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Maurice Strong: The committed environmentalist

Maurice Strong brought to public policy an entrepreneurial outlook and a deep commitment to just and workable solutions, writes Nitin Desai

Nitin Desai 

Nitin Desai

Maurice Strong, a pioneer and global leader of the environment movement, an internationalist who worked for the United Nations at various times over six decades, a venturesome businessman, a philanthropist and a committed friend of India and many Indians, passed away peacefully on November 28, 2015.

I first met Strong when I was inducted into the secretariat of the Brundtland Commission to bridge the gap that existed between the environment and development factions in the commission. I was asked to support a group of commissioners, which included Strong, Shridath Ramphal and Janos Stanovnik, who had to find common ground, and this led ultimately to the formulation of sustainable development as the goal of policy. This is where my long and affectionate relationship with Strong started, a relationship that blossomed into an abiding friendship that involved our wives also. The last time I spoke to him was a few weeks ago when his wife, Hanne, was in India to meet the Karmapa.

In 1990, I met Strong once again at Davos where I had gone as part of the delegation of the government of India. My meeting with him was brief - barely a few minutes in the crush outside the main hall of the Davos Conference Centre. He had not yet been named the secretary general of the conference. But he must have known something because he asked me whether I would be interested in coming back to the international system and he mentioned a Commission on Global Risks. Later, when he was named the secretary general of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, he knew developing countries were the key to a successful outcome and hence he asked for me by name to serve as the deputy secretary general of the conference.

In many ways, this potted history of the origin of our connection typifies several things about Strong - his realisation that global aims required a genuine global coalition, his capacity to identify people who fit in with his strategic aims, his capacity to work the system to get the mandates and people he wanted. Later, when we were preparing for the Rio conference, I also saw his willingness to accord enough freedom to his deputies to do their work with the intergovernmental process while he focussed on what he was best at - reaching out to political and corporate leaders, using the media to build momentum and engaging with non-governmental organisations.

Strong was born into a family that was badly affected by the Great Depression and he often said he understood the problems of poverty because he had experienced them himself. He left home at an early age and started a business career when he was only 19. Much of this business interest was in the field of energy and natural resources and lasted throughout his life as he moved back and forth between public service in Canada or the United Nations and business development not just in North America but also in Europe and towards the end, in China, where he lived for several years late in life. He made money but also lost a lot when his public service stints prevented him from minding his business interests.

When it came to public service, his major contribution in Canada was the establishment of the aid agency Canadian International Development Agency in 1968. Later, after 1976, at (then Canadian prime minister) Pierre Trudeau's request, Strong headed public corporations dealing with energy and international development. But what he is best known for is his service to the UN that actually began in 1947 when he had a temporary appointment as a security officer! His substantive involvement with the UN started when he was appointed secretary general of the 1972 Stockholm Environment Conference followed by executive directorship of the UN Environment Programme. Later, in the 1980s, he headed the UN office set up for handling the drought-induced humanitarian emergency in Africa. The culmination came with his appointment as secretary general of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. After that he went back to his business interests but continued his involvement in global policy issues through Earth Council, the NGO that he set up; as a founding director of the World Economic Forum; as an advisor to Jim Wolfensen in the World Bank; and a continued contribution to the UN as the rector of the UN University for Peace; as the overseer of (then UN secretary general) Kofi Annan's reform exercise and as a UN envoy to North Korea.

Strong could not avoid controversy and his simultaneous presence in policy advice and business often led to situations that were exploited by right-wing forces in Canada and USA to undermine his pro-environment and pro-Third World ideas.

Strong had an abiding connection with India. When he was preparing for the Stockholm Conference, against the advice that he received, he came to Delhi to persuade Indira Gandhi to attend it. He said that she heard him without uttering a word for 10 minutes or so and then agreed. She was about the only head of government other than the host country head, Olof Palme, to attend the conference and her speech on poverty and pollution still resonates in the global discourse on environment. His love for India was recognised when the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding was conferred on him in 1994.

I have lost an elder brother, who was my mentor, and the world has lost someone who brought to public policy an entrepreneurial outlook and a deep commitment to just and workable solutions. May his spirit continue to guide us as we try to save this planet from the excesses of its dominant species.

The author is an economist. He was under secretary general, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, from 1992 to 2003

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First Published: Tue, December 01 2015. 21:47 IST