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Ashok Khosla Tolba, a great world leader, transformer and mentor 
14/6/2016
Although we had met several times in places like Stockholm, Geneva and Paris, I first properly got to know Mostafa K. Tolba in Nairobi in 1976, when he had just become the head of the United Nations Environment Programme and I had just joined the staff.  That was a truly busy time in the life of our young organization, what with setting up the first headquarters of a UN organization in a developing country, moving to a new campus and creating worldwide programmes to address the growing threats to our planet’s life support systems.
 
Having earlier been both a top scientist and a national politician, Tolba brought to UNEP a vast substantive understanding and unusually effective diplomatic skills, which over the next two decades would enable him to create massive new institutional frameworks for managing the global environment.  From the seas and oceans, to the ozone shield, to climate change, to biodiversity, to pollution and waste, we today take for granted mechanisms for international negotiation that were conceived and created by Tolba and colleagues under his leadership.
 
As a young professional working with such a gigantic personality, a personality with extraordinary intellectual and physical capacity and a commitment to results and excellence that is truly rare in the stratospheric realms of international civil service.  His ability to recall was proverbially “photographic” and his eye for detail and his ear for language could take the work of professional editors working in their own mother tongue to whole new levels of competence, dealing with his sprawling comments in a distinctive red-colored ink. 
 
Above all, my own experience at UNEP, working directly with Tolba was truly rewarding, not least because when he delegated responsibilities, he delegated them fully, and by giving the fullest freedom to make major decisions, he enabled me to manage the creation of a major new global information system for environmental decision-making.  His commitment to mentoring and building his co-workers was serious and complete – and I for one was a major beneficiary of working with such a truly outstanding boss. 
 
When the time had come for me to return from UNEP to my own country to establish what was soon to become the world’s first social enterprise dedicated to sustainable development, I explained to Tolba my reasons for wanting to leave.  To his credit, he immediately understood the value of the concept I had in mind, to make poverty eradication and natural resource regeneration into a good business.  Over the next two years, he personally took part in helping me design the business and to mobilize the basic financing that enabled me to start what has since become a major global contribution of UNEP’s efforts.  He was the one of the most vocal champions of my organization, Development Alternatives, and will always be grateful for the chance I had to work with and learn from such a truly great man.  I am glad that we had a chance to talk a few brief hours before he went on to take on ever greater challenges.
 
 
Ashok Khosla is chairman of Development Alternatives, co-chair of International Resource Panel, and former president of IUCN and Club of Rome.

 
 
 

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