The Global Environment Facility is a knowledge-based organization in which evaluation is central to accountability, results and learning. For it to be truly useful, it must respond to changes both in the external landscape in which the Facility operates and in internal modus operandi. During the Facility’s 7th Replenishment process, the Independent Evaluation Office is completing its sixth Comprehensive Evaluation under the theme ‘the Global Environment Facility in the Changing Landscape of Environmental Finance’. All such replenishments have been accompanied by an overall performance study and, as previously, the purpose of the Comprehensive Evaluation is to provide solid evaluative evidence to inform the negotiations, gauging the results and impact of the Facility’s work through a wide mix of methodologies. The Office is pioneering state-of-the-art geospatial methods that allow us to measure environmental change over longer periods of time, both before and after project implementation, and to compare project sites with matched control locations.
The preliminary findings of the evaluation confirm the Facility's continued solid performance. Overall, the projects in the focal areas of biodiversity, chemicals and waste, climate change, international waters, and land degradation provide global environmental benefits, while reflecting national priorities and responding to the guidance provided by the Conventions that the Facility serves. They also highlight the long-term nature of environmental challenges and the need for comprehensive, sustained initiatives to address them. For example, it took 15 years and three successive Global Environment Facility projects to mitigate the water hyacinth infection in Lake Victoria that threatened the livelihoods of millions of mostly poor people in its basin. One lesson was that it was important to extend the scope of the response beyond Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda – the three countries directly bordering the lake – to address the sources of the contamination upstream on the Kagera River in Burundi and Rwanda.
This lesson is reflected in how the Facility has shifted its focus towards addressing the drivers of environmental change and to integrated approaches that cut across its focal areas. A component evaluation revealed that the steadily increasing portfolio of multi-focal area projects has produced opportunities to fulfil both global and national environmental commitments, and to increase multi-sectoral interaction. This more complex approach has, however, led to higher transaction and operating costs in project design and monitoring. While the evaluation found that synergies across focal areas helped projects produce a higher diversity of outcomes, necessary trade-offs – notably between environmental and socio-economic outcomes – needed to be managed.
Regarding synergies, the Independent Evaluation Office piloted a value-for-money analysis of interventions in land degradation and biodiversity, using methodological approaches to identifying causes that had not previously been applied in this context. They included a series of quasi-observational experiments in which project locations were contrasted with similar locations where there had been no intervention, using hybrid econometric propensity score matching and machine-learning techniques. Evidence from this analysis concludes that the projects have had a net-positive global impact beyond their targeted goals on both forest cover and vegetation productivity. It suggests that many beneficial results of Facility projects go under-reported – such as how projects to reverse land degradation also sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Impacts tend to vary considerably depending on location, so the local context in which programmes are implemented can be assessed for suitability of interventions as early as the planning stage, based on an examination of where projects have historically succeeded or failed.
We also evaluated experiences with programmatic approaches that address broader thematic or geographic areas, and found that projects that belong to programmes tend to perform somewhat better than stand-alone projects, but that this trend reversed as programmes became more complex. It is too early to assess the results of the integrated approach pilots (focusing on sustainable cities, taking deforestation out of agricultural commodity chains, and food security in Africa) established during the current Facility funding period, but analysis of their development and quality at the outset confirmed the importance of investing in coordination, knowledge management, monitoring and evaluation to counteract the challenges of increased complexity.
Overall, the Comprehensive Evaluation demonstrates that the Global Environment Facility has continued to perform well over its 26-year history and that learning has produced positive trends in performance. There are still challenges to be addressed, especially in taking project-level successes to a larger scale. Partnering with the private sector is also important and requires concerted effort. Evidence suggests that addressing national legal and regulatory frameworks is often a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the success of a project and the sustainability of its benefits.
Our research also identified important conditions for contributing to truly transformational change. The lessons suggest that, to achieve this, interventions should have ambitious objectives, aiming to trigger and support fundamental change in addressing market distortions or systemic bottlenecks that are root causes of environmental issues of global concern. They should also establish an explicit mechanism to scale up and expand the activities they have supported.
The Global Environment Facility remains highly relevant in today’s world, where global environmental trends continue to deteriorate. It has a unique niche in areas such as conserving biodiversity, managing international waters, halting land degradation and managing chemicals and waste – areas where no, or few, other multilateral actors are present. In contrast, multilateral funds for combating climate change have proliferated, so the Facility needs to think through its role so as to focus on its own comparative advantages and the ways in which these advantages complement the work of other actors. I hope that the Comprehensive Evaluation will help identify pathways for even more effective contributions by the Global Environment Facility to our common environment.
by Juha I. Uitto, Director, Independent Evaluation Office, Global Environment Facility
This article originally appeared in "The Global Environment Facility: Delivering solutions for a sustainable future," the September 2017 issue of UN Environment's "Our Planet" magazine. The magazine was launched at the GEF-7 2nd replenishment meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.