Chapter 5: The Failures of the Implementing Agencies

Although virtually all governments, multilateral institutions, development banks and non-governmental organizations in the environment/development field claim to see desertifica­tion as a major threat to the well being of the planet, the issue of desertification has somehow been shunted aside by the international community of multilateral organizations. A number of regional and international bodies play a role in desertification. CILSS was formed in 1973, primarily to co-ordinate the activities and present the views of the eight

Sahel countries to potential donors. In the same year , the United Nations established the UN SudanoSahelian Office (UNSO) as a response to the Sahel drought. It has special responsibility for all projects in the 19 Sudano-Sahelian countries, and in adjacent areas. A joint venture between UNDP and UNEP in 1978 expanded UNSO’s mandate so that it could co-ordinate desertification within the Sudano­-Sahelian region. Since then, it has acted on behalf of, and often with financial support from, UNEP.

The Club du Sahel was formed in 1976 by representatives of Western development aid agencies. It has no resources and only a small secretariat (at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in  Paris). Yet much of the real communication between donor and recipient nations takes place within the Club. It aims to increase co-operation between Sahel countries and donors, and has the basic objective of achieving food self-sufficiency for Sahel countries.

UNSO and CILSS have been involved in inter-agency rivalry, which has served only to dissipate their energies. They did prepare a joint unified plan for combating desertification in the Sahel, but little has come of it. UNSO, which has its headquarters in New York, has been remarkably ineffective in doing anything about desertifica­tion, at least until recently, despite the fact that large amounts of aid are channelled through it. Of a total of$ I62 million worth of aid for Sahel countries which has come from UNSO, only $13.4 million (8%) had been spent on anti-desertification work by I980. Much of the UNSO money went on road construction though donors have subsequently admitted that many of these roads could not be justified in terms of agricultural or even economic development. According to UNEP, some $40 million has now been raised by UNSO specifically for anti-desertification projects in the 19 Sudano-Sahelian countries. Certainly, UNSO’s anti-desertification record has been imp roving, though because UNSO is responsible for economic develop­ment as well as anti-desertification projects, it is difficult to assess where the money really goes. In a very broad sense, all efforts at economic development in the Sahel could be counted as anti-desertification measures. Intensive agricul­tural practices, for example, which are adopted by farmers and governments, sometimes stimulated by agencies, in semi-arid areas inevitably require special management because of their particular climatic and soil conditions.

The UN Conference on Desertification (UNCOD) was organized and hosted by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and after the conference UNEP set up a Desertification Branch to carry out t he tasks assigned to UNEP in UNCOD’s Plan of Action (PACD). The Plan also called for the creation of two other bodies: an InterAgency Working Group on Desertification (IAWGD), to help co­ ordinate activity among UN agencies; and a Consultative Group on Desertification Control (DESCON). comprising representatives of UN agencies, developing countries and funding bodies, to discuss and finance project proposals.

The regional plans requested by the Plan of Action have so far not been prepared. The relevant Economic Commission  – EC A , EC LA, ECWA and ESCAP – have organized meetings and compiled information, but none has prepared a regional plan or established a research and training centre.

UNEP was given a number of specific responsibilities in co-ordinating anti-desertification action. These were:

  1. to keep a continuous inventory of all desertification projects;
  2. to help prepare the preliminary studies needed to formulate projects;
  3. to prepare alternative proposals for mobilizing the finance needed for anti-desertification projects;
  4. to monitor and evaluate implementation of the Plan of Action on Desertification;
  5. to record the results of desertification monitoring;
  6. to record the results of the monitoring of human populations at risk from desertification;
  7. to publish a newsletter on desertification.

It is interesting to note that none of the above seven ‘specific responsibilities’ are oriented to corrective action to combat desertification. Rather, they are oriented to a very passive role of monitoring. and recording results of monitoring. or to preparing ‘preliminary studies and proposals.’

These responsibilities were supposed to be implemented mainly through the UNEP Desertification Branch together with the management of those desertificationrelated activities initiated by UNEP before UNCOD.

From its inception in 1973 up to 1984, UNEP approved 25 desertification-related projects to be supported by the UNEP Fund and amounting to a total of $22.6 million, of which UNEP contributed 70.3% or $15.9 million.

Three of these 25 projects were designed for implementa­tion by UNCOD at a total cost of $2.8 million, of which 83% was allocated by the UNEP Fund .

After UNCOD the UNEP Fund approved 20 desertifica­tion projects allocating $13.2 million i. e. 68.2% out of a total of $19.4 million.

The creation or reinforcement of this international institutional machinery cost $6. l million; $2.1 million for the UNEP Desertification Branch and $4 million to strengthen UNSO’s anti-desertification activities, leaving only $13.3 million for concrete activities against desertification. Half of this was allocated to five training projects, a figure which underestimates the training activities. Almost all projects include a training component, but for the purpose of this analysis it has not been possible to isolate it. The five projects provided training for 407 technicians at an average cost of $16,216 per trainee. UNEP’s contribution to the five training projects amounted to $5.5 million (83%).

Of the remaining funds $5.2 million were for projects having a variety of purposes: to prepare studies, to gather baseline data, to prepare project proposals, to hold seminars and meetings, to prepare a UNEP contribution for the Water Conference, and finally to exchange information (e.g. IPAL projects for Kenya and Tunisia, EMASAR projects for rangelands both in co-operation with UNESCO or the green belt projects for North Africa). The preparation of assessment , methodologies and desertification maps (with FAO) as well as a number of information activities and technical assistance matters took the rest.

It appears that the UNEP Desertification Branch has not fulfilled its role of recording the results of the monitoring of desertification and desertification-affected populations. According to a paper prepared for the 12th  session of UNEP’s Governing Council, the United States ‘has benefited very little from UN activities on desertification monitoring. The results of meetings, research, demonstration, etc. have not been synthesized and reported to governments. This is exactly the type of role we believe that the UNEP Desertification Branch should perform.

UNEP was also charged with keeping a continuous inventory of desertification projects. Co-operation with other United Nations agencies in this matter has proved difficult, although one report was produced. An extra­-ordinary bar chart was included in the general assessment , entitled ‘Allocation of actions under recommendations of PACO since 1977, based on an analysis of projects supported by selected agencies and countries’. It purports to show that there have been 801 ‘actions’ (an action is not defined) under 25 different categories. The support organiza­tions listed are UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO , Donor Countries, and the World Bank’.

It is not clear why this assessment ignores FAO’s contribution to desertification control. In1984, FAO was supporting land-use planning projects in 16 countries and was running more than 50 projects in  soil  conservation . FAO claims that ‘in Africa alone, 99 FAO projects contributed to the recovery of hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural and pasture lands between 1978 and 1982. From 1983, 35 other long-term projects are in progress.’

However, FAO’s role in desertification control seems to be often discounted in assessment exercises; no doubt partly because many of its activities pre-date and are not formally connected with the Plan of Action, and also because FAO has a history of poor working relationships  with UNEP. This is an unhappy reflection on the state of co-ordination among United Nations agencies.

Another key issue has been the state of knowledge about desertification. Nine years after UNCOD, no one yet knows the exact extent of desertification or the size and location of areas at risk . FAO and UNEP launched a joint desertification assessment and mapping project in 1979, in conjunction with UNESCO, the World Meteorological Organization and the International Society for Soil Science. This produced a ‘provisional methodologywhich has been tested in nine countries. Work on a world map of desertification  hazards was also begun, but appears to have floundered. As FAO points out:

At present no precise figures are available on areas affected or likely to be affected by desertification: the mapping has been accomplished only on the basis  of  existing  geographic information. There is also no exact data on the  rate  of  the desertification process at global or regional levels, nor in the case of individual countries.

Thus although a lot of discussion has taken place about the rate of desertification, this has been rather vague, and accurate indicators have not  been defined. As Berry noted, ‘it is often not possible to determine by how much or even whether conditions have actually deteriorated.’

Thus it seems that one of the priorities for the UNEP Desertification Branch could have been the elaboration of a system of indicators to assess the process. Following the traditional approach in the past, it can be argued that indicators of physical variables and parameters like rainfall, groundwater levels, erosion rate, vegetative cover, etc. do exist. Yet not only has the monitoring of these variables been a difficult task, but it is sometimes misleading and usually insufficient. The fact that such indicators show an isolated physical aspect of change, without taking into account the inter-relationships between them, has been one of their weaknesses.

The second – largely more important – defect has been the complete absence of social variables. Thus although it has been argued that social activities are the main cause of desertification and that concern about desertification arises because human populations are affected, nothing has been done to approach the problem from this angle.

In short, few affected nations have good data on the physical aspects of their own land; fewer still have any data on the socio-economic aspects, which have also been disregarded in desertification assessment activities.

It is therefore scarcely surprising that, when in late 1982 UNEP sent out to 91 affected countries questionnaires on the extent of desertification, from which it expected to gather data to use in its general assessment of progress on the implementation of the Plan, the information gathered was minimal and of virtually no use in the assessment exercise. The questionnaire was cumbersome, poorly planned and confusing, without a clear conceptual framework and completely unrealistic, reflecting a poor understanding of realities in the affected countries.

Nevertheless a great deal of money and effort was spent on the exercise. In late 1982, UNEP had to mount missions to Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe to discuss the questionnaire. Between March and May 1983, further missions were sent to Lesotho, Botswana, Madagascar, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the Economic Commission for Africa’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, India, Nepal and Burundi to help governments complete the questionnaire. In addition, ‘national experts were identified and recruited in 43 countries to complete the Desertification Questionnaire and prepare country reports.

In spite of all this , the information that resulted was poo r, incomplete and ‘not easily comparable’. The experts preparing the final reports had to rely heavily on their personal observations and on what they could glean from discussions with other experts and from the literature.

In relation to the preparation of ‘alternative proposals for mobilizing the finance needed for antidesertification projects’, UNEP appointed three expert panels to investigate the situation, and they suggested, among other things, international taxation on trade flows, establishment of a trust fund from gold ales by the IMF, taxes or parking fees on geostationary satellites, levies on revenues from seabed mining and levies on the Common Fund for Commodities. None of these schemes got beyond the stage of proposals, and of course no funds were generated for anti-desertification projects.

Follow ing the recommendation of the Plan of Action on Desertification, two additional institutional mechanisms were created: the Inter-Agency Working Group on Deserti­fication (IAWGD) and the Consultative Group on Desertification Control (DESCON). Both were operated by the UNEP Desertification Branch.

The InterAgency Working Group was supposed to bring together the agencies with a role to play in desertification activities in order to:

  1. exchange information on Agency antidesertification projects;
  2. develop a plan for implementation of the shortterm and long-term objectives of the Plan of Action on Desertification;
  3. recommend readjustment of ongoing activities;
  4. formulate projects for cooperative action;
  5. prepare annual reports.

The Consultative Group on Desertification Control (DESCON) is supposed to provide a forum for UN agencies, donor institutions and national governments to identify and mobilize additional resources. In fact, the Consultative Group’s activities have been limited to the consideration of project proposals submitted through the Desertification Branch of UNEP .

The Consultative Group screens anti-desertification projects but has had little success in finding finance for them. Indeed , its performance appears to have been deteriorating rapidly. It has held five sessions, of which four were to consider and fund projects. At the second session, 27 projects were considered for which an additional $45.6 million was needed and $17.5 million raised. The third session examined 12 projects for which an additional $20 million was requested and $7.8 million raised. The total additional funds sought to finance the projects submitted at the fourth session amounted to $35.8 million and since then

$10.8 million has been raised. So by the end of 1984, the Consultative Group on Desertification Control had sought an additional $103.6 million and obtained $36.1 million. At the last session, nine new projects were submitted and an additional $38.3 million requested.

Developing countries and donors appear to have differing images of the function of the Consultative Group. According to UNEP:

The latter see the funds available through DESCON as part of the total of bilateral funding; the former regard DESCON as a separate and additional source of funds and tend not to bring forward projects for which direct bilateral funding could be expected. This difference in conception is also reflected in the fact that certain donor countries prefer to be more involved than at present in the process of project design and appear unwilling to enter into formal commitments at the DESCON forum in respect of proposals in the advanced state of formulation in which it is customary to present them.

But these are basic fund-raising problems. All the major UN agencies which work with Trust Funds of one kind or another supplied on a multi- or bilateral basis by donor nations and institutions found ways of coping with them long ago. No explanation has yet been offered why these matters have proved such a problem to the Consultative Group (DESCON).

As Dregne pointed out:

‘DESCON has failed to live up to the hope that it would be a new source of funding for anti-desertification projects. Donor agency members have shown a notable lack of enthusiasm to finance projects that have been presented at DESCON meetings , and there is no indication that this situation will change.’

Concerning the Inter-Agency Working Group on Deserti­fication (IA WGD), information has been exchanged but co-ordination remains very poor, while a co-ordinated plan for the achievement of the Plan of Action objectives has not been formulated.

UNEP’s Desertification Branch has not been effective in co-ordinating desertification action. The Branch never reached its proposed staffing level, and three years after the UN Conference on Desertification ‘this establishment had dwindled down to half the requirement. As a result of financial constraints faced by the whole United Nations system, UNDP and UNFPA could not continue to support the three posts they pledged to finance in 197 8.’ Although the Branch was meant to be the key desertification unit in the United Nations system, it has become the scapegoat for inaction. This deplorable situation doubtless has explana­tions at many levels. For example, had the Branch been found to be doing a good job, there seems little doubt that finance for the necessary posts would have been forthcoming even if not from the original agencies pledged to provide the money, then at least from other sources.

UNEP’s job is to catalyse and co-ordinate action. That job is made more difficult by the fact that UNEP has nothing anyone else really wants. On the cont ra ry, most of the other UN agencies involved in desertification tend to resent UNEP’s presence, which they regard as an unnecessary complication to their own work. This already difficult relationship has been worsened by UNEP’s inability to tread a delicate diplomatic tightrope with anything approaching the neat footwork required.

Other United Nations agencies complain bitterly of UNEP ineptitude and inefficiency, and further inter-agency rivalries have undermined what role it might have been expected to play. As the United States guardedly points out, ‘We were concerned that UNEP did not appear to  be working as closely as we believed necessary with the CILSS and Club des Amis du Sahel group, and with the UN Sudano-Sahelian Office.’ Privately, many delegates from major donor nations went further at the 1984 12th Governing Council ofUNEP,  which devoted  part of its time to reassessing anti-desertification work; they said their governments had not funded projects through UNEP because they did not trust UNEP’s ability to use the money efficiently.

Because of chronic under-staffing, the Branch’s co­ ordination role has amounted to little  more  than  preparing for and attending the IAWGD and DESCON  meetings. When UNEP called for a report in 1984 on the institutional and financial impediments to action, its author, Jamaican diplomat E.R. Richardson, was blunt:

‘… two national plans and nine draft plans constitute  the meagre results of five years of effort on the part of (UNEP’s) Desertification Branch…The Executive Director has not been able at all times to maintain the Desertification Branch at its full strength of eight professionals.’

The United States was even more scathing about  the role of UN agencies in desertification control. Discussing UNEP’s Desertification Branch, IAGWD. DESC0N and the Special Account, it claimed that:

These institutions have, in fact, been largely irrelevant to what has or has not happened in the desertification field since the Plan of Action was approved in 1977. The principal programmes and projects in the field have been designed and implemented by national governments (donors and recipients) institutions such as UNSO, and within the Sahel Development Programme.

The product s and impact of the  IAWGD ‘co-ordinating’ effort are not apparent. The Consultative Group has not been effective in mobilizing additional resources and the US continues to be concerned that many of the projects it has supported are not of high priority.

Credit must be given to UNEP for one of its activities: it has managed to put desertification on the global agenda of major problems. It has made persistent efforts to alert both governments in affected countries and potential donors to the seriousness of the problem. Global concern has been aroused. That it has not been effectively aroused is the fault partly of the countries affected, partly of the countries who ought to be doing more to help, and partly of the United Nations agencies and bodies which ought to be co­-ordinating and implementing action far more effectively.

The latter include a number of the United Nations specialized agencies, notably FAO, UNESCO and the World Meteorological Organization. As already mentioned, UNESCOs arid zone work was established long before UNCOD and, because it was more or less specifically related to desertification, co-ordination of the work within  the Plan of Action seems not to have become a major issue. The situation with FAO is quite different.

To the extent that desertification is caused by inappropriate agricultural management and techniques, FAO has a role to play within the UN system in developing the techniques for putting matters right. And indeed  FAO is running hundreds of projects which are connected with desertification. some directly and many more indirectly. Yet coordination with UNEP appears to have been a major problem. One reason is undoubtedly that action on desertification is the responsibility of two of FAO’s major technical departments forestry and agriculture. No division within the Forestry Department is specifically concerned with desertification. Within the Agriculture Department. the Land and Water Division which implements some 16% of all FAO field projects – includes work on remote sensing. fertilisers, water resources. and soil resources. Again, desertification is not separately featured; indeed, desertification is regarded wit h in FAO simply as one issue among many in the general areas of soil erosion and conservation, water management, and reforestation and afforestation.

Although FAO’s contribution to desertification control is one of the most important within the UN system. FAO itself has made little effort to co-ordinate its own work on desertification, or to work effectively in conjunction with UNEP. While FAO feels it has been underused in implementing the Plan of Action, it has done little to help things along except for creating a small Environment Programme Co-ordinating Unit. If desertification is to be effectively cont rolled, the FAO’s major contribution  will have to be far more effectively co-ordinated with action elsewhere in the United Nations system.