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How Well Does a U.N. Agency Do Its Pricey 'Green Job'? Not That Well, Study Says

EXCLUSIVE: How much money did the United Nations Development Program, the U.N.'s flagship anti-poverty agency, spend to create 5,280 "green" jobs around the world?

UNDP has said the price tag is $53.9 million—an average of $10,208 per job spent in 2010 on 135 environmental projects world-wide.

But according to documentation obtained by Fox News, the projects that generated those jobs have a total cost of about $1.68 billion—which would work out to a much more staggering average figure of about $288,700 per job.

The wildly differing size of those price tags for a fairly trivial amount of employment emerged as part of a muted rebranding effort at UNDP. Top management is trying to burnish some of its credentials in the face of internal critics who feel that when it comes to merging environmental management and economic development to solve poverty problems, UNDP is not very good at its job.

The stakes for UNDP are high. UNDP spends about $570 million a year on implementing environmental programs and projects, mostly on behalf of outside donors.

Half of that funding comes from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), which calls itself the world’s "largest funder of projects to improve the global environment." GEF is a partnership which includes 182 governments, as well as numerous international institutions, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. The United States contributed $86.5 million to the GEF last year, according to a U.S. Treasury official.

Since 1991, GEF has dispensed $9.2 billion, plus more than $40 billion in additional co-financing, around the world, on its environmental mission. Its focus is on fostering environmental projects that cut carbon emissions and preserve the planet, and that have "global benefits."

Much of that project money, about $286 million a year, has been showered on UNDP. According to an internal evaluation of UNDP’s environmental stewardship, environmental projects funded by GEF and managed by UNDP’s array of national offices around the world are now a substantial portion of the global bureaucracy’s livelihood.

Indeed, the report says, “GEF financing has become essential in at least 15 of the 29 country offices interviewed [for the study], to pay for professional staff and maintain a substantial portfolio of activity. The poverty area [of UNDP’s work] receives much less external funding,” and instead comes from the organization’s regular, or “core” budget. Moreover, “the GEF is not mandated to tackle poverty,” as the study puts it.

In other words, UNDP manages environmental projects in part to pay the rent. For the most part, the evaluation notes, its environmental work has been kept separate from its main focus on development and energy projects in the poorer parts of the world—a situation that the study concludes has not been necessarily good for either.

All of that, however, appears to be about to change—because the world-wide environmental movement is also apparently changing its view of the relationship between development and the environment, especially in the wake of the failed attempt to get a new, global climate agreement in Copenhagen in December, 2009.

The old view was that poverty and environmental decay went hand in hand, as poor people abused scarce natural resources in the struggle to survive. The new view is that the so-called “poverty-environment nexus” can be managed differently so that environmentalist projects can lead poor people to win new employment and better standards of living in the global “green economy”—especially at a time when traditional anti-poverty aid from budget-conscious Western nations is drying up.

The new, virtuous “poverty-environment nexus” is increasingly hailed by environmental activists as a vehicle for transferring new wealth to the poor. And that praise is likely to rise to a crescendo in the months ahead, culminating at a new Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in May, 2012—two decades after the first Earth Summit in the same city put environmentalism solidly on the global agenda.

The explicit aim of the Rio+20 Summit is to give increased momentum to the notion of “sustainable development in a global “green economy,” and to establish new instruments of “global governance” to make those changes permanent.

One sign of the impending change of emphasis is UNDP’s curiously specific claim about creating 5,280 jobs through its environmental projects. The claim popped up—with no price tag attached—in a top management response to the internal evaluation, which is highly critical of the agency’s effectiveness and desire to use environmental tools to manage that nexus differently.

Both the study and the response are due to be presented to UNDP’s 36-nation supervisory Executive Board, which meets starting on Jan. 31.

According to the 112-page study document, UNDP’s ability to marry its environmental projects and anti-poverty efforts has been “haphazard” and uneven; “monitoring and evaluation for the poverty-environmental nexus is almost entirely missing in UNDP”; and the agency’s environmental agenda is driven mainly by opportunities to secure funding from outside sources for its activities.

Moreover, the study says, some UNDP staff are “genuinely not convinced that the poverty-environment nexus is necessary or workable,” and “hard data on the benefits of the approach are not available.” It adds that “if integrating environmental management and poverty reduction is to become a widespread reality, evidence must be available demonstrating that it produces benefits in a timely and efficient manner.” But currently, “there is little incentive to include, monitor and evaluate the role and benefits of including poverty-environment linkages in projects.”

Above all, the study says UNDP itself apparently does not yet know how to go about the task of blending its environmental role with its anti-poverty mission.. According to the internal report, the agency’s “strategies and policies do not provide a conceptual framework or model on how to include the poverty-environment nexus in policy advice or programs.”

The lack of anti-poverty consciousness on the environmental side of UNDP’s business is matched, apparently, by a lack of environmental consciousness on the economic development side of the house.

Buried in a footnote in the study is the observation that “UNDP does not currently require environmental impact assessments for its projects, though a new safeguards policy is being developed that may require environmental assessments for some projects.” Elsewhere, the report snipes that the lack of environmental safeguards is “based apparently on the assumption that UNDP projects do not cause environmental harm.”

(By contrast, the World Bank, which is the mainstay of global anti-poverty financing, has an environmental impact policy that dates from 1991.)

Bottom line: UNDP has learned how to talk a good game on using environmentalism to alleviate poverty, but “policy is not yet systematically translated into practice.”

Yet the evaluation also argues that UNDP still has a major part to play in the global green transformation, in large measure due to the fact that its country office are the most widely spread U.N. presence around the world and it already plays an important role as a development coordinator. It also gives UNDP credit for helping GEF to “recognize how these projects affected poor people in the areas around [them]"

Finally, the study warns that “if these efforts are to be more successful in the future, UNDP will need a better understanding of why mainstreaming environment, particularly in relation to poverty reduction, is proving so challenging.”

Click here for the full report

In its 11-page rejoinder, UNDP is clearly eager to show the Executive Board that it is getting with the program. It declared it will start breaking down the barriers between its traditional anti-poverty efforts and environmental areas early this year. New environmental safeguards on its work—approved by management just as the critical evaluation was being finalized-- will be rolled out through 2011. (But they will apply only to new projects, a UNDP spokesman told Fox news.)

“There is a need for further analytical work to broaden the measurement of poverty,” the agency’s management declares in its response. Moreover, “UNDP will continue to further integrate poverty reduction and environmental protection into GEF-financed projects,” saying this new, improved approach is “is already generating relevant socio-economic quantitative data that previously was not captured.”

Click here for the UNDP management response 

Then comes its highly specific and very modest jobs claim: “2010 data obtained from 135 project implementation reviews (47 percent) of GEF projects implemented by UNDP indicate that approximately 5,820 jobs have been created and 2,730 (46 per cent) of these jobs are held by women.”

But where did those curiously specific figures come from? And what was the full cost of creating them, which UNDP did not mention?

UNDP initially provided summary details of the projects that generated the employment figures—but not the total cost—to Fox News on request.

UNDP also said that the 5,280 job figure was “likely an under-estimate,” since it had never tallied the employment impact of its environmental work before 2010.

But when asked the total cost of the 135 projects, UNDP at first did not answer. It later added that “total disbursements for these projects was $53.9 million in 2010”—which only added to the fog, since the agency also told Fox News that they were among a group of GEF projects “that have been under implementation for more than one year as of July 2010.”

Using GEF websites, Fox News was able to locate the project documents for 128 of the 135 GEF projects on the list provided by UNDP, and discovered they were funded roughly 25 percent from GEF resources, and the rest from various governments agencies and other participants.

But there the figures provided by UNDP and those recorded on the GEF website parted company. According to the GEF website, the projects cited by UNDP appear to have cost the trust fund alone at least $430 million. With co-financing added in, the total jumped to a whopping $1.675 billion.

Click here for a list of the UNDP projects and their cost 

Those would be eye-popping figures anywhere. But they are even more dramatic when measured against the average annual incomes of the countries where the GEF projects are located.

These range from desperately poor nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo (per capita income : $160 in 2009) and Niger ($340) to moderately more prosperous Pakistan ($1,000) and Uzbekistan ($1,000) to such middle-class nations as Chile ($9,470) and Croatia ($13,720).

Moreover, most of the programs had little or nothing directly to do with poverty in any form. Mostly, they are concerned with such legal or quasi-legal matters as zoning, regulatory improvement, or augmenting the boundaries of environmental protection zones.

Those on the list provided to Fox News, for example, include “consolidation and implementation of the Patagonian Coastal Zone Management Program” (cost: $2.8 million), “Capacity building for planning, decision making and regulatory systems and awareness building/sustainable land management in severely degraded ecosystems “ in Cuba ($29.3 million) , and “Integrated conservation of priority globally significant migratory bird wetland habitat” in Kazahkstan ($38.4 million)

Other projects appeared to be directly concerned with upgrading the skills of bureaucrats. One such: “Strengthening national capacity in Rio Convention implementation through targeted institutional strengthening and professional development” in Uzbekistan ($640,000).

Moreover, the documentation associated with many of the projects appeared to be in vast disarray. A number of the projects on the UNDP list appeared to have ended years ago. In others, parts of the documentation were not included on the website. In still others, portions of the electronic paperwork appeared to have been openly altered.

Whatever the helter-skelter state of affairs, it seemed clear that in many cases, substantial amounts of money had gone into government and regulatory offices in countries where corruption is often not unknown, and perhaps to pay for consultants who were helping those officials renovate their administrations.

But that too raised a question: didn’t those people already have jobs?

George Russell is executive editor of Fox News