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What Works and What’s Wasteful: An Insider Perspective on Funding the African Environmental Sector

Photo by Devon Knudsen

[caption id="attachment_6947" align="aligncenter" width="645"] Photo by Devon Knudsen
Buckets of charcoal in Kenya[/caption]

Partially in response to being a hub of environmental conflict, Kenya is also a hub of environmental activity. As the home of Wangari Maathai and the U.N. Environment Program, Kenya is also a founding member of IGAD, originally IGADD, when the DD's stood for drought and development. Expansively mandated, IGADD was an impressive African environmental initiative to respond to what, even in the 1980s, was recognized as a major impending crisis. More recently, CNN Hero Evans Wadongo, Goldman Prize winner Ikal Angelei, and Global Energy Award finalist Teddy Kinyanjui are proof of how Kenyan youth are using their renowned entrepreneurship to help their communities.

The impact of environmental crisis and conflict are well understood by Kenyans, but not always by donors. This became evident when, working within the Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources,[1] I was responsible for convincing donors that environmental security should be a priority. This position allowed me a candid look at the inner workings of a developing country's environment sector, and from that experience, I offer a few lessons learned in hopes of informing the debate on how donors can help tackle one of the gravest threats to security in the Horn.

Private sector partnerships

The private sector in Kenya is painfully aware of the financial costs of environmental change. Many companies are struggling to maintain profits in spite of increased water shortages, soil degradation and other problems. Agricultural industries surrounding Lake Naivasha invested in drip irrigation to be able to reduce their water needs, but their irrigation systems kept clogging due to increased soil in the water. Farmers living upstream were causing major erosion due to environmentally irresponsible practices. The companies agreed to pay the upstream users to change how they farmed, leading to greater profits both for farmers and downstream users. This model inspired others, and Water Resources User Associations proliferated across Kenya's key watersheds while CEOs from across the region invested time and resources towards the continued availability of natural resources they relied on.

Non-agricultural companies were also eager to turn the challenges of environmental change into opportunities. Insurance and IT companies were developing products to help farmers prevent and insure against harvest losses caused by climate variability, and banks were expanding microfinance programs to help farmers become more resilient.

These were largely positive developments, but there were also pitfalls. Although some companies claimed these activities as corporate social responsibility, some would prioritize profit over all else. An opportunity to help thousands of farmers was lost when a bank applying for a multi-million dollar grant decided it wasn't enough that the donors paid their staff costs and that the project generated loans which would pay the bank interest, they also demanded a large fund to hedge any risk from the loans. The donors didn't buy it, and rightly so. Donors increasingly require that grant applicants show commitment by sharing project costs, or risk, but there could still be more oversight to prevent cases in which partnerships with the private sector on environmental projects prioritize impact over profit.


The Kenyan government realized that donors often balked at funding ministries directly due to corruption, so they responded by creating semi-autonomous trust funds with strong financial systems that could be trusted to receive funds for activities relating to the mandates of their parent ministries. This model worked particularly well when the parent ministry had ethical leadership, as was the case when Martha Karua led the Ministry of Water and initiated a series of reforms. At our trust fund within the Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources we wanted to emulate those reforms, so we poached their staff, applied for technical advisors, and committed to an institution-wide professionalization campaign. These efforts worked, and we were largely protected from external forces with corrupt agendas.

Externally however, corruption remained pervasive. There were the usual examples: appointing girlfriends to high level positions, misusing public funds for family travel, giving contracts to companies offering favors in return, etc., but this was just the tip of the iceberg. We heard cases of senior officials intimidating junior officials into doing their coursework; ministers who decided their working hours were 3:00 AM to 8:00 AM so that no one could get an appointment with them; ministers who checked themselves into hospital to avoid arrest; officials ordering their staff to pay for official travel out of pocket, then firing them for doing so; fudging environmental impact assessments to allow for cheaper construction projects, and the list goes on. Although democratic reforms have come a long way since the Moi-era, they have not progressed sufficiently to allow donors to relax oversight and conditionality mechanisms.

Cost efficiency

NGOs spend money on marketing as a way to attract funding, spread important messages, and other worthy causes, but when spending on publicity exceeds spending on implementation, this can be cause for concern. Publicity isn't the only area that donors have asked grantees to cut back on in the name of cost-effective results. Whereas many NGOs in Africa cite difficult roads as justification to buy large, fuel-inefficient vehicles, others insist all staff and visitors travel by public transportation. Similarly, while some have office space in upscale suburbs, others rely on networks of individuals living within target communities or base their offices in the poorest parts of town to create meaningful employment for vulnerable youth while also achieving their environmental goals.

On the other hand, long-term efficiency can also require spending more, as we saw in reforestation projects. Donors often put pressure on implementers to reduce the cost per tree planted, but this occasionally led to all the trees dying. To prevent this, some implementers partnered with schools and planted trees on school land so they could be cared for by students. The students learned forestry skills and were rewarded with school supplies each year they cared for their trees. A system like this increases the price per tree, but leads to more sustainable outcomes.

In sum, the urgency of the problem and competing demands for funding require that donors focus on what works while fixing factors for failure. Although these lessons are drawn from Kenya, they are applicable in other African contexts where environmental change is outpacing donor and policy-maker preparedness. As tax-payers in donor countries, we have a stake in the effectiveness of our environmental aid. According to the 2014 UN World Water Development Report, in the next 20 years the cost of humanitarian assistance is projected to go up by 1,600% largely due to climate change. Climate change is a cross-cutting issue. It affects our security, our access to basic services, our health and our pocketbooks. Everyone on the planet has an interdependent role in mitigating and adapting to environmental change, which means that we all must endeavor to understand better what works and what doesn't in achieving real impact in environmental assistance.

[1] Which has since been consolidated with several other ministries due to Constitutional requirements.

About the Author

Devon Knudsen

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more