Written by Juha I. Uitto.

The increasingly severe side effects of rapid and often reckless economic development have now become a limiting factor to China’s development. Air pollution in cities, contamination of water and soil, land degradation, and the depletion of China’s forests all threaten people’s health and well-being. Consequently, there has been an escalation of environmental protests all over the country. Popular protests have accelerated since the early-1990s and had reached more than 270 per day by 2010, according to a study by Fengshi Wu of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Research by Christoph Steinhardt and Wu also shows that environmental movements have evolved from a focus on single-issue local problems and pursuit of post-facto compensation to victims, to broader constituencies, mobilizing grievances around public goods, action towards prevention, and policy advocacy.

Tensions between civil society organizations and the government in China have been well documented. Unfortunately, the kneejerk reaction of the government at all levels has been to suppress environmental protest, but due to the scale of events, this has now become much harder. At the same time, Chinese authorities are equally concerned about the ill effects of environmental degradation and pollution, problems which they have a limited capacity to deal with. Could there be a way of mitigating the confrontation and empowering civil society organizations to play a more active role in addressing environmental issues?

The Small Grants Programme (SGP) from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) is one such project, aiming not only to address China’s worsening environmental problems but also to ease the tension between the Chinese authorities and environmental NGOs. Launched in 1992, SGP is a programme funded by the GEF and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Since its establishment, SGP has funded more than 20,000 small projects in more than 120 countries. Its goal is to promote local solutions to global environmental problems, simultaneously addressing the poverty and livelihoods of the affected communities. To date, SGP has supported 58 projects in China with a total of US$2.6 million in GEF funding and generated a similar amount in co-financing from other partners. These projects address a whole variety of environmental problems ranging from biodiversity conservation and land degradation to climate change and chemicals management. Their geographical scope ranges from the eastern seaboard to Xinjiang in the west, with clusters of projects in relatively underdeveloped areas, such as Yunnan.

China was a latecomer to SGP. First expressing interest in 2006, it took another two years to negotiate the necessary institutional arrangements and conditions, and China SGP was finally launched only in 2009. The delays reflect the cautious attitude of the Chinese authorities towards the modus operandi of SGP. While funding for international programs in China is almost exclusively channeled through the government, SGP is the only UN-managed funding mechanism designed to directly support NGOs and local communities in environmental protection. Convincing the government to accept that the decision-making body, the National Steering Committee (NSC), would be composed of members from both the government and non-government sectors, with the latter holding a majority, proved a sticking point for the negotiations. Ultimately, this stipulation ensures autonomy for the SGP, meaning that the government representatives are not able to approve or disapprove projects without the consent of the non-governmental representatives.

The institutionalization of NGOs’ roles in SGP’s decision-making processes has played an important role in mediating state-NGO cooperation. SGP’s success, however, does not stop there. SGP has been a source of direct funding to cash-strapped NGOs in China. It has also been instrumental in leveraging additional resources for the projects: 16 projects reported receiving some central government support, while 43 projects have received support from local governments. Thirty-eight of the projects are located in the less developed areas in central and western China, where SGP funding is particularly critical.

In addition, SGP has provided legitimacy to the NGOs under its umbrella. The GEF, UNDP and SGP logos have empowered the small NGOs, in the eyes of the authorities, local communities and the media – witness the financing, technical and other forms of support provided to them. This affiliation has significantly enhanced the credibility and accountability of the NGOs, which now operate under the financial and operational rules and procedures of the funding organizations. This has also helped NGOs to learn international standards of project management and financial reporting.

Overall, SGP has helped consolidate the environmental NGO sector in China. The NSC – the main decision-making body – has provided a forum for regular communication between the SGP-funded NGOs and the government, and, more broadly, SGP has provided a platform for sharing and networking among environmental NGOs. For instance, every year SGP organizes workshops to help NGOs to prepare grant proposals or share experiences and lessons learnt.

As the legitimacy, credibility and professionalism increase, these NGOs have been progressively more accepted as implementing partners to the government. With SGP support, they have started to develop and pilot on-the-ground projects that demonstrate local solutions for environmental sustainability. NGOs working directly with local communities on locally-adapted activities can provide important innovations that can be adapted more broadly and influence government policy. A model like this can help empower civil society and local communities for environmental protection. NGOs can take a more proactive and constructive role in providing and implementing solutions in a less confrontational manner. This will also allow for accountability delegation to civil society and relieve some of the excessive reliance on government organizations.

Dr. Juha I. Uitto is Director of the Independent Evaluation Office of the Global Environment Facility in Washington, DC. He is the co-author with Dr. Sulan Chen, SGP Programme Advisor at UNDP New York, of Accountability Delegation: Empowering Local Communities for Environmental Protection in China. He has been involved in periodic independent evaluations of SGP. The authors also administered a survey amongst the NGOs that implement SGP in China. Image credit: CC by DaiLuo/Flickr.