The Global Environment Facility (GEF)

By Martin Mowforth

May 2022

This month (May 2022) The Violence of Development website includes an article about the transition to an urban green economy in San José, Costa Rica. The set of projects involved in this transition is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) which has undoubtedly supported many valuable development projects in the past. But its development credentials are not beyond criticism as shown by the following amended extract from Mowforth and Munt (2016).


The 1992 Rio Summit offered the First World the ideal mechanism to achieve the globalisation of the control, management and ownership of biological diversity: the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The GEF was set up in November 1990 by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to assist the so-called developing world in funding projects which either protect biodiversity against destructive development or promote development which does not destroy biodiversity. The GEF, however, is not a development agency, as Pearce and Moran (1994) explain:

It operates via many development projects, but it modifies them so that the technologies used are cleaner than they otherwise would have been. Its purpose is not development as such, but the capture of global environmental value – the value that comes from reducing the ‘global bads’ of climate change, biodiversity loss and ozone layer depletion.

The 1992 Rio Summit allocated to the GEF the role of financial administrator for the Biodiversity and Climate Change Conventions which arose out of the conference. The post development critic Vandana Shiva (1993) is highly critical of this role and of the World Bank’s part in it:

The erosion of biodiversity is another area in which control has been shifted from the South to the North through its identification as a global problem … by treating biodiversity as a global resource, the World Bank emerges as its protector through GEF … and the North demands free access to the South’s biodiversity through the proposed Biodiversity Convention. But biodiversity is a resource over which local communities and nations have sovereign rights. Globalisation becomes a political means to erode these sovereign rights, and means to shift control over and access to biological resources from the gene-rich South to the gene-poor North. The ‘global environment’ thus emerges as the principal weapon to facilitate the North’s worldwide access to natural resources and raw materials on the one hand, and on the other, to enforce a worldwide sharing of the environmental costs it has generated, while retaining a monopoly of benefits reaped from the destruction it has wreaked on biological resources. The North’s slogan at UNCED [the 1992 Rio Summit] and the other global negotiation fora seems to be: ‘What’s yours is mine. What’s mine is mine.’

In 1992 Oliver Tickell articulated the suspicion of much of the socio-environmental movement, that control of the funds by the World Bank could only lead to the imposition of a First World agenda on the allocation of those funds. He also pointed out the contradiction in the GEF’s approach:

The main qualification for receiving a GEF grant for preserving biodiversity is apparently to be running a World Bank project that threatens or destroys that biodiversity, like a giant dam, or a plan to develop logging in untouched forests. Marcus Colchester of the World Rainforest Movement estimates that 70 per cent of GEF funds are tied to mainstream Bank projects, and are actually subsidising social and environmental destruction.

Despite the misgivings of much of the socio-environmental movement and others, Fernandes claims that ‘Already the leading northern NGOs appear to have developed strong coordinating GEF links with the World Bank, UNDP and UNEP (1994: 24); and Chatterjee and Finger claimed that the WWF is now the most consulted NGO on GEF projects (1994: 155). Fernandes’ analysis of the GEF suggests that a large number of integrated sustainable tourism projects received funding under phase I of the GEF. He quotes Soares of the Brazilian Institute for Economic and Social Analysis, who concludes that many GEF programmes, which are often linked to significant ecotourism and sustainable tourism components, represent ‘mainstays for a (development) model that unceasingly reproduces conditions for the planet’s deforestation, even while preaching its conservation’ (Soares, 1992: 48).

Fernandes also cites other fundamental flaws in the GEF mechanisms such as the stimulation of destructive competition between organisations working in the field of biodiversity, a failure to involve local communities, an over-dependence on international consultancies, and the creation of a number of ‘paper parks’ – a reference to the designation of parks by national governments which have few resources to provide management and protection systems on the ground. Moreover, the link between the World Bank and INGOs such as WWF, IUCN and Conservation International leads to these organisations adopting an approach more characteristic of the World Bank and advocating corporate schemes for a range of environmental programmes and projects which give ‘total management control’ to the ‘private or NGO sector’. As a result they fail to even ‘recognise the existence of village conservation movements opposing development projects’ (Lohmann, 1991: 98–9, cited in Fernandes, 1994: 26).


Fernandes, D. (1994) ‘The shaky ground of sustainable tourism’, TEI Quarterly Environment Journal 2(4): 26.

Mowforth and Munt (2016, 4th edition) Tourism and Sustainability: Development, globalisation and new tourism in the Third World, Routledge.

Pearce, D.W. and Moran, D. (1994) The Economic Value of Biodiversity, London: Earthscan, p.132.

Shiva, V. (1993) ‘The greening of the global reach’, in W. Sachs (ed.) Global Ecology, London, Zed Books, p.152.

Soares, M. (1992) Debt Swaps, Development and Environment, Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Institute for Economic and Social Amalysis.

Tickell, O. (1992) ‘After the Summit’, Green Line, July 98: 3.