Leif E. Christoffersen examines the GEF’s mission, evaluates its success in achieving it, and suggests areas for improvement

In the years running up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, a series of scientific findings and assessments underlined the dangers of ozone depletion, climate change and severe threats to important ecosystems. The threats were clearly global. Addressing them required remedies and resources beyond the individual abilities of each nation state. New global conventions were set up to deal with them, and UNEP played an influential role in these processes. Meanwhile growing public acceptance of the science formed a vital base upon which political decision-makers could establish the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in 1991.

The GEF was expected to use its own funds as a catalyst for mobilizing and leveraging funding from both public and private sources. It has therefore had to work closely with knowledgeable and operationally experienced multilateral institutions. Its institutional arrangement was built upon a core partnership of three of these – the United Nations Development Programme, UNEP and the World Bank.

The 1990 Multilateral Fund – which supported the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer – officially established the new idea of a dedicated convention-related financial mechanism, supporting measures to address global environmental problems which involved additional costs for developing country members. Subsequent conventions followed the same pattern. The concept of global environmental benefits – requiring separate funding, clearly distinguishable from official development assistance (ODA) – gradually gained international recognition.

At the same time, overall ODA flows to developing countries declined, even though Agenda 21 increased hopes that sustainable development would raise new and additional ODA for developing countries, placing them in a much stronger position to integrate environmental issues into their national development programmes and policies.

Establishing a context
It was therefore not surprising that some tension was built into the concept of funding global environmental benefits. Member countries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and international development institutions faced many financial demands for urgent environmental needs at local and national levels. It was, therefore, very important to establish the development context within which GEF activities would be placed.

It can be difficult to distinguish between global and national benefits, and the dividing lines are open to negotiation. GEF activities can also bring direct national and local benefits with the same investments that focus on achieving global ones. A rather flexible interpretation of the concept of global environmental benefits might seem to have some operational advantages. However, such flexibility has inherent dangers. It must not undermine the GEF’s prime mission. For each project the global benefits must be measurable and have a solid scientific foundation.

It was also understood that the GEF would operate within a sustainable development context in each country, while focusing on global environmental benefits. Operational opportunities for funding environmental benefits can often best be explored when associated with national development and environment plans and programmes. This country-driven focus has shown some improvements over the last decade, but much more progress needs to be made.

Many projects in the GEF portfolio provide good examples of positive results from this two-pronged approach. Climate change projects are both reducing the carbon emissions which increase global warming and providing such local benefits as better energy efficiency and improved health from reduced air pollution. Biodiversity projects addressing global priority objectives have also provided added income and employment from new tourism and from the sustainable use of flora and fauna and other natural resources. Furthermore, funding from other donors associated with GEF projects has brought additional development and environmental benefits.

Increased awareness
International development assistance agencies are now more aware of environmental issues and there is much stronger interest in financing national and local environmental activities under ODA programmes. Nonetheless, the concept of global environmental benefits is not easily translated into practice. Two previous evaluations of the GEF called for better clarity and operational guidance on the term ‘global environmental benefits’ and particularly so for the focal areas of biodiversity and international waters. The most recent external evaluation (OPS2) concluded that this is still a priority area for GEF attention. The new focal area of land degradation has made this even more urgent.

The role of science in the global conventions has been emphasized by the separate scientific and technical bodies established to advise their Conferences of the Parties. From the start, institutional arrangements for the GEF included a separate Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP). UNEP has the main responsibility for convening and servicing the STAP, which consists of individual scientists (currently 15) of high international standing (see article by Julia Carabias).

The STAP has had some difficulties in finding an effective role in GEF operations. It has now given considerable attention to examining new programmes and reviewing criteria for planning and approval of projects. OPS2 noted progress, but also pointed to ways to strengthen the use of scientific and technical expertise in more systematic and comprehensive ways.

Scienctific advice
Science – which set the stage for galvanizing political support for international action to address global environmental problems – should also have a role in providing advice on how to monitor and measure achievements. The STAP should be able to muster considerable guidance on this by working closely with the scientific bodies of the global conventions: this would have considerable strategic importance for the GEF. It would also have to work with other stakeholders since, to a large extent, the task involves the technical capacities, the operational experiences, the country knowledge of the other GEF partners – and makes contributions to very important efforts, led by the GEF Secretariat, to strengthen monitoring and evaluation processes for projects.

The GEF will always have to be able to define the concept of global environmental benefits in operational terms, and in ways the interested public can easily understand. Scientific expertise can contribute valuably to measuring, assessing and verifying the extent to which global benefits are being achieved at the completion of a project, or – where verifying the main impacts is likely to take longer – whether the completed project is progressing in a direction which makes it likely that global benefits will be achieved in the foreseeable future.
Political considerations need to be cognizant of scientific and technical ones
The long-term interest of all parties in the GEF is to ensure that its policies, programmes and procedures are well understood. It has made commendable advances in pioneering open access to its Council and project documents: its Council papers, policies, programmes and evaluation reports are easily accessible through the Internet. But it still needs to improve its effectiveness over how such information is disseminated.

The essence of an effective communication and information strategy is to be able to convey the main mandate of the GEF in achieving results that have global environmental benefits while also explaining the associated local and national benefits accompanying most projects. In this sense science and communications come together. It would help strengthen credibility if solid scientific assessments were part of project completion reporting and post-project evaluations of results.

Combined effect
The Swedish scholar, Helen Sjøberg, has noted that it is the combined effect of scientific and political criteria that defines the GEF’s mandate and gives it its particular character. Both will continue to be important while implementing and evaluating its activities and results. Political considerations need to be cognizant of scientific and technical ones. Certainly, considerable care is needed to ensure that politics does not overwhelm or undermine science.

The GEF provides a novel and unique financial mechanism for countries and people to unite around a common set of global objectives towards achieving tangible global environmental benefits. By producing results that have tangible impacts and wide credibility, it could become a model for a possible expansion of this approach into other areas of key international concern

Leif E. Christoffersen is Senior Fellow, Noragric, the Agricultural University of Norway, and Team Leader of the Second Overall Performance Study (OPS2) of the Global Environment Facility, 2001.

PHOTOGRAPH: Frans Hadiman/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
Børge Brende: Walking the talk (Mountains and Ecotourism) 2002
Issue on Food, 1996

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population, waste and chemicals

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and Atmosphere