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Interview: Klaus Toepfer

Published by Newsweek on 2000-01-01

When Klaus Toepfer became executive director of the moribund United Nations Environment Programme, it was a moribund agency whose donors were tempted to shut it down. But in the year since the former German environment minister took over UNEP, he has re-energized the Nairobi based organization, even persuading industrialized countries to channel more funds into agency activities such as monitoring desertification, global warming, and biodiversity (the current annual budget is $120 million, an increase of 10 percent over last year). A gruff man with a manner that sometimes rankles even wellwishers, Toepfer met with Newsweek's Pranay Gupte in New York recently. Excerpts from the conversation:

GUPTE: What has it been like for you to make the transition from an important political career in Germany to the multilateral world?
TOEPFER: I'm absolutely convinced that we need a strong United Nations system--and that we need in this UN system also a clear voice for the global environment. And after one year I have come to the conclusion that this was really the best decision I ever made. My last appointment in the German government was the responsibility for housing, for regional planning, for the transfer government from Bonn to Berlin--and I enjoyed a budget of more than $7 billion. Now I have to contend with just $120 million. But it is not a question of the budget--it is a question of creativity. You can do a lot with $120 million if you use this money carefully, and use a lean administration. I am impatient, no doubt. But now I've had to learn to be aware that you are integrated in the UN family, and that we have to handle very carefully the different interests of different regions.

What is the defining mission of UNEP?
Our main mission must be to prove again and again that a stable environment is not a luxury which we can be committed to in those days that we have no other problems. Instead, we must demonstrate that a stable environment--the handling of the creation of God--is really the precondition also for stable economic development and social stability. So if you can give this with clear facts and figures, but also with the heart and the feelings of the people around the world, then you are doing the job right.

What do you say to those who insist that environmental agencies are useless?
I was Germany's environment minister for a long time, and I always contended that it would be a huge success for the environment minister if he is not even necessary in the future--that the agriculture minister is directly integrating environmental policies in his work, if the transport minister, the minister for foreign affairs and all the other colleagues are really greening their agendas. Obviously, I don't believe that we are quite now already in that situation. At the international level, we need this environment guardian--we need this catalytic voice for the environment because there's still a very high danger to global ecology from such things as climate change, desertification, harming of biodiversity.

How do you view globalization?
I am not an optimist with regard to globalization, but I am a realist. I know that this is not even any longer a process. It is already a result. We are confronted with the globalization of markets, the globalization of information and communication, the globalization of goods and services, so I have to ask what is the consequence? We urgently need economic growth in the world. We have to overcome poverty. Poverty is the toxic substance in the world. We are located in Nairobi. Nearly 4 million inhabitants of Nairobi live in absolute poverty. If you see their water problems, their hygienic situation, their fight for daily subsistence--you wonder about globalization's benefits. This globalization must also promote rapid equitable economic development, for new jobs in these poor countries. It's fashionable to talk about more trade in our globalized world. Trade is not an aim in itself. It must help overcome those problems in the world, and not to broaden the gap between the developed and the developing countries.

How concerned are you about donor fatigue?
We must be honest. We cannot play only on donors' emotions. But we need clear analysis. We are one world, more and more, and we must be aware that problems in one part of the world quickly have huge repercussions in other parts. We know by now that we have more environmental refugees than ever before--more than 25 million environmental refugees. So we cannot permit ourselves to suffer from donor fatigue. The people in the developed world--the taxpayers--must know that the money they spend in Africa or in Latin America or in parts of Asia, is really investment for peace--for their own peace and for the peace of their children in this world. What we are not doing to bridge the gap between the developed world and the developing world is again and again the most important starting point for tensions, for conflicts, even for wars. We must bring technologies and money to the developing countries to decrease their contribution to global warming emission, among other things. The protection of the global environment should be a local concern everywhere.

Why is the multilateral system is important?
Day by day we learn that this wonderful blue Planet Earth needs more than only bilateral activities. We need the peace making capacity of the UN. But peace depends ultimately on sustainable development and on the protection of our fragile environment. My grandchildren's questions will be never linked with the price of gold or about when the Dow Jones industrial average jumped over the 10,000 benchmark. They will ask what were we doing to make the structural precondition for peace on this planet. And therefore I think it is worth to invest whatever is possible in the good future of the United Nations. I am totally convinced that the best peace policy for our children will be instituting of sound environment policy.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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