Reflections from the GEF Assembly: How Relationships Blossom & Grow to Achieve Greater Impact

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Isla Contoy

At the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) 5th Assembly and Council Meetings earlier this month, the World Bank Group sent a full team to give strong signal of our ongoing support to the GEF as it celebrated the launch of its next four-year period. Hosted by the Mexican government, the meetings included a special address from President Enrique Peña Nieto, who called upon all nations to take a longer term vision of the needs of future generations.
The setting seemed ideal as it gave us a chance to reflect on our GEF program partnership with Mexico, a 23-year journey that has pioneered climate change and biodiversity conservation projects and has served as an inspiration for our work in other parts of the world. I personally reconnected with former national counterparts and revived old memories, especially one presentation describing the evolution of the country’s protected areas system as a “great love affair” between several public and private institutions all working in concert to support nature protection in Mexico.

This highly effective and still rather unique public-private partnership model remains one of the best practice examples among the nearly 20 conservation trust funds that the Bank has helped support globally over the years using GEF funds. Our efforts strived for financial sustainability through a series of sequential GEF projects, each of which stepped up ambition while stepping down the reliance on external funds. It was extremely gratifying, years on, to see and hear firsthand that the goal of self-reliance and full financial sustainability sought for the national park system was alive and doing well. A visit to the thriving Parque Nacional Isla Contoy, organized by the government as part of the week's concluding events, confirmed this as we saw the results of one of the first protected areas the Bank-GEF program helped establish.

Today, the threats posed by climate change are daunting, and we are currently working with Mexico on an even more ambitious program. Funded under GEF-5, the Coastal Watershed Conservation in the Context of Climate Change Project is working to expand connections for concerted climate action to build resilience into Mexico’s interconnected landscapes, stretching from the high mountains to the low-lying, most vulnerable coastal areas.

As the Assembly gathered to launch the GEF-6 (2014-2018) strategy, the words echoed by many were about the need for urgency, efficiency, and innovation. Even with higher participation of recipients and Mexico doubling of their donation, which was critical to realize a record $4.43 billion for GEF-6, the amounts available to protect the environment still pale in comparison to what is actually required. Given the game changing impacts of climate change, it is clear that we cannot separate global environmental issues from other development work to end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity.

We need to continue to advocate for agile and efficient operational modalities, built from the expertise of partners who possess established track records in tackling complex programs. We need to enhance our joint capacity to work more seamlessly. While the World Bank Group-GEF partnership has evolved over time, its principles of participation, clear but differentiated responsibilities, and cost-effectiveness, are as important as ever. 

We need a cost-effective GEF that uses grant resources as efficiently as possible to help “crowd-in” funding and encourage action by others. World Bank Group and GEF evaluations have stated that larger projects, like those the Bank, as an implementing agency of GEF resources, has supported in Mexico, demonstrate greater impact and engender long-term engagement in a country, thereby generating more sustainable and deeper results. It will be indispensable to develop nimble approaches to engage the private sector, mainstream gender equity considerations in GEF focal areas, and simplify the GEF Results-Based Management.

We highly value GEF funding for its role in helping to stimulate new ideas and initiatives that have pioneered many important, long-lasting programs and partnerships, tailored to each country’s challenges and different stages of development. We have several examples in the World Bank Group where funding mechanisms introduced through GEF projects are now routinely used across our lending programs today. It was heartening to see the emphasis in GEF-6 on innovation and transformation in the pursuit of global environmental benefits, and a greater tolerance of risk.
As the meetings came to a close, I couldn’t help but look back at how far the World Bank Group-GEF program has come since its start in 1991. So far, the program has launched more than 790 projects in 120 countries, channeling $4.8 billion in funding grants that have leveraged more than $33 billion, helping governments and communities achieve global environmental benefits, and stimulating new relationships with partners some of which we hope may also in future, spawn their own love affairs.
Photo: Isla Contoy, a protected national park supported by one of the first World Bank Group GEF grants in Mexico, is home to more than 150 bird species and over 250 species of fish.


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