 2/5 on implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2016 requested that the Executive Director:
“To initiate new multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSPs), where appropriate, and within available resources, and strengthen existing ones, including with the private sector, civil society and other relevant stakeholders, to promote activities that contribute to delivering the environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”
For a moment, we will restrain from again making noting that ‘civil society’ and ‘stakeholders’ are not the same ….of course, I couldn’t stop myself!
The huge problem here is the lack of any principles and guidelines agreed by member states to guide MSPs and Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) at the global level.
Last month the UN Committee of Experts on Public Administration has managed to develop principles and guidelines for public officials. You can find here: the ‘Principles for Public Administration.’ On PPPs, you can read here the latest draft which was discussed last week from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)_(do read my blog on this).
I would like to reaffirm my belief that there should, indeed, be negotiated global principles and guidelines on Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) as the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) outlined in paragraph 48. But with a lack of global leadership, all UN Regional Commissions should develop through a bottom-up approach that resembles the approach taken for the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
On Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships, the MSP Charter is an attempt to, with the lack of any guidance from member states, create a kite mark (or quality mark) for MSPs and to ensure transparency and accountability. Do join the process of comments that are open at the moment on the MSP Charter.
The Report to the UNEP Permanent Representatives does identify some priorities for UNEP on PPPs without guidance:
“Increasing transparency and simplifying the process for creating Public-Private Partnerships.”
I would urge them to look at what UNECE is doing and to understand that the recent reports on PPPs, if that is what they are referring to, have all been bad, including the report by the EU's independent external auditor, where the European Court of Auditors said:
“the Commission and the Member States, in particular, they should not promote more intensive and widespread use of PPPs until the issues identified have been addressed (in the report)”
The UNEP document also suggests that the:
“United Nations Guidelines on Cooperation between the UN and the Business Sector that were developed by the Secretary-General at the request of the UN General Assembly and that serve as a common framework for UN offices, agencies funds and programmes and were first issued in 2000, revised and reissued in 2009, and revised in 2015 in pursuance to General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/234 of 2013. These guidelines have been adjusted to be applicable to the UN Environment Programme and also reflect the best practices of other UN offices, agencies, funds and programmes. UN Environment Programme’s Guidelines will be issued as an information document of the Fourth Session of the UN Environment Assembly for appropriate information of all stakeholders.”
These are not robust enough for PPPs, or partnerships in general with the private sector. I would argue that member states of UNEA need to develop some principles and guidelines for the work of UNEP that is in line with but go much further than, the UN Guidelines. This should include an annual report for the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) on how this is being implemented.

So, what should UNEP be doing as far as engaging with industry is concerned?
UNEP was not created and is not mandated, as an implementing or project agency. The Programme on the Environment is responsible for collecting the information that is necessary to develop policies to advance scientific understanding and to signal early warnings on environmental problems. 
The UNEP mandate is to establish international standards for environmental policy and to provide direction to international initiatives based on scientific knowledge.
More specifically, the UNEP’s activities can be summarised as follows:
·         monitoring and assessing global, regional and national trends related to the environment;
·         developing national and international tools to address environmental problems;
·         assisting national institutions that support environmental management;
·         facilitating the transfer of science and technology related to the environment in the context of sustainable development;
·         encouraging partnerships and new initiatives in the public, non-governmental and private sectors with the aim of bringing the most pressing environmental issues to the attention of authorities.
UNEP has pioneered work on the Green Economy and has engaged with lots of companies that are part of the solution; by that, I mean they are trying to adopt new green technologies and evolve into the companies of tomorrow. An area I believe demands more of UNEP’s attention, however, is the sub-programme on Resilience to Disasters and Conflicts.
UNEP working with other UN bodies can help build resilience in the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to climate change, both in helping to build an energy grid that isn’t carbon dependent and that can be up and running very quickly after any disaster.
UNEP should help countries to address taking out plastics from the waste streams, but not through partnerships with some private company. Rather, it should do so by developing and promoting policies that focus on the prevention and removal of plastics in waste streams. Other partners can then organize in helping to implement replacements for plastics. Working with a SIDS-focus enables these new industries to get a foothold in the market and to have the opportunity to try out their new products.
Ultimately, UNEP should be working with new, greener industries where they fit with the UNEP Programme of Work; this should be through helping to update the 2007 UNEP GC resolution on principles, guidelines, and policy advice. Any increased profile for greener solutions is good for UNEP and good for the planet.
I again reaffirm what I said at the beginning working with industry is not a bad idea, but UNEP needs to be selective in who they work with. 
Are they with the dirty brigade of the past or with the clean technology of the future? Where should they put their energy? My opinion is clear on this issue, but what do you think?
With their recent work through the Finance Inquiry, UNEP has been at the forefront of formulating ideas on the green economy, and this needs to continue. UNEP has built an important bridge, and a number of their ideas have found their way into the work of the G8, the World Bank, and other institutions.
UNEP has also successfully engaged with UNCTAD and the UN Global Compact on the development of the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), the UN Sustainable Stock Exchanges (SSE) [UNCTAD led] and the now emerging Principles on Banking and Principles for Sustainable Insurance. They need to continue and expand their work here. The UNEP Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) has driven UNEP’s useful work in this area.
Why is this important? Because it changes the rules for all companies. If all Stock Exchanges institute a listing requirement that all companies produce Environment, Social and Governance Reports as a factor for review, it changes the system that all companies operate within and is more effective than attempting to change the behaviour of each individual company. Adopting this change would be much more impactful.
In that vein, I would like to see UNEP engaging with the recently established World Benchmarking Alliance, which lists the UN Global Compact (UNGC) as a partner but not UNEP as of yet. This initiative is responsible for benchmarking companies on their delivery of the SDGs, which will be a great way to move companies in the right direction. This initiative, by the way, is based on a similar approach to benchmarking companies on the Ruggie Principles on Business and Human Rights; Shell did not do very well in this benchmark, scoring only 30-39% against the Principles – much work to be done.
In light of the results for Shell on the Ruggie Principles, the UNGC should challenge Shell’s UNGC report and ask for an explanation on their rating on human rights. If the UNGC is not satisfied with the answer, Shell should be delisted. Please do look at the full review of Shell, which can be here.
UNEP’s new ‘Guidelines for Engagement with the Private Sector’ states that private sector donors will be excluded from consideration if they “abuse human rights” – this guideline isn’t enough and lacks specificity. The suggested list of issues that will exclude a private sector donor from consideration is hopefully open to additional suggestions. Each time UNEP accepts money, it should have to produce for the CPR an explanation of the donation against their criteria and the CPR should have the ability to approve or deny the donation after close review.
The ‘Guidelines for Engagement with the Private Sector’ are a good starting point for a proper debate, as is the addition of a legal review, a risk assessment and a strategic review of any potential private sector partnership with UNEP. What is needed is a review of the actual templates and how these are going to be measured to give confidence to member states and stakeholders.
On the positive side, I understand that on May 24, 2018, the CPR will have a private sector briefing on all private partnerships procedures (including the due diligence questions). I hope this will enable a strong due diligence system to be put in place, supported by an independent due diligence service provider. UNEP should be commended for this.

Is this a UN-wide issue?
The UN needs to agree to a more robust policy across the UN system as far as engaging in industry. For example, a first step would be to say:
No UN Agency or Programme should work with a company that isn’t a member of the UN Global Compact or intends to join within 2 years, and there should be no part of the UN partnering with or receiving funds from any of the 6000 companies that have been delisted.
I would like to see an audit of ALL the UN Agencies and Programmes relationships with industry to see which companies they are engaged in the areas of:
1)      Advocacy/Dialogue
2)      Partnerships
3)      Funding
In the second and third category, no UN body should be receiving funding or be in partnership with a delisted company from the UNGC.
Perhaps we should also include a provision in UN employment contracts that bars UN staff from seeking employment with any company after leaving the UN they have been working with for xx years. This would help prevent the potential for ‘revolving doors.’
One early indication of where member states are on this issue will be the budget. UNEP has seen an increase in funding under Achim Steiner as Executive Director. Will this trend continue under Erik?
My guess is that member states are very concerned about the present direction of UNEP – this concern has even been reflected in the analytics of this blog. During UNEA in December, my most popular blog was “Known candidates for the next Executive Director of UNEP” from September 1, 2013.

What about other stakeholders?
With so much focus on industry, what is being done to support the ‘other stakeholders?’ UNEP has a rich tradition of working with other stakeholders. It produced the ‘Strengthening Trade Union Participation in International Environmental processes’ in 2007 and ‘Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable, Low-carbon World’ in 2008. For Women, UNEP has produced two publications: ‘Women and the Environment’ and ‘Gender and the Environment’. For Indigenous Peoples, UNEP produced ‘African Indigenous Peoples and the Green Economy Imitative’ and have put in place the Indigenous Peoples Policy Guidance. For NGOs, UNEP has also produced two publications: ‘Natural Allies: Engaging Civil Society in UNEP’s Work’ and ‘Intergovernmental Negotiations and Decision making at the UN’.
UNEP has also introduced the Perspectives Publication Series, a tool for Major Groups to present their views and concerns and to develop much more flexible response mechanisms than handbooks, including the Bali Guideline Implementation Guide (in a couple of languages), Stakeholder Engagement Handbook, and a number of expert reports about stakeholder engagement and implementing Paragraph 88h. In addition, UNEP has bolstered its social media presence in recent years.
On top of this, there are many other UNEP publications that are relevant for or that address Stakeholders; you can view a list of these publications here.
These are, in most cases, materials produced in the runup to meetings like Rio+20. I wonder what the present budgets look like for working with other stakeholder groups on projects to engage UNEP constituencies beyond the normal UNEP budget.
If there is so much being put into industry, we might assume work with and funds for other stakeholders has also increased. This is unfortunately not the case, however. No major funder has funded work with other stakeholders or, at this point, committed to fund it in the future. 
If UNEP is to meaningfully engage with all relevant stakeholders, this reality MUST change. This is particularly urgent in light of the new Guidelines for Engagement with the Private Sector, which aims to:
“Enhance the involvement and participation of the private sector as an observer at the meetings of the Governing Bodies of UN Environment Programme.”
Clearly, to paraphrase from George Orwell’s Animal Farm:
“all stakeholders are equal, but some stakeholders are more equal than others.”
This can change, and I would very much hope the Executive Director is listening to the voices that are pointing out their concerns. His March letter to the CPR seems to show he does understand the need to spend more time listening to member states. Time will tell, but this is a promising indicator. I would at this point remind readers that UNEP does have an Access to Information Policy. Please do use it… it can be accessed here.

What is the future?
Today we live in a world of increased insecurity where facts and science are being challenged every day. This demands stable and secure UN bodies. 
In the area of environment, in particular, we need to secure the advances made by the Paris Climate Agreement, Samoa Pathway, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the 2030 Agenda. This should be a time of building coalitions rather than creating discord among those working for the implementation of these agreements. We need to speak facts to ignorance.
I am a huge supporter of democracy and I am collaborating on a new book called Stakeholder Democracy (Minu Hemmati and Carolina Duque), which will be out before the HLPF in 2019. We are in a dangerous period, where we are seeing a marked shift from representative democracy to corporatocracy. The main argument in the book will be to strengthen representative democracy by having stakeholders more engaged in giving advice to governments and in helping governments to implement new solutions. We can see this as a step to more participatory democracy, and a step we can take today. 
Finally, power plays a critical role in society, and we must not give one stakeholder – industry – greater power than the governments that we elect.


  1. Thanks use de-risking. Myself, I think business is not making enouhg with the plastic bags and bottles that are ending in oceans and seas. A balance needs to be found in Washington concensus for keeper business water safer (a safer water business for sure will help tp reduce these long lasting loads are endangering the biodiversity. Sound rationals are about tackling the root causes at the beginning of all supply chains and reducing repairs. I think one has to observe more carfully these risks and integrate sustainable development and the environment in all public and private constructions for an healthy planet and profits for businesses. People would love it.

  2. Thanks for sharing.
    Thanks for sharing.
    It's not only for any international organization (including UN agencies) but more importantly, also for any elected national government, not to give greater power or inclined to any one stakeholders (including industry) in their countries, while developing & implementing national policies, to protect environment and safeguarding public health.
    Best wishes.

  3. What was the process - and mechanism(s) - the UNEP used to select Volvo? Volvo has been engaged in high-profile, impactful CSR for decades, and has long supported arms of the UN. The mandate for the UNEP to engage is there, and there are many other private companies involved. So, maybe it's best to examine the process not the mandate (mandate isn't changing my friend). Examine the actual mechanism. Discuss the impacts and outcomes, which are likely measured and reported by the UNEP.


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