Foreign Aid or Photo Op?

| May-June 2009

Since the early 1970s, Western leaders have pledged billions in environmental aid to developing countries. Addressing eager reporters and blinking cameras, they have repeatedly affirmed financial support for major water, sanitation, and biodiversity projects. However, a large-scale analysis conducted by Environment (Jan.-Feb. 2009) reveals that “little systematic research exists on whether donors have honored their commitments,” and that there is, in fact, no “generally accepted definition” of what an environmental project even entails. 

The magazine reviewed plans and declarations from three decades’ worth of international conferences and summits, all committing and recommitting to environmental protection in the developing world. Researchers found that “green” aid flows mysteriously—why did Turkey receive more than $2 billion between 1995 and 1999?—and ignores some projects altogether. For instance, the vital but unglamorous fight against desertification, despite pledges of $18 billion made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, has since been “almost entirely neglected.”