x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A firm hand at the helm of Irena could chart a new course

The excitement that marked the creation of the International Renewable Energy Agency in early 2009 to act, as the global voice for renewable energies, dissipated fast in the last year and a half.

The excitement that 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 set in fairly early.

This is finally about to change. New excitement has been injected into Irena after the resignation of its beleaguered founding director general - Helene Pelosse from France - and the appointment of Adnan Amin, a Kenyan development economist and seasoned UN official, as her replacement.

Although his current appointment is as interim director general, it is widely expected that the post will become permanent when the Irena council meets early next year. Indeed, if for some reason that does not happen, the agency could again be thrown into a fractious leadership chaos. That would be something that Irena could ill afford.

Ms Pelosse's stint at the helm was short and uneventful, but the agency has been left in financial shambles. Even more ruinous than the financial mess is the deficit of trust and enthusiasm among member states that her tenure provoked.

The immediate task facing Mr Amin 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 among member states that led to Irena's creation.

The job will not be easy, but Mr Amin was an inspired choice. His last three UN appointments include experience operating in cash-strapped environments, managing international organisations and working closely with the UN heads with whom Irena cooperates. 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. Budget controls and sound fiscal management have to be the most pressing priority. Staffing and sound internal structures and systems are 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 organisation that is not yet a UN agency, Irena will not be "real", in a sense, until it is formally ratified. This is the key to the agency's financial sustainability. Of the 148 member countries, plus the European Union, only 42 have already ratified the treaty. European countries that originally pushed hard to create Irena need to take the lead, but with a leader from a developing country now at its helm, one hopes that developing countries will also show greater support for the agency.

Irena also needs goal clarity. Although its vision and mission had been much debated before and since its creation, the agency has been unable to establish clarity through its actions. It is clear that the agency 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 renewable energy sources. That transition is already happening, and Irena's role should be to facilitate actions that make it happen faster, enable learning among nations on how to make it happen, encourage best practices, hold the hand of countries that need capacity building and resource priming, and become a global champion for such a transition.

Finally, Irena should focus especially on poor countries. If it 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 only a few targeted efforts.

Central to a hand-holding mission would be providing access to knowledge and resources. The good news is that Abu Dhabi, which hosts Irena's headquarters, has already pledged $50 million (Dh184 million) per year for a development fund. This could become the first seed in an international fund to be managed by Irena that could support capacity development, technical assistance, and pilot projects in developing countries.

The next months should be exciting for this agency, which was conceived amid high 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 substantial challenges rather than managerial turf wars.

Prof Adil Najam is a professor of international environmental policy at Boston University