Timeline of UNEP Executive Directors
Maurice Strong was a Canadian businessman specializing in oil and mineral resources who also served as UN Under-Secretary- General and became UNEP’s first Executive Director (1973–1975). By his early thirties, Mr. Strong was President of the Power Corporation of Canada. Later, he served as the head of PetroCanada, Canada’s national oil company, as Chairman of the Canada Development Investment Corporation, and as Director of the American private conglomerate Tosco. He later worked as Deputy Minister for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). In 1970, UN Secretary-General U Thant appointed Strong as Secretary-General of the 1972 Stockholm Conference. Mr. Strong also served as Secretary-General of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, as President of the Council of the University of Peace from 1998 to 2006, and as an active honorary professor at Peking University.
Dr. Mostafa Tolba was the second and longest-serving UNEP Executive Director, from 1976 to 1992. Dr. Tolba led the Egyptian delegation to the 1972 Stockholm Conference and served as UNEP’s Deputy Director during the mandate of Maurice Strong. Prior to joining UNEP, Dr. Tolba was on the faculty of sciences at Cairo University, where he established a department of microbiology. He was professor and head of the department of botany at the University of Baghdad from 1954 to 1959. Thereafter, he joined the Egyptian civil service as Undersecretary of State for Higher Education and Minister of Youth. He was the first president of the newly established Academy for Scientific Research and Technology in 1971. In 1994, upon his retirement from UNEP and return to Egypt, Dr. Tolba established the International Center for Environment and Development (ICED) a non-profit organization financing environmental projects.
Elizabeth Dowdeswell served as UNEP Executive Director from 1993 to 1998. Before joining UNEP, she served as Canada’s Assistant Deputy Minister of Environment, where she oversaw the Atmospheric Environment and Meteorological Service and negotiations for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 1996, Ms. Dowdeswell ranked sixty-six in the New York Times Magazine’s list of the one hundred most powerful women in the world. From 2002 to 2010, she served as founding president and CEO of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization in Canada. From 1998 to 2010, Ms. Dowdeswell was an adjunct professor at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health at the University of Toronto, and from 2010 until 2014 she served as President and CEO of the Council of Canadian Academies. In September 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Ms. Dowdeswell as Ontario’s 29th Lieutenant Governor.
Prof. Dr. Klaus Töpfer started his career in academia and later transitioned into politics. Dr. Töpfer became minister for the Environment and Health in the regional government of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1985. Subsequently, he served as Federal Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety from 1987 to 1994 and as Federal Minister for Regional Planning, Civil Engineering, and Urban Development from 1994 to 1998. He was actively involved in the preparations for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and in December 1997, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Dr. Töpfer as UNEP Executive Director. Dr. Töpfer also became Acting Executive Director of UN-Habitat and served in that role until 2000. In 2009, the German government appointed Dr. Töpfer as the founding Director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam.
Achim Steiner served as Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme from 2006 to 2016 and, since 2017,
as the Administrator of the UN Development Programme. In the interim, he was the Director of the Oxford Martin School. Prior to joining the UN, Mr. Steiner served as Director General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He started his career at the Rural Regional Development Department, GIZ, in Germany and from 1991 to 1997 worked at IUCN in South Africa and in Washington, DC. He then became chief technical adviser of the Mekong River Commission and subsequently Secretary-General of the World Commission on Dams. Mr. Steiner was born in Brazil to a German farmer and has lived and worked in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and the United States.
Erik Solheim was appointed as UNEP Executive Director in 2016 and resigned from the position in November 2018. Before joining UNEP, Solheim was head of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC). He was leader of the Socialist Left Party in Norway and served in Parliament. He was special advisor to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sri Lanka, where he was the chief negotiator of the truce between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers in 2002. Solheim has also been involved in peace processes in Nepal, Myanmar, and Sudan. In 2005, he became Minister of International Development, and in 2007 he was appointed Minister of the Environment and held both posts until 2012. During his tenure, Norwegian development aid rose to 1 percent. After resigning from UNEP, Mr. Solheim returned to Norway, where he joined the Green Party and the World Resources Institute as senior advisor. He is also convener of the Belt and Road International Green Development Coalition.
Joyce Msuya is the Deputy Executive Director of UNEP. She was appointed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in August 2018. Between November 2018 and June 2019, Ms. Msuya served as Acting Executive Director, overseeing UNEP’s portfolio in 33 countries and administering nine Multilateral Environmental Agreements on critical environment issues. Ms. Msuya has more than 20 years of extensive experience in international development strategy, operations, knowledge management and partnerships, across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Prior to joining UNEP, Ms. Msuya served as Adviser to the World Bank’s Vice President, East Asia and Pacific Region in Washington, D.C.
Inger Andersen is Under-Secretary- General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Between 2015 and 2019, Ms. Andersen was the Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Ms. Andersen brings a passion for conservation and sustainable development with more than thirty years of experience in international development economics, environmental sustainability and policy making, as well as in designing and implementing projects and generating on-the- ground impact. She has played a key role in supporting riparian countries on international water management and hydro-diplomacy. Ms. Andersen also held various leadership roles at the World Bank for fifteen years, including as Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa and as Vice President for Sustainable Development; and at the United Nations, starting in the UN Sudano-Sahelian Office working on drought and desertification issues.
Note: These biographies came from The Cast of Characters book section. For Joyce Msuya from UNEP.