Politics of Poverty

3 ways country ownership is being put to the test with climate change funding

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In the Green Climate Fund it’s seems easy to say, but hard to do.

Annaka Peterson Carvalho, Senior Program Officer, Adaptation Finance Accountability Initiative
Annaka Peterson Carvalho, Senior Program Officer, Adaptation Finance Accountability Initiative

Annaka Peterson Carvalho is the Senior Program Officer of the Adaptation Finance Accountability Initiative, led by the World Resources Institute, Overseas Development Institute, and Oxfam.

Country ownership is something we all believe in, right?  The concept has been endorsed by both donor and recipient nations as part of The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and reaffirmed many times over. Yet putting the principle into practice remains a challenge.

As noted by former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in her November 2011 speech in Busan:

“[W]e need to get serious about what we mean when we talk about country ownership of development strategies.  Let’s be clear.  Too often, donors’ decisions are driven more by our own political interests or our policy preferences or development orthodoxies than by our partners’ needs…Today, we know donors must do more to support country ownership, but we also have to expect more from developing countries.  The political will must be mobilized to take on the biggest obstacles to a country’s own development.”

The discussions at last month’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) board meeting, which I attended, brought these challenges to the fore. The Green Climate Fund is being established as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to mobilize financing to help developing countries  shift toward low-emission and climate-resilient development. The GCF has set out to be innovative and path breaking in its approach to climate finance by mobilizing both public and private finance. It has strongly endorsed the principle of country ownership.

However, when the rubber hits the road, both donor and recipient countries showed their reluctance to put the principal fully into practice.

The fund’s priorities or country priorities?

A core aspect of country ownership is the idea that countries set their own strategies.  When it comes to climate change, the majority of developing countries have prepared national strategies to address climate issues.  But will countries be able to access funding from the GCF for their priorities?

It looks like the answer to that question will be…maybe.  The Fund is almost certain to identify its own priorities (although the Board wasn’t able to agree on what these should be last month).  So if a country’s priorities happen to align with the Fund’s priorities, one critical hurdle will be cleared.  But if a country has different priorities, they would need to get new ones if they want to access the GCF.

National systems unreliable until proven otherwise?

The presumption seemed to be that national systems are unreliable and the burden of proof lies with developing countries.  In the initial stages, the GFC will be operationalized primarily through international organizations until countries can prove that their systems are capable of managing the financial and programmatic requirements.

While there are valid concerns about the national level systems and capacities needed to make country ownership a reality, there are equally valid concerns about the efficiency and efficacy of international organizations.  But many of the GFC board members seemed to take at face value the superiority of international organizations without acknowledging their relatively high costs. I observed that they seemed to have blinders to the shortcomings and failures of these institutions.

Who’s accountable for coordinating with other stakeholders?

While developing countries are often the first to call out donors for their failure to coordinate properly with national actors, not all countries were ready to take on this role themselves. In fact, some developing countries were reticent to commit themselves to ensuring coordination with national stakeholders, even though this would have secured a stronger role for themselves in the design and implementation of projects.

While it is true that stakeholder coordination can pose challenges for many developing countries, the GCF was willing to provide both technical and financial support to improve national level capacity to carry out these roles effectively. Fears that this would be too burdensome or delay access to funding meant some developing countries weren’t willing to support it, ultimately shirking their responsibilities to practice good governance. Of course practice varies. The reality in some countries is that the climate change department is staffed by two people, making it really difficult for them to coordinate with 20 other ministries, civil society, and private companies.

Putting country ownership into practice for developed countries means ceding tight control over the purse strings in favor of flexibility to meet developing country needs.  For developing countries this means committing to be ambitious in their objectives, and working with donors and their citizens to lead on accountability and transparency efforts.

It’s time that we let our goals and aspirations lead the way, not our fears of the unknown and reluctance to take responsibility. If the GCF is to get up and running, the board will need to reach agreement on the nuts and bolts of the Fund in their upcoming meetings in October and early 2014. Being serious about country ownership could go a long way in helping the fund live up to its billing as a catalyst for transformational change, instead of continuing with business as usual.

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