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FEATURE: Are sector-based approaches to climate change becoming obsolete?


That was the question posed to participants during the World Bank’s Sustainable Development events, a fortnight ago. The central proposition was that climate change is a cross-cutting issue, and so the World Bank’s traditional, sector-based approach is too narrow and will fail to address adequately the unique challenges posed by climate change.

Warren Evans, Senior Adviser at the Sustainable Development Network of the World Bank and moderator of the event,  polled participants at the start of session to get their initial views on the proposition, before the ‘programmatic = promised land’ and ‘programmatic = no-man’s land’ arguments were put forward by people on either side of the debate. Speakers included Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough, Director in the South Asia region; Francoise Clottes, Country Director for 13 Caribbean countries; Todd Johnson, Lead Energy Specialist in Colombia and Mexico; Bill Magrath, Lead Natural Resource Economist in South Asia; Stacy Swann, Head of the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC’s) Blended Finance Unit (blending concessional finance with IFC resources); and Tim Brown, Senior Natural Resources Management Specialist in the Indonesia country office.

The initial voting showed that this should have been a fairly one-sided argument: 68% agreed with the statement that “When it comes to addressing the climate challenge at the country level, the sector-based approach is ineffective and must be replaced with cross-cutting, programmatic approaches”, with 13% against, and 19% undecided.

However, as the session came to a close, the same question was asked, with rather surprising results: despite still leading the way, the ‘for’ camp lost their majority, with just 47%, with the ‘against’ camp rising to 33% and 20% still undecided.

So what went wrong? Why the 20% swing? We are often being told that climate change is such a cross-cutting issue that to make any headway in tackling it, we need to work holistically, and mainstream climate change into development work, across the board. So why weren’t people convinced of the programmatic approach?

Those who said programmatic approaches were a ‘no-man’s land’ did not argue that programmatic focuses were wrong, per se, but that programmatic approaches are difficult to follow in practice. William B. Magrath, Lead Natural Resource Economist in the World Bank’s South Asia region said that he would rather work at the project level with a small number of key actors who can mobilise projects in a small space of time and spend the rest of the time on actual delivery. With a programming approach, he said, there is a danger of spending more time in developing a plan than on carrying out that plan.

The Climate Investment Funds (CIFs), a multi-donor initiative administered by the World Bank and implemented with several multilateral development banks, have been piloting this programmatic approach, with some success. Here, the approach seeks to maximise the comparative advantages of development partners, eliminate duplication, and capitalise on the strengths of earlier initiatives, with recipient countries leading on the development of strategic country plans.

The list of partners involved in any given CIF programme is impressive. For example, Colombia’s Investment Plan to the Clean Technology Fund (the largest of the CIFs) was developed in conjunction with eight government departments and ministries, including the Department of National Planning, the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit and the Ministry of Environment, Housing and Territorial  Development , as well as some state-owned and private sector companies involved in renewable energy development, not to mention the three Multilateral Development Bankers or MDBs (the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the IFC) involved in implementing the projects under the investment plans.

This wide stakeholder engagement is encouraging, as are the investment plans and strategic programmes for climate resilience that have been developed to frame the programme of investments under each country. However, as the ‘against’ camp pointed out at the event, this whole process can lead to much longer planning periods, with low disbursement figures and scant evidence of impact on the ground. Indeed, some of the questions and comments from the audience surfaced some of the challenges that the CIFs have faced in working programmatically, with one participant talking about the difficulties of working across sectors within the World Bank (even without factoring external organisations), and another pointing out how the programming process can take years with no action on the ground, citing an experience with a Forest Investment Programme (FIP) pilot country.

A key aim of the CIFs is to pilot innovative approaches to financing and implementing low-carbon and climate-resilient development through the MDBs. The conclusion of the debate on programmatic approaches, even for those arguing against them, seemed to be that such approaches are currently inefficient, rather than being inherently wrong. It is entirely feasible to learn lessons from the programmatic approach to inform and improve it, both within the CIFs themselves, as well as in the wider climate finance community.

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