Heading one of the United Nations’ least known but most influential organizations, Christian Bach, the recently appointed Danish Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) is hoping to turn it into a household name.
GENEVA One of the UN’s most pervasive problems is that it is marketing itself poorly. Given that much of the UN system is in dire danger of being sidelined because of its failure to deal more effectively with Ebola, the Middle East and other crises, most of its agencies urgently need not only to collaborate more readily with each other, but also to adopt more imaginative media initiatives that will help the public-at-large better understand what they do. “It’s very much a problem for the UN which changes slowly,” admits Christian Bach, a youthful 48-year-old Dane who was appointed last July as UNECE’s new chief.
Having never worked in the UN system before, Bach considers his outside perspective an advantage. “We have failed to create visibility around the UN, particularly here in Geneva, which I see as the ‘Silicon Valley’ of international cooperation,” he says. “There is enormous strength in having so many crucial organizations in one place, but we should be promoting and developing it better as a global hub.” This includes UNECE, which, he recognizes, is little known to public. Ironically, UNECE also happens to be one of the world’s most ground-breaking technical agencies. Over the past 60-odd years, it has been establishing globally-recognized norms affecting everything from trade, water, agriculture, forests, customs unions, e-commerce and pollution to urban living and land management.
As Bach maintains, most people are not even aware how much and in what manner UNECE affects their lives. “You are in contact with us daily. Every time you buy a Grade I apple in a shop, this is a standard proposed by the UNECE. Or the safety standard of the child seat in your car. Or your seat belt.”
While the UN needs to gets its act together on promoting itself with greater impact, the Swiss, too, need to step up more decisively by supporting media initiatives to ensure that “International Geneva,” including the work of the UN agencies, is better know both at home and abroad. According to fellow Dane, Michael Möller, who was re-appointed this week by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for another year as the UN Director General in Geneva, this is already happening. “We have made much progress over the past year,” he recently noted. “The Swiss have understood what is at stake.”
As with Möller, Bach stresses the need to shift toward non-state actors, which is why the UN must seek broader and more imaginative partnerships with civil society, the private sector, media and academia in order to drive the agenda forward. “Some say that the UN is only as good as the sum of its member states, meaning that we are member state driven. In one way, this is a big asset for us. But we now have to translate this into action and to give benefit to citizens,” he adds. “The UN needs to re-invent itself, and we should have the ambition to be more than the sum of our member states. The UN should drive the world in the right direction.”
So how does this former Danish parliamentarian, ex-Minister of Development Cooperation and also a former broadcast journalist now living between Geneva and his country farm in Denmark, expect to bring about change, particularly within UNECE, which, he admits, is a somewhat off-putting name. What the organization has to its advantage, however, are its achievements. Its norms and standards, many of them now global, are implemented whenever one gets into a car, goes to the supermarket, or takes a plane or train.
Transport alone relies on no fewer than 58 binding conventions, such as the way International Road Transport trucks undertake long cross-border hauls throughout Europe. The same goes for the content of carriers transporting chemicals or dangerous substances. The obligatory markings on the backs of trucks can help emergency response teams, such as fire departments, know the precise nature of the cargo being hauled in the event of an accident.
While officially representing 56 mostly European members, including Russia, Uzbekistan, but also Canada and the United States, its recommendations, conventions and standards are applied increasingly by non-UNECE countries the world over. “It is in their interests to apply such standards,” says Bach. Many know that it is important if they wish to export to Europe, which has very tough standards, he notes. “Afghanistan produces the best pomegranates in the world. They would be welcome in Europe, but Afghanistan will need to meet the standards and sign on to our transport conventions to make it happen,” adds Bach, recalling past visits to Helmand and other parts of Afghanistan during his days as Denmark’s development minister.
Civil society groups are also using UNECE anti-pollution conventions (five of them over the past 30 years) and data to oblige their governments to implement more stringent standards to combat environmental degradation. A growing number of governments cite UNECE standards as a means of pushing through more effective pollution controls in their own parliaments. The fact that many countries are now breathing sulphur-free air is a direct result of UNECE recommended standards. “Citizens now have the right to information on pollution, which is creating a form of environmental democracy,” he says.
Equally crucial is UNECE’s support for the Water Convention, which was turned into a global legal framework for trans-boundary cooperation last year. Central Asian countries now seek to develop shared access for agricultural and drinking use to rivers such as the Amu Darya (Oxus) and Syr Darya that emerge from the Himalayas eventually leading into the Aral Sea. While unregulated competition for water access could threaten war, Bach points out, “there are more experiences where water scarcity has provoked cooperation rather than conflict. So that’s positive, and here we need the UNECE water convention.”
Bach now sees his role as bringing about needed changes and increasing UNECE’s profile in a manner that ordinary people can understand. “All these issues are part of a very broad range,” he maintains. “My job is hopefully to strengthen them. The problem is that we do not have much visibility.” We’re now trying to the “polish this pearl,” he adds, referring to a recent reference by Michael Möllerthat UNECE represents one of the UN system’s “undiscovered pearls” based on its exceptional work since it was first set up in 1947.
As Bach describes it, UNECE is a mainly technical organization working with experts who develop standards, which then go into an inter-governmental framework. Finally, they become international standards. “I want the member states to help me build the car, a safe, sustainable car, that promotes transparency, accountability, quality and equality,” he says. “But I hope they will let me drive the car. Too many drivers will only make the car move slowly, or even crash.”
Edward Girardet and William Dowell