GEF’s bureaucratic elite failing to improve global environment

The Global Environment Facility (GEF), the international financial institution set up to help implement global environmental treaties, is unlikely to deliver environmental benefits because it is democratically unaccountable, distant from local political and social issues and opens developing world markets to the forces of globalisation, research claims.


Despite spending around $5 billion of public money by 2002, GEF is doing little more than providing project information and assessments for NGOs, international investors and environmental treaties, the authors of The Functioning of the Global Environment Facility: a Political Analysis claim.

The environmental benefits GEF has promised are intended to be delivered through the implementation of international environmental conventions on climate, biodiversity, desertification, ozone and international waters. But responsibility for implementing these agreements has been handed to civil servants and environmental economists, the Economic and Social Research Council-funded report claims.

These bureaucrats must take into account the complex political and social issues of client countries if the GEF is to deliver any real environmental benefits, say University of Hull researchers Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen and Zoe Young. The authors have recommended that UK bureaucrats on the GEF council support structural changes in the Facility that take account of such considerations.

Increasingly, the authors claim, governments have handed responsibility for spending environment aid to unelected administrators, ‘experts’ from industrialised countries and NGOs. This means that global resource managers working for the GEF make decisions at a great distance from the people and ecosystems affected by those decisions.

When GEF officials visit projects, the research says, they bring a cultural bias that sets value only in monetary terms. Their knowledge lacks local detail, their money may disrupt communities and their participation in the projects lacks real depth, the research claims. The international civil servants and their national minders become embroiled in local conflicts which must be resolved before they can concern themselves with the natural environment.

An added complication is the fact that GEF decision-makers are not accountable to governments, the research claims. They operate in a network of elite advisers, spreading the little money available among an increasing number of clients. This money is further stretched by esoteric allocation rules. For example, on a CO2 reduction project for a power station, only that part of the project calculated by GEF economists to provide global – as opposed to local – benefits is eligible for GEF funds. According to Boehmer-Christiansen, it is mainly the economists who benefit from such accounting exercises. “I would estimate that a third of the money doesn’t get to the project, because it’s spent on the decision making process,” she told edie.

The role of international NGOs is also problematic, according to Boehmer-Christiansen. While she concedes that NGOs can be useful, she says they are often as remote from the problems they attempt to solve as the GEF bureaucrats. “The GEF has allied itself with international environmental NGOs,” Boehmer-Christiansen told edie, “but they are often seen as political threats in developing countries and the GEF ends up being associated with them. Local NGOs also ally themselves with these international NGOs and GEF often funds their activities and to come to conferences, thus losing the sympathy of local governments.”

Boehmer-Christiansen says there is also a larger political agenda at work behind GEF. Green technology transfer is a significant part of large projects managed by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme. Boehmer-Christiansen believes these institutions, along with the United Nations Environmental Programme, are using environmental issues to break open new markets for Northern countries’ technology and expertise. “The GEF is embroiled in the process of globalisation to further the priorities of the Northern nations,” Boehmer-Christiansen says. “For instance, the Biodiversity Treaty allows access to local genepools and helps bring down trade barriers. GEF-funded eco-development schemes in India have led to indigenous people being thrown out of National Parks in order to make way for eco-tourists who want to photograph tigers. By sticking to an agenda designed solely to protect the environment, somebody always loses.”

Furthermore, the research says, GEF staff are told they must achieve ‘business-like’ outcomes and encourage public-private partnerships. This means that conservation or emission reduction projects become hostage to global lobbies pushing investments behind the scenes. The result is more international debt for developing countries, the research claims.

“Social considerations need to be taken into account alongside environmental ones,” says Boehmer-Christiansen. “And both social and environmental considerations need to be ‘mainstreamed’ into all UN projects. Then we wouldn’t need the GEF anymore.”

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