Geeta Batra is the Chief Evaluator and Deputy Director of the GEF Independent Evaluation Office, which assesses the progress and impact of Global Environment Facility interventions. In an interview, she shared life lessons from her work evaluating innovative environmental initiatives and reflected on the importance of mentorship and keeping an open mind to new information and perspectives.
What is the IEO and how does its work to support international environmental action?
The Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) of the Global Environment Facility reports directly to the GEF Council on the performance of the multilateral trust fund and the portfolio of initiatives it supports in developing countries. The IEO has both accountability and learning functions. We conduct a variety of evaluations - looking at projects and programs, focal areas, thematic approaches, country and regional performance, and institutional policies on issues including gender, safeguards, and stakeholder engagement, for a system-level view. Most evaluations aim to either determine project effectiveness after implementation or improve project design as they are developing. Questions we look to answer include: are GEF-supported interventions relevant? Do they work or not? Why? What are the factors influencing outcomes and performance? The IEO also supports information exchange across the GEF partnership through Learnings knowledge notes, webinars, and presentations at Council meetings and gatherings of the international environmental conventions the GEF supports. Finally, we collaborate with the evaluation units of partner agencies through the UN Evaluation Group (UNEG) and Evaluation Cooperation Group (ECG) of the multilateral development banks, offering joint seminars and training.
What does your role entail?
I am currently the IEO’s Chief Evaluator and Deputy Director. In this role, I am responsible for developing the strategy, work program, and budget for the IEO, with the Director. I supervise the design and development of evaluations conducted by our strong team of evaluators and review the overall evaluation reports produced by the office. I have been responsible for leading the overall comprehensive evaluations that inform the GEF-7 and GEF-8 replenishment processes. I also lead the work program on methodology development and special evaluation themes, such as examining the health effects of GEF interventions in chemicals and waste, to ensure that the IEO stays at the frontier of environmental evaluation.
How has the COVID-19 outbreak impacted your work?
COVID-19 has impacted the work program of the IEO by limiting travel to countries where projects and programs are taking place. We haven’t been able to directly interview project beneficiaries or other important stakeholders. We have also not been able to conduct post-completion assessments which provide on-the-ground insights into the sustainability of GEF interventions several years after projects’ closure. We have tried to address these gaps through the use of experienced local consultants and with household surveys. We have also made good use out of remote sensing and geospatial tools that can detect changes over time on environmental measures such as forest cover, habitat quality, and carbon sequestration, as well as socio-economic indicators.
Do you have a ‘typical’ workday?
One of the things I enjoy most about my work is how dynamic and diverse it is day-to-day. Every evaluation includes elements of basic research into the theme being evaluated, portfolio review and analysis, interviews with internal and external stakeholders particularly beneficiaries of GEF projects, analyzing and making sense of the findings, developing recommendations, and finally communicating the main messages at Council meetings and to the broader evaluation and environment community through webinars, blogs, and participation at various forums. My workday includes some or all of these tasks, in the office or in the field, working closely with our team of evaluators.
Is there a GEF-supported initiative you have been involved in evaluating that is close to your heart?
One of the rewarding parts of evaluation work is that one gets to observe and assess a broad spectrum of projects across all focal areas, regions, countries, and programs. Over these past six years, I have evaluated several GEF-supported projects and programs that have been extremely innovative, impactful, and transformative. These include Lighting Africa, the China Energy Efficiency Finance Program (CHUEE), the Amazon Region Protected Areas Program (Brazil), the Sustainable Land and Ecosystem Management Partnership (India), and the Uruguay Wind Energy Program, to mention a few. A common theme I have observed in these projects is a strong combination of policy reform, behavioral change, market change, and the generation of socio-economic co-benefits. I have had the opportunity to visit a number of projects across the various regions during my evaluation missions. While there are always a few hiccups observed in implementation, I have consistently found a high level of interest and support for GEF projects, and an active participation by civil society and project beneficiaries to learn and drive change. Seeing this is very encouraging, rewarding, and motivating.
How did you get into the field?
My interest and awareness in environmental issues was influenced by my early childhood years in India. I recall that for a period when I was in school, we had one jug of drinking water for our four-member household in Chennai, and I had to walk a mile a day for a week to collect drinking water, which unfortunately many people do even today, 35 years later. The treatment and conservation of water remains extremely important to me.
I began my international development career at the World Bank Group, first as a private sector specialist and later shifting to results and evaluation work at the International Finance Corp. (IFC) and the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG). When my current position opened up in 2015, I jumped at the opportunity to focus exclusively on environmental issues, as preserving the beautiful planet we live on matters deeply to me. Six years later, I am very happy that I joined the GEF. I have learned a tremendous amount from the wealth of knowledge in this partnership.
What life lessons has your work life taught you?
The last 25 years of working in international development has been humbling. Every mission, every interaction, and every meeting has provided insights and taught me something new. The most important lesson I have learned is to be open-minded to information, views, and opinions, and to be a good and engaged listener. This is instrumental in developing and strengthening professional and personal relationships and trust. Another important lesson, particularly useful for young staff, is to never hesitate to “ask.” There’s a wealth of experience in any organization, big or small, and I find that people are willing to help where they can. We all have our stressful moments in life, which can sometimes strain relationships. Assuming positive intent and communicating openly helps. Finally, strong communication skills are extremely important in a world where we are all overwhelmed with information. Presenting succinctly, verbally or in writing, is extremely important.
Is there a person you have met through your work who had a lasting impact on you?
I have been fortunate to have mentors who have positively influenced my life at different stages. Hong Tan, a former lead economist at the World Bank, invested long hours training me, a newly minted PhD economist, about the policy implications of economic analysis findings, the market failures that impede private sector participation, and the development of recommendations to address these issues. He was encouraging, patient, and non-judgmental, and I remain grateful for his guidance. It is so important for young professionals to have a mentor, particularly during the early part of one’s career.
The state of the global environment can be overwhelming. What gives you hope?
While the magnitude of environmental issues is overwhelming, there has been tremendous progress as well. The establishment of the GEF in 1991 was an expression of the recognition of the issues 30 years ago. The continued funding by governments in the GEF and other environmental funds demonstrates the commitment and resolve to address these issues. Private investment has increased substantially and awareness of the need for greater sustainability has increased among all population age groups, particularly the Millennials who hold the key to the future. The journey and process may seem very slow, but there has been positive change, and that’s what gives me hope.
What advice would you give to a young professional with environmental interests?
Follow your dreams and passion — that’s a first prerequisite to success! But complement that by investing in acquiring theoretical and practical knowledge. Field experience is an absolute must to understand what works, what doesn’t, and how to keep improving.