Designing the United Nations Environment Programme: a story of compromise and confrontation


The role of the United Nations in global environmental governance was determined in 1972 when a new international body for the global environment was created as a programme within the United Nations rather than as an autonomous specialized agency. A set of political dynamics between developed and developing countries led to the decisions on the functions, form, financing, and location of the new intergovernmental organization—the United Nations Environment Programme. This article traces the historical roots of these choices and exposes the motivations behind them.

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  1. 1.

    In 1969, industrial debris and oil in the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire. One of President Nixon’s aides wrote that the political mood in Washington engendered by the public outcry could only be captured by the word hysteria (Buck 2006).

  2. 2.

    For a more detailed discussion of the “anchor institution” terminology, see Ivanova (2005). Can the Anchor Hold? Rethinking the United Nations Environment Programme for the 21st Century. New Haven, CT, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

  3. 3.

    This point is made by Lynton Caldwell (1996).

  4. 4.

    In the United States, the movement had been building since the 1950s when “a New York case, Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission (1955) for the first time admitted scenic and recreational criteria in legal actions. In 1963, the Clean Air Act authorized federal hearings on potential air pollution problems; in 1964 the Wilderness Act set aside tracts of land and barred them permanently from development. In 1966, an early version of the Endangered Species Act was passed” (Buck 2006). In 1969, a major oil spill off the California coast led to public outcry. The first Earth Day, held in 1970, was largely a political affair. On January 1, 1970, President Nixon had signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a significant piece of legislation that established the environmental priorities in the United States.

  5. 5.

    Maurice Strong had developed an interest in the UN as a very young man, long before he became Secretary-General of the Stockholm Conference. He followed many UN-related issues and, at the age of 18, traveled to New York to take a job as assistant pass officer in the Identification Unit of the Security Section in the United Nations. He lived with Noah Monod, then Treasurer of the UN and made connections, for example with David Rockefeller and John McCloy, which would prove critical to many of his subsequent endeavors in life (not just in the UN). For example, McCloy helped set up the World Bank and became its first president. He was also an assistant to Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Henry Stimson. McCloy was appointed to a presidential commission to respond to a Soviet proposal that the United Nations control future development of atomic power. McCloy recommended that the United States turn over all information to the UN. He continued this supportive stance of the UN as head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Kennedy and some say that he went so far as to promote the idea of turning all defense over to the UN through his Blueprint for the Peace Race: Outline of Basic Provision of a Treaty on General and Complete Disarmament in a Peaceful World (Publication 4, General Series 3, May 3, 1962). Maurice Strong was thus influenced by people who genuinely believed in the United Nations’ mission and purpose.

  6. 6.

    Direct quotes from Åström (2003) have been translated from Swedish by the author.

  7. 7.


  8. 8.

    All data are for 2003 except for the OECD and WTO, which are for 2004. The GEF annual budget was estimated from the $3 billion in replenishment funds in 2003 used for its work programme over a four-year period. Sources: Organizations’ websites, referenced in the bibliography.

  9. 9.

    The Environment Fund for 2008–2009 amounts to $152 million.

  10. 10.

    As noted earlier, the office of the Secretary-General had not prepared analyses of the financial implications of all location bids assuming that the secretariat would remain in Geneva. The Second Committee requested that such a review be undertaken and it was quickly compiled based on questionnaires to the candidate countries. It revealed a cost of $2.3 million for Nairobi and $1.3 million for Geneva.

  11. 11.

    Joseph Odero-Jowi, Permanent Representative of Kenya to the United Nations, became the President of the Security Council in February 1973.



UN Economic and Social Council


Environmental Protection Agency


Food and Agriculture Organization


Group of 77


International Atomic Energy Agency


UN Conference on Trade and Environment


United Nations Development Programme


United Nations Environment Organization


United Nations Environment Programme


UN Industrial Development Organization


World Food Programme


World Health Organization


World Meteorological Organization


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Correspondence to Maria Ivanova.

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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2006 Annual Convention of the International Studies Association in San Diego, CA.

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Ivanova, M. Designing the United Nations Environment Programme: a story of compromise and confrontation. Int Environ Agreements 7, 337–361 (2007).

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  • Developing countries
  • Global environmental governance
  • History of environmental governance
  • Institutional design
  • United Nations Environment Programme
  • UNEP
  • United States