The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe
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Marta Szigeti Bonifert

Marta Szigeti Bonifert

Marta Szigeti Bonifert has spent more than 12 years working for the environment at organisations such as the Environment Institute and the Environment Ministry in Hungary. Before joining the REC she spent 10 years in business working for multinational companies in various senior roles. She was the first managing director of the Environmental Management and Law Association (EMLA). She is scientific advisor to Agroinnova/Turin University Scientific Committee; head of the Environmental Committee of the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum; president of the ROMASTER Foundation; a member of the EBRD’s Environmental and Social Advisory Council; and a member of the Board of Trustees of the CEU Business School Foundation. She is a trained presenter of Al Gore’s Climate Project and a member of the Global Energy Prize jury and of the jury of the European Business Awards for Environment. She has chaired the Europe-China Clean Energy Centre (EC2) management board as well as the management board of the Environment and Security Initiative. She became executive director of the REC in May 2003.

How has the REC adjusted itself over the years as an organisation, as old goals and mandates have been fulfilled and replaced with new sets of challenges and expectations?
The REC is a cooperative mechanism that combines people for the good cause of sustainable development, both nationally and regionally, and provides inputs to global agendas. We were formerly a transitional tool and we are now a transformational tool: The transition from a command economy to a market economy, and from one political structure to a multi-political structure, has happened. But the experience that enables us to make changes, to be ready to make changes for the benefit of our constituency, to involve everybody who is affected by these changes into meaningful discussions, and to work together for a better environment is as important as before.

But what else has happened during these 25 years? We have adopted very unsustainable lifestyles and are unable to curb some of the bad habits that have developed and evolved over these years. The question, with the economic crisis and the added crises of climate change and lack of resources, all these new challenges — or megatrends — is: How are we able to use our transitional experience to develop transformational pathways for the future?

What has really changed in the meantime is the content of our work and the way we do it. In terms of content, we have emerged from a traditional engagement with pollution issues and environmental policy to engaging in cross-sectoral issues such as health and environment, climate change and transport — and now we are entering the green economy debate.

Considering the CEE region as a whole, which environmental challenges have been addressed most successfully in the past quarter of a century? What are some of the most important issues that need to be addressed, either now or in the very near future?
One of the important elements for the REC is that we have to be adaptive to the realities of today, while at the same time building up our competences and centres of excellence to face the challenges of tomorrow. I believe that one of the REC’s most important contributions for the future is our work in education for sustainable development. Because we work for stakeholders from children to municipalities, from politicians to business leaders and all levels of decision makers, we have enormous outreach. We use techniques that we have helped to develop, in areas such as public participation and access to information, and this accelerates commitment to the new agenda and to making a contribution for the future. This is how the REC is able to transfer best practices to interested parties, whether we’re talking about the transfer of lessons learned to Latin America or the Mediterranean region or Eastern Partnership countries. And we are very good at that. Why? Because we are working with two very important assets: our staff — with people representing more than 30 different nationalities; and our professional networks of people and partnerships, because we never do things alone. We always do things in cooperation with the best option for a particular agenda. And this is what is unique about the way we work.

We have to continue to support policy implementation and to lend a helping hand wherever we can — and with all stakeholders. Like vitamin C, we are an enabler!

To expand on this as an example, transport is not detached from energy policy. Energy policy is not detached from climate policy. This is why there is an extreme need for inter-sectoral approaches. And the sooner people realise that all this can be done in a very positive way — whether we call it “green economy” or “sustainable growth” — the sooner they will come to understand that an investment in the environment is not a net cost. On the contrary: it brings economic benefits and social cohesion, to say nothing of a better physical environment to live in.

What do you view as the REC’s greatest strengths and assets? And, looking back over your term as REC executive director, which organisational accomplishments mean the most to you?
One of our strengths is the fact that we are independent. Another is that we act in the middle — between the short term and the long term, between researchers and citizens, between one political party and another in a non-partisan role. The fact that we have the ability to run and manage projects gives us the ability to work with communities, with schools and across borders — at both regional and European level. We like to think of the REC as a “glocal” organisation, and as a “think-to-do-tank”.

Something that makes us very proud is when we see our former colleagues sitting in national and international organisations, working with us as partners in global processes. Our important contributions are what we do within our region, what we do out of our region, and what we do with other stakeholders and networks — as an enabler and as an honest broker. Our now globalised world will require interdisciplinary approaches. There will be a need for policies and funds, but also a need for implementing agencies and partners at local and regional level. We will have success if we take a harmonised approach and use the best of our opportunities. The REC has always been at the forefront of using new kinds of technologies and innovations for better outreach and communication. This connects with our flexibility and adaptive capacity.

As far as personal accomplishment is concerned, I take great pride in our work in education for sustainable development. I was constantly advocating for ESD. I think the vast number of interested parties really shows the strength of the REC and truly represents our interdisciplinary approach, as well as all of the values we are talking about.

Our flagship product Green Pack, adapted for 18 countries in 20 languages, has many spinoffs by now: Green Steps, which addresses families; or the Blue Pack, which addresses climate change. And this extends to so many levels — teachers, wider communities. The Sustainable Development Academy has been able to reach out to decision makers and local authorities, and across borders, to form networks. I’m very happy that I was able to participate and contribute to the development of what I would call a “centre of excellence for education for sustainable development”. With all of its product lines, Green Pack has become a very important contribution for the future.

In what ways is the REC becoming more involved with parts of the world beyond the CEE region?
We do two things in this regard. We work a lot on good governance — and we draw here a lot from our past work. The second thing is the security dimension. I would never say that we are a “security” organisation, but we do enable communities to work on growth, on peace, and on consolidated approaches for the future, including risk prevention.

If we take the Balkans as an example, we started to work in areas that involved post-war conflicts. We addressed these conflicts in ways that helped people to build a better future. We’re now using the exact same technique in Ukraine.

How do you rebuild trust in a community? How do you build good governance? And how do you build hope for the future? It’s partly by enabling colleagues to do their work in a much better way.

Regarding the sharing of experience, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel. Things don’t happen straight away. We simply find our local partners and we share our experiences and best practices with them. This is a solid REC methodology that will always be relevant in the future.

How do you see the REC moving forward as an organisation in the years to come?
The REC is at a very interesting crossroads. We are two types of organisation. From the past, we are a foundation, and in the present and for the future we are an international organisation. The REC Charter serves as an umbrella for these different ways of operating, and we are encouraged to work in this way, even if it’s not an easy way to work!

What is interesting about our future is that we are now ISO certified and working to be widely accepted as an international organisation and thus find our way into various funding streams and mechanisms. Of course, we constantly have to be innovative and efficient because of the need to provide quick responses. Flexibility is one of our traditional strengths that everyone appreciates.

Our 25th anniversary meetings provide a unique opportunity to build on our achievements for the future. The REC has a role to play as a regional platform for promoting, facilitating and enabling the implementation of the post-2015 agenda, which is connected to SDGs in this region.

We want to remain the “green bridge” that we have been for so many years. There are still too many people who see the addressing of environmental issues as a cost and not an opportunity. To address this paradigm shift is extremely important. I’m always saying that it’s much more expensive to repair a disaster than it is to prevent one.

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