International funding for environmental policies based on weak evidence

Tropical deforestation contributes to climate change, destroys biodiversity and can harm the interests of local people. Community Forest Management (CFM) has been promoted as providing a potential win-win solution (conserving forests while benefitting local communities) and global funders have invested billions of dollars in CFM programmes in developing countries. A study published this week, however, highlights the lack of evidence upon which such investments are made and calls for improved evidence collection in the future.

The study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment suggests that although there is limited evidence that CFM provides some biodiversity benefits in terms of forest protection, evidence for benefit to local communities is generally lacking. The team from the Centre for Evidence-Based Conservation based at Bangor University conducted a systematic review of evidence by examining studies from a highly dispersed literature on the subject. They found that very few studies had been published providing information on CFM performance. Many of those that did had problems with their study design and interpretation.

Andrew Pullin, the senior author on the study says:

“There is some limited evidence that CFM programmes work, but the worrying conclusion is that monitoring and evaluation of many major global environmental programmes is insufficient to establish a clear picture of what works and what doesn’t. Despite having committed substantial resources to these programmes over the last decade or more, we lack the information to inform future funding decisions. CFM programmes are diverse in context and implementation and the reality is most likely that some work and some do not. A better evidence base is needed to help make best use of scarce resources for environmental management”

CFM puts management decisions in the hands of local communities, rather than national or regional government, allowing them to make key decisions about the use of their forests. The assumption is that conferring ownership and responsibility will result in more sustainable use of resources.

The Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility, one of the major funders of CFM projects, commissioned the systematic review. One of the roles of the Panel is to test the validity of key assumptions underpinning GEF investments, and by so doing assist in improving the quality of future project design.

Julia Jones, one of the authors says “Although we found limited evidence of CFM effectiveness, this does not mean that CFM doesn’t work. There are many anecdotal examples which suggest that it may do. However major investment decisions should be made on more than anecdotal evidence, and large global programmes need to include proper evaluation of their effectiveness in their design.”

Publication date: 28 September 2011