With the mission of “provid[ing] leadership and encourag[ing] partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations,” the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) would be recognized by the humblest layman as having a lot on its plate. A recent worldwide emphasis on issues such as climate change and environmental sustainability has, if anything, increased the significance of the UNEP’s role. Naturally, it was a great honor and by good fortune that I was able to work as (in the words of my employer) a "sub-sub-intern" for ten days at the UNEP’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (ROAP) in Bangkok, Thailand. Even with my rudimentary awareness of the UNEP’s significance, I was much enthused about being able to take an up-close look at the inner workings of one of the organizations that were contributing to a better future for humanity.
According to its information booklet, the UNEP is more a collaborator and advisor rather than an initiator and executor of environmental policy. In response to an environmental crisis or ongoing issue, UNEP staff concentrate on structuring an action plan based on what they believe would work best in the current situation. Indeed, I was able to read many interesting and detailed reports concerning "the construction of roads in mountainous regions of Nepal", "the protection of ecosystems along North Korea’s Taedong River" and "the prevention of sea turtle bycatch by deep sea fishery" beyond the usual climate change and Green Growth agenda.
By its very nature, environmental policy entails the active participation of people with scientific knowledge and training, requiring reliable and detailed measurements of environmental parameters, and the mastery of sustainable technologies and conservation techniques. I was surprised to find that only a few workers were of such backgrounds, and I enquired about the apparent lack of such people in the office. I was told that the UNEP worked in partnership with research institutions, government agencies, laboratories and universities, normally for a period of three to five years or longer. Feedback and cooperation from such bodies would aid the UNEP in putting together and carrying out an appropriate plan of action. Formulating a holistic policy response involves a thorough understanding of not just environmental science and technology, but also local culture, economic issues, et cetera. In that case, cooperation with the specific nation’s establishments helped ground the projects in reality. In a sense, the UNEP serves to bring together the different political, economic and scientific aspects of environmental issues, and foment a coherent response.
Its focus on the bigger picture of international initiatives means that the UNEP (and also the UN in general) members typically need expertise in a lot of areas including economics, politics, and of course, science. The ostensible scarcity of personnel with a scientific background, especially at the UNEP, seemed to say to me that perhaps workers in engineering fields may be more specialized in their skills than people in - for instance – economics, sociology or politics, who typically have access to a wider variety of tools. However, from my position as a layperson, it is my belief that people who have a background in the bare facts of climate change, environmental degradation, green technologies, and civil engineering could have a lot to contribute to the UNEP and the UN. In fact, the Regional Director of the UNEP, Mr. Young-Woo Park, had a rather surprising background in engineering. In his words: “Don’t let your educational background hold you back from exploring widely. Don’t let trivial considerations stop you from contributing to the world in general, and don’t let hurdles get in the way of you doing what you love. Never stop exploring.”