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Chapter 4.3: Role of Maurice Strong: a study in leadership
(reprinted with kind permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sweden)
When Maurice Strong established the Conference Secretariat in Geneva in January 1971, it was less than a year and a half before the opening of the Conference.
Although there had been many accomplishments since 1968, the initiative now faced its most crucial and difficult test. Could the two-week Conference actually deliver the action-oriented results requested by the UNGA?
Maurice Strong played a key operational and catalytic role in making this possible, often against seemingly overwhelming odds. He managed to exercise a remarkable level of personal influence throughout the entire remaining preparatory process, while at the same time maintaining the confidence of delegations.1/
Strong acted with the delegated authority of the UN Secretary-General, who had been entrusted with the overall responsibility for organizing and preparing the Conference. This broad mandate gave him and the Conference Secretariat the prerogative to manage the process, to take initiatives and to place the concrete proposals for action before the governments. Having this mandate was an asset of great importance but it had to be utilized with care. He was bound by UN rules and regulations and, most importantly, he could not afford to lose the confidence of Member States and put the substantive outcome at risk. He also had to find ways to deal with the sensitive issue of inter-agency cooperation without compromising the action-oriented objective of the Conference.
Maurice Strong’s personality and previous experiences were big assets. He combined an extraordinary vitality with excellent organizational skills and political judgement. In fact, two different characterizations of him at the time captured the same essence of his unusual personality – “pragmatic idealist” and ”active pragmatist”.2/
He was also highly motivated. In his memoirs, he spoke of his rising concerns about air and water pollution in Canada in the 1960s and his increasing awareness of the environmental issue as a whole. This included the environmental and social disruption caused by some Canadian-supported infrastructure projects in developing countries. He was heavily influenced by Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and developed a friendship with the Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei, the founder of the Club of Rome, a global think tank now based in Switzerland that became very famous in 1972 with its publication: “Limits to Growth”.3/ He expressed his desire to make a personal contribution in a letter to Lady Jackson (Barbara Ward) on the occasion of the publication of her book Space Ship Earth in 1966: “My own greatest aspiration at this point is to be able to do something to put into operation some of the ideas and the ideals that you have done so much to inspire.”4/
1. Letter Rydbeck- Ole Jödahl, Secretary-General of Swed MFA, 1971-03-24; Herter and Judy, p. 41.2. Sverker Åström, Ögonblick (Bonnier Alba, Stockholm, 1992), p. 163, Herter and Judy, p. 13.3. Maurice Strong , Where on Earth are we going” (Alfred A. Knopf Canada., 2000), pp. 116-117.4. Letter date 1966-12-12 (Maurice Strong papers, Harvard University).
From his time as head of Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), he had a strong interest in development and the environmental issues and had nurtured a vast, global network of high level personal contacts. He valued personal contact and had well-developed diplomatic and conflict resolution skills. In his autobiography, he summed up some of these experiences with the words “never to confront but to co-opt, never to bully but to equivocate and never to yield.”5/
In the following, the key elements of this crucial leadership factor for the Conference are analyzed. This includes some significant cases where political constraints forced Strong to lower his original goals in the interest of securing a positive end result.6/
Design of the preparatory process
Maurice Strong’s first and foremost task was to re-gain the government confidence that was lost due to the evident mismanagement of the UN Secretariat earlier in 1970. He managed to do so with a masterful performance at an informal meeting of the Preparatory Committee on 9 – 10 November 1970, immediately before he formally took up his position. His message, to “place our search for sound environmental policies in the socio-economic context of development,”7/ received important “conditional but encouraging” support from developing countries. He also took decisive control of the preparations and injected intellectual clarity and order in the void caused by the non-performing Secretariat. This served to move the substantive level of the preparations considerably beyond what had emerged from the first session of the Preparatory Committee.
He conceived a three-level preparatory process that would avoid the seeming contradiction between the desire by governments for both comprehensiveness and action. His design was welcomed by governments who were, for the most part, uncertain of how to proceed with this new type of multilateral process.
Level 1: Intellectual and conceptual framework – designed to provide a comprehensive review of the existing state of knowledge and opinion on the relationship between man and his environment. The main contribution was an unofficial report prepared by Barbara Ward and René Dubos with the assistance of a 152-member committee of corresponding consultants in 58 countries. Its title carried the motto of the Stockholm Conference “Only One Earth”, symbolizing the rise in awareness and beginning of a paradigm shift that had developed since the original initiative in December 1967.
This innovative publication constituted the world’s first state-of-the environment report when it was published in 1972. 8/ As such, it had a major impact on public opinion and elites in industrialized countries and also, to some extent, in the developing world. The report was not considered at the Conference because of its unofficial character. Strong had chosen this unorthodox, but completely legal way because of bureaucratic rigidity in the UN Secretariat.9/
5. Strong, p. 123.6. If not otherwise stated, the account is based on the recollections of the author. The observations can also be found in abbreviated form in Engfeldt (1973). 7. Strong, p. 122, second quote from Strong’s opening remarks at the meeting, p. 9. 8. Barbara Ward and René Dubos, Only One Earth – The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet (George McLeod Ltd, Toronto and simultaneously by other publishers around the world, 1972. 9 Strong, p. 125.
Level 2: Action plan for future work – producing an action plan and work programme for the years ahead was the centrepiece of the substance considered at the Stockholm Conference. The plan would contain those items that had sufficient consensus to enable agreement (i) on concrete recommendations for further action and (ii) on institutional arrangements for taking such action. This innovative concept would become the model for UN global conferences in the 1970s and the 1990s in various cross-sectorial areas.
Level 3: Issues for immediate action – consisted of specific issues that required immediate initiation of international action that could be completed, at least through an initial stage, by the time of the Conference. Governments had already made several suggestions including the early establishment of a global monitoring system, the establishment of an international registry of chemical compounds, and measures in the area of marine pollution. In the latter area, as in some others, the distinction between levels 2 and 3 became somewhat blurred.10/
This innovative and ambitious approach was generally endorsed by the Preparatory Committee at its second meeting in February 1971. The Committee further agreed on an agenda for the Conference and gave the Conference Secretariat wide latitude in preparing the draft action plan. The agenda followed the lines agreed at the first session with the addition of new items: development and environment – the most important politically, which articulated the interests of developing countries, following the developments in the UNGA the previous autumn international institutional implications of action proposals – reflected the growing realization that the substantive results of the Conference would have institutional implications that would require careful consideration.
Stockholm Conference Agenda
Agreed February 1971
1. Planning and management of human settlements for environmental quality
2. Environmental aspects of natural resources management
3. Identification and control of pollutants of broad international significance
4. Educational, informational, social and cultural aspects of environmental issues
5. Development and environment
6. International institutional implications of action proposals to be considered by the Conference
Five intergovernmental working groups were established for Level 3 action that dealt with marine pollution, monitoring, soils, conservation and the drafting of the declaration on the human environment. It should be noted that the points in the box represent the core of the Agenda, i.e. the Action Plan under Level 2. The results of the first four working groups were incorporated in the Action Plan, which in the end became a mix of Level 2 and Level 3 actions. In the end, the Declaration was presented as a separate outcome, placed before the Action Plan in the final document. Likewise, Point 6 on institutions received separate treatment via a resolution of its own.
10, Strong’s statement at the second session of the Preparatory Committee, 1971-02-08, Press Release HE/2.
These achievements in such a short time, particularly in view of the situation in the Secretariat in the autumn of 1970, would not have been possible without Maurice Strong’s innovative methods, enthusiasm and power of persuasion. A key ingredient was his ability to establish trustful personal relations with all key actors, both in capitals and in the UN. Although this required a gruelling travel schedule, he still managed to build up the Conference Secretariat in record time.
The process is the policy
Maurice Strong consistently applied his overall formula: “The process is the policy”.
His first point of departure was similar to that of Sverker Åström. He felt the preparatory process itself was as important as the actual results of the Conference.
The second was that he would exercise leadership to the maximum extent possible in a given political setting. This meant promoting constant interaction between the substantive and political aspects of an issue. The aim, which was largely fulfilled, was to increase the quality and level of consensus gradually, so that the process itself would produce a result satisfactory to all. By following the process, the end result was mainly secured before the Conference started.11/
When delegations assembled at Stockholm for the final work, there would be no way back other than a radical turnaround which, by then, would have been politically impossible.12/ Strong and his colleagues in the Conference Secretariat orchestrated or managed a complex series of consultations and negotiations, parallel or additional to the official proceedings. These meetings involved not only government representatives but also a wide selection of independent experts. One such forum – an informal, representative group of 15 to 20 experts that provided continuous advice throughout the process – included, among others, Jim MacNeill and David Munro, Canada, and Martin Holdgate, UK.13/
“The process is the policy” concept was assisted by the deadline presented by the Conference itself. This served as a powerful stimulus to achieve results. Delegations were working towards a first-ever, action-oriented global conference in the area of environment and it was being closely monitored by media and civil society.
Through Strong’s approach, it became possible to break new ground that would have major repercussions for the future. He opened the process and invited the active involvement of civil society, the scientific community and the corporate sector.
Civil society: A major issue before Stockholm was how to channel and make use of the interest from many civil society organizations. Recognizing that there was often deep mutual suspicion and mistrust between civil society and governments, Strong recruited Henrik Beer, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross Societies, as special adviser, as well as Baron van dem Busche, a leading member of the German resistance movement during World War II. In cooperation with the host country, special NGO facilities were established at the conference, including the Environment Forum. This became a model for future UN conferences.
11. Herter and Judy, p. 21.
12. Memo Göran Bäckstrand (desk officer, Swed MFA), 1972-08-24.
13. Jim MacNeill, note to author 2009-02-11.
Scientific community: The direct participation of the scientific community in the intergovernmental process, inter alia, through the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), resulted in the first-ever comprehensive study of man’s impact on the climate. The study, sponsored by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was conducted in June-July 1971 in Stockholm.14/ It became one of the underpinnings for Recommendation 79 – establishment of monitoring networks – in the Stockholm Action Plan.
Corporate sector: Inclusion of the corporate sector in the preparatory work through seminars and conferences involved the International Chamber of Commerce and leading corporate representatives from several countries. Although this presence was not felt at the time, it was an important precursor to later developments.
With this involvement of non-State stakeholders, the first steps were taken towards broader participation in agenda setting in the environmental area. During the preparations for the Stockholm Conference, this was particularly noticeable in the increasing influence of the scientific sector in policy-making and in the growing interaction between the NGO community and governments. The latter had the effect of energizing delegations, particularly from industrialized countries, to produce results that would have resonance in their own domestic public opinion.
In some cases, the process had to (i) steer clear of non-productive political controversy or (ii) go forward with a lowered level of ambition in the overriding interest of achieving the best possible overall result.
For example, in the first category, the population question figured prominently in the early preparatory discussions but did not appear on the agenda as a specific subject. Åström already had taken the view that this issue was too big and contentious for separate treatment,15/ and Strong took the same position, given the fact that the UN had already scheduled a world population conference for 1974.16/ However, with projections that world population would double by the year 2000 and increase pressure on the ecosystems, the issue was – and remains – a burning one. Differing religious beliefs, political and social attitudes and perspectives continue to make it difficult to deal constructively with the matter at the global level. The issue was raised by governments in both the working group on the Declaration and during consideration of the Action Plan at the Conference, but with no conclusive results.
A crucial decision on the orientation of the draft action plan at the end of the summer of 1971 exemplified the impact of the second category. Four options had been defined for the theme of the action plan:
planning and management
14. Inadvertent Climate Modification, Report of the Study of Man’s Impact on Climate (SMIC), sponsored by MIT, hosted by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, The MIT Press, 1971).
16. Herter and Judy, p. 37.
Based on analyses of materials received and of the political will of governments, Strong concluded that “knowledge” was the only theme on which governments would be prepared to take the kind of decisions that could lead to concrete measures within reasonable time. In other words, if the Action Plan focused on improving knowledge about the problems, it would build a stronger base for taking further action.
With this understanding, it was felt the Plan,17/ could consist of the following elements: monitoring, information exchange, research, education and training, natural resource overview, and institutional and financial implications. In addition, it could offer a series of specific recommendations in areas such as urbanization, criteria and standards for environmental quality, and the link between development and environment.18/ This course of action set the overall direction for the Action Plan, embodying the bulk of the decisions of the Conference. Judging by later developments, it is clear that Strong’s political assessment at the time was correct.
One victim of this inevitable choice was that it was not possible to include the major issue of factoring environmental issues into economic decisions. The true societal costs of environmental degradation as well as the benefits of environmental protection were not part of conventional economic theory and did not figure in calculations of gross national product (GNP). This fundamental – and controversial – issue had been mentioned in the early UN speeches and had been proposed as an item for the Conference in an internal memorandum to Strong during the preparations for the informal meeting of the Preparatory Committee in November 1970.19/
Strong raised the matter in a speech in May 1971, emphasizing mankind’s joint responsibility for the basic components of the global, life-supporting system. In this connection, he stated that “industrialized countries of the western world must be prepared to accept a much greater degree of public intervention in the processes of economic decision-making. … Economic policy must become much more clearly an instrument for achieving the goals of society than an end in itself.”20/ Strong reverted to the matter in more speeches before the Conference, and in his opening statement at the Conference itself, he rejected a “no growth” policy, but stated that the opportunities to express the creative drives of people “can only be provided within a total system in which man’s activities are in dynamic harmony with the natural order.”21/ In this way, externalities would not arise but would become internalized.22/
22. Maurice Strong, interview by author, 2008-04-05.
As it turned out years later, the Rio and Johannesburg processes were also incapable of meeting this fundamental societal challenge. These are telling examples of the political and structural limitations prevailing in sectoral administrative and decision-making structures at all levels.
The Conference Secretariat also faced another type of externality – a political one related to the East-West divide and its resulting Cold War. This externality prevented the environmental issue from being treated as a universal question because of the controversy over which countries to invite to the Conference (discussed later in this chapter).
As the process moved forward, national interests became more engaged and political sensitivities increased. Strong managed to deflect a challenge at the third session of the Preparatory Committee in September 1971 when Brazil and UK requested a clarification of the competence of the Secretary-General of the Conference.24/ Both countries wished to increase government influence in the process, but for opposite reasons. Brazil felt that too little had been done to satisfy the interests of the developing countries, while the UK was motivated by its restrictive attitude towards the entire process. As a result, Strong agreed to widen the scope of the foreseen consultations with governments on the draft Action Plan.
The Conference Secretariat
The extraordinary challenges of the preparatory process would not have been met without the high quality and unusually effective Conference Secretariat. Under Strong’s leadership, the Secretariat’s further preparations combined innovation with a high level of ambition and thoroughness never before seen at a UN conference.25/
The Secretariat consisted of a small core group of around 10 professionals. The recruitment process, undertaken with great care, in most cases produced excellent results. The criteria for selection were intellectual rigour and initiative, organizing talent, will and capacity for hard work, devotion and reliability.26/
The Secretariat was tightly run, although with an informal atmosphere, and was constantly working against pressing deadlines that were, by and large, met. This professional and loyal group was very ably led on a daily basis by Chef de Cabinet Marc Nerfin. Nerfin, a Swiss national, had a solid background in the UN. He had cemented his highly respected professional reputation during his most recent post as Secretary of the so-called Jackson Study on the Capacity of the United Nations Development System, published in 1969. The trust and candour between Strong and Nerfin was an indispensable asset for the entire operation.
24. Report Swedel NY, 1971-10-20.
25. Caldwell, p. 59.
The Secretariat was organized around the themes of the Conference agenda. Working routines were devised using the latest management techniques available at the time, which were fine-tuned during the spring of 1971.
Stockholm Conference Secretariat
Maurice Strong, Secretary General
Marc Nerfin, Chef de Cabinet
In addition to the core staff, the Secretariat hired a considerable number of very qualified consultants and advisers. These individuals, who played a key role in developing the substantive content of the Conference and represented Strong in travels abroad, included the following persons:
As seen in the list of the core staff of the Conference Secretariat, a special liaison function with the host country was established in the Secretariat through the author. This informal arrangement proved a good way to maintain close and continuous contact with the host government. The author, after having been transferred from New York, served in an informal capacity in the Conference Secretariat while being formally a member of the Swedish mission in Geneva. This arrangement allowed for informal communications on key substantive issues and facilitated contacts on practical matters in connection with the Conference. With the location of the Secretariat in Geneva, this informal channel also provided a backup and support to the Swedish UN mission in New York.
Strong, who initiated the unorthodox arrangement, realized the paramount importance of ensuring a mutual understanding of this complex and politically sensitive process between the Secretariat and the host country. He ensured, mostly through Nerfin, a continuous and completely transparent dialogue on all issues of interest. The special arrangement served its purposes well and never came under criticism from any delegation.
Strong and his colleagues maintained regular, open and businesslike contacts with the key political, substantive and administrative Swedish actors in Stockholm and New York as well as with the Swedish ambassadors during all their travels. He established trustful relations with the political leadership of Sweden, particularly with Prime Minister Olof Palme, his predecessor Tage Erlander, who was the Chairman of the National Committee for the Conference, and the future Conference President, Minister of Agriculture Ingemund Bengtsson.
It is noteworthy that he also developed a cordial relationship with Gustav VI Adolf, King of Sweden, who regularly invited him to the Palace during his visits to Stockholm. Crown Prince Carl Gustaf visited New York as part of his education in the fall of 1970, where he was introduced to and became particularly interested in the emerging environmental issue. He later attended the second session of the Preparatory Committee and has made environmental concerns a centrepiece of his reign since 1973.
In his relationship with the host country, Strong put special emphasis on his overall policy of close dialogue with Member States. This created an atmosphere of mutual confidence and trust that characterized the relations between the Conference Secretariat and the host country.
Documentation: The generous budget for consultants was made possible through a drastic reduction of the official documentation foreseen, from 6,500 to 1,600 pages. That number was later reduced to 600, further adapting old UN routines to the new, action-oriented format. This included producing the documents with new and more appealing design, a major innovation in a world not yet introduced to computers.
The Secretariat received written contributions from a variety of sources, including national reports, basic papers prepared by specialized agencies, case studies, and reports from the intergovernmental working groups and many interested NGOs. By the end of August 1971, this amounted to 72 national reports, 125 basic papers and several case studies (totalling 7,000 pages) and represented in itself a major international policy-shaping effort. As such, this was a most tangible result of Strong’s “process is the policy” philosophy.27/ By the time of the Conference, the total number of national reports had risen to 85. 28/ Specialized agency papers: When it came to materials intended for the Conference itself, Strong introduced another novelty. He reversed earlier plans for the specialized agencies to take responsibility for the preparation of conference papers in their spheres of responsibility.29/ Instead, he directed that all papers should originate from the Conference Secretariat, which would take the responsibility for them and place them before the Conference. The agencies thus made their contributions to the Secretariat and not directly to the Conference. This ensured that a unified and coherent perspective was presented, in line with the original aim to provide a common outlook and direction for the international environmental efforts.
Although they were unhappy with the change in the documentation procedure, Strong managed to keep workable relations with the specialized agencies during the rest of the preparatory process. However, they generally maintained their restrictive attitude in the institutional area.30/ These tensions were gradually building up and erupted during the Conference itself.
National reports: The Secretariat played a significant role with lasting effects in the preparation of the national reports and their analysis. This process was greatly assisted by the visits by Strong or his representatives to many countries and the generous financial assistance given by a group of industrialized countries, particularly the core group behind the Conference.
The Conference Secretariat’s analysis of the national reports and the basic papers constituted the first-ever global survey of the environmental situation. In one of its conclusions, water emerged as the global issue accorded the highest priority by governments.31/
The preparation of national reports vastly increased the governments’ knowledge about the situations in their own countries. It also was a major stimulus to national involvement in the preparations as well as post-Conference institution building.
The preparation process, however, required both considerable lead time and persistent efforts to achieve desired results. This early experience would have general relevance for later processes, up to the Johannesburg Summit.
27. Message Swedel Gva 1971-08-30. The material received by August 1971 served as the basis for the compilation resulting in the draft Action Plan during the autumn of 1971; Herter and Judy, p. 22, indicate the figure of 20,000 pages, which could include the total material received up to the time of the Conference itself.
28. Speech by Maurice Strong at Edinburgh University, 1972-01-19.
29. Message Swedel Genève 1971-07-07, letter author - Bäckstrand 1971-08-03, Herter and Judy, p. 23.
30. Letter Rydbeck-Jödahl 1971-03-24.
31. Message Swedel Gva 1971-08-30.