Ibrahima Sow leads the Global Environment Facility’s programming related to Africa, including the Great Green Wall Initiative that tackles desertification, land degradation, and climate change together. In an interview, he shared lessons from his work enabling countries to find, share, and scale up solutions to inter-related environmental challenges.
What is your role at the GEF, and what does this work entail?
I manage the Africa regional team for the GEF’s programs unit and am a member of the global chemicals and waste team. My role is to support countries as they develop a pipeline of environmental projects that are eligible for GEF financing, in line with their national priorities. I provide guidance to government officials and international agencies on effective ways to address their challenges with support from the GEF trust fund and the GEF-managed Least Developed Countries Fund.
Is there a GEF-supported project that is close to your heart?
I am a chemical and environmental engineer by training, and a lot of my work relates to helping countries meet their international obligations related to chemicals and waste management. One example of this is an initiative led by the African Development Bank to develop the TRACE program, to Transition Africa Towards a Circular Economy. This program is being designed to address waste challenges in Africa through environmentally sound management practices that can phase out the use of persistent organic pollutants and toxic chemicals such as mercury and introduce safer alternatives.
Another venture that is important to me is the Great Green Wall Initiative, which is an African response to the challenges of desertification, land degradation. and climate change. The GEF has supported the Great Green Wall since its inception in 2007, in close partnership with the World Bank, and I work to coordinate the GEF’s ongoing contributions to the initiative, which aims to grow a 8,000-km-long and 15-km-wide mosaic of trees, grasslands, vegetation, and plants along the southern tip of the Saharan desert. The initiative has grown into a platform for 11 countries across the Sahel (including my home country Senegal) to engage with international financial institutions, development agencies, the private sector, technology providers, and other partners to implement projects that help realize the goals of restoring 100 million hectares of currently degraded lands, sequestering of 250 million tons of carbon, and creating of 10 million jobs in rural areas by 2030. Close to 20 million hectares of land have already been restored as part of the initiative. Once complete, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living structure on the planet, three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef.
I should also mention a GEF-supported, UNDP-managed project on energy efficient buildings in West Africa, that I was deeply involved in implementing in its pilot phase (1994), more than 10 years before I joined the GEF. I was the Senegalese Ministry of Environment’s focal point for this project, and was also chair of the project steering committee which brought together architects, civil engineers, energy specialists, environmentalists, and representatives of the private sector, local government, and civil society. Through field missions and assessments of this project, we learned a new way of managing and designing buildings that are energy efficient, eco-friendly, comfortable, and more affordable – opening the door to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in multiple geographies. Interestingly, almost 30 years down the road, the lessons learned in that West African project are being applied and scaled up through the Sustainable Cities program, one of the major GEF Impact Programs.
What is distinctive about the GEF’s approach to solving environmental challenges?
From my perspective, what stands out is the GEF’s emphasis on inclusiveness – it prioritizes and places a value on open collaboration among many stakeholders with different perspectives. This approach helps ensure that GEF-supported projects and programs transcend silos and individual sectors, and are instead developed and designed with a systemic approach to solving challenges. The GEF has a unique mandate to address multiple global environmental challenges at once – including the drivers of biodiversity loss, climate change, land degradation, and pollution from chemicals and waste, as well as pressures on the world's oceans and freshwater systems.
Is there a person you have met through your work who had a lasting impact on you?
I have very good memories of working with Jack Weinberg, from Health Care Without Harm, an environmental non-governmental organization. We worked together during the GEF pilot phase of a global health care project implemented by UNDP across four regions (Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America). Interacting regularly with Jack was very beneficial to me as the lessons I learned from him about humility, professionalism, resilience, and friendship have shaped to a large extent my professional development. Jack was very instrumental in the negotiation of the Stockholm Convention and was a pioneer in the development and promotion of GEF-supported projects related to non-incineration medical waste technologies, for the reduction of unintentional persistent organic pollutants (UPOPs), and for phasing out mercury in the health sector.
How did you get into this line of work?
I worked for more than 20 years as senior chemical and environmental engineer in the Senegalese Ministry of Environment, and later worked as an international consultant for UNDP, UNEP, and WHO in the areas of climate change and chemical and waste management, and as a Senior Special Fellow for the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). These opportunities helped me recognize the potential impact of working across multiple countries and regions for greater impact with regard to environmental action. In 2006, I applied for the position of Environmental Specialist at the GEF in the Climate Change and Chemicals and Waste team and was lucky to be selected.
What does success in your work area look like?
Success in my work area would involve influencing a critical mass of people around the world to become advocates of environment protection, with a change of behaviors and policies. I believe we are on the way to realizing this goal but there is a lot of hard work still ahead. By the time I retire, I hope that we will see more integration of environmental dimensions into African development agenda, in line with the GEF model of promoting inclusive, integrated approaches to problem-solving.
What are you most looking forward to in 2021?
I look forward to working more closely and directly with our partners and clients – we have stayed in close contact throughout the pandemic by email, telephone, and video conferences, but it makes a big difference to spend time together in person. Resuming travel will not only allow us to better understand the reality on the ground but also to be in a better position to provide advice and engage meaningfully with our collaborators in governments, agencies, civil society, and the private sector. I very much look forward to being present in the field as we look for ways to work together in support of a sustainable post-pandemic recovery and in pursuit of important global goals on climate change, biodiversity, and other priorities for the global environment.