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Where has funding for forest protection in Central Africa gone wrong?

by Marigold Norman, ODI | Overseas Development Institute
Tuesday, 10 November 2015 10:49 GMT

A Congolese girl carries firewood collected from a forest in Bunagana town, DRC, May 11, 2013. REUTERS/James Akena

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

UK and Norway back out of a major climate fund set up to protect Congo Basin forests, as new initiative is launched

The untouched rainforests of the Congo Basin are hugely important to the nations that house it. The basin is a biodiversity hotspot and supports the livelihoods of more than 50 million people. Sustaining it will protect local economies and defend against climate change.

So why are Britain and Norway backing out of a major climate fund set up to protect the Congo forests?

The Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF), launched in 2008 as the largest of its kind, recently confirmed that it will wind down its operations, following notice from Norway and Britain that remaining pledged funds will not be released.

When the $186m fund was set up, Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stolenberg recognised the challenges in the conflict-affected region: ‘I don't believe that is easy, but that cannot prevent us from trying.”  Six years down the line, Britain and Norway cancelled the last 16 percent of promised funds.

Ideally funders should hold their n Britain and Norway backing out of a major climate fund set up to protect the Congo forests?erve when investing in higher-risk projects. So this begs the question: did it really go that wrong?

The fund is set to release a sobering report, cataloguing the multi-faceted challenges of operating in an unstable region, including low-capacity project implementers, and at times, minimal political buy-in.

However, donor concerns have been brewing for a while. Last year, the UK evaluated the fund’s governance as “inconsistent” and not of the highest standard, with little evidence it had invested in projects that would have lasting impact or transform forest protection in the region.

Rather than sending more money – and the wrong signals to other recipients – the UK and Norway have decided to draw a line under the CBFF and start again.

A new Central Africa Forest Initiative (CAFI) has just been announced, a dedicated multi-partner trust fund that will help governments, including Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Gabon, set up investment plans to maintain forests and improve local livelihoods.

The programme will seek to address the drivers of deforestation and only make payments once results have actually been delivered.

Norway plans to contribute $47m a year between 2015 and 2020, while France, Germany, the UK and the EU have pledged financial support (although the exact amount remains unclear). Brazil has offered to lend its forestry expertise, which has delivered one of the most impressive and well-publicised reductions in deforestation over the last decade. 

In winding down the CBFF and refocusing finance through the new CAFI, what lessons can be learned?

1. Finance alone does not guarantee conservation or political will. Ambitions need to fit the context

The CBFF has only been able to programme 45 percent and disburse 32 percent of its mobilised funds in six years of operation. It has had to adopt a “sprinkling” approach to programming, allocating small sums of money to projects across the region. The limited funding for individual projects has increased the challenge of securing political buy-in.

A prime example is the Bonobo Conservation Concession in DRC. The project was set up to create a 485,000-hectare forest conservation area, but only managed to spend 15 percent of its funds – despite being operational for five years.

The CBFF reports that the project never took off because there wasn’t enough interest from the government. It will be important for the new CAFI to work directly with local governments and recipients in the region to better understand the level of finance needed to deliver an ambitious level of forest conservation.

2. Funds in fragile and conflict-affected states need a tailored approach

The CBFF suspended at least two projects in Central African Republic on beekeeping, reforestation and restoration because the implementing organisations “lost all of their assets and their beneficiaries were displaced”.

Conflict and political instability constrain what can be achieved. The new CAFI will need to engage local institutions and learn from wider efforts to spend development and humanitarian finance/aid in the region to integrate forest protection with transition out of conflict.

3. Efforts need to focus on developing lasting capacity and effective financial management to process international finance

When Britain and Norway visited the CBFF’s $6.8m project supporting community agroforestry in DRC, they found it did not comply with the rules and procedures of the CBFF or the banks, and that a grassroots farmer approach had been changed, without approval, to delivery through NGOs.

To avoid such serious failings in future, when international organisations work through local ones, they may need to support them to strengthen capacity, including for effective project and financial management. With the right support, international funds can be processed more effectively, even at scale, and impact reporting can be improved.

Forest protection is chronically underfunded in the region, but achieving the right results is about so much more than throwing money at a problem.

The Congo Basin is the low-hanging fruit of preventing future deforestation; despite operational risks, it offers a fantastic return on investment.

When things don’t work, funders are right to walk away from failure. But a longer-term approach which is sensitive to, and engages with, the complex politics of conflict-affected states is well worth the hard work – for local communities, the climate and us all.

Marigold Norman is a research officer with the climate and environment programme at the Overseas Development Institute.