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The Secret Sauce: Ivanova discusses UNEP on Living on Earth

“The vision for UNEP was to serve as the connector of the various

UN agencies, to be the institution that could see the 3000-piece puzzle

from 30,000 feet up.” -Maria Ivanova

Just one year ago, UMass Boston associate professor and Center Director, Maria Ivanova, hosted the first major UMass Boston virtual event with the Robert C. Wood professorship recipient, Christiana Figueres to discuss her new book. David Cash, Dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies opened the session. Fast forward a year to April 21, 2021, Dean David Cash opened the session, but this time Christiana Figueres introduced Ivanova for the Living on Earth podcast with Steve Curwood to discuss Ivanova’s new book. Figueres highlighted her excitement for this Living on Earth conversation that discussed the history of UNEP but also “our current thinking on the future of global governance, in a world that is increasingly globally oriented and globally interconnected.” Figueres’s theme of connectivity underscored a dynamic conversation about UNEP, its achievements and challenges, and its leadership.

Ivanova’s book, The Untold Story of the World’s Leading Environmental Institution: UNEP at 50, addresses some of the tensions surrounding UNEP. Figueres and Curwood noted that UNEP remains relatively unknown despite its nearly 50-year history. Ivanova challenged this idea arguing that UNEP’s “obscurity” must be contextualized in both time and space noting the continuous work of UNEP and the lack of the institution pushing for recognition. UNEP has done a lot with limited controversy, which may have kept it under the radar, she noted, and, importantly, its story had not been told. No academic book on UNEP existed until The Untold Story published in 2021.

Curwood noted that the international institutions in New York or Geneva are more well-known and inquired about location and connectivity. Ivanova acknowledged that UNEP’s location had a “profound impact on the organization, but also the organization has a profound impact on its host country.” She noted that Kenya has become a hub for technology and development that has positive impacts including proving that the UN can have successful headquarters worldwide. However, Ivanova remained realistic calling on UNEP to improve its connectivity and on Kenya to support UNEP.

The discussion turned to leadership with Curwood’s question about the “Secret Sauce” of UNEP’s Executive Director, Mostafa Tolba from Egypt. Tolba served as Executive Director from 1976-1992. Ivanova emphasized Tolba’s role as but highlighted his understanding of the interconnection of diplomacy and economics creating a complex secret sauce of leadership style, approach, and type. He took on challenges without prioritizing personal popularity.

In 1993, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, blazed the trail for women in leadership, as she became the third Executive Director of UNEP and the first woman in that position. Dowdeswell brought a Canadian approach to leadership and emphasized building consensus. Ivanova discussed the challenges and push back for women in leadership in the 1990s which were compounded by a different leadership style. Ivanova pivoted the discussion to remind listeners that the context and time period in which a leader serves provide important insights into the impact of the leader.

Curwood and Ivanova dug into the tensions but also the successes of UNEP and its way forward. Ivanova summed it up in this way,

“UNEP has been successful in naming the issues, bringing the

science to the fore, of saying we need to collaborate and create

certain policies, instruments, and structures, the conventions

(also known as multilateral environmental agreements), and

then [UNEP] argued for support for the countries that needed to establish

these necessary institutions to implement the global agreements.

That has been UNEP’s core and now, with connectivity, that has


Moreover, Ivanova added that the fiftieth anniversary can serve as a moment to reinvent, reimagine, and reconfigure UNEP to become the institution that it was designed to be.

Steve Charnovitz and Kenyan environmental journalist, Joe Ageyo, added questions from the audience. The Living on Earth discussion hosted by Steve Curwood delved into the central themes of Ivanova’s book: leadership, location, and design while exploring the opportunities for UNEP to live up to its mandate in this ever-increasingly interconnected world.

  • Watch again here if you missed it or wanted to rewatch

  • Purchase the book here

  • Learn more about the book here

  • Tell your Untold UNEP story. Share your story here

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