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'Incremental steps can lead to lasting changes'

December 15, 2020

Portrait of Sara El Choufi
Photo courtesy of Sara El Choufi

Sara El Choufi studied as a biologist in Lebanon before deciding to dedicate herself full-time to bridging the gap between scientific research and environmental policy. In an interview, the analyst at the GEF Independent Evaluation Office reflected on the importance of impartial reviews of environmental projects’ performance and shared her optimism borne out of observation.

What is the IEO and what does it do?

The Independent Evaluation Office operates independently from the Global Environment Facility’s Secretariat and is accountable directly to the GEF Council. We work to assess the effectiveness and impact of programs supported by the GEF, and to elucidate lessons from work to date. The evaluations focus on a wide range of activity – we look at the GEF’s overall strategy as well as its work in different focal areas, at the country level, and its policies and governance. These independent evaluations are very important for the entirety of the GEF partnership – they help improve current and future operations by continually building in lessons learned and best practices.

Have you evaluated a GEF-supported project or program that had a lasting impact on you? 

The first field visit I did was to Jordan, where I visited the Badia Ecosystem and Livelihoods Project which helped the Jordanian government create opportunities for herders to restore fragile ecosystems and make their livelihoods more resilient. It was an eye-opening experience to see how GEF projects are implemented on the ground and to talk to the project’s beneficiaries. The most interesting part was observing the participatory approach underway, which is giving local people including women a voice and meaningful engagement in the efforts to establish an ecosystem corridor in the desert area. It was heartening to see how GEF projects can improve livelihoods and protect the environment at the same time.

How did you get into this field?

I am a biologist by training. After obtaining an undergraduate degree at the American University of Beirut, I was planning to go into biotechnology and cancer research. But at some point, my interest in the environment caught up with my longer-term plans. I had started an environmental club in my middle school and my high school, and spent my breaks recycling paper by hand and my weekends at beach-cleaning events. What really hooked me into the field however is when I started volunteering with Climate Action Network, an NGO focused on climate policy including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations. I decided to pursue a master’s degree in environmental policy and planning, and worked with the Issam Fares Institute on bridging the gap between research and policy. I really started to see the impact of my work when policy papers from the institute were being reflected in environmental policies in Lebanon, and I was able to join my government’s delegation to the UNFCCC in 2010 for COP 16 in Cancun. There was no looking back after that.

GEF site visit to an aquaponics agriculture system
Visiting a GEF Small Grants Programme project site in Nyamata, Rwanda, where an aquaponics agriculture system is at work. Photo courtesy of Sara El Choufi

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

Young activists like Greta Thunberg are incredible. But I am mainly inspired by my colleagues at the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank, by people working in NGOs, in the private sector, in government, and in international organizations all striving for a better future. The type of drive and passion these hard-working individuals have, and their commitment to the global environment, is inspiring. When I evaluate the work the Global Environment Facility is doing and really look at the impact of GEF-supported projects, I can see how small incremental steps can lead to long lasting changes. That always gives me hope.

What would you advise someone thinking about a career in environmental protection?

This kind of work is not easy. More often than not it is about finding innovative solutions to highly complex problems and not knowing whether you will succeed. It can involve poring over a lot of datasets. It can also be highly political in that we are facing global problems that require global solutions and global collaboration. That said, it is possibly one of the most rewarding types of work you can do.