UNDP evaluates its work on the poverty-environment nexus

Juha Uitto, Deputy Director of the Evaluation Office at UNDP, outlines the conclusions of the recently published Evaluation of UNDP Contribution to Environmental Management for Poverty Reduction.

Environment and poverty are inextricably interlinked; people who depend directly on natural resources for their livelihoods tend to be poorer in material terms. Whether working in agriculture, forestry or fisheries 'or relying on small scale extraction to eke out a living' the returns from their labor are subject to environmental factors. Even relatively small fluctuations in climate can make the difference between a high yield and crop failure. Because of this direct dependency, small farmers everywhere in the world have become masters at managing risk and adapting to changing conditions. However, global climate change is introducing a whole new dynamic, potentially amplifying the changes in temperatures and weather conditions, causing droughts and storms in places where they used to be infrequent, thus straining the adaptation capabilities of the people living there.

Another conundrum is that poor people often live in locations that are particularly vulnerable to climatic hazards; in the rapidly growing cities in the developing world, shanties often sprout up on steep slopes prone to landslides and vulnerable to storms. Whether in rural or urban areas, poverty also forces people to degrade the natural resources they depend upon. Forests are cut down to provide fuel or building materials, thus exposing the land to the forces of nature. As Hurricane Sandy, which battered New York this October so graphically demonstrated, it is not only the developing countries that are vulnerable to climatic hazards.

Poverty reduction is at the heart of UNDP's mandate. Tackling environmental sustainability is therefore essential for the organization to achieve its goals of human development and resilient nations. But it is not only adapting to the changing climate that is needed. Promoting a green economy and a transition to non-polluting renewable energies can give a much-needed boost to the sluggish global economy. Transformation towards a low-carbon society will benefit the environment as well as the people and countries. UNDP can support the process, while ensuring that the benefits are also accruing to the poorest segments of society. The Evaluation Office of UNDP works to produce knowledge and lessons from the scrutiny of past operations to help the organization to set its direction and to understand what works, under what circumstances, in what respects, and how, recognizing the importance of context.

The recently published Evaluation of UNDP Contribution to Environmental Management for Poverty Reduction brought into the open a number of challenges that the organization faces in integrating its work on poverty reduction and environmental management. The evaluation findings suggest that while there is substantial recognition of the "poverty-environment nexus" within UNDP, its articulation in programming remains uneven. This unevenness is dependent on a number of factors, both internal and external.  For example, the organizational structure around focus areas and separate funding sources has resulted in a "silo effect" in which teams sometimes work in parallel with each other. The absence of monitoring processes and indicators to track poverty-environment linkages diminishes the attention to these issues and reduces incentives to work together. Consequently, the results on the ground have been mixed, with significant achievements in a number of country programs but considerable variation in direction and priority.

Yet, the evaluation revealed many bright spots: such as in Mexico, where UNDP convened a multi-sector environmental consultative groups and established platforms for debate at local, state, and federal levels; in Sri Lanka, UNDP worked closely with the government to promote more attention to the nexus under the UN Development Assistance Framework; in Tanzania, UNDP led the pilot "Delivering as One" activities to expand coordination among donors and ministries regarding poverty-environment issues.

Overall, the evaluation showed that where the poverty-environment nexus is recognized as critical to achieving sustainable development, there is strong support to address it in programs and projects. In Rwanda, the joint UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative demonstrated the linkages between degrading natural resource base and the health of the country's agriculture.

Commitment of the government, degree of cooperation within the government, efficiency of UNDP advocacy, and effectiveness of its programming on the ground are all factors that influence the results. There is also evidence that positive results at the country level can be replicated elsewhere. The evaluation concluded that addressing the poverty-environment nexus is essential to achieving UNDP's mission. The organization needs to learn from its good experiences and replicate its successes in a more systematic manner, while taking into account contextual factors, which places importance on strong knowledge management across the various regions and country offices.

The evaluation further concluded that greater attention to climate change adaptation in recent years has contributed significantly to raising awareness and understanding about the importance of addressing poverty-environment linkages coherently, including in preventing and recovering from natural disasters. Another global evaluation studied UNDP Contribution to Disaster Prevention and Recovery and that, too, highlighted the centrality of climate change, recommending that UNDP's disaster risk reduction strategy should more directly address climate-related hazards and adaptation to climate change. More on that later.

Dr. Juha I. Uitto is Deputy Director of the Evaluation Office at UNDP. He has held a number of positions and conducted a large number of programmatic and thematic evaluations in UNDP and GEF since the late-1990s. Before becoming a fulltime evaluator, Dr. Uitto spent nearly a decade in the United Nations University as coordinator of the environment and sustainable development research and training program. He has published widely in peer reviewed and professional journals on environment, natural hazards and evaluation, and has authored/edited several books on related topics.

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