Expert Perspectives

Building Capacities to Meet and Sustain Global Environmental Objectives: Some Lessons Learned from the UNDP/GEF’s Work on Cross-Cutting Capacity Development Projects

A number of shared capacities are necessary to conserve biodiversity, address climate change, and minimize land degradation. One example is the awareness of planners, decision makers, and the wider public regarding the important role environmental conservation plays in meeting and sustaining socioeconomic development. Through a partnership between the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Cross-Cutting Capacity Development (CCCD) program provides strategic support to strengthen countries’ capacities to meet and sustain their obligations under the Rio Conventions on biodiversity conservation (Convention to Conserve Biological Diversity), climate change (Framework Convention on Climate Change), and desertification (Convention to Combat Desertification).

These CCCD projects are designed to capitalize on opportunities to create synergies. For example, many countries have a management information system that focuses on biodiversity, a separate one for managing data and information related to climate change, a third focused on land degradation, as well as a number of other separate information systems that are similarly thematically focused. While there are advantages in having multiple systems, the downside is greater: many of these institutions spend their limited funds to create and collect data that already exist in the country and which they could access for a fraction of the cost, if not for free.

Capacity development needs and synergies have been the subject of a number of studies dating back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, notably the Capacity Development Initiative (GEF-UNDP 2000), a partnership between UNDP and the GEF that carried out an extensive set of studies. This informed the Strategic Approach to Enhance Capacity Building (GEF 2003), which provided further operational guidance on the GEF’s capacity development programs.

Over the last 15 years, countries have carried out a number of capacity-assessments and cross-cutting capacity-development projects designed to strengthen and reinforce key foundational capacities, with the goal of catalyzing the sustainability of environmental outcomes.  As of December 2017, over 70 CCCD projects are completed, under implementation, or currently being formulated. A number of studies have also analyzed and assessed lessons learned from the more than 200 National Capacity Self-Assessment (NCSA) and CCCD projects, which have informed the GEF’s programming of financial support over the last three replenishments (Bellamy and Hill 2010; GEF 2013; Hill, Rife, and Twining-Ward 2015; Bellamy pending).

The role of CCCD projects in fulfilling commitments under the Rio Conventions and common misunderstandings in recipient countries

In the course of our work in recent years, we have held many informal consultations with stakeholders in various countries that are beneficiaries of UNDP efforts. A recurring complaint we hear in these conversations is that projects are overly focused on formulating strategies and plans, many of which either gather dust on shelves or are inadequately used to inform policy interventions. Instead, these stakeholders would like to see concrete action. They recognize the value of projects that focus on carrying out assessments and formulating strategies and policies if these projects result in the updating and incorporation of important information and knowledge. However, stakeholders deem the implementation of these capacity development recommendations to be insufficient or inadequate. The reasons are varied and many, and not necessarily the fault of a country’s development strategy or policy. In fact, countries fail to implement long-term development strategies and policies for complex reasons linked to changing political commitment, insufficient donor resources, and low absorptive capacities, among other factors.

CCCD projects are structured as relatively short-term interventions to strengthen capacities according to three typologies of capacities: systemic, institutional, and individual capacity building. These three constructs of capacities ensure that all relevant capacities are adequately addressed by the project. The single most important capacity-development need identified in the 2010 study that cuts across the Rio Conventions is to strengthen public awareness and understanding of the importance of the global environment to national socioeconomic development priorities.

The poor understanding of the linkage between the global environment and national development priorities heightens the challenge countries face in formulating long-term strategies. This is an issue not lost for industrialized countries—the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has carried out a number of relevant studies and prepared guidance material on approaches for its client countries. This includes studies on green growth indicators, national sustainable development strategies, and strategic environmental assessments (OECD 2011; OECD 2014; OECD 2006; OECD 2012; OECD 2011). There is increasing understanding among scientists that local environmental and development issues are impacted by and impact the global environment, and for any development strategy to be effective and sustainable, it needs to better model these complexities. The CCCD program is specifically designed to strengthen countries’ abilities to formulate these more integrated strategies.

Building capacities through mainstreaming

For these reasons, a strategic design feature of CCCD projects is the structuring of capacity-building efforts through the process of mainstreaming. The rationale for this responds to the common view in recipient countries that the global environment is a Northern construct, and developing countries’ real priority is meeting national socioeconomic development priorities. For Egypt, the only way to secure political commitment to the NCSA and global environmental objectives was to directly tie them to national environmental priorities and integrate them within national environmental planning processes. Institutionalizing the NCSA process within national sustainable development planning is therefore important to building awareness of and political commitment to global environmental issues.

CCCD projects also include a set of activities specifically designed as workshops and dialogue, so that participants can develop a thorough understanding of the complex dynamic human-ecological and global/local interactions that explain the causes and effects of environmental degradation and inadequate socioeconomic development. Learning-by-doing mainstreaming exercises and workshops are very important features of CCCD projects. These are intended to foster critical thinking among planners and decision makers, so they can better model the more complex dynamic interrelationships that good long-term development strategies reflect. For example, the CCCD project for the Republic of Georgia is in the latter stages of creating its Environmental Information and Knowledge Management System, with training under way of government staffs and other stakeholders on good practices to mainstream environmental issues in planning frameworks. In this and similar workshops, participants are expected to structure problem trees, create causal loops, and take a systems-thinking approach to identifying drivers of environmental sustainability, both positive and negative.1  

However, for this learning to be more meaningful and adopted, it needs to be complemented by demonstrated implementation through demonstration or pilot projects. Stakeholders deemed these to be the best way for countries, in particular communities, to better appreciate the on-the-ground value of these “international” projects. They provide concrete examples of how the alternative approaches can be adopted at acceptable transaction or switching costs, and they show that these approaches provide important benefits to a plurality of stakeholders. Many CCCD projects have these and call for having people from other parts of a country that are using certain best practices to demonstrate them to communities in other parts of the country. In some cases, CCCD projects are encouraged to look regionally for sites to demonstrate these best practices.

Some countries, such as Bulgaria and Togo, pursued mainstreaming by having their project focus on improving decentralized environmental governance. These projects called for stakeholders to take an active role in understanding national environment and development policies and how they implicate responsibilities and accountabilities at the subnational levels. Learning-by-doing workshops are convened with stakeholder representatives from the local and/or regional government levels to formulate new or improved municipal and/or regional development plans or programs that are strategically aligned with the country’s national environment and development policy.

Strengthening national financing for conservation agencies and environmental governance

From our experience, most recipient countries have come to expect official development assistance (ODA) to meet their obligations under treaties that they have ratified, and they are looking to these externally sourced funds to finance environmental conservation. As a result, governments are often not allocating sufficient resources to adequately staff the public institutions responsible for the environment. This insufficient investment in staffing leads to the low absorptive capacities of public institutions to carry out their mandate. Over time, those institutions that have secured financing take over responsibility for an obligation from poorly funded institutions.

A few countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, have taken advantage of the CCCD project to focus on this particular challenge. The Kyrgyzstan project focused on environmental fiscal reforms, whereby the project created an institutional space to negotiate new policies and agreements between the local, district, provincial, and national levels of government. Fees and fines are normally sent to the central government, which then decides on the amount of funds allocated to local budgets. Instead, subnational governments would be able to keep an agreed amount or percentage of the funds to meet their budgetary needs. However, many countries recognize that the pursuit of environmental fiscal reform is too high a bar for a three-year project with limited financing, especially because this has important implications with other bilateral and multilateral donor agencies that have their own ideas on fiscal reform.

A limitation of CCCD projects, and indeed other types of projects, is the extent to which they can influence long-term goals. In nearly all the CCCD projects there is an implicit assumption that the strengthening, testing, and demonstration of the added value of capacities developed in a project would result in its institutionalization. In Kyrgyzstan’s case, the strengthening and demonstration of capacities targeted to a subset of environmental fiscal reforms is assumed to be followed by replication, scaling up, and, even more important, the project’s institutionalization in the formulation of subsequent relevant long-term development strategies. This assumption puts the project at high risk if there is insufficient movement to support the momentum created under it.

The project in Kyrgyzstan was only possible because the timing was right, and because the project had the support of donors that saw fiscal reform in Kyrgyzstan as badly needed. While Kyrgyzstan’s project went one step further, initiating institutional reforms to finance environmental governance, most other CCCD projects have a relatively lower bar, limiting the need to address financial sustainability by the formulation of a resource mobilization strategy. This strategy according to the CCCD program guidance is intended to emphasize the national sourcing of financing for environmental governance, recognizing the increasing challenge of available ODA for environmental governance. CCCD projects, and other capacity development projects for that matter, should take advantage of the regular donor roundtables that aid organizations in the recipient country convene to coordinate the financing of their development programs. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, immediately after the validation workshop for the CCCD project, a special meeting of donors was convened to present the project and reaffirm donor support to cofinance project implementation.

Collaborative project design

There are two critical aspects to the collaborative approach in designing projects: (1) the strategic choice of project outputs and (2) how those outputs will be produced. Capacity development projects should inherently be designed as learning-by-doing projects, whereby the project creates an institutional space for national stakeholder representatives to come together and negotiate new or modified agreements and arrangements. Experts or specialists would provide technical inputs and facilitate these consultations and negotiations.

For example, the formulation of a resource mobilization strategy would be negotiated by a cross-section of national social actors (from various public, private, academic, and nongovernmental institutions and organizations) and supported by in-depth expert analyses. The different perspectives and expectations of these social actors should increase the likelihood that a set of sustainable financial mechanisms will emerge that is more comprehensive and well thought through. The broad and collaborative approach would also strengthen the validity and legitimacy of the agreed mechanisms and accompanying recommendations.

However, this challenge is made more difficult by stakeholders’ internal resistance to change. That is, they have been undertaking and understanding their work in a certain way and are not easily convinced to pursue alternative approaches. This is an uphill battle, because stakeholders must remain committed to the project’s strategic design if activities are to remain valid, relevant, and legitimate. They can agree to certain adaptations during implementation, but these must be made collaboratively. Indeed, in our experience, this is perhaps the single most common challenge that capacity-development projects face in the adoption of alternative approaches, regardless of their inherent value in removing barriers or advancing tested solutions.

CCCD projects attempt to address this problem by carefully and regularly explaining the particular strategy as a set of capacity-building exercises, supported by demonstrations and early implementation/piloting. This begins very early in the project life cycle, during the stakeholder consultations to detail the CCCD project’s strategy and better delineate the system boundary based on the institutions’ absorptive capacities, total project financing, and expected collaboration with other development partners and their in-country interventions.

The extent to which stakeholders engage in CCCD projects varies significantly from country to country. In countries where there is a clear commitment and mandate from the lead institution, stakeholder engagement is usually good with broad representation by key stakeholder representatives from government, academia, civil society, and the donor community. However, a number of countries have suffered from insufficient representation in meetings and workshops, in terms of both numbers and decision-making authority. Gender balance is an issue in some countries, like Guinea-Bissau, for example, where a recent workshop of 40 participants was made up of 39 men and one woman. The level of engagement in meetings and workshops is also uneven across CCCD projects. Careful and professional facilitation of stakeholder consultations and engagement is paramount to ensure adherence during the project development and implementation phases.

Recruiting national experts has been a significant challenge in many developing countries. Ideally, projects should maximize the efficiency of the resources and recruit national experts to undertake the expert analyses. However, all too often national experts and specialists expect to be compensated at the same rate as international experts. There is also a push to recruit “experts” who may not be the best candidates. In many countries there is a limited pool of national experts with the experience, expertise, and availability to work on the project. This was, for example, a challenge for Papua New Guinea and Cambodia, where finding national experts was very difficult. As a result, during implementation, the project budgets had to be revised to accommodate the higher cost of recruiting international experts.

The value of CCCD projects

While they do not produce results that easily measure the extent to which global environmental benefits are produced (increased area of ecosystems protected legally, reduced greenhouse gas emissions measured by the replacement of obsolete technology with clean energy technology, etc.), CCCD projects nonetheless are considered to have made valuable contributions. In Belize, for example, the country’s first CCCD project was deemed successful because it created a new formal mechanism for nonstate stakeholders to help policymakers make more informed decisions that stakeholders would view as more valid and legitimate. Other CCCD project results include the institutionalization of training on natural resource valuation (Jamaica), the internalization of monitoring indicators in regional policies and planning processes (Bulgaria), and the setting up of a national coordination unit to catalyze synergies among all global environmental projects (Namibia), to name a few.

Notwithstanding the significant investments being made to strengthen developing countries’ capacities to meet and sustain their global environmental obligations, the CCCD program has proved to be a cost-effective way for countries to take a more holistic approach to building institutional sustainability. They are an important complement to the larger thematic projects that take an alternative approach to capacity building. Indeed, the complexity of structuring capacity-building projects while taking into account limited absorptive capacities and financial resources require a multipronged program of interventions. The flexibility of the CCCD program and its projects responds specifically to the need to create an institutional space wherein country stakeholders collectively learn through a process of critical thinking and build consensus on better approaches to meeting and sustaining global environmental obligations within the framework of their national development priorities.

The lessons learned from the formulation and implementation of CCCD projects reveal that the formulation of any long-term strategy and the institutionalization of good practices for its implementation lie in working closely with as broad a set of stakeholders as possible, to ensure that they are adherents, if not champions. The value and sustainability of a long-term strategy and its accompanying implementation approach will require regular multiple demonstration exercises as well as very clear programmatic linkages with other key national development policies and long-term financing commitments.


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1 This is informed by the literature on systems thinking and systems dynamics by scholars and practitioners including John D. Sterman.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.