UNDP on 25 Years of GEF: a record of high-impact environmental results

August 10, 2016

UNDP’s Response to Cyclone Pam - Tuvalu via Flickr

By Helen Clark, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). This milestone offers an opportunity to celebrate the GEF’s many achievements, while also highlighting the serious environmental challenges which the world continues to face and new opportunities to address them in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Two and a Half Decades of Innovation and Impact

Since its foundation in 1991, the GEF has repeatedly demonstrated the critical importance of sustained and catalytic financing for the environment. As a financing mechanism for the Rio Conventions[1] and the largest public funder of environmental projects, the GEF has contributed to concrete results across a wide range of environmental issues. Overall, it has provided over US$14.5 billion in grant financing for nearly 4,000 projects in 165 developing countries. Roughly forty per cent of these grants have been mobilized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) working with partner countries.

Around the world, these GEF investments have transformed markets, strengthened the resilience of vulnerable communities, and helped to address root causes of environmental degradation. They have also built the capacities of countries to safeguard their natural capital, thereby underpinning their overall sustainable development.

As one of the founding partners of the GEF, UNDP has contributed to these achievements. Over the past 25 years, our partnership has delivered widespread environmental benefits. For example:

  • through the GEF Small Grants Programme, implemented by UNDP, more than 20,000 grants have been made to civil society and community-based organizations in over 125 countries, with over US$ 535 million in GEF funding. As a result, in the past four years alone (2012-2015),  over 400,000 community members have adopted sustainable land and forest management practices covering nearly 900,000 hectares;  and
  • GEF-financed and UNDP-managed ecosystems and biodiversity projects have supported the conservation of close to 670 million hectares of protected areas worldwide - including Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas - with the overall goal of safeguarding the vital natural capital which sustains life and livelihoods on earth. If this cumulative area were a country, it would be the seventh largest country in the world.


Over the past two and a half decades, the GEF-UNDP partnership has been highly innovative its work with a range of public and private actors. This includes the introduction of new technologies and supporting the creation of environmentally sustainable markets. For example:

  • The GEF-UNDP-International Maritime Organization GloBallast Partnership Programme has catalyzed the creation of a new ballast water treatment technology market. This is helping to halt the spread of invasive alien species from ballast water releases. These disrupt ecosystems, threaten local economies and livelihoods, and cause disease and loss of human life. The total value of this new market is estimated to be US$ 45 billion over the next 10 to 15 years as the sector complies with an expected new convention on ballast water.
  • We have helped governments and the private sector to ‘de-risk’ renewable energy investments, both within countries and across regions. By targeting barriers and risks relevant to introducing renewable energy, countries have been able to scale up financing in solar, wind, and other renewable energy markets, bringing affordable, reliable, and clean electricity to their citizens.


Old, New, and Evolving Environmental and Linked Social, Economic, and Governance Challenges

Our world, however, continues to face both new and persistent environmental challenges.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre report on Planetary boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet suggests that four of Earth’s nine planetary boundaries have already been crossed. They are those for climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change, and biogeochemical cycles. Population growth, urbanization, unsustainable production and consumption, and growing competition for limited resources, combined with the effects of climate change, continue to push people and our planet to the limit. Some sixty per cent of ecosystem services have been degraded globally over the past fifty years.

Pollution, species loss, water scarcity, and man-made and natural disasters, combined with rising global temperatures, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, and weather extremes are threatening the lives and livelihoods of the poor. The ecosystem services which are essential for food, water, energy, medicine, and shelter, and for building vulnerability to shocks, remain at risk. This is in part due to weak governance, ineffective natural resource management, and corruption. Many countries, including the least developed, the mountainous, and the Small Island Developing States, suffer disproportionately. The drivers of these environmental challenges are closely linked to issues of poverty, inequality, food insecurity, economic shocks, increased social tensions, and conflict. By 2050, the global demand for food is expected to increase by sixty per cent, and, by 2035, global energy consumption is expected to increase by up to fifty per cent[2].


Opportunities for Integrated Approaches to Advance Sustainable Development

The 2030 Agenda offers an unprecedented opportunity to address interconnected environmental, social, economic, and governance challenges. In this context, the close UNDP-GEF partnership will continue to evolve, building on its successful  track record. In line with the GEF 2020 Strategy, UNDP and the GEF are adopting new and integrated approaches which will advance a wider range of sustainable development benefits. The goal is to prioritize policies, programming, and partnerships which can accelerate transformational change through catalytic and cost effective investments and scalable activities. For example:

  • through the Taking Deforestation out of Commodity Supply Chains programme, UNDP is working with the GEF and other GEF agencies to ensure more sustainable agricultural commodity production. While the growing global demand for commodities such as palm oil, beef, and cocoa has increased economic growth and incomes, and provided jobs for millions of women and men in rural areas, it can come with high environmental and social costs, causing loss of forests and biodiversity, and driving climate change. By promoting greener agricultural techniques, including through  inclusive policy dialogues with public and private stakeholders, the UNDP-GEF partnership aims to transform commodity production in ways which benefit both many millions of farmers and the environment; and
  • under the GEF-6 Global Partnership on Wildlife Conservation and Crime Prevention for Sustainable Development, UNDP, with the World Bank and four other GEF agencies, has developed a US$ 130 million programme with approximately US$ 700 million co-financing to tackle the wildlife poaching and trafficking crisis. The illegal trade in wildlife is a huge threat to biodiversity, and is a major development issue which creates insecurity, fuels conflict and corruption, and undermines broader sustainable development efforts.

I am confident that the UNDP-GEF partnership will continue to evolve and respond to the pressing environmental challenges of the 21st century. Over the past two and half decades, the results-focused and strategic nature of this partnership has contributed to innovative and high-impact global environmental benefits.

In marking the 25th anniversary of the GEF, we celebrate these many achievements, and welcome the opportunity to further our collaboration in ways which will ensure even greater sustainable development benefits for all.

[1] “The Rio Conventions are the three UN conventions opened for signature during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (also known as “The Earth Summit”) on 3-14 June, 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: UN Convention on Biological Diversity, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and UN Convention to Combat Desertification”. Source:

[2] “The Water-Energy-Food Nexus: A new approach in support of food security and sustainable agriculture”. FAO, Rome, June 2014. Source: