UN Environment Chief Digs In, Seeks to Revitalize Program

But pledges remain low due to North-South dispute over priorities

SHOVELLING garbage in a Nairobi slum for a few minutes doesn't do much practical good, but it is one of Elizabeth Dowdeswell's ways of showing the world that a new-style leader has taken charge of the beleaguered United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

Accompanied by leaders of the Mathare Youth Sports Association, which involves about 5,000 Nairobi slum children in weekend soccer and neighborhood cleanup activities, Ms. Dowdeswell scooped a few shovels full, then hurried back to rejoin a high-level meeting at UNEP headquarters here.

"I'm impatient. I'm eager to get things done," she said in an interview.

Dowdeswell, a Canadian, will have to move quickly if she is to meet the expectations she has helped raise since taking over in January as the third executive director of the 21-year-old agency. Relatively underfunded, UNEP in recent years has been criticized for ineffectively using the funds it does receive, managing its programs inefficiently, and failing to help provide innovative solutions to global environmental problems.

"UNEP has been wasting money," says Vicente Sanchez, Chile's ambassador to UNEP. Former Executive Director Mostafa K. Tolba of Egypt never won the funding he said UNEP needed, Ambassador Sanchez says.

Dowdeswell has new opportunities to polish the agency's reputation. Meeting here May 10-21, the Governing Council of UNEP, which has members from both developing and developed nations, narrowed the gap in spending priorities between North and South, and agreed on ways to redirect funds to improve development projects.

The new budget reduces spending on data collection, among other things, and increases funding for environmental programs that have health-related aspects. As India's minister for the Environment and Forests, Kamal Nath, puts it, data on climate changes is "too abstract to people who walk 10 kilometers [six miles] to get water."

European representatives also said the European Community is willing to explore the idea of a global ban on export of hazardous waste to developing countries.

"We have to recognize the needs of developing countries," says Wolfgang Burhenne, a long-time German environmentalist and current legal adviser to the World Conservation Union, who attended the UNEP meeting.

While spending priorities have fallen more in line with the priorities of developing nations, however, donor nations failed to increase their overall commitments to UNEP.

Based on expected pledges, the Governing Council adopted a budget for 1994-5 and 1995-6 of roughly $60 million to $65 million each year, about the same as the past several years.

The task of winning greater funding from UN member states will not be easy, says Aldo Manos, special adviser to Italy's environment ministry. Dowdeswell will "have to earn the confidence given to her in very large measure," at the environmental meeting.

Developing and developed nations still disagree over the extent to which UNEP should run programs or restrict itself primarily to global studies and research. Mr. Manos says both are needed. "Pure study is not possible. They [UNEP] have to have their roots in the country, get involved," he says.

That suits the agency's new director just fine.

UNEP "will be an organization that is catalytic and coordinating," Dowdeswell says. "I won't be a prisoner here [at headquarters]. My job is around the world. If we don't have a very good idea of what needs are being expressed in Bangladesh or Peru, we're not going to be relevant. We can't operate in isolation."

Tossing out the old top-down style of management, she has called on her subordinates to come up with innovative ideas. She often slips unceremoniously into the back row of UNEP meetings. Morale at UNEP headquarters has soared since her arrival, diplomats here say.

Among other goals at UNEP, Dowdeswell has promised to seek greater employment opportunities for women.

So far, her marks are high. Sanchez praises Dowdeswell for delegating authority and having "a wonderful open management style."

Danielle de St. Jorre, minister of the environment, economic planning, and external relations for the Indian Ocean island state of the Seychelles, calls the new UNEP executive director "dynamic; active."

Prior to her UNEP job, Dowdeswell was assistant deputy minister in the Canadian Environment Ministry.

She was also head of Canada's Atmospheric Environment Service. In earlier jobs she was a human rights ombudsman in Canada, a university lecturer, and a high school teacher.

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