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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).