Conflict, fragility and multilateral climate funds

A worker at a farm in Iraq's central Diwaniya province. After decades of war, Iraq faces the challenge of severe water scarcity driven by climate change. Photo: Haidar Indhar, AFP, Getty Images.
A worker at a farm in Iraq's central Diwaniya province. After decades of war, Iraq faces the challenge of severe water scarcity driven by climate change. Photo: Haidar Indhar, AFP, Getty Images.

The number of armed conflicts in the world has risen markedly over the last decade resulting in large-scale human suffering. Violent conflict is a major driver of humanitarian funding needs and, by the end of this decade, up to two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor are expected to live in fragile and conflict-affected states.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is aggravating fragility and conflict challenges globally as soaring food and energy prices hit countries already grappling with instability, unemployment and poverty as well as the health and economic repercussions of COVID-19.

Climate change – a ‘ threat multiplier’ – is also getting worse. At 1.1 degrees of average warming, every region in the world is experiencing ‘substantial damages and increasing irreversible losses’, as underscored in the IPCC’s 2022 report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, described as an ‘atlas of human suffering’ by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

As temperatures continue to rise, the severity of climate change impacts will only increase. Chatham House research suggests that, by 2040, around a third of global cropland will likely be exposed to severe drought every year, and around 3.9 billion people will likely experience a major heatwave on an annual basis.

Already in the 2030s, it is expected 400 million people each year will be unable to work outside due to high temperatures and the number subjected to heat stress beyond the ‘survivability threshold’ – beyond the point at which heat kills – will likely exceed 10 million annually.

The consequences for human security, political stability and economic development will be profound.

Double vulnerability

While no region is, or will be, spared from the climate crisis, vulnerability is higher in areas where poverty is prevalent, governance challenges substantial, livelihoods ‘climate-sensitive’ and access to basic resources and services significantly constrained.

And in geographies plagued by conflict.

Indeed, many of the characteristics that make a state conflict-prone, such as low levels of human and economic development and exclusionary political institutions, also make a country less able to withstand climate change impacts.

Conflict itself is a key contributor to climate change vulnerability. It undermines and weakens institutions and services essential for societies to be able to deal with the impacts of climate change. It erodes social cohesion, destroys livelihoods and increases poverty. And it shifts the attention of authorities away from the climate crisis to other security issues.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 14 of the 25 countries most vulnerable to climate change are experiencing violent conflict.

The need for a conflict-sensitive approach

Investing in climate change adaptation is critical to reducing climate vulnerability but implementing projects in fragile and conflict-affected settings is challenging.

Conflict and fragility may impact the effectiveness and sustainability of the intervention – for example by raising costs and creating security risks for staff – but the project itself may also influence conflict dynamics.

Indeed, like development and humanitarian projects, climate change interventions can have a significant impact on power relations and political dynamics and may affect – positively or negatively – people’s livelihoods, assets and access to natural resources.

As such, climate projects have the potential to amplify existing inequalities and grievances and thereby contribute to tensions which is a risk most pronounced in fragile and conflict-affected countries.

Climate change projects can, however, also contribute to preventing conflict and lowering tensions by fostering cooperation and trust between different stakeholders as well as by helping build institutions that aid post-conflict reconciliation and rebuilding.

To reduce the risk of climate projects sparking or exacerbating conflict, and increasing the likelihood of them making a positive contribution to peace, interventions need to be designed and rolled out in a ‘conflict-sensitive’ way.

In a nutshell, adopting a conflict-sensitive approach entails understanding the context – especially the conflict dynamics – in which the project is being implemented, assessing how the intervention interacts with this context and using the information to design and implement the project in a way that does not exacerbate – but ideally lowers – tension.

Conducting a conflict analysis – which includes looking at factors such as the history of a conflict, its causes, the actors involved and the interests of these actors – is a key first step.

Multilateral climate funds, fragility and conflict

Multilateral climate funds – of which the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Adaptation Fund (AF) and the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) are the largest – play a significant role in the architecture of international climate finance.

The funds operate in conflict-affected states as well as in other developing countries. For example, more than one-third of the GEF’s portfolio has been spent in countries experiencing major armed conflict while over 50 per cent of the GEF’s recipient countries have been afflicted by violent conflict in the last three decades.

Indeed, the GEF’s independent evaluation unit (IEO) notes that a ‘significant portion’ of the GEF’s portfolio is subject to conflict risk and an even larger share to risks associated with fragility.

However, research by the UN Development Programme, the Climate Security Mechanism and the Nataij Group shows that fragile and extremely fragile countries receive significantly less funding per capita from the GCF, GEF, AF and CIF than non-fragile states. Furthermore, fund-sponsored projects in these areas are much smaller than in other countries. The study also reveals that very few of the four funds’ top recipient countries are considered ‘extremely fragile’.

Moreover, an evaluation by the GCF’s independent evaluation unit highlights that, while GCF funding for fragile and conflict-affected Least Developed Countries (LDCs) has risen in recent years, such countries receive less funding than their non-fragile counterparts. The evaluation also notes the GCF mainly finances low-risk projects and that its implementing organizations aren’t incentivized to operate in high-risk areas.

Looking at the wider climate finance landscape, it is clear that conflict-affected areas are among those ‘most neglected by international climate action and finance’, to use the words of the ICRC.

Multilateral climate funds can play an important role in scaling up climate finance in fragile and conflict-affected states but it is key the projects they support in such settings are conflict-sensitive.

The role for the funds in ensuring conflict sensitivity

As the funds implement their projects through accredited agencies, the policies, processes and safeguards of such partners are critical for ensuring conflict sensitivity.

However, a scan of the policy documents found on the websites of the institutions accredited to the GCF, GEF, AF and CIF indicates only around one fifth of these organizations have developed strategies, guidelines or tools on conflict-sensitive programming and/or refer to conflict specifically in their safeguards.

Of the four major funds only the GEF refers to conflict specially in its safeguards and while ‘environmental security’ constitutes a cross-cutting theme in the GEF’s new strategic positioning framework – and the importance of conflict-sensitive approaches is underlined in the GEF’s programming directions for the Least Developed Countries Fund and the Special Climate Change Fund – none of the four major funds have yet put in place a dedicated policy or developed specific guidance on conflict-sensitive programming.

The UNDP also highlights that the funds’ current processes do not incentivize the development of projects with dual climate and peacebuilding objectives while the GEF’s IEO recommends its policies and procedures be revised to enable projects to ‘better adapt to rapid and substantial changes common in fragile and conflict-affected situations’.

Prioritizing conflict sensitivity at the level of the climate funds would help ensure the projects they sponsor consistently integrate conflict and fragility considerations. It could also support the adoption of ‘best practice’ approaches across accredited agencies. In this vein, funds have a significant role to play in promoting conflict-sensitive approaches for the benefit of those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Issues with access

While developing strategies, guidelines and tools on conflict-sensitive programming could help strengthen, and refine, the funds’ approaches in fragile and conflict-affected states, there is a potential downside. A proliferation in the number of requirements may make it more difficult for governments and organizations to obtain funding. And ‘access’ to climate finance is already a major concern.

The High Commissioner of the Republic of Maldives to the United Kingdom hit the nail on the head when speaking at Chatham House last year, where she said that ‘It feels like you need a PhD in climate finance to get hold of any funding’.

Diverging and cumbersome requirements and procedures across different sources of finance is often cited as a major constraint and the multilateral climate funds do their bit to complicate things. Each fund has its own social and environment safeguards, gender policy, project application template, reporting standards and so on. This lack of harmonization places additional burden on already overstretched developing country governments and authorities.

And in countries experiencing conflict and fragility, this problem is likely to be worse.

Cross-fund cooperation

There is an opportunity for climate funds to further strengthen their approaches in fragile and conflict-affected states but it is critical such efforts do not overburden already overstretched governments and implementing partners.

Streamlining efforts across the funds would help mitigate this problem. Indeed, the possibility of launching a cross-fund initiative on fragility and conflict could be considered. Such an initiative could capitalize on ongoing work by the funds to increase coherence across their institutions and could have multiple dimensions.

Firstly, the funds could develop – in close cooperation with their accredited agencies – one toolkit or set of guidelines on conflict-sensitive programming that could be used across all four funds. The resource could consist of two parts: one focused on ensuring projects ‘do no harm’ and one focused on proactively identifying opportunities for making a positive contribution to peace.

Secondly, the initiative could include organizing cross-fund training sessions on conflict-sensitive programming, as has been recommended by the UNDP, in addition to workshops where implementing partners share experiences from operating in fragile and conflict-affected settings.

A cross-fund ‘hub’ of experts on conflict sensitivity could also be established to support accredited agencies, other implementing partners and fund staff. Cooperation and dialogue with peacebuilding actors would be important here.

Thirdly, to help build up a pipeline of projects with dual climate and peacebuilding objectives, funds could use pilot programmes as has been suggested by UNDP. There is scope for the funds to coordinate when designing and launching such programmes and they may also be able to support one another in scaling up promising interventions.

Finally, it would, be important for the funds to review their policies and procedures to ensure they allow for flexible programming. The option of adopting a more proactive approach to accreditation in fragile and conflict-affected states could be considered.

A cross-fund initiative on conflict and fragility would help the climate funds strengthen and refine their approaches in fragile and conflict-affected states. With climate change, fragility and conflict challenges worsening, this task is more urgent than ever.

Anna Åberg, Research Associate, Environment and Society Programme.

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