29 October 2003

SGP logoA second grant from GEF SGP enabled the foundation to establish a small endowment fund to support their activities, and this year they received a final donation to help them strengthen environmental education and eco-tourism activities. The Monte Alto Foundation now owns nearly 2,000 acres that protect the town's watershed, and the lodge, located near an indigenous reserve and built with the first grant, provides enough income to cover costs.

Monte Alto is a modest success story, but typical of those generated by the GEF SGP in over 60 other countries worldwide. The GEF Small Grants Programme is a Corporate Programme of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), implemented by the United Nations Development Programme. GEF SGP channels grants directly to community-based and non-government organizations for projects that respond to three pressing planetary problems: pollution of international waters, loss of biodiversity, and climate change.

GEF grants to developing countries tend to be ambitious, complex, multi-year and large-scale, with price tags in the millions of dollars. But not all solutions to major problems are born of mega-projects. According to Sarah Timpson, global manager of GEF SGP, the Programme tries to change environmentally damaging attitudes and habits at the local level by empowering people to find solutions to problems in their own backyards. Hence, GEF SGP grants are directed to civil society, not to government agencies.

An advantage of funding small programs to help solve big problems, Timpson says, is that more modest initiatives "can be much more innovative and much more flexible, in part because any failures are not going to be so costly. Further, it's the grassroots groups that put pressure on governments to change environmental policies, so clearly, if you want changes, you should be working with the NGOs."

GEF SGP grants average $15,000 each and never surpass $50,000; some 2300 projects have received support over the past nine years. In each country where the program is active, a national coordinator provides day-to-day management while national steering committees - comprising volunteers from NGOs, government, academic institutions, and donor agencies and programmes - review proposals, select projects, and direct their implementation. Timpson explains that sometimes NGOs that have promising ideas but need help devising a strategy receive planning grants of about $3,000, so projects can be carefully designed. She adds, "We give a grant to the community to hire someone to help them, rather than hire somebody ourselves, so the grassroots groups are in control of the process from the beginning."

Worldwide experience has shown that a project is much more likely to be successful if it is owned and managed locally, she points out. Eduardo Mata, who coordinates the SGP in Costa Rica, agrees. "We are looking for projects from groups that already are well organized and where there is a good deal of participation from the entire community," he says. The GEF SGP in Costa Rica also favors equal participation from men and women, so decisions are made by both genders.

Before approving a grant, Mata and his colleagues visit the proposed project site to make sure strong local support exists, the problem described is real, and that the proposed project is appropriate. Once a project is approved, there are at least three additional visits.

All the hands-on attention has been a huge help to the Association for the Sustainable Development of Rural San José, which recently received a $20,000 grant to help them protect a watershed and establish an environmental education program. "They made us be very clear with our ideas and guided us through the whole process," remembers Hernán Ramírez, an association manager. "They helped us broaden our vision and incorporate community participation." Contact with the GEF SGP continues to be very personal, he adds. "For any rural organization this is fundamental, to have this direct relationship and human interaction."

The grant to Ramírez' group is just one of 61 recently approved by GEF SGP throughout Costa Rica, from the Pacific Coast, where The Association of Divers of Paquera will construct and manage artificial reefs in the Gulf of Nicoya, to the Caribbean, where the Association for Sustainable Development of Gandoca hopes to encourage residents to protect endangered sea turtles. While most funded projects relate to biodiversity conservation, several focus on renewable energy - such as the ANDAR Association project to provide micro-credits to indigenous and other farmer families so they can have access to photovoltaic energy. Another emphasis is on small-scale eco-tourism development. Tourism is a leading source of foreign income in Costa Rica, but many towns with considerable scenic potential have been unable to tap into this profitable business. In addition to the grant to the Monte Alto Foundation, nine other groups nationwide are developing grassroots eco-tourism projects with SGP support.

Nearly all the projects have additional support from other sources. Timpson says that forging partnerships is key to the GEF SGP's success. "There may be as many as 12 different donors involved in one project," she says. "We've estimated that we are working with some 600 partners worldwide." She cites an SGP-funded project to cleanup a river that flows through Nairobi, Kenya. Three NGOs received SGP for the project, which also has support from the United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Center for Human Settlements, World Conservation Union, the Belgian and French governments, Kenya's ministry of the environment, the Nairobi government, the City Council of Nairobi, the local Rotary Club, Friends of Nairobi National Park, the Sailing Club of Nairobi, a conservation group, and the Kibera Association of Slum Dwellers.

In the Neotropics, Small Grants Programs are underway in Mexico - where funding is concentrated in the Yucatán Peninsula - Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, the Leeward and Windward Islands, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago, with projects just launched in Honduras and El Salvador. Timpson is hopeful that the GEF SGP can eventually double in size, to reach 100 countries