Remembering Maurice Strong, pioneering environmental champion

Former IIED director David Runnalls recalls influential advocate of Southern voices and board member Maurice Strong, and his vital contribution to the founding of our institute.

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Guest blog by
4 December 2015

David Runnalls is a former director of IIED, and distinguished fellow of IISD

Maurice Strong at the High Level Dialogue on Global Sustainability, Rio de Janeiro, June 2012 (Photo: Sergio Greif, Creative  Commons via Flickr)

With the death of Maurice Strong, we have lost one of the last links to the founding of IIED. Maurice was one of IIED's creators, his involvement stemming from the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.

Stockholm was the first of a series of environment-focused conferences organised by the UN in the 1970s. Prior to that, the organisation had concentrated on peace and security and the development efforts of its specialised agencies. The environment conference was different, and it was big international news.

Proposed by the Swedish government, developing countries were loath to participate, fearing that environmental concerns would be used by the North to slow down or prevent their moves towards development. So the UN Secretary General needed someone who could shift the focus toward the South. He chose Maurice, then the President of Canada's international development agency and a committed advocate of developing countries.

Maurice set out on a frenetic world tour, cajoling governments to do their best in Stockholm. He also set out a plan to make the conference more relevant to developing countries.

He organised some prominent developing country intellectuals to produce what became the Founex Declaration, articulating the southern perspective on development and environment. He also persuaded Barbara Ward, by then perhaps the most prominent advocate for development assistance, to write a book which could provide one of the conference themes.

With biologist Rene Dubos, Barbara wrote 'Only One Earth', a persuasive argument for shifting the Stockholm agenda from the Northern concerns of air and water pollution to what we now regard as the major environmental challenges of the South: desertification, lack of adequate water and sanitation, growth of urban shantytowns and the bias of the international trading system against the poor.

Maurice used the book as a rallying cry. After the conference, he was approached by Robert O Anderson, a prominent US oilman and philanthropist and founder of the International Institute for Environmental Affairs (IIEA). Anderson asked Maurice what IIEA could do to help him in his new job as head of the UN Environment Programme. Maurice had one request: make Barbara Ward head of the organisation. Barbara agreed, relocating the organisation to London and changing its name and focus: the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) was born.

Maurice became an IIED board member and remained a firm supporter for many years. At UNEP, he urged us to work with the media in ways that the UN never could. So we started Earthscan. He urged Barbara to become involved with the UN Conference on Human Settlements in 1976. She wrote 'Home of Man', the theme book for the conference and the catalyst for IIED's established and respected human settlements work.

Maurice was one of the great men of the last years of the 20th century, with careers in both public and private sectors. Although frail at the end, he met with Jim MacNeill, former Secretary General of the Brundtland Commission, and Klaus Töpfer, former Executive Director of UNEP, and spoke animatedly about the Paris climate conference and its prospects for success. The UN may never see another quite like him.

David Runnalls is a former director of IIED, and distinguished fellow of IISD.

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