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Working close to the ground, with an eye on the big picture

September 29, 2021

A field visit inside an intact forest in Colombia’s Choco bioregion
A field visit inside an intact forest in Colombia’s Choco bioregion. Photo courtesy of Anupam Anand

Anupam Anand is an Evaluation Officer at the GEF Independent Evaluation Office (IEO). He is also an avid photographer and an expert on satellite technology. In an interview, he reflected on the powerful ways that technology can advance our knowledge of environmental trends and help identify solutions in a fast-changing world.

What does your work at the GEF Independent Evaluation Office entail?

I conduct and manage evaluations for a living. At the IEO, we use various methods including policy and technical analysis to undertake evaluations. Our office is responsible for undertaking independent evaluations of GEF-supported activities in support of both accountability and learning. In addition to assessments of individual projects and programs, these can be evaluations of strategies, focal area activities, and cross-cutting themes.

Have any evaluations you have been involved in stand out as especially interesting?

I found the recent evaluation on GEF support for mainstreaming biodiversity very interesting. It highlighted the challenges of mainstreaming biodiversity across sectors, policies, and practices, and the findings are relevant to many aspects of environmental protection and conservation. For me, this topic is a microcosm of the GEF’s efforts to address challenges in an integrated way and to mainstream environmental considerations in development planning.

I also had a memorable field visit to Colombia before the COVID-19 pandemic prevented such travel. On that trip I visited several post-conflict sites in the Pacific and the Amazon that were isolated and hard to reach. With the support of the government and GEF agencies, I was able to deploy drones to assess land-use changes in areas receiving GEF support for environmental protection and renewal. We also benefited from excellent interactions with people involved in the projects and living in surrounding communities. It was fascinating to see how environmental action and peacebuilding are occurring together.

Hearing from a community member in Kenya about the impact of a GEF-supported project
Hearing from a community member in Kenya about the impact of a GEF-supported project. Photo courtesy of Anupam Anand

How did you get into this field?

I always wanted to work on environmental issues. Geography played a crucial role in shaping my career choices. My schooling was in the Himalayas, and I had the privilege of living and growing up in different parts of India, including the drylands and the Indo-Gangetic plain. From an early age, I observed and realized the crucial role the environment played in our day-to-day lives. This prompted me to take a deep look at environmental issues by studying and working with organizations such as the University of Delhi, Global Land Cover Facility, WWF, and Climate Investment Funds, and conducting intensive fieldwork in the trans-Himalaya and different parts of the United States. I came to the United States for my doctoral studies. My Ph.D. focused on radiative transfer modeling and ecological applications of Lidar remote sensing – laser technology that yields 3D information about changes to vegetation canopy structure, land surface, glaciers, icesheets, and more.

While teaching at the University of Maryland, College Park, I also worked on several NASA projects related to carbon monitoring, biodiversity, and ecological forecasting, including fieldwork for future satellite missions and the development of global satellite data products. This research got me interested in the practical applications of science to solve environmental problems, and I became inspired to look for opportunities to work in international development. After a short stint at the World Bank assessing climate risk using downscaled climate models, it became clear that I wanted to stay on this path, and there has been no looking back.

What life lessons has your career taught you?

Life is not a controlled experiment. You may start with a linear worldview, but my work has made me realize that there are very often multiple views, voices, attitudes to factor in. We have to learn to respect and to work together. My career has also showed me the importance of learning and picking up new skills. I try to apply that in other areas of my life, to learn something new every couple of years, and to avoid stagnation: this also changes the way we look at things.

You are an avid photographer. Are there links between your photography and your professional life?

There is a definite feedback loop between the two. I became interested in photography because I was fascinated by the environment and how subjects interact with it. Photography, like evaluation, is multi-disciplinary. Knowing about camera techniques or having good equipment is not enough. One needs to understand the tool as well as the subject. Similarly, in conducting evaluations, we have to know about the domain, environment, processes, and human behavior.

Another link is that timing is of the essence for both. They also involve adapting and embracing uncertainty to deliver a fantastic product – be it an evaluation or a great photograph. Shoots don't go as planned, interviews don't happen, field visits get canceled, but you continue.

The state of the global environment can be overwhelming. What gives you hope?

A lot needs to be done, but I am optimistic. I am encouraged to see the younger generation really engaged with environmental issues. Science is advancing, and our understanding of the environment is expanding. I am hopeful that the scientists, communities, policymakers, young people, and other stakeholders working to bring about meaningful change will keep up their dynamic conversations and find new ways to work together for a more sustainable future for everyone.