Engaging the developing countries: the Founex initiative

In the run up to the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, relations with developing countries became the most contentious issue in the spring of 1971, on top of the other challenges highlighted above. Maurice Strong received alarming signals in March from Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia reported a deep dissatisfaction among developing countries. The developing countries felt that the environmental discussion was too oriented towards the interests of industrialized countries, particularly the disproportionate attention given to in the preparations, and they also perceived that Strong’s travel programme was oriented mainly towards industrialized countries. Yugoslavia also conveyed a thinly veiled threat of a developing country boycott of the Conference.

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For Strong, it was a dilemma. He still needed to consolidate the confidence of the core group of countries supporting the Conference after the crisis of 1970. However, he took several steps to deal with this new crisis including rearranging his travel schedule. He managed eventually to visit some 30 developing countries. During these visits, Strong met national leaders and established contacts with those who held central positions in domestic political and economic planning processes. He also maintained close relations with multilateral development assistance organizations and representatives of developing countries in the UN.

Through these efforts, together with the assistance given to national report preparations by the Secretariat and donor countries, Strong and his staff managed to stimulate substantive interest and, at best, commitment at the national level. This served to take some of the edge off the political rhetoric in the UN. In a strategic breakthrough in June 1971, Strong managed to secure a promise from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India to attend the Conference. With this, India joined Brazil as the most active developing countries in the preparatory process. Gandhi was the only foreign Head of State present at the Stockholm Conference, which was not a summit event. In her address to the Conference, her rhetorical statement that mass poverty is the greatest polluter of all, had a profound and lasting political effect: “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”

Strong also anticipated the likely participation of the People’s Republic of China in the Conference, although it was not yet a UN member. This would inject a very uncertain political element at the conclusion of preparatory process. He managed to open an informal channel of communication with Premier Chou En-lai, even before China’s entry in the UN in the autumn of 1971.

To highlight the links between environment and development, Strong initiated the holding of a landmark seminar, which brought together top experts in the field of development and environment. We publish extracts about the Founex Initiative from a study, by former Swedish Ambassador Lars-Göran Engfeldt, entitled "From Stockholm to Johannesburg and beyond". The Founex report laid the foundation for the concept of sustainable development, which is much discussed and debated these days:


The Founex Initiative

In the spring of 1971, the Conference Secretariat initiated plans for an in-depth seminar on the development-environment issue to be held in Founex, outside Geneva, in June. The initiative was well received by developing country UN delegations in New York and bought a few months of valuable political respite.(69)

The Founex Seminar introduced the idea of scheduling a special forum to deal with a particularly difficult issue. The seminar was a defining moment and paved the way for the attendance and active involvement of developing countries in the Conference. Its report was also a major intellectual contribution to the further international discourse on environment
and development.(70)

The seminar was thoroughly prepared by Strong with three of the consultants to the Secretariat – the respected development experts Mahbub ul Haq and Gamani Corea as well as Barbara Ward. Ul Haq was initially very critical of what he saw as selfish motives of industrialized countries in promoting the Conference and told Strong so in no uncertain terms. He eventually agreed to proceed with the preparations for the seminar on a trial basis and, ultimately, became convinced that a constructive result could be reached.(71)

A series of working papers was commissioned from experts in developing and industrialized countries as well as from UNCTAD and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The seminar was attended by 27 leading experts from around the world, with lively discussions on a highly intellectual level, free from North-South polemics. They included such personalities as Ignacy Sachs, Samir Amin, Enrique Iglesias, Felipe Herrera, William Kapp, Miguel Ozorio de Almeida, Pitambar Pant, Jan Tinbergen and Shigeto Tsuru. Strong characterized the meeting as one of the best intellectual exchanges he had ever participated in.

This was echoed in Göran Bäckstrand’s internal Swedish report from the meeting and corresponds with the author’s own recollection of this remarkable event. (72) Ul Haq served as chairman of the drafting committee. (73) Committee participants, including government representatives, took part in their individual capacities. No minimum common denominator was sought. This made for a refreshing and innovative text, notwithstanding its purposely general character, on a subject that had never before received this kind of high-level expert attention.

One sentence from the report stands out as the key message that emerged from Founex: “If the concern for human environment reinforces the commitment to development, it must also reinforce the commitment to international aid.”

64 Letter Rydbeck-Swartz 1971-03-31, Letter Erik von Sydow, head of the Swedish delegation in Geneva-Swartz 1971-04-24. That letter included
copy of a memorandum from a visit by a Minister from the Government of the Netherlands to Belgrade given to Strong on 1971-03-19.
65 Report Swedel Gva 1971-04-02.
66 Strong, p. 127.
67 Regeringskansliet, Ministry of the Environment, Stockholm thirty years on – Progress achieved and challenges ahead in international environmental
cooperation (Elanders, Stockholm, 2002), p. 24.
68 Herter and Judy, p. 31.

69 Letter Rydbeck-Swartz 1971-03-31.
70 Strong, pp. 123–125.
71 Ibid.
72 Strong, p.125, memo Bäckstrand 1971-06-17, Development and Environment (Founex, Switzerland, June 4–12, 1971), (Mouton, The Hague, Paris, 1972).
73 UN doc A/CoNF. 48/Annex I.

The report argued that all countries are affected by the global environmental problems. It also presented a series of issues and goals specifically applicable to developing countries.

  • Developing countries should avoid making the mistakes of industrialized countries.
  • Environmental problems in developing countries are essentially different, as they “reflect the poverty and very lack of development of their societies.”
  • Developing country problems can be solved by the development process, “but there is a need for widening of the development concept” in order to include “urgent social and human problems.”
  • Concern for the environment should be integrated into the development process, but this requires a broader definition of development goals than a mere increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Limited resources in developing countries are an overriding constraint to achieving integration.
  • Tradeoffs among various goals are inevitable and are for each country to decide.
  • Increasing costs for environmental protection and awareness that the indivisibility of earth’s natural systems strengthens the vision of a human family should encourage aid increases, in general, as well as increased assistance in social sectors. Taken together, these issues clearly pointed to the potential self-interest for industrialized countries to assist developing countries. They represented an important new political understanding that had begun to surface in international discussion around this time.

The report further warned against arbitrary international guidelines and mentioned potential effects of the environmental issue on international economic relations. It advised that negative effects should be reduced and the potentially positive ones increased, warning that otherwise, confrontation between industrialized and developing countries would be inevitable. This was very much a trade-related concern due to the fact that GATT trade liberalization had often favoured industrialized countries. (74)

This groundbreaking report has been described as “one of the most authentic enunciations of the South’s collective interests on issues of environment and development.” (75) Its basic messages have been guiding the stance of the G77 ever since.

It was also a product of its time. It expressed optimism and faith in the dominant public sectors in developing countries and in the instruments of national planning.

In the big picture, the Founex Report’s integrative message offered a conceptual tool that was later used in the preparations for the Stockholm Conference to demonstrate that there was no inherent contradiction or conflict between environment and development.

It generally assumed there would be a greater preparedness by industrialized countries to increase their overall development assistance efforts. At the same time, as indicated above, it specifically stated that environment protection would entail increased costs, thus retaining the additionality concept from the preceding UNGA session. The participants did not support the idea of a special fund for this purpose, but stated that new funds for environmental protection measures should be “clearly earmarked” and “additional”. By continuing to refer to additionality, Founex, notwithstanding its decisive contribution to the Stockholm process, cemented the widely held view in both the North and the South that there was in fact a conflict between environment and development concerns.(76)


74 Selin and Linnér, p. 24.
75 Ibid., p. 24 quoting Adil Najam (204:231).
76 Jim MacNeill, note to author 2009-02-12.

A Secretariat report to the Conference attempted to present more concrete definitions of additionality. They focused, inter alia, on the special interest of industrialized countries in supporting developing countries projects with international environmental implications. This was an early precursor to discussions held 20 years later that led to the establishment of the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The report contained a very general definition of additionality with a purely national dimension: “Where it can be shown that the expenditure of additional funds to cover the environmental dimension of a project can be clearly justified in terms of the needs and criteria of the country concerned.”(77)


Regional follow-up seminars were held in the seats of the UN Regional Commissions in late summer and early autumn 1971. They attracted great interest and broadened the impact of the Founex report considerably.

The key persons from the Conference Secretariat in these seminars were Arslan Humbaraci (Africa), Salah Dessouki (Arabia), Gamani Corea (Asia), Alfonso Santa Cruz (Latin America).(78)

The official conference document on development and environment gave high relevance to the basic dilemmas outlined in the Founex report. It asked whether the growing awareness of the concepts of “one earth” and “one environment” would lead – as it should – to the nobler concept of “one humanity”, and “to a more equitable sharing of environmental costs and a greater international interest in, and responsibility for, the accelerated development of the less industrialized world.” Or, would it become “a narrow concern of the industrialized world, leading to many awkward confrontations with the developing world rather than to a new era of international cooperation.” The special report to the Conference stated that “the fundamental message of the environmental issue … is interdependence.”(79)

It was to be expected that North-South relations would dominate the last UNGA session before the Conference. Brazil again sought endorsement in the Group of 77 for its hard-line position, this time at the group’s meeting in Lima in October, but without success. Nevertheless, Brazil put forward its own draft resolution.

The main elements of the Brazilian text were a strong emphasis on national sovereignty, a call for additional financial resources to support environmental measures that developing countries might wish to take, and a limitation of the freedom of action of the Secretary-General of the Conference. The text further asked for a report to the upcoming UNCTAD III Conference in the spring of 1972 on the possible effects of environmental measures in industrialized countries on developing countries.

The Brazilian text risked a dangerous confrontation with industrialized countries on the eve of the Conference. Brazil was supported by a small group of developing countries, including Yugoslavia, which became the only country that completely supported Brazil until the end of the ensuing negotiation process. (80)

The broader draft sponsored by Sweden contained positive references to the preparatory process, indicating full support of Strong. A reference to conventions that could be adopted at the Conference, which had the US as a strong proponent, had to be toned down in light of objections from Brazil and the Soviet Union.(81)

A statement by Brazilian Ambassador Ozorio de Almeida was presented in a tone that the Swedish UN Mission judged was aimed to force an open confrontation with industrialized countries. However, this was avoided. Leading western countries continued to act with restraint while considerable differences among developing countries came out in the open. Several developing countries, including Iran and India, actively sought to exercise a moderating influence on Brazil. (82)


77 UN doc A/CONF48/CRP. 1 1972-05-31.
78 Marc Nerfin, e-mail to author 2009-03-17.
79 UN doc A/CONF. 48/10, p. 20, and CRP. 1.
80 Message Swedel NY 1971-12-09.
81 Message Swedel NY 1971-12-09.
82 Messages Swedel NY 1971-12-02, 1971-12-09, 1971-12-09.

In the end, the Swedish-sponsored text was adopted with a large majority, although with negative votes by the Eastern bloc because of the still unresolved invitation question.83 The Brazilian-sponsored text also was adopted, but by a much smaller margin. Four countries, including the US and UK, voted against and 31 countries, including western donor countries, abstained.(84)

Without the impact of the Founex Initiative, an open North-South confrontation at the UNGA session would have been almost unavoidable and would have had a devastating effect on the Conference.

Some longer term lessons

These early experiences in managing North-South relations in the UN produced some longer term lessons that remain relevant.

• Brazil demonstrated that a country with sufficient geopolitical weight and strong convictions can occupy the centre stage of negotiations and exercise major influence, particularly in a situation that has not yet crystallized.

• Political choices necessitated by such action tend to polarize views and make accommodation more difficult. In this case, the long-term consequences were considerable. The negative votes cast by US and the UK, on the one hand, and the fact that many developing countries felt they had to support the Brazilian position, on the other, were the first formal signs of a North-South polarization.

This had barely been avoided during the previous UNGA session when, in the end, Brazil chose not to put forward a draft resolution of its own.

• The decisive contribution of the Founex Report to the outcome of the Stockholm Conference could not be sustained after the Conference. Its integrative blueprint did not relate to national and international institutional structures with sufficient broad areas of jurisdiction. Attempts were made, but a systematic institutional follow-up of the report was all but impossible, quite apart from the political sensitivities involved.(85)

• A telling international example was the absence of any operational coordination between the preparations for the closely related UNCTAD III and the Stockholm Conferences.

The invitation problem

The matter of invitations, which had been postponed again at the UNGA sessions of 1970 and 1971, became successively more difficult towards the end of the preparatory process for Stockholm. The issue was hostage to East-West negotiations on the German question, particularly concerning the international status of the GDR. This was related to the so-called Hallstein Doctrine of the FRG, which opposed the notion of two German states and was supported at the time by an overwhelming majority of UN members.

Considerable political energy was spent by many actors, including Maurice Strong and the host country, to resolve the problem.

Strong made several attempts, but could not contribute to the substantive resolution of this great power political issue. On one occasion, he met the GDR Foreign Minister, which brought criticism from the US. While recognizing the limitations of the politics of the day, his philosophy was that he would treat all foreign representatives as participants in the process in view of the universal nature of the environmental issue.(86)

However, in spite of the uncertainties about Soviet participation in the Conference, he still managed to secure an active Soviet involvement in the preparatory process by recruiting a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences Vladimir Kunin, as scientific adviser to the Secretariat after a sensitive diplomatic process.(87)

The host country explored all possible options together with many other countries, including both the FRG and the GDR, but in spite of the efforts, none could contribute a solution.88 Uncertainty prevailed until a few days before the Conference but, in the end, the question could not be resolved. The Soviet Union and its allies did not participate in the Conference.

A few months earlier, these countries had boycotted the formal parts of the preparatory process, such as participation in the working group on the Declaration.

However, contrary to the widespread fears in the run-up to the Conference, this episode turned out not to have any significant damaging effects. The Soviet Union participated actively in the Conference Secretariat preparations up to the end. The underlying political problem was resolved in 1973, when the FRG and the GDR both became members of the newly established United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

83 The votes were 94 – 8 – 7; the text later became UNGA res 2850 (XXVI).
84 The votes were 62 – 4 (US, UK, Australia, Belgium) – 31; the text later became GA Resolution 2849 (XXVI).
85 In the host country, the newly established Secretariat for Future Studies in the Prime Minister’s office stimulated national debate through a
Swedish edition of the Founex Report in 1973. This catalyzed a conference and a special publication by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in 1975
entitled What now: another development. Marc Nerfin was the project director.
86 Maurice Strong, interview by author, 2008-04-04.87 Strong, pp. 119-120.
87 Account and analysis of invitation issue up to December 1972 in memo Swartz 72-01-04; examples of further activities memo Swartz/Swedish MFA legal adviser Hans Blix 72-01-21, memo Blix 72-01-27; messages Swedel Gva 1972-01-31 and 1972-02-01; internal report by Swedish Foreign Minister Krister Wickman from visit to Moscow 1972-02-14.