Feature Story

Small grants, big results

May 1, 2016

SGP is more than simply a fund that provides small grants. By raising public awareness, building partnerships, and promoting policy dialogue, SGP seeks to promote an enabling environment within countries for achieving sustainable development and addressing global environmental issues.

The Bagmati River, sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, flows down Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, through terraced rice fields and past ancient temples.

As the river nears the teeming cities of Kathmandu and Lalitpur, it becomes as much a garbage dump as a source of spiritual cleansing. Untreated sewage flows into the river, and generations of residents have used the waterway to dump their household trash as well.

Local people, government agencies, international organizations, and foreign tourists have complained about the growing garbage problem in Kathmandu and Lalitpur, cities with a combined population of nearly 1 million. Complaints abound; workable solutions have been scarce — that is until two women, Bishnu Thakali and Sharada Vaidya, together with their neighbors, stepped forward with a plan of action.

In 1992, Thakali, Vaidya, and about a dozen other women fed up with the growing mountains of trash in their Kupondole neighborhood, just south of the Bagmati, took matters into their own hands. Starting with 50 nearby houses, they went door to door making the case for people to reduce, reuse, and recycle their garbage. At first the results were mixed: They encountered some resistance but also received some expressions of support. Encouraged, they decided to expand the effort and formed an organization called the Women’s Environmental Protection Committee, or WEPCO. “We used to blame the government, the municipalityeveryone but ourselves,” recalls Vaidya.

By 2004, WEPCO had expanded waste collection to over 1000 households, charging each a small fee, and managing about seven tons of waste daily. Since most of the household waste is biodegradable, it makes for an ideal source of biogas. WEPCO has built several small demonstration biogas plants producing gas usable for cooking. The organization also sells fertilizer made from organic compost.

The women of WEPCO have found other ways to turn trash into opportunity. The group collects paper from banks, hotels and other businesses and recycles it, training local women and selling recycled paper products, including stationery that often goes back to the same businesses that provided the waste paper in the first place. “There is good money in waste, from recycling paper and plastics to making cooking gas from kitchen waste. Everybody in Kathmandu can save money and keep their environment cleaner. But it takes education,” says Thakali, who is now the President of WEPCO.

WEPCO is just one example of the projects that GEF supports through its ground-breaking Small Grants Programme (SGP). For almost two decades, the SGP has been one of the crown jewels of the GEF, working with communities around the world to combat the most critical environmental problems. Through thousands of small grants, the program has demonstrated that supporting communities in their efforts to achieve more sustainable livelihoods is not only possible but vital in bringing about change and improving the global environment.

Launched in 1992, the same year that Thakali and Vaidya began their war on trash, SGP channels financial and technical support directly to community-based organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and indigenous peoples’ organizations in 122 developing countries. Through nearly 14,000 grants, SGP has supported activities that conserve and restore the environment while enhancing people’s wellbeing and livelihoods, striking a balance between human and environmental needs. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), acting on behalf of the other GEF implementing agencies, carries out SGP projects through strategic partnerships. SGP has been able to match program funding from the GEF (approximately US$400 million) with cash and in-kind contributions for a total financial impact of over US$800 million since the program’s inception.

SGP projects focus on testing innovative solutions to environmental problems at the community level, with the hope and expectation that successful approaches will be replicated at broader scales. The grants, which average about US$35,000 with a maximum of US$50,000, go directly to local groups and indigenous peoples in recognition of the key role they play as a resource and constituency for environment and development concerns. The decentralized structure of SGP encourages maximum country- and community-level ownership and initiative.

Program grants ensure that communities and other key stakeholders understand and can carry out conservation and sustainable development strategies and projects that protect the global environment, help develop community-level strategies, and implement technologies to reduce threats to the global environment if they are replicated over time. SGP also gathers lessons from community-level experience and initiates the sharing of successful community-level strategies and innovations among local organizations, host governments, development aid agencies, and others working on a regional or global scale.

SGP is more than simply a fund that provides small grants. By raising public awareness, building partnerships, and promoting policy dialogue, SGP seeks to promote an enabling environment within countries for achieving sustainable development and addressing global environmental issues. SGP has helped organizations and governments support local, community-based initiatives while at the same time meeting national obligations and global commitments.

That approach bore fruit in Nepal, and helped empower the women of WEPCO. It is also working in the Caribbean nation of Belize on the Yucatan Peninsula. Responding to a range of threats facing the Belize Barrier Reef System, an SGP-funded initiative called the Community Management of Protected Areas Conservation Programme (COMPACT) has been working for more than a decade to preserve the integrity and character of the reef. The program, an initiative of SGP, UNESCO, and the United Nations Foundation, seeks to develop World Heritage Sites, Biosphere Reserves and other socio-ecological production landscapes into learning laboratories for sustainable development. COMPACT works at eight current or proposed World Heritage Sites around the world, and in Belize is developing and supporting a range of conservation and sustainable livelihood activities through transparent and democratic partnerships with coastal communities and other stakeholders.

The Belize Barrier Reef System, the second largest in the world behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and a World Heritage site since 1996, encompasses seven marine protected areas (MPAs) with a total area of 116,148 hectares. One of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, the reef is Belize’s top tourist destination, attracting almost half of the country’s 260,000 annual visitors, and is vital to its fishing and tourism industries. Twenty-two coastal communities several inland communities are adjacent to the World Heritage Site and local livelihoods depend on the health of the reef system for activities such as fishing and tourism.

COMPACT’s establishment in Belize grew out of a yearlong participatory process which brought together key stakeholders in a national forum to discuss the conservation and sustainable use of the Belize Barrier Reef System. A baseline assessment resulted as part of this process; it revealed the degree of alienation felt by the fishing community toward the MPAs, which they viewed as having been aimed at restricting traditional fishing in favor tourism development.

In response, COMPACT’s site strategy prioritized helping fishers benefit from the MPAs through co-management arrangements and alternative livelihood initiatives. Thus the emphasis was on the need to help local users understand the global value of the reef and their roles as its stewards. The result has been a shift in the attitude of fishermen and others in the coastal communities that depend on the health of the reef system. Fishermen who were once opposed to the MPAs have now become among their greatest advocates. Many are leading efforts to expand the boundaries of MPAs within the Belize Barrier Reef System and to improve fisheries management policies within the reef.

The fishing village of Sarteneja, Belize, provides a telling illustration of the impact the SGP can have. Since the community has historically depended largely on harvest of lobster, conch, and finfish, COMPACT supported a project to provide alternative livelihoods to reduce pressure on the declining fisheries resource. The project has focused on increasing local awareness of the value and unique attributes of the Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve, while training local tour guides and helping to market the eco-tourism and educational tourism potential of the area.

COMPACT projects, like those in Belize, provide tangible demonstrations of the highly touted but often largely abstract notion of linking local livelihoods and biodiversity conservation. Demonstrating constructive ways of involving local stakeholders in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in and around protected areas remains one of the most important challenges and priorities for nature conservation.

Another SGP project illustrates how a relatively small amount of funding can engage local stakeholders in this way to tackle multiple problems including biodiversity conservation, land degradation, and gender issues. Communities in remote, rural areas traditionally lack access to conventional power sources. These communities have to rely on kerosene or firewood for basic energy needs, leading to local deforestation and contributing to climate change. Solar energy provides an alternative energy solution while simultaneously spurring progress in human development including poverty reduction, gender equality, education and health. There remains a need, however, to enhance the capacities of local communities to build, install, maintain and repair solar technologies and local women could play a significant role in addressing these issues.

In 2008 the SGP began a partnership with Barefoot College in Tilonia, India. A pioneer in demystifying complex technological processes for illiterate students, this institution has been working since 1972 to provide basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable. Barefoot College and SGP are working together to support “Women Solar Engineer” pilot projects across Africa’s and Asia’s poorest countries. In this collaborative effort, the GEF SGP provides communities with technical support and funding for the solar panel kits. The Barefoot College, offers a six-month training program to the women beneficiaries of the GEF SGP

The partnership between SGP and Barefoot College is rooted in the belief that it is fundamental to empower communities to develop their own sustainable energy solutions. Under the Solar Engineers project, each community forms a village solar committee that supervises the community’s solar energy project and selects candidates for the training in India. After learning how to install, maintain and repair solar energy kits, the engineers return to electrify households in their villages. In return for their installation, maintenance, and repair services, the women engineers receive a monthly salary from the village solar committee.

Through these projects the women have managed to provide electricity to over approximately 2,245 households, bringing light to nearly 15,000 beneficiaries in 32 villages in 12 countries: Benin, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, and Uganda. In addition, communities have seized the opportunity to provide electricity to numerous public facilities, including schools, hospitals, food processing plants, local administration offices, religious buildings and community centers. Most fundamentally, the projects have managed to reduce CO2 emissions, ease pressure on deforestation, and decrease air pollution from burning firewood and kerosene.

However, the most profound impact of solar electrification has been on community-wide economic activity. Solar lighting has enabled the extension and improvement on the continuity of economic activities after dark. All participating communities noted the powerful effect of the GEF SGP-Barefoot College partnership on the social status of the illiterate women trainees. The program empowered women trainees to acquire complex technical skills, enabling them to return as qualified solar engineers to serve their communities. Most of the Women Solar Engineers managed to translate their new livelihood activity into better living standards.

The Small Grants Programme embodies a central theme of the work of the GEF and its partners: What matters most is the tangible, measurable difference their efforts make for the environment and for people often struggling to survive. That impact can be seen in finest detail at the local level in small projects, where innovation can be found as well. As seen in Nepal, Belize, and in the dozen countries served so far through the partnership with Barefoot College, the Small Grants Programme offers real-world experience in the sometimes fraught process of linking sustainable local livelihoods and biodiversity conservation.