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Reforming International Environment Programs

Reforming International Environment Programs

Sunday, 1 August, 2021 - 04:30
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Going through some old papers, I came across a letter from a former minister of environment, accompanied by a list containing dozens of projects and programs funded by international organizations. The minister, who was surprised by the number and scale of these projects on his first day in office, wanted to verify their feasibility and benefits. The projects covered a variety of issues, including environmental legislation, green investment planning, coastal zone and forest management, climate change and awareness.

My answer to the minister highlighted the need for these projects and programs to be part of an integrated plan, and to be subject to priorities set by the ministry, so that the employees assigned by the international organizations do not turn into an auxiliary administration. Yet, after around two decades, and hundreds of international environmental programs, on which thousands of millions were spent across Arab countries, the situation hasn’t changed much, and the evaluation still focuses on the number of programs and their catchy titles, rather than assessing their results in terms of positive impact in the country.

International cooperation on environment is very important, as supporting developing countries with technology, expertise, training and financing is essential to bring about change. But this is lost unless it takes place within the framework of a national plan that is embraced and implemented by the government. Therefore, it is more useful to support government institutions to be able to manage, coordinate and supervise public projects, rather than creating a parallel administration.

Let’s start by setting priorities. It is well known that there are global environmental goals, supported by technical and financial assistance programs. But the need to engage in such programs, in order for a country to be part of international endeavors, does not mean neglecting local priorities. Climate change, due to carbon dioxide emissions, should not overshadow air pollution due to sulfur, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, for example, which are directly harmful to health. Addressing polluting heavy metals, such as mercury, does not justify postponing the treatment of sea pollution by bacteria from sewage in rivers and seas. Also, securing a continuous and clean supply of electric power must precede the launch of programs and setting incentives to encourage electric cars. Any program is doomed to fail if it is not relevant.

In the absence of coordination, programs funded by various international bodies are often duplicated. Four programs to establish rules for environmental impact assessment were funded in one single country, over a period of two years, most of them copied from preceding ones. After one ministry adopted an environmental awareness plan funded by an international organization, two similar studies were funded, in the following year, by two organizations, one international and the other European.

After tons of dead fish washed up on the shore of Lake Qaraoun on the Lebanese Litani River last April, it became apparent that tens of millions allocated by international programs, during a quarter of a century, to prevent the pollution of the river and the lake into which it flows, were lost as a result of the absence of sound studies, correct implementation, accurate coordination and timely monitoring. The irony is that pollution levels have increased exponentially instead of decreasing, as successive programs did not address the source of pollution, namely domestic sewage, factory waste and toxic agricultural pesticides, which all end up in the river and its lake.

Accordingly, it was not surprising to see a European body funding a campaign to collect plastic waste from the beaches in some south Mediterranean countries, through campaigns carried out by volunteers, while the use of single-use plastic products is still allowed in most of these countries. It would have been more useful to help find alternatives to plastic bags, enact laws to prevent their use, and impose implementation, as was the case in Morocco. What is the long-term benefit of the millions that are being spent on transient cleaning campaigns by volunteers, other than the distribution of grants to some associations? In many cases this follows a trend of sharing favors among groups acting as civil society fronts for politicians.

It won’t be surprising either if we read about an internationally funded project to study the “Gender Impact on Climate Change”, focusing on the disparity between men and women in responding to the climate problem. Is this a priority in countries that are still in the early stages of dealing with climate change and understanding its dimensions? Worst of all is an internationally funded advertising campaign on the issue of gender equality, filling the streets of Beirut, which is still reeling under the ruins of the port explosion, not to mention the agony of economic, political and social collapse.

There are several types of environmental and developmental projects and programs, with international and external funding. Some are implemented by donors through local and foreign employees working in the donor’s offices and under their management, while others are implemented by the relevant ministries. There are also programs that go on for years, implemented by local employees, chosen by international bodies to perform specific tasks in the offices of the relevant ministries. This leads to a host of problems, as these local employees, who are considered “international experts”, receive much higher salaries than those of their fellow citizens, in the same ministry, who often have similar qualifications. Instead of being an “added value” to improve the performance and productivity of their fellow government employees, they establish a substitute, isolated administration. They consider their appointment to be a temporary stepping stone to gain experience that will qualify them to move later on to permanent jobs in international organizations, often outside their countries.

Worst of all, many of these supposedly international programs receive funding from national governments, which pay the salaries of local “experts” through the international organization concerned. Those organizations keep a portion for themselves as administrative expenses, and pay the rest - equal to multiples of local salaries - to the program staff. While few of these programs are managed efficiently and bring tangible benefits to the countries concerned, in most cases they remain a mere factory of paperwork, and their evaluation is largely limited to reports about fictitious achievements, without actual independent external supervision.

Today I can tell my friend, the former minister, who tried to affect change but was shocked by the coalition of interests which blocked his efforts, that the situation has not changed. Dozens of international programs during his time in office have become hundreds. Yet the air is still polluted, sewage is still being dumped into the sea untreated, random landfills are expanding and forests are dying under the blows of random logging and fires. The only solution is to rehabilitate and strengthen the national environmental institutions, so that they are able to streamline international programs to yield realistic benefits, in the framework of a well-defined national environment strategy.

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