Erik Solheim: what he got right, what he got wrong, and what the new UN Environment chief should do next

Erik Solheim (c) Trond Viken, Utenriskdepartementet, Norway (Creative Commons License)

Make no mistake, when Erik Solheim resigned as head of UN Environment on 20th November 2018, less than two and a half years into what most likely would have been an eight-year tenure, the timing was not of his choosing.

The proximate reason for his defenestration was a damning report by the UN’s internal auditors, known as the Office for Internal Oversight Services. The report excoriated his travel expenses, which amounted to nearly $500,000 spent on business-class flights and hotels over the course of 22 months. It also detailed a variety of other eye-catching issues, such as spending nearly 80% of his time out of the organisation’s Kenyan headquarters and relaxing HR rules for favoured staff members. 

It is vanishingly rare for Under-Secretary-Generals (USG) in the UN system to be forced out of office. Getting one of those jobs involves extensive lobbying from high-level officials from the person’s home country who are eager to see one of their compatriots land a prestigious world position. Once USGs are in post, regardless of their performance, the UN tends to let them see out at least their first four-year term, to avoid washing dirty linen in public and angering a member state.

When Erik joined UN Environment in mid-2016, staff were buoyant, exuberant even. Here was a political heavyweight: a former Environment and Development Minister in Norway, one of the most generous aid-providing nations, and chair of the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD, one of the most influential positions in the aid world.

Yet, within two years, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark had frozen their core funding, staff morale had plummeted, The Guardian newspaper was firing regular broadsides and the Secretary-General was asking him to step down.

Where did it all go wrong?

I worked in the UN Environment Programme’s Nairobi headquarters from 2014 until last summer. Two of those years were under the previous head, Achim Steiner (now head of UNDP) and two were during Erik’s tenure. I got to see both of their management styles in action. It was quite the education in the impact of leadership.

The next Executive Director is due to be announced this week. I’m out of the UN system now, so I’m able to speak freely. I thought it would be useful to share my subjective, insider’s view of what Erik got right, what he got wrong and what the next Executive Director should do differently.

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It started on a very positive note. Many staff were delighted when Erik Solheim was chosen to succeed Achim Steiner in 2016.

He was a well-known figure on the environment circuit. He had spearheaded several bold moves by the Norwegian government, such as raising Norway’s aid budget to more than one per cent of gross domestic product and kicking off the Reduced Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) initiative, which held the promise of finally changing the economic calculations around massive deforestation.

Staff were also impressed by his many positive qualities. He is energetic, passionate and approachable. He insisted that the normally deferential UN staff call him by his first name. He encouraged people to dispense with their customary linguistic cloaks of acronyms and scientific jargon. He implored them to communicate their work in a way that was comprehensible to the average person on the street (his acid test was to ask whether a report would be understood by his 90-year-old mother). He pushed people to think outside the box.

In short, he was a welcome breath of fresh air in what often felt like a staid and unhurried bureaucracy. 

His energy was impressive and his enthusiasm infectious. He criss-crossed the world (hence the airmiles) meeting ministers, CEOs and heads of state. Undoubtedly, he increased the profile of the organization. He propelled and energised important campaigns around air pollution and plastic waste.

But even so, it fell apart. On reflection, I think he made three big mistakes:

1/. More General, Less Secretary

There’s an old adage in the UN that every Secretary-General has to master two competing jobs: to be the world’s top diplomat corralling recalcitrant member states to a higher cause (the General), while at the same time managing an impossibly complex organisation of more than 100,000 staff working on every issue you can imagine, in every place possible (the Secretary). The same is true, to a degree, for the heads of organisations such as UN Environment.

The trouble was that Erik focused on the ‘General’ part of his job to the almost total exclusion of the ‘Secretary’ part of his job. He saw himself as a roving global Minister for the Environment, with the entire world as his stage. His gaze was outwards, but his blind spot was a fragile, complex and somewhat needy organisation of 900 or so staff.

This might not have been such a problem if he had empowered the right people to keep the trains running on time in his absence. However, he seemed to view any of the senior staff who had stayed on since Achim – i.e., those who knew about both the trains and the timetables – with almost total disdain. He appeared to actively side-line them or try to push them out.

In their place, he brought in or elevated his own people, who wielded tremendous power over budgets, jobs and opportunities in what soon turned into a ‘game of thrones’ saga of individual power games, patronage and fiefdoms. This sent staff a deeply dysfunctional message: you were rewarded on the basis of your perceived loyalty to the new boss rather than your ability to do your job. The ‘old guard’ senior staff, some of whom are among the most professional, dedicated and effective people I have ever worked with, could do no right in his eyes, while those he had brought in could do no wrong. Staff used to joke ruefully that this kind of a toxic atmosphere must be similar to that in Trump’s White House.

2/. Snubbed the member states

I think Erik’s second major mistake was that he forgot, or didn’t care, that he was running an organisation with 190+ bosses – the member states of the UN.

He defined a set of priorities for the organisation that appeared to deviate from those that had been agreed to by member states (known as the Programme of Work). He frequently skipped the regular meetings of the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR), where national-level diplomats provide the main monthly oversight mechanism for the organisation. He often looked visibly bored when he did attend the meetings, and gave the impression that he felt the (typically middle-ranking) foreign service officers in attendance were somehow beneath him.

While the member state representatives at the CPR are not ambassadors to the Security Council, all the ones I knew were hard-working, dedicated professionals with impressive stamina for meetings and capacity for organisational detail. They are also the ones who write the reports that go back to capitals, so an Executive Director ignores them at his or her peril.

Early on in his time, Erik needlessly lost political capital with member states by unilaterally rebranding UNEP as UN Environment. He effectively rammed this through by presenting member states with a fait accompli, complete with new logos and signage. No delegate I ever spoke to disagreed with the idea of making the organisation easier to relate to, and no one had a problem with the new name, but the way it was forced through lost him more member state support than he probably ever realised.   

3/. Got the politics wrong, again and again…

Erik’s third mistake was, in my view, the most surprising. He is a career politician with decades of experience in the Norwegian Parliament and a background as a peace negotiator… yet he seemed to have terrible political instincts, not least for his own self-preservation.

His distance from the day-to-day running of the organisation helped to create a toxic work environment, and his disregard for normal UN rules sent a message that he saw himself as above the laws that applied to others. His snubbing of the Committee of Permanent Representatives slowly sapped political support for his leadership.

He also implemented an institutional pivot to Asia, focusing much of his time and trips on India and China, and fulsomely praising their environmental progress. This made a lot of sense: the world our grandchildren inherit will largely be shaped by choices made in Beijing and New Delhi. However, his support of China’s Belt and Road initiative, possibly the largest infrastructure project of the twenty-first century, seemed so uncritical that it set alarm bells ringing in other capitals around the world.

Meanwhile, Erik jetted around the world, often taking multiple business-class flights in a week and travelling with a retinue of staff, at great expense in terms of both taxpayer money and carbon emissions. While Executive Director of UN Environment, he even gave an interview to a Norwegian aviation website in which he said that Norwegians should not feel guilty for flying and boasted that he had platinum membership to the main frequent flyer programmes, a staggering admission for someone who was supposed to be a figurehead for the environmental movement.

A cannier operator would have avoided these obvious own-goals. As a damning op-ed in Deutsche Welle concluded: “his actions paint a questionable picture of a corrupt politician using a position of privilege to his own advantage”. But Erik has an unshakable belief in his own righteousness that is both an asset and major weakness. When the audit storm clouds were gathering, he doubled down, angrily rejecting much of the OIOS criticism of his travel schedule, lack of documentation and disregard of the HR rules.

After he left UN Environment, he gave an interview to a Norwegian newspaper in which he insinuated that he was fired because the UN simply wasn’t ready for his style of radical reform. The fact that he was willing to tarnish the organisation as part of a ‘burn the houses’ attempt to rehabilitate his reputation must have chipped away at any residual goodwill that staff may have felt.

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This week, a new Executive Director will be appointed in time to attend the United Nations Environment Assembly, which takes place next month. This is an opportunity to turn a new leaf, and to get UN Environment’s vital mission back on track.

UN Environment is a small organisation, created in 1972 almost as an afterthought in the international system and headquartered well away from the UN centres of gravity in New York and Geneva. Nevertheless, it plays an outsized role. As Achim Steiner liked to say, UN Environment is the only bit of the UN whose work is focused on the generations yet to come. The new ED has a daunting job ahead. I have three pieces of advice to offer as he or she embarks on that path:

  • Embody and live the principles of the organisation

This really shouldn’t have to be said, but evidently it bears repeating: The incoming Executive Director has to walk the talk.

This means the little things, like not turning up to a public meeting on plastic waste carrying a disposable coffee cup (ahem, Erik). But it also means the big things, like following the same rules you demand of your staff.

Personally, I would also like to see a dramatic reduction in business-class flights, which, short of chartering your own plane, is about the most carbon-intensive form of travel possible, producing on average about three and a half times more greenhouse gas emissions than economy-class travel.

Bill Swing, the octogenarian former head of the International Organization for Migration, is a wonderful role model. Mr Swing made a point of never travelling business class, pointing out that he couldn’t countenance flying in a luxurious business class seat above migrants travelling in leaking boats or by ramshackle caravans. And you can be sure that very few of his staff would take up their nominal ‘right’ to a business-class flight in the event of a journey over a certain number of hours. If he can do it, then so can everyone at UN Environment.

  • Balance the internal and the external

The new Executive Director will have to try to find his or her own line between being the ‘Secretary’ and being the ‘General’. Both roles require time, planning and attention to detail.

Ignore the world outside, and the organisation turns inward and becomes ineffective. Overlook the health of the organization itself, and, as Erik found out, it becomes an unhappy place. The new Executive Director urgently needs to rebuild trust and collegiality within UN Environment, while helping it move on from the negative headlines of the past few months.

  • Focus on results

One way to help the organisation turn a new page is to focus relentlessly on delivering the organization’s core work. UN Environment’s mandate is critical. Its mission is to inspire, inform and enable people around the world to live more sustainably. It is supposed to set the global environmental agenda.

But it is easy to get lost in the thickets of worthy conferences, meetings with like-minded people, and long reports that no one reads. The new ED has to make sure that the maelstrom of daily challenges doesn’t swamp the larger picture.

The new ED needs to set realistic targets and then hold people to account for them; do what he or she can to reduce bureaucratic friction in the system; and listen to member states, while also pushing them to improve their own environmental performance.

It’s a big job, and not an easy one. But a successful Executive Director would be good for us all.

11 thoughts on “Erik Solheim: what he got right, what he got wrong, and what the new UN Environment chief should do next

  1. Michele Poletto says:

    Very good piece Oli, thank you for sharing it. I completely agree and unfortunately I also notice that, as a result of recent events, there is now less room for genuine initiatives to tackle the excesses of bureaucracy within the organisation.

  2. Lanre Rotimi says:

    Interesting thoughts from an insider. I urged UNEMG to help in the technical assessment of candidates to ensure that the 7th ED UNEP does not make Erik’s mistakes. It appears the suggestion came too late.

    One of the candidates that is probably the Best Felix Dodds was give technical knockout because the UK Government Reference Letter came too late. The playing field could have been made level and his hard competencies: learning and skills and soft competencies: character, courage, cultural, discipline, mindset and leadership ought to have been assessed alongside other candidates and if he made the short list, he should have been given more time to submit the Government Reference Letter.

    As the new ED UNEP will be announced in matter of days, Felxi is firmly out of contention. This is regrettable as we may have indeed lost the best available 7th ED UNEP.

    We wish whoever emerges 7th ED UNEP all the very best. He/She will have the huge responsibility of leading all UN System: UNO, WBG, IMF, WTO (ITO) Internal and External Publics to effectively deploy UNEMG New Model Approach Version 2, expected to be released shortly in the work towards addressing SDGs climate change and environmental sustainability dimension and in ways that effectively get all 193/306 UN Member States back On Track to achieve delivery on SDGs Pledge in less than 12 years remaining to end 2030 target date.

  3. Mr. Bak says:

    Dear Mr. Brown. Very captivating Blog Sir. Mr. Solheim was ultra high-profile. Bigger than anyone before. Some did not take to him. He made bad aministration mistakes. But so did Mr. Steiner. But for Mr. Steiner Mr. Moon made sure bad O.I.O.S. audits were hided away. What happened to O.I.O.S. deep investigation on conflict of interest? What happened to O.I.O.S investigation on lost millions from Bayer Company. Where is lost money? How many friends Mr. Steiner appoint to high places? What travel budget of Mr. Steiner? Do you work Mr. Brown. When you know it all Mr. Brown you should know then Mr Solheim does not look so bad.

  4. keith alverson says:

    Thanks Oli. I agree with some of this, though not all. In any case it is welcome and insightful and I look forward to discussing with you at some point in the future. One statement I find very hard to let by though, and the reason I’m writing a comment, is: “I’m out of the UN system now, so I’m able to speak freely.” One of the most difficult things I have found as a manager in the UN is convincing people to speak their mind without fear of repercussions (indeed, to expect reward!). But the attitude persists …

    1. Oli Brown says:

      Thanks Keith! Would love to discuss this with you. I certainly see what you mean re people speaking their mind. In my experience I’ve found people very happy to speak up about the project level issues – we certainly had plenty of very ‘robust’ discussions among the Programme Coordinators.

      Where it gets more tricky is with people saying anything that might be seen as critical of bosses. I don’t think this is necessarily bad, a bit of discretion can be a good thing. In this case though I thought some of the lessons that come out of the whole episode were worth sharing but I wanted to do so in a way that recognised the many good things that Erik also did.

  5. C says:

    I hope Mr. solheim pays for the hundreds of thousands he wasted. I also hope that his successor will make an effort to reduce the number of plane trips, whether economy or business. Look at the Swedish movement of “ flygskam”

  6. C says:

    I hope Mr. solheim pays for the hundreds of thousands he wasted. I also hope that his successor will make an effort to reduce the number of plane trips, whether economy or business. Look at the Swedish movement of “ flygskam!

  7. Haddijatou Jallow says:

    Hi oli
    Brilliant article, It is rather unfortunate ending.

  8. Jean-Claude Adzalla says:

    Dear Oli,
    This is unfortunately a close-to-reality picture of what can go wrong with the donor dependency syndrom. In 2016 although Norway was the biggest per capita donor to the UNEP ( and a mong the 10 biggest globally), it was still considered a small country within diplomatic circles at the UNEP and in my opinion, Erik did not see himself just as the frontline UNEP Ambassador, he was also holding a candle for Norway among the power players.
    Erik Solheim was indeniably a brilliant Minister of Development Affairs in Norway and I won’t repeat the credentials that made him suitable for the job at first sight. His carreer achievements you have listed speak volume about the man. His stunt at the OECD has been diversly appreciated but indeniably, Erik is very approchable and has a track record of integrity. His ultimate mistake in my opinion is to have succumbed to the opinion of the UNEP (and also UN Habitat) in the Norwegian circles in Nairobi. UNEP certainly needed transformational changes and Erik Solheim definitly contributed to raise its profile…but UN Politics are very deep and it takes more than talent to navigate through them. Coming from a country where the society aim to define look at itself as egalitarian with flat hierarchies and power structures, Erik failed to read the deeply entranched power dynamics and politics within a UN institution.
    Otherwise, people have done much worse than Erik at the UNON (Joan Clos comes to mind next door at teh UN Habitat)…but they played the politics.
    Not the end that anyone could have anticipated when Erik took the mantle in 2016.
    Great piece though!

  9. Len Milich says:

    I had the opportunity to meet and listen to Mr. Solheim when he came to address the HCT in an . His optics, as you say, Oli, leave something to be desired – he showed up with two very attractive young Chinese women and then launched, as you write, a speech including fulsome praise of China. I am astounded with what China has accomplished in recent years in terms of environmental corrective actions – even, for example, reversing centuries of agricultural practices in the Loess Plateau and encouraging farmers to convert their lands back to forests. Or perhaps even more mind-bogglingly, take this statistic: 1 of 7 apples consumed in the world comes from the orchards in Shanxi province. I used to be a firm believer in the inevitability of Chinese foodstuffs being contaminated by toxic chemicals, taking the stance that if “they” were willing to kill their own infants (remember the melamine-contaminated infant formula scandal?) then there’d be little compunction about poisoning the rest of us. But, to my astonishment, what I witnessed in Shanxi is that very few pesticides are applied as every – I repeat, every – apple blossom is covered by a paper bag so as to keep boring insects at bay. The scale of the labour needed to accomplish this is what’s mind-boggling. But – and here’s the downside of China – all those paper bags come from trees, and since China has banned deforestation in its own territory, all it has done is shifted its demand for natural resources to foreign lands – and seas. All the timber to build the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing is stated to have come from West Papua, Indonesia. And the challenge of protecting the oceans is made much, much more difficult by Chinese IUU fleets, as we recently saw off the Galapagos Islands. Never did Mr. Solheim acknowledge the mixed bag of progress in China – he painted it all as very rosy accomplishments.

    The other pressing global issue I challenged him on was why UNE(P) was not taking the lead in discussing the human toll on the environment in terms of population growth. We see the chaotic decline of wildlife across Africa, much of it driven (again) by Chinese demand, a great deal more of it driven by the need for people to earn a living – whether as poachers of wildlife or timber, or as simple farmers hacking out a living from land that was, a short time ago, forest or gazetted National Parks. Yes, I concur that the carbon footprint of just about any sub-Saharan African is but a fraction of that of the average Westerner, but that’s not the point. Wild systems in Africa seem on the brink of collapse now – how many lions remain, for instance? Just how can this become better, by any measure, when the population of the continent is forecast to triple or quadruple by 2100? There’s a projection that Lagos will expand to be home to 80 million people, relatively few of whom will have ready access to potable water or sewerage. If we have been laid low by Covid-19, just wait until some emergent virus rips out from human conglomerations on such scales.

    Erik is apparently indifferent to such pressing concerns. To give him his due, his approachability was such that he and I exchanged several emails after this meeting, where we cordially discussed our differences of opinion. But here’s my opinion: being environment minister in a country of 5.3 million with a population density of 15 people / km2 does not necessarily prepare one for the real, much more crowded, and much more dirty (environmentally and politically) world. Instead, it seems to have generated a Pollyanna-ish world view, which Erik used both for encouragement of governments but to the ultimate detriment of the very aims he supports. It’s a mixed bag, his legacy. But I’m certainly glad for his contributions, no question about it.

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