The excitement that had marked the creation of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in early 2009 – to act “as the global voice for renewable energies” – dissipated fast in the last year and a half. Indeed, for those few who followed what was happening at the agency, feelings of crisis and panic set in fairly early and in recent weeks had turned into a distinct sense of foreboding and desperation. One hopes that this is finally about to change as new excitement has been injected into IRENA after the resignation of its beleaguered founding Director General – Helene Pelosse from France – and the appointment of Kenyan development economist and seasoned UN official Adnan Amin as her replacement.
Although his current appointment is as ‘interim’ DG, it is widely expected that it will turn permanent when the IRENA Council meets early next year. Indeed, if for some reason that does not happen, the Agency will again be thrown into a fractious leadership chaos. Something that IRENA can ill-afford, and may not even survive.
Helene Pelosse’s disastrous stint at the helm was short and substantively uneventful but she leaves the agency in financial shambles. Even more ruinous than the financial mess is the deficit of trust and enthusiasm amongst member states that her tenure provoked. Adnan Amin’s immediate task is to restore sound fiscal management within the agency and raise financial contributions from member states. But his much more important challenge is to inspire and recreate the same confidence and enthusiasm amongst the member states that had originally led to IRENA’s creation.
The job cannot possibly be easy, but Adnan Amin is an inspired choice. His last three appointments were as the head of the New York office of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), as secretariat Executive Director for the High-Level Commission on UN System-wide Coherence, and most recently as the Director of the secretariat of the UN Chief Executives Board for Coordination. One hopes that the first experience taught him how to operate in cash-strapped environments, the second gave him a deep appreciation of what works in managing international organizations, and the third has gained for him the confidence of UN agency heads with many of whom IRENA has to work closely.
All of these experiences should come in handy as the new Director General navigates his way through four inter-related challenges facing IRENA today.
First, and foremost, the internal management of IRENA needs cleaning up. Budgetary controls and sound fiscal management has to be the most pressing priority, but rationalized staffing and developing internal structures and systems in tune with the institutions mandate is going to be equally important. The good news is that the agency has been so mismanaged that improving things from what they were should not be difficult. But a key indicator will be whether member states will also step forward with much needed support and resources.
Second, IRENA’s enabling statute needs to be ratified. Set up as an international treaty organization that is not (yet) a UN agency, IRENA will not really be ‘real’ until its enabling statute is ratified. Least of all because that is the key to the agency’s financial sustainability. Of the 148 member countries (plus the European Union), only 42 have ratified the treaty till now. European countries that had originally pushed hard to create IRENA need to take the lead, but with a developing country leader now at its helm one hopes that developing countries will also show greater support for the agency.
Third, IRENA needs goal clarity. Although IRENA’s vision and mission has been much debated before and since its creation, the agency has been unable to develop goal clarity through its substantive actions. It is clear that IRENA is neither an implementing nor a funding agency. But it must become a facilitator of both and be seen to be more than just a compiler of statistics. Ideally, it should be seen as a ‘transition coach’ for a global energy system that moves progressively towards more and more use of renewable energy sources. That transition is already happening, IRENA’s role should be to facilitate actions that (a) make it happen faster, (b) enable learning amongst nations on how to make it happen, (c) encourage best practices, (d) hold hands of countries which need capacity building and resource priming, and (e) become a global champion for such a transition.
Finally, IRENA should focus especially on poor countries. If IRENA is to become a ‘transition coach’ for countries that need its help the most it has to be more than just a cheerleader. It is in developing countries where IRENA can make the biggest difference, even with a few targeted catalytic efforts. Central to this ‘hand-holding’ mission would be the ability to provide access to knowledge and resources for targeted catalytic activities. The good news is that Abu Dhabi, which is also host to IRENA’s headquarters, has already pledged US$50 million per year for a development fund to assist developing countries. This could become the first seed in an international fund, to be managed by IRENA, to support capacity development, technical assistance, and pilot projects in developing countries.
The next many months should be exciting for this agency, which was conceived amidst such hopes and promise but has been mired by bureaucratic infighting. One hopes that era is now behind us and member states will focus on moving forward with the agency’s substance rather than petty managerial turf wars.