REFLECTIONS BY...

Hiremagalur Gopalan, former UNEP staff member

Being a trained biologist, environment, particularly the conservation of fauna and flora, was my main interest and my main intention of coming to work in Kenya.
In 1972, I was a post doctoral fellow in Germany. I followed the Stockholm Conference on TV and the press. Lot of lofty speeches were made, including the famous one by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in which she said that poverty was the main polluter. I came to Kenya in 1974 to join the University of Nairobi.


Professor Reuben Olembo was my mentor and senior colleague. Over the years, and more so, after he became full time professional at UNEP, he introduced me to the various activities at UNEP, particularly those related to the long term health and environmental effects of chemical and physical agents. I started as a consultant with the Human Health and Environment Unit from 1982 and continued till 1992 when I joined as a full time professional. Thanks to the regular and highly professional guidance from Professor Reuben Olembo and Dr. Jan Huismans, I learnt the tricks of the trade fast and was able to participate in meetings of: the International Programme on Chemical Safety; Health Effects of Climate Change; Health Effects of UV Radiation; Panel of Experts on Integrated Management of Vectors and Vectors, etc., and contribute to the development of authoritative documents emanating from those meetings.

In 1992, I was a full time staff member at UNEP in charge of Human Health and Welfare Unit. For the Rio Conference, my contribution was through preparation of documents and by reviewing documents that came to UNEP from other agencies for comments. Naturally, expectations were high at UNEP for a successful outcome of Rio Conference. Several important International Conventions, such as, the ones on Climate Change, Biodiversity, etc., lead to high expectations from UN, in general, and UNEP, in particular. GEF, with funding, became a reality. However, implementation has been patchy, some were more successful than others, e.g. the Montreal Protocol. Differences emerged between developed and developing countries on who has to bear the burden and blame and who has to pay for the costs, became a major issue. This lead to mutual recriminations and blame game, rather than mutual cooperation and problem solving. That was a major disappointment to those of us who expected concrete actions to protect and promote the global environment, Post-Rio. Lots of meetings at local, regional and global levels were held, at considerable expense and utilisation of scarce natural resources, but resulted in minimal gains on most fronts.

The notable exception was the issue of Safe Management of Chemicals where both developed and developing countries saw the common need for concerted global action to prevent the detrimental health and environmental effects of toxic chemicals. That was a matter of considerable satisfaction to me, professionally, as that was my main interest in the work of UNEP. I am a genetic toxicologist, by training.

Two major publications from UNEP, during my tenure, are worth mentioning: 1. Beyond Silent Spring (Chapman and Hall) with ICIPE; and 2. Domestic Environment and Human Health, with TERI. Both were well reviewed in both the scientific and lay press. The concept of Ecosystem Health, to promote Human Health, emerged as a multidisciplinary and integrated approach to health, emerged from these and other studies with WHO, FAO, IDRC, Health Canada and Environment Canada and various distinguished professionals in the field of Health and the Environment.

I retired from UNEP in March 2005 and am now leading a retired life in Bangalore.

My main disappointment while at UNEP was, the lack of concrete action on major issues despite regular meetings; production of voluminous documents ; prolonged and unending discussions on who is responsible and who is to be blamed for the situation we are in; and who has to bear the costs of repair and reconstruction. There have been successes but are few and far in between. There is need for proper understanding of the basic issues that confront human beings at this time and concerted action in counties and between counties to address these issues.

During the early part of my career at UNEP, there was a clear distinction between scientific/technical staff, scientific administrators and politically driven staff. The latter were mostly in Regional Offices. The scientific/technical administrators were D2 and above, but technically competent. The scientific/technical staff were picked based on their technical publications and contribution to the development of their chosen field of specialization. Over time, the three functions were freely interchanged. Politically insensitive people handled political matters; people with no scientific/technical experience were deployed to supervise highly competent and dedicated professional staff; and much worse, people with no hands-on experience became experts in fields far removed from their chosen field of speciality. All this lead to an erosion of staff morale and emergence of sycophants who were afraid of calling a spade, spade. UNEP lost global visibility and became an elitist club of henchmen.

I hope the situation has changed since I left the organisation.

My expectation from RIO+20 is for a fully empowered, well funded, well staffed, and problem solving "new UNEP". It should cease to be a talk shop. UNEP, during my time, had too many lacunae. The major being lack of committed professional and too much of weight being given to regional/political affiliation in the selection and deployment of professionals. It was donor driven and not issue driven. The approach was not one of problem solving but of self perpetuation. There is no 'self destruct ' clause when new agencies are created in the UN System. In addition, I see hardly any visibility of UNEP in my home country, India, which is beset with all kinds of environmental problems, be they physical, chemical, biological pollution of air, soil, water and food or destruction of ecosystems. Provision of clean air, water and food is still as much a dream as it was in 1972, 1992, etc. I hope to see a more effective UNEP globally for the good of all humanity and not remain as an elitist think tank. That should be left to academia and civil society.