This brief is part of the Insights @ Center for Emerging Markets, a publication focused on cutting-edge ideas and advice for global leaders about emerging markets.

By Maria Ivanova (Northeastern University) 

Kenya and UNEP 

Kenya's bid for the new UN environmental body sought to bring equity and justice to the location rationale for UN bodies. The success of the initiative resulted in the first international organization to be headquartered in the Global South and was seen as a way for Kenya (and other developing countries) to gain more influence in the UN system. UNEP was created in 1972, just nine years after Kenya gained independence. At the time, the country was experiencing strong economic growth, foreign investment, and improved access to education and healthcare. Kenya also boasted a range of attractive landscapes from coastlines to snow-capped mountains, making it a desirable destination. 

Since then, the country has continued to strengthen its economy, has become an attractive investment and trade destination, and advanced its human-capital base. However, Kenya has also been marred by security concerns and corruption, which hurt the country's attractiveness as a UN headquarters duty station.  

Operational Challenges 

From its inception, UNEP has faced operational challenges, many due to communication difficulties with the UN centers of power such as New York and Geneva, and with the capitals of major financial donors. In the first decades of UNEP's existence, distance did impact communication, a challenge that has now largely been overcome.  

Originally, developing countries supported Kenya's proposal to host UNEP though many recognized that accessibility would not be simple or easy. Indeed, many developing countries still lack diplomatic missions in Nairobi, making it expensive and difficult for them to engage with UNEP. The lack of regular airport connections within Africa, coupled with restrictive immigration conditions, has made it difficult for developing countries to attend meetings. Recognizing the need for improved infrastructure and communications and leveraging the influence of the capital, Nairobi is becoming a high-technology, high-innovation city, which could attract more investment when its political and economic climate become more predictable and trustworthy. 

The Impact on Kenya 

Hosting an international organization is an honor for any city, and many cities vied to become the headquarters of the newly created United Nations after World War II. The decision of where to locate the UN headquarters was complex. While governments selected New York City for the UN headquarters, they also created UN offices in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi. International organizations play a vital role in the local economies and have had positive impacts on their host cities. This relationship can be two-way, with host cities also shaping the manner in which an International Organization is set up and the culture it adopts.  

Nairobi has become a center of gravity in East Africa due to the significant UN presence and proximity to the African Union in Addis Ababa. Seventy-five foreign missions and twenty-three international organizations are based in the Kenyan capital, influencing the nation's politics, policies, and economy. Kenya has also become an economic powerhouse in Africa, with significant global investment occurring in the capital city and rapid development of various high-tech sectors. However, the rapid rise also causes higher inflation for Kenyan citizens, crippling traffic from inadequate public transport, and air pollution from new highways across the expanding metropolis. This is a very different Nairobi than the one where UNEP first settled in 1972. 

In essence, the UN's presence has empowered Kenya politically, helping it become a leader in championing key causes. Kenya's ratification of multiple multilateral environmental agreements is partially due to UNEP's presence and influence. Kenya has also grown into the largest humanitarian hub in the region because of the UN's presence, and it has assumed a leadership role in creating the African regional governance architecture. UNEP's eco-friendly headquarters, opened in 2011, offer a showcase for sustainability in Africa.  

Policy Implications: UNEP at the Crossroads 
  • To date, however, UNEP's effectiveness continues to be hindered by its small staff and limited resources, as well as by constrained diplomatic representation of member states in Nairobi. As the environmental field has expanded, UNEP has become a competitor to other multilateral initiatives in this area rather than the coordinator it was originally designed to be. To address this, the institution must be supported to expand its resources and staffing levels. Additionally, UNEP's connectivity must improve by increasing its systematic engagement with both member states and civil society. Important measures to this end would be to increase diplomatic representation beyond the 40 percent of UN member states currently represented in Nairobi and to create consistent connectivity with scholars and activists across the continent and beyond. 
  • Location will remain a core factor in attracting staff and shaping infrastructure and representation. Nairobi can and should become an even more important hotspot of international environmental activity, where convening countries and conventions at the United Nations Environment Assembly take stock and plan action by mobilizing technologies for participants, establishing an online platform for global collaboration, and increasing diplomatic representation in the city. As the anchor institution for the global environment, UNEP must craft a space for influencers to consult and cooperate, to construct new coalitions, and to chart a collectively owned trajectory for sustainability. When UNEP becomes the convener, catalyst, and champion of the Earth it was designed to be, the planet and its inhabitants will be better off.  

Original Works 

Ivanova, M. (2021). The Untold Story of the World's Leading Environmental Institution: UNEP at Fifty. MIT Press.  

Ivanova, M. (2021). At 50, the UN Environment Programme must lead again. Nature, 590 (7846): 365-366. 

Ivanova, M., & Lele, S. (2022). Fifty years after UN environment summit, researchers renew call for action. Nature, 606 (7912): 30-30.  


If you are interested in learning more about this work, contact Professor Ivanova.