Engaging the developing countries: the Founex initiative

In the run up to the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, relations with developing countries became the most contentious issue in the spring of 1971, on top of the other challenges highlighted above. Maurice Strong received alarming signals in March from Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia reported a deep dissatisfaction among developing countries. The developing countries felt that the environmental discussion was too oriented towards the interests of industrialized countries, particularly the disproportionate attention given to in the preparations, and they also perceived that Strong’s travel programme was oriented mainly towards industrialized countries. Yugoslavia also conveyed a thinly veiled threat of a developing country boycott of the Conference.

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For Strong, it was a dilemma. He still needed to consolidate the confidence of the core group of countries supporting the Conference after the crisis of 1970. However, he took several steps to deal with this new crisis including rearranging his travel schedule. He managed eventually to visit some 30 developing countries. During these visits, Strong met national leaders and established contacts with those who held central positions in domestic political and economic planning processes. He also maintained close relations with multilateral development assistance organizations and representatives of developing countries in the UN.

Through these efforts, together with the assistance given to national report preparations by the Secretariat and donor countries, Strong and his staff managed to stimulate substantive interest and, at best, commitment at the national level. This served to take some of the edge off the political rhetoric in the UN. In a strategic breakthrough in June 1971, Strong managed to secure a promise from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India to attend the Conference. With this, India joined Brazil as the most active developing countries in the preparatory process. Gandhi was the only foreign Head of State present at the Stockholm Conference, which was not a summit event. In her address to the Conference, her rhetorical statement that mass poverty is the greatest polluter of all, had a profound and lasting political effect: “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”

Strong also anticipated the likely participation of the People’s Republic of China in the Conference, although it was not yet a UN member. This would inject a very uncertain political element at the conclusion of preparatory process. He managed to open an informal channel of communication with Premier Chou En-lai, even before China’s entry in the UN in the autumn of 1971.

To highlight the links between environment and development, Strong initiated the holding of a landmark seminar, which brought together top experts in the field of development and environment. We publish extracts about the Founex Initiative from a study, by former Swedish Ambassador Lars-Göran Engfeldt, entitled "From Stockholm to Johannesburg and beyond". The Founex report laid the foundation for the concept of sustainable development, which is much discussed and debated these days: