“It was the first and only opportunity given to us” community stakeholders often say when receiving support from the GEF Small Grants Programme (GEF SGP).
Launched in 1992 as a GEF corporate programme with UNDP as the Implementing Agency, the SGP was the GEF’s answer to the Rio Summit's challenge to implement environment and sustainable development through a “thinking globally, acting locally” approach involving the officially-named Agenda 21 “Major Groups” for channeling broad participation. Indigenous peoples, farmers, workers, NGOs, women, children and youth, and the scientific and technological community were involved as early stakeholders for SGP, which eventually expanded to include local authorities, business and industry as partners for scaling up.
The SGP focuses on poor and vulnerable communities and local civil society in the frontline of critical environmental issues. This makes the task difficult. While other grant mechanisms award competitively to the most capable groups, SGP has to do the reverse, awarding to the ones most in need – which countries need for building capacity if their environment and sustainable development efforts are to have foundations and sustainability on the ground. And they need not just one-time support, but long term institutional assistance.
So one way of looking at the GEF's 25 years is through its sustained support to communities and civil society through investing in an SGP modality that provides them with facilitative access to GEF resources. The combination of funds and long-term support has resulted in more than 20,000 communities and CSOs gaining experience in implementing projects that simultaneously protected the environment, created sustainable livelihoods and fostered citizen empowerment. Behind such bare numbers lie the impacts of innovations that moved away from failed business-as-usual approaches and set precedents that influenced national policy and development planning - whether through a network of community microhydros in the Dominican Republic (creating new legal provisions for renewable energy) or the more than 200 Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas globally (helping countries achieve Aichi biodiversity targets for awareness, sustainable use, equitable management, and respect of traditional knowledge, practices and innovations of indigenous and local communities). Where once environmental NGOs were limited, such as in Jordan and Mongolia, there are now robust networks for national action, knowledge sharing and advocacy.
As SGP has grown to 126 participating countries, a global platform has developed for fast and effective delivery, using well tested mechanisms and procedures, for the community and civil society components of large national and global projects. It has served as the delivery mechanism for such GEF projects as the Nile Transboundary Environmental Action Project and the South China Sea Project as well as those of projects from donors including Germany, Australia, Japan and the European Union. There is potential for more services through SGP National Steering Committees - composed of countries' most committed civil society leaders and high government officials - which are now extending their collaborative work beyond grant review and approval and into “Grantmaker+” action such as national dialogue platforms and South-South exchanges.
GEF’s 25th Anniversary coincides with start up action on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The principle of “leave no one behind”, enshrined in the 2030 Agenda, is also at the very heart and design of the GEF SGP. Almost 25 years of GEF investment in the SGP will bear further fruit in the pursuit of the SDGs particularly in assuring that the required attention on environmental integrity is omnipresent, with social inclusion and empowerment providing foundations for change and sustainability.