At the 2012 United Nation Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil, the Kenyan delegation, led by President Mwai Kibaki, scored a major diplomatic victory.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
After months of bickering and tense negotiations at the United Nation’s headquarters in New York, the international community agreed that Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) be upgraded to a global organisation with universal membership.
Until that time Unep was merely a club of a handful of nations, a little over a third of the entire UN membership of 193.
The international community agreed that time had come for environment — the third pillar of sustainable development — to ascend to the same plane and paradigm as the two other columns: social and economic matters.
Besides being one of the four global headquarters cities for the UN (alongside New York, Vienna and Geneva), universal membership would catapult Nairobi above Vienna and bring with it bragging rights.
Until then, only Geneva and New York had universal membership. Big and principal funders of the UN, mostly rich nations of the north, believed Nairobi no longer deserved global standing.
They wanted UN presence in Gigiri lowered to a small regional office, with Unep proper moved to Bonn, Germany.
After all, while Unep remains functionally under the control of the secretariat in New York, some of its most important functions take place in Europe.
The Germans wooed delegates with tantalising offers of world class facilities and swanky office space for Unep, were it to be translocated there.
They argued, quite rightly, that Unep was historically underfunded. This had undermined its global standing and effectiveness viewed against other entities like UNDP and Unicef.
They were prepared to drop big monies on the table, and vastly upgrade and update the capabilities of a Germany-based Unep. In essence, they were offering to be to Unep what the Americans are to Unicef.
Kenya had to rally the support of its friends to fend off the Germans and their powerful allies. But that was just the beginning of her woes.
Among the developing countries, South Africa opposed Kenya, with Johannesburg asserting Kenya was incapable of shouldering such a weighty responsibility.
They cited poor infrastructure, horrendous traffic and threats from Al Shabaab as some of the reasons why Nairobi should be disqualified from hosting a Unep of a universal appeal and reach. They lobbied instead for their Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Hosting a UN entity like Unep is big deal. Its presence in Gigiri bestows on Nairobi the extremely rare status of a diplomatic city.
Materially, the UN generates big monies for its host cities and nations. At full capacity, Nairobi should have 193 Permanent Missions, each headed by an Ambassador and staffed with several diplomats.
There would also be dozens of observer missions. It’s the potential revenue to be generated from housing, office spaces, conference facilities, restaurants, hotels and accommodation that got South Africans dreaming of taking Unep from us.
Now the most important part. It was not without a battle that Kenya won the support of the majority to retain its privilege of hosting Unep.
Many among her friends warned Nairobi that it should not take their support for granted.
Some were doubtful that Nairobi had even the capacity to provide, at short notice, enough ambassadorial-level housing, conference facilities and requisite infrastructure to support Unep that was set to increase threefold.
In response, President Kibaki and his top diplomats in New York at the time made bold promises to the world.
They said, in different forums, that Nairobi fully understood the task before it, and that it was prepared to address those gaps in the shortest time possible. This was understood to be a few years’ time, perhaps five.
Nearly seven years have gone by since those promises were made. There has been some attempt to improve road access to Gigiri but on a balance of things, keeping those promises made in Brazil seem a matter of low priority to our decision makers.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development along with the Paris Accord require nations to take decisive measures to reduce their carbon footprint.
We could have endeared ourselves to the world by prioritising an electric train to connect JKIA to Gigiri through the city centre.
Incredibly, we are building massive highways and bypasses to Unep no doubt encouraging the use of more harmful fuel guzzlers by the very folks telling us to protect our environment.
Since South Africans, Germans, Chinese and everyone interested in Unep are watching, it would seem investing in ancillary facilities and accessibility for Unep should have been more urgent than say, taking the SGR from Syokimau to the floor of the Rift Valley in Naivasha. This is both a reminder and a warning.
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