After the Greenrush

Saving Nature for Capital with the Global Environment Facility

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is a publicly funded, multi-billion dollar experiment in global resource management. It was set up in 1991 under the auspices of the World Bank to fund international conventions on climate change and biodiversity. In this article and her new book, A New Green Order, Zoe Young takes a critical look at the conflicts involved, how the GEF agenda relates to questions of globalisation, knowledge and accountability in the United States and the World Bank. 

Soon after the Johannesburg Earth Summit’s resounding success in sustaining - for now - the development of global ‘business as usual’, government representatives gathered again, far more quietly, in Beijing. Their mission: to rubber stamp another two and a half billion taxpayers' dollars for the financial institution supposed to save 'global' nature from the heart of the US-led New World Order.

So far little known and less understood, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) has been charged by governments since 1991 with averting climate change and conserving biodiversity, international waters and the ozone layer, also more recently, tackling land degradation and persistent organic pollutants. GEF’s funds are attached to development projects in the poorer countries of the South: projects devised and run mostly from the World Bank in Washington DC.

Almost inevitably therefore, many GEF project-affected people call for its funding to be halted, reconsidered, redirected, while others speak of an arrogant, arbitrary and slow-moving bureaucracy embodying (behind the scenes) ‘an enormous con’ promising vastly more than it can deliver, ‘greenwash’ for the World Bank’s environmentally destructive developments in forestry, dams, energy, transport etc. and financial ‘sweetener’ for international lending and thus, third world debt. In this context, the politics of influence in and around the GEF can shine a light on conservation and colonialism, capitalism and complexity, compromise, co-option and commodification in a rapidly transforming world.

In its first ten years, GEF donors channeled $4.1 billion to more than a thousand environmental projects in over 150 Southern and former communist countries. With, for example, renewable energy and ecologically informed conservation initiatives, some GEF funding has almost certainly been environmentally effective in limited areas. Particularly well-received has been a programme of small grants to community conservation initiatives (including $50,000 to support ‘Recovery of the Native Shrub and Edible Flora of Easter Island’ and $40,000 for the Theocratic Government of His Majesty Selassie I Churchical Order of the Nyabinghi to promote organic farming in Barbados). Viewed with favour by many environmentalists as a result of such small and medium sized grants (themselves a tiny proportion of overall spending), many will argue that to be more effective, the GEF simply needs an increase in funding from the current level of about 50 pence per person in the UK per year.

But even increased funding for ostensibly vast tasks would still lead to flawed assumptions about the value of ‘economies of scale’. Many GEF projects have attracted criticism for being over-large and top-down, run by outsiders neglectful of local skills and needs; numerous people have lost land and livelihoods as a result.

Scientifically too, GEF strategies can leave much to be desired: in its early days at least the GEF would for example finance an isolated forest reserve as part of a massive World Bank forestry project that wipes out the rest of the forest area along with its potential to ‘sink’ carbon dioxide and provide habitats for biodiversity. In addition, with the GEF paying for separate environmental components of development projects, the World Bank can pass on its own responsibility for environmental assessments and action. In addition, GEF structures appear to lack the means effectively to learn from failures.

GEF is officially supposed to promote reform in international institutions and cooperation for conservation, but it was also designed not to challenge existing economic policies nor the powerful interest groups now enjoying them. Diverse cultures and ecosystems worldwide therefore remain ever more exposed to rampant capital through the conditions put on international trade and debt by unaccountable bodies like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organisation (WTO). Meanwhile GEF seeks to place prices on natural value – on forests, swamps or species - before deciding if they are worthy of conservation, while creating infrastructure to open up resources and markets to international experts and investors in a kind of ‘green globalisation’.

Viewed optimistically by many greens now resigned or preferring to work inside capitalist ideology, the GEF remains a publicly funded experiment, intended to build partnerships for sustainable development worldwide and generate environmental lessons for a World Bank learning to focus on the needs of the poor and nature through their various self-appointed representatives.

The GEF was certainly planned by governments partly for the Bank to respond constructively to the Western environmental uprising of the late 1980s, which focused much of its ire on the ecological consequences of Bank-funded dam, road and other development projects in the South. It has been successful insofar as the bank president has referred to a ‘conservation bank’, and Bank economists charged with ensuring ‘popular participation’ in GEF projects accept outside advice within strict limits.

One result is that (actual and potential) environmental critics become World Bank consultants, often working for nothing in the hope of later reward. Claiming to speak for ‘civil society’ but lacking any democratic mandate, many of the biggest environmental campaigning organisations are now keener to gain access to GEF’s funding than to publicly challenge it, let alone ally themselves with grassroots movements for justice represented for example in the Peoples’ Global Action network of resistance to neo-liberalism. By bringing in selected environmentalists as advisors, or even to implement projects, the GEF helps the Bank’s external relations team to distract observers from the wider impact of Bank projects and policies.

It can also divide activists who are willing to play along with the Bank (and its overall anti-democratic agenda for global resource and knowledge management) from those who will not; the latter can then be dismissed as extreme and unconstructive by the Bank and its allies. With professional greens’ skills and passion channeled in GEF processes to inform and extend the reach of corporate capital and culture, they can be detached from movements for social and environmental justice.

The GEF entered operation the same year that George Bush I announced a US-led New World Order. Viewed cynically therefore, the GEF can be seen as a strategic response on the part of global power-brokers to the rise of environmental movements as a geo-political force. Observing GEF’s officials and allies, I found they must publicly talk its performance up to maintain their jobs, salaries and roles in saving global nature. Interviewed in private however, many staff offer critiques often far more radical than those provided by their ‘official opposition’ in big green groups. They are also the first to admit there are no easy answers to GEF’s contradictory tasks. The problems with the GEF do not primarily relate to poor project planning nor even to strategic co-option and greenwash. They are deep and structural, reflecting the GEF’s role as a tool of economic elites experimenting with new ways of money-making and corporate control in emerging and green markets.

For it is not only non-governmental organisations that have been suckered into the GEF vortex, but much of the UN environment agenda is being drawn that way. At the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, when public attention to the global environment was at its height, the United Nations completed the long process of negotiating international Conventions to prevent climate change and conserve biological diversity. If fully implemented as many of those involved in the negotiations planned, these treaties’ provisions could fundamentally reorient global development away from an exploitative frenzy towards a greener world with environmental costs and benefits more fairly distributed. Afraid of the consequences for their own treasuries, Western governments moved to ensure that the World Bank took on responsibility for funding the Conventions on Climate Change and Biodiversity - through the GEF. With the only new aid promised at Rio under the legal auspices of the World Bank, which they control, the ‘donor’ governments could ensure that actions financed under the new treaties would not threaten their own and allied interests.

Implementation of the UN environmental Conventions has gone slowly, the UN Environment Programme is the first to lament that far, far more needs to be done. One delay has been in funding to direct demands of the Convention texts, GEF has so far done little more than to begin to assist centralised acquisition and management of data on the distribution and status of natural resources in the South. These GEF investments could help to develop information infrastructure enabling access to resources of potential value to foreign bio-prospectors, energy investors, eco-tourism operators etc. In addition, scientific data on Southern landscapes and ecologies entered into geographical information systems feeds global electronic information databases, including those used by the US military to inform their operations ‘in theatre’ (it can be useful to know where a country’s power stations are, and rebels often hide in the same wildernesses where little known species lurk…).

In a triumph of superficiality, one of GEF’s proudest claims to success is the additional investment it can draw into projects in the South by using its ‘green subsidies’ to ‘catalyse’ other (less concessional) investments: GEF draws in on average around three times the sum of its own contribution. By sweetening their terms with a little ‘green’ money on top, GEF ‘leverages’ new development loans, including those to highly-indebted governments which might not otherwise take on new debt. Since the GEF subsidises only initiatives that would not otherwise be financed in profit-led global money markets, these investments are unlikely to generate the foreign currency that borrowing governments need to earn to repay the debt. And the more international debt a government has, the more power the World Bank and IMF have to impose (environmentally destructive) export-led neo-liberal policies as a condition of its relief.

In this light, the GEF’s claim to buy ‘global environmental benefits’ can perhaps be seen as a bribe for Southern governments to take on new debt service while giving up a new level of sovereignty over resources found within their territory to professional armies of globalising environmental economists, experts, investors and others.

The Johannesburg summit seems to have been full of sound and fury signifying little more than a further takeover of the UN fabric by global elites’ (primarily economic) agendas. Meanwhile, behind the quietly glossy diplomatic façade in Washington DC and wherever else it roams, GEF has shown itself as a new beast altogether. This article has only touched on the huge issues and complexities involved, but if more environmentalists can learn even only the most obvious political lessons from the GEF experience so far, it may help them to turn again to the local knowledge and devolved democracy needed to build a different world – one fairer and more sensitive to our ecological contexts than a World Bank-hosted ‘green fund’ could ever be.

A NEW GREEN ORDER? The World Bank and the Politics of the Global Environment Facility by Zoe Young is described, with a sample chapter, at The Global Environment Facility can be visited at Zoe Young also recommends