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Widening the tent for justice and peace

November 10, 2020

Peter Lallas portrait in Rome
Photo courtesy of Peter Lallas

Peter Lallas is the Global Environment Facility’s Conflict Resolution Commissioner and an advisor to the GEF Director of Strategy and Operations. In an interview, he shared insights from his career path that started on the basketball court, and reflected on the importance of meaningful engagement with people impacted by environmental issues and by international efforts to address them.

You wear many hats at the GEF. What does your work entail?

One of my main responsibilities is to prepare the GEF’s annual business plan and administrative budget. While this may not sound super exciting, the budget and business plan sets out priority work areas for each year, providing a roadmap for us to meet the GEF’s mission to tackle environmental degradation at its root causes. This year, this work includes identifying new needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am also involved in updates to key policies that reflect the values of the GEF partnership – including those on environmental and social standards, minimum fiduciary standards, stakeholder engagement, and gender equality – and am leading efforts to upgrade the GEF Portal, where our member countries and partners can review project proposals and track project implementation.

Finally, as the GEF’s Conflict Resolution Commissioner, I work across the partnership to proactively engage and respond to people and communities with concerns about GEF-funded projects and operations. This work – to give local and affected people a greater voice in project activities, and to enlist their expertise and knowledge – is absolutely fundamental to the success of the projects and programs we support.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the GEF’s approach?

In terms of the daily work, we have been fortunate in that technology has allowed us to keep carrying our core work forward and to stay in close contact with our partners around the world through online meetings, workshops, and training sessions.

At the same time, COVID-19 has created very difficult conditions and hardships in many of the countries where GEF-supported projects and programs are operating. We were able to make some adjustments to project review and approval deadlines, allowing work to continue to advance with additional time and assistance measures where needed in response to the pandemic.

We have also integrated pandemic response actions into the GEF’s business planning. COVID-19 has compelled us to assess what more we can do to address the underlying conditions that can lead to pandemics, including dangerous proximity between wildlife and human development. A GEF COVID-19 Task Force is working on recommendations related to this right now. Preventing and creating resilience against future pandemics is a major priority for the GEF and its partners.

Peter Lallas at the Fifth GEF Assembly in Mexico, 2014
Peter Lallas at the Fifth GEF Assembly in Mexico, 2014. Photo courtesy of Peter Lallas

Do you have any tips for staying focused in this challenging time?

Be very appreciative of the amazing level of technological functionality that is available to keep us connected and to keep things going. Take the time to reflect on new perspectives that come with remote connections and a more isolated work modality. Try to find ways to help and support those who face hardships or are suffering in these very hard times.

What first motivated you to work in the environmental field?

I grew up in Oregon, a part of the United States that is full of wild and wonderful nature and places, and full of life.  I fell in love with every part of it.  As I grew older, I saw more and more how some of the things we do – like clearing forests, and polluting lands and rivers – hurts these places, and just as much hurts people and their livelihoods. 

As I passed into high school and college, I developed a deep interest in social justice as well as causes to protect the environment. And at that time, I saw many opportunities for legal systems and courts to have a major positive impact on both. I decided to go to law school and try to build the skills to make a difference in this area. So that’s what I did, after spending one year playing professional basketball in Greece after college. Through this and other opportunities to see more of the world, and later to work in international settings including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, I also fell in love with the work of international cooperation, in a world growing closer together.

Is there a person you have met through your work who had a lasting impact on you?

There are many. One of them would be Professor Edith Brown Weiss at Georgetown Law School. I was greatly inspired by her early book In Fairness to Future Generations, and had the privilege to work with her at different points of my career, at the US Environmental Protection Agency and the World Bank Inspection Panel. I learned a lot from her intellectual power, integrity, and courageous approach, even under demanding circumstances. She is a great example to all of us. I would also like to mention my family and parents – they’ve done everything for me, and I couldn’t feel more lucky.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

Work hard. Keep building your skills, commit to the highest quality, and do the best you can.  Have the courage to follow what you believe to be the best path, and be ready to pick yourself up in the face of adversity. Definitely don’t underestimate the power and importance of positive energy and working in partnership with others, and try to bring a good dose of humor and spirit of cooperation to your efforts – it goes a long way!

What does success in your work area look like?

Success is getting better results for the global environment, stemming the terrible tides that we see around us. And doing it in a way that is good for people and nature, for people’s hopes and aspirations, and for our children. With justice and fairness. And peace. There are cold winds these days, and I hope we can work together to make it better.