Mohamed T. El-Ashry describes how the Global Environment Facility is linking the global environment to sustainable livelihoods

In early August, 32 donor nations reached an agreement on the largest replenishment in the ten-year history of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) – $2.92 billion for the next four years. This robust replenishment sent the world a strong message of commitment to the global environment and to the GEF.

Despite advances in many areas, including reductions in the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODS), world leaders have no shortage of environmental concerns to address. One person in three still lacks adequate freshwater. Greenhouse gases are steadily increasing, and we continue to undermine ecosystems that are critical to human survival. Land degradation threatens food security and livelihoods, especially in Africa. The number of people living on less than $1 a day is increasing by 10 million every year. And official development assistance, as a percentage of donor country GDP, is at 0.22 per cent, its lowest point in half a century. Reversing these trends is not only our moral duty, it is also in our best economic and security interests. Fortunately, we already know what we need to do to create a global shift towards sustainable development.

It is clear to me that addressing these conditions entails creating jobs in poor countries through economic and social growth, and generating global action to produce commonly shared benefits through multi-country cooperation. Since 60 per cent of the population in developing countries engage in livelihoods that are dependent on land and water resources, combining conservation with local needs can have benefits that go beyond national boundaries.

That is why the GEF exists – to improve the global environment while creating sustainable development opportunities for local communities. Chapter 33 of Agenda 21 states that new and additional external funds are necessary to share the costs and benefits of sustainability with developing countries. The GEF was entrusted with channelling a significant portion of these ‘new and additional’ funds to achieve global environmental benefits and ‘cover the agreed incremental costs of relevant activities under Agenda 21’. Ten years later, the GEF is considered by many to be the only major financial accomplishment of Rio.

The GEF is a novel, multilateral entity that engages in an array of partnerships, building upon other organizations’ comparative strengths. One partnership is between developed and developing countries working to achieve global environmental benefits. GEF has also forged partnerships with three implementing agencies – the United Nations Development Programme, UNEP and the World Bank – and this level of partnership is growing to include other organizations. GEF also works with private and public partners who leverage the GEF’s impact by providing co-financing – $12.4 billion since 1991. Finally, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have had an unprecedented role in the GEF; currently more than 700 NGOs participate in GEF activities as co-executing agents or service contractors – more than three quarters of them in developing countries.

Broad representation in the GEF’s governing structures reinforces a strong emphasis on participation. Representatives from GEF’s 173 member states provide overall direction to the GEF through the GEF Assembly. The GEF Council develops, adopts and evaluates GEF programmes; of its 32 member constituencies, 16 represent developing countries, 14 represent developed countries and two represent countries with transitional economies. Unique among international financial organizations, the GEF welcomes the participation of non-governmental organizations in its deliberations.

The GEF is more than a channel for project financing. It also supports global environmental security by helping countries integrate global environmental considerations in national development planning, encouraging the transfer of environmentally sound technology and knowledge, and strengthening the capacity of developing countries to play their full part in protecting the global environment.

GEF's commitment
Though the GEF portfolio is still young, the growing number of completed projects and the many ongoing projects report measurable achievements. A recent comprehensive assessment by an independent panel of experts concludes that ‘GEF projects have been able to produce significant results that address important global environmental problems’.

As the financial mechanism for the global conventions on climate change and biodiversity, GEF helps breathe life into these commitments by earmarking multilateral funds for developing country-based projects with global environmental benefits. In its roughly ten years of operation, the GEF has approved over $1.2 billion in grants, and leveraged $6 billion in co-financing, for more than 100 clean energy projects in 60 developing and transition countries. This 5-1 return on investment is a win-win situation for all partners. These funds have been used to promote energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy technologies. In addition, GEF’s work has stimulated awareness and understanding of climate change in many countries.
Combining conservation with local needs can have benefits that go beyond national boundaries. We have a vastly increased understanding that our strength lies in working together
Under the GEF ozone programme, which supported implementation of the Montreal Protocol in economies in transition in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, significant reductions of ODS have been achieved. In the 14 countries with the most advanced GEF projects, ODS consumption has been reduced by 90 per cent.

GEF is the single largest source of funding for global biodiversity conservation. Its biodiversity programme has made significant advances in demonstrating community-based conservation within protected areas. Now the focus is shifting towards production landscapes in which sustainable income-earning activities are allowed. GEF support has steadily improved the management standards for protected areas through participatory approaches.

GEF-supported activities in the international waters focal area have contributed significantly to the implementation of existing global and regional agreements that address protection and restoration of freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Significant as the GEF may be, however, it is not enough by itself in meeting the many demands for environmental sustainability in developing countries. The reality is that the resources available for environmental protection and sustainable development in developing countries are small compared to the needs.

What will it take to protect our biological heritage, avoid the devastation that climate change could bring, sustain the soil and water that give us life, protect human health and reduce the scourge of poverty and hunger? It will take leaders from all walks of life who are willing to think and act differently and lead the way. We must replicate our successes, and build upon what we have learned:

  • We must share the benefits of new knowledge and opportunities by utilizing environmentally friendly technologies and approaches.

  • We must move beyond traditional finance formulas to cultivate new financial resources – ones that will allow greater cooperation and investment in global sustainability.

  • We must make polluters pay, but we can go further by building sustainable livelihoods and facilitating joint ventures.

  • We must move beyond corporate greed and ‘irresponsibility’ and use pressure from governments, investors and consumers to advance corporate citizenship, self-regulation and the business case for sustainability.

  • We must continue to maximize the market impact of public resources, as several GEF projects have demonstrated. Public funds should help create the enabling environment for private investments.

As we have also learned in the GEF, the challenges ahead of us cannot be categorized under headings as simple as ‘environment’ or ‘poverty’ or ‘health’. Doing so ignores how each affects the other, and hinders our abilities to find comprehensive and effective long-term solutions. In my view, international cooperation towards sustainable development demands an understanding of the linkages between the health of the environment, the health of people, hunger and poverty alleviation.

In many ways, we have entered one of the most creative phases in human history, where science, technology and communications advance at breathtaking speed and offer unmatched opportunities for political consensus and responsible change. We have new tools at our disposal, and a vastly increased understanding that our strength lies in working together to overcome the threats facing our planet. The actions we take and the investments we make in the coming decade will determine both our own evolution and that of future generations. And we have the time and the tools to make the global shift to sustainable development.

Mohamed T. El-Ashry is Chairman and CEO of the Global Environment Facility.

PHOTOGRAPH: Chaiwat Chittirapap/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Unmatched opportunities | Global priority | Partnerships for change | Rising to new challenges | Much achieved, more to do | Message to the Second GEF Assembly | Africa Environment Outlook | Critical energy | Mapping the health of the planet | Regaining ground | Two to tango | Linking knowledge to action | Globalizing benefits | Unpopular POPs | Message to the Second GEF Assembly

Complementary articles in other issues:
Special supplement to coincide with the Global
Environment Facility Assembly
(Fresh Water) 1998
Issue on Water, 1996
Issue on The Way Ahead, 1997
Issue on Climate and Action, 1998
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Mohamed T. El-Ashry:
Global environmental benefits through local action: the GEF
(Fresh Water) 1998
Mohamed T. El-Ashry: Energizing change
(Climate and Action) 1998

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