The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) means well. It describes itself not immodesty as an “advocate, educator, catalyst and facilitator” for the world’s environmental problems. In essence, it’s the green wing of the United Nations.
UNEP does this by promote dialogue, disseminate information, develop regional strategies, host climate change debates and generally hold the hand of environmental authorities in transitional economies.
With the best intentions (namely, there’s no-one else with the clout to do so), the UN agency is expanding its brief to actually digging up data, not just sifting it. Since 1999, UNEP has carried out on-the-ground mitigation studies in twenty-five countries.
Now, as Ethical Corporation’s Eric Marx explains, it’s facing its biggest job to date: surveying the Niger Delta. Over the last half century, an estimated 9 billion barrels of oil have seeped out into this highly-politicised corner of Nigeria.
On the face of it, the project is meeting its objectives. Since its inception in October 2009, the 100 strong UNEP team has taken 1,200 samples and charted 300 spill sites.
All is not well, however. Though key groups among the delta’s Ogoni population are backing the process, many Nigerians and environmental groups remain sceptical. The study, they say, is being financed by oil major Shell – the main private operator in the region. The findings will, they continue, therefore be compromised. That allegation was given a boost when the chief of the UNEP mission blamed 90% of spills on oil ‘bunkering’. That’s to say, common thievery.
Shell is adamant that it is standing aloof from the scientific process of monitoring and surveillance. Nor is it the primary financier. More than half (55%) of the $100 million, three-year project is being picked up by the Nigerian government as majority partner in Shell’s Nigerian joint venture. Shell owns 30%. France’s Total and Italy’s AGIP have a 10% and 5% stake respectively. All partners are paying a commensurate percentage.
At a broader level, the project has raised a larger question: as Marx asks, is UNEP for sale? How objective can the agency be when ultimately it is accountable to and funded by its member states. Speaking to Ethical Corporation, UNEP’s executive director Achim Steiner says the agency is not in the business of “legal liability attribution”. That may be so, but truthful science should point a finger in the general direction of the perpetrators. Whether UNEP is willing to be seen as overtly criticising one of its member states – or their key partners – is the issue at stake for the sceptics.
There’s another side to the debate, of course. UNEP, it could be argued, are the environmental equivalent to the Red Cross. Their stance as expert insiders without a political axe to grind gives them access and behind-the-scenes negotiating power that few (no?) other organisations enjoy.
Extending the reach of their stakeholder engagement efforts should help UNEP strengthen its apolitical credentials. That’s what it did in Sudan with some success. Finding well-resourced local partners in the Niger delta is not an easy task, however.
UNEP’s final report is due out at the end of this year. In some ways, it’s a poisoned chalice. Too damning and it faces overstepping its impartial brief. Too lenient and critics will accuse it of bias. The best solution is to stick rigourously to the science. There is safety in numbers, of the statistical kind. UNEP’s role is too important to get embroiled in finger pointing. There are others with far more experience in the blame game who can be left to do that.