We can’t wait for a 21st century Noah to build an ark

BY Kay Schwendinger | March 17, 2016|Comments 0

Did you demonstrate for women’s rights, walking the streets on a “Reclaim the Night” march?
Did you sit in a crowded room on Friday afternoon writing letters for Amnesty International to try to free prisoners of conscience?

Did you adopt a whale?

Did you boycott Barclays Bank for supporting apartheid or MacDonald’s for contributing to the decimation of the rainforest?

Well I did… believing that human rights and the environment were everyone’s business, that they were my business, and, well…I had to do something, right?  Yet then we get caught up in our jobs, our families, our everyday lives, it is so often easy to forget that we make the choices that shape our world.

The UN was established on the principles of human rights and respect for the environment, these principles still govern our work. Aren’t we are supposed to be those who don’t forget?

Going beyond greening the blue

We have long recognised that although considering human rights and environmental sustainability in our programmes, this is only part of how we can make a difference.

Although some attempts at greening procurement and operations have been made in headquarters, very little has been done at the country office level. Although I do note that in many field missions solar panels are thankfully replacing diesel guzzling generators. The “Greening the Blue” initiative (see www.greeningtheblue.org , it’s full of fab resources) does provide solid guidelines for environmentally friendly operations and procurement, but with very few exceptions, these are hardly known about in the system and aren’t even mandatory. Human rights in general has only ever received a cursory glance by operations, although some vague stabs at ethics have been infused into some work contracts.

When processes really matter

The UN in Pakistan is trying to ensure that UN operations, in particular procurement, in Pakistan are just as compliant with the fundamental UN principles of human rights and environmental sustainability as our programmes.

I’m not usually one for process, but in this case the process really does matter as much as the result.

We are trying to establish a human rights and environmental due diligence policy for operations.

Specifically, this includes developing human rights and environmental sustainability assessment and recommendation protocols and procedures for Long Term Agreements (LTAs). We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, where the guidance already exists, like with the “Greening the Blue” initiative, we intend to put it into practise. We are currently hiring consultants which are specialists in human rights and environmental science (we’ll send you the links to the consultancies so you can spread the word).

Improving the way we do business

We want to change the way companies do business, not just ease our conscience, so we’re planning on developing a scale of compliance of companies. If a company or vendor is within a certain tolerance range, recommendations will be made to the company of how to become complaint, and if the vendor agrees to work on those areas, we can work with them. Of course we are intending to build a review system into the LTA review process so no one drops the ball. There will of course be some issues which fall under the “zero tolerance” bracket which will render a vendor ineligible for a UN contract. Buildings built with bricks made with labour of dubious origin are my personal favourite.

The “Green Protocols” as I like to call them, are only one third of the CND circle.  Did you ever notice that operations colleagues never get training in human rights or the environment? A key part of the masterplan is to provide operations personnel with training sessions in human rights and environment in general, and for carrying out assessments. We also need to build an information management system that enables us to fully monitor that our conditions are these areas are complied with on a rolling basis.

Towards an ethical and green due diligence

We don’t have the resources to make this happen – yet – but in a later phase, it would be fabulous if we could link up with a UN agency or private sector partner who could establish support initiatives for companies/vendors to convert their processes to be more human rights and environmentally friendly.

In the longer term, I believe that if we can implement this holistic due diligence / risk management approach, we could attract funds. Donors such as the European Union are very much prompting eco-innovation and gradually taking a harder line on human rights. They look with interest at any initiative that proves it is bringing the public and private sectors together to generate positive change in a way that has a positive impact on humans and the environment will be a selling point. In the era of “trade not aid”, we could offer a new generation of UN partnership.

But just for now, I’d be happy if we change the face of how we do things at the UN in Pakistan, and help us change a small corner of our minds. We will start small, but I hope eventually we’ll have changed the way people make decisions in their lives, not just at work. Ethical and green thinking gone viral!

I read that the Kiribati Isles in the Pacific may have disappeared 60 years. No one knows where their inhabitants will go, whether they will have anywhere to go. Seriously, are we waiting for a 21st century Noah to build an ark before we move it?

What are you going to do?


Kay Schwendinger Kay is Head of the Resident Coordination Office in UN Pakistan

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