Want to scale up? Change-proof your program! Lessons from the GEF (PART 1)

Change is the only constant, we all learn sooner or later. But what to do when political and economic changes threaten the success of your carefully-implemented program?

In 2018, we at the GEF IEO examined how impact is scaled up across different types of environmental interventions funded by the GEF. We looked at 20 cases in-depth, supported by evidence from an additional 40 cases, to assess which factors mattered the most in whether something was scaled up or not. It turns out that what matters for scaling up impact is very similar to what makes an intervention successful or not to begin with.

In 12 out of 20 cases that experienced some political or economic shift during project implementation or scaling-up, two things made a difference: high political priority given to the intervention by supporting institutions, and ownership by long-term staff in these institutions.

In Brazil, for example, despite millions of dollars pouring in through the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA) Program and other donor initiatives, Congress voted to undermine the program’s gains by degazetting federal protected areas in the Amazon in 2017. But pressure from national and international stakeholders, especially civil society, contributed to the then-president vetoing that decision in the same year. In Romania, expansion of pollution reduction measures in farms continued despite salary freezes and budget cuts due to the 2008 global financial crisis. This was attributed to the government’s priority to meet water pollution standards, which is a requirement for accession to the European Union.

In at least 11 cases and several interviews, having the same dedicated professionals involved in program implementation over ten years or more was said to contribute to successful scaling-up. These professionals typically held technical rather than political positions, and therefore could continue scaling-up activities unaffected over multiple election cycles or management changes. For example, in Macedonia where the minister of environment has changed virtually every year for more than a decade, some staff members of its Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Management Unit have remained since its creation in 2002. These dedicated staff members have built up institutional memory and capacity that now also benefit other countries in the Balkan region.

But how do you get a handle on these two context-related factors that seem to be beyond your program’s control? As our cases show, you may have more control than you think.

Two types of program interventions were seen to be critical in gaining the long-term support of these key stakeholders: participatory processes that engage them in your program’s design and implementation, and knowledge dissemination about both the problem to be addressed and evidence of your program’s benefits.

Both political priority and ownership can be developed through participatory processes. In at least 12 out of 20 cases, buy-in was attributed in part to participatory processes introduced through a GEF-supported project. For example, in Ethiopia and China, farmer beneficiaries were asked to come up with sustainable land management solutions after also themselves identifying the negative effects of land degradation. Both programs have been scaled up to at least sub-national levels.

Knowledge about an environmental problem’s harmful effects, and the benefits of implementing a program also led to high political priority and ownership in many of the cases. In at least 16 of 20 cases, knowledge dissemination in the form of scientific studies, public information campaigns, and educational workshops played an important role.

In Mauritius and Macedonia, GEF support included extensive awareness-raising initiatives on the hazards of DDT and PCB among both public and private sector stakeholders. The new knowledge prompted private companies to fund their own staff training. In China’s Hai Basin, farmers in pilot sites earned more income from farming while reducing groundwater use from 420 to 265 m3/yr. They accomplished this through the use of remote sensing analysis to assess existing resources against water needs. This result convinced the government to scale up the intervention.

When participatory processes and knowledge dissemination were given little attention, scaling-up did not happen. For example, an evaluation of the TerrAfrica Strategic Investment Program (SIP) for Sustainable Land Management noted that none of its projects were very effective at engaging policy makers, or at communicating project results widely by engaging regional organizations, the media, and similar key institutions. The desired national policies ended up not being mainstreamed in many of the countries where the program was implemented.

Similarly, despite a high level of cooperation among farmers in India under the Sustainable Land and Ecosystem Management (SLEM) program, at least one project did not engage the district and state governments, leading to participatory land use plans not being incorporated into laws and guidelines. As of 2018, the program has likewise not achieved its objective of scaling up sustainable land management at the national level.

Participatory processes and knowledge dissemination are among the most basic project activities. Yet as these cases show, their power to catalyze positive action--when all key stakeholders at ALL relevant levels of governance are engaged--can be remarkable. On the other hand, in most places we work, there are many people and institutions who don’t need additional convincing to take action. So how do we harness their power to scale up impact despite political and economic changes? Look out for the next post.

Read PART 2 on how the GEF has helped scale up impact.

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