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Maurice Strong: a study in leadership


 This study, by former Swedish Ambassador Lars-Göran Engfeldt presents a chronological history and a behind-the-scenes analysis of the origins and evolution of the international system that today governs sustainable development. Known as the “Stockholm-Rio-Johannesburg process”, the study begins in 1967 when Sweden proposed that the United Nations General Assembly convene a conference on the environment. This led to the pioneering 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm which was followed by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro and culminated with the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development inJohannesburg.

 

 

Lars-Göran Engfeldt entered the Swedish foreign service in 1965 and was actively involved in the Stockholm-Rio-Johannesburg process during a major part of his career. As desk officer at the Swedish mission in 1968, he was responsible for the first General Assembly resolution on the new environment item that the Swedish government has proposed. Later, served as liaison officer in the UN Conference Secretariat for the 1972 Stockholm Conference. As head of the UN Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he participated in the preparations for the 1987 initiative that led to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. He took an active part in the Rio process as Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, where he also had an informal role as Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of the Conference. He as Ambassador in Nairobi and Permanent Representative to UNEP in 1993-1998 and Environment Ambassador in 1998-2002. He was elected Vice Chairman of the Preparatory Committee for the Johannesburg Summit in 2002 and was co-chair of the Working Group on international issues. He was Ambassador in Belgrade in 2002-2007. Ambassador Engfeldt retired from the service in 2009.


Chapter 4.3: Role of Maurice Strong: a study in leadership

(reprinted with kind permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sweden)

When Maurice Strong established the Conference Secretariat in Geneva in January 1971, it was less than a year and a half before the opening of the Conference.

Although there had been many accomplishments since 1968, the initiative now faced its most crucial and difficult test. Could the two-week Conference actually deliver the action-oriented results requested by the UNGA?

Maurice Strong played a key operational and catalytic role in making this possible, often against seemingly overwhelming odds. He managed to exercise a remarkable level of personal influence throughout the entire remaining preparatory process, while at the same time maintaining the confidence of delegations.1/

Strong acted with the delegated authority of the UN Secretary-General, who had been entrusted with the overall responsibility for organizing and preparing the Conference. This broad mandate gave him and the Conference Secretariat the prerogative to manage the process, to take initiatives and to place the concrete proposals for action before the governments. Having this mandate was an asset of great importance but it had to be utilized with care. He was bound by UN rules and regulations and, most importantly, he could not afford to lose the confidence of Member States and put the substantive outcome at risk. He also had to find ways to deal with the sensitive issue of inter-agency cooperation without compromising the action-oriented objective of the Conference.

Maurice Strong’s personality and previous experiences were big assets. He combined an extraordinary vitality with excellent organizational skills and political judgement. In fact, two different characterizations of him at the time captured the same essence of his unusual personality – “pragmatic idealist” and ”active pragmatist”.2/

He was also highly motivated. In his memoirs, he spoke of his rising concerns about air and water pollution in Canada in the 1960s and his increasing awareness of the environmental issue as a whole. This included the environmental and social disruption caused by some Canadian-supported infrastructure projects in developing countries. He was heavily influenced by Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and developed a friendship with the Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei, the founder of the Club of Rome, a global think tank now based in Switzerland that became very famous in 1972 with its publication: “Limits to Growth”.3/ He expressed his desire to make a personal contribution in a letter to Lady Jackson (Barbara Ward) on the occasion of the publication of her book Space Ship Earth in 1966: “My own greatest aspiration at this point is to be able to do something to put into operation some of the ideas and the ideals that you have done so much to inspire.”4/

1. Letter Rydbeck- Ole Jödahl, Secretary-General of Swed MFA, 1971-03-24; Herter and Judy, p. 41.
2. Sverker Åström, Ögonblick (Bonnier Alba, Stockholm, 1992), p. 163, Herter and Judy, p. 13.
3. Maurice Strong , Where on Earth are we going” (Alfred A. Knopf Canada., 2000), pp. 116-117.
4. Letter date 1966-12-12 (Maurice Strong papers, Harvard University).