GCF: Don’t Gag Civil Society. Public Participation is not a Check-the-Box Exercise.

The last meeting of the Board of the Green Climate Fund was markedly less transparent and raised yet more barriers to civil society participation. As the Board prepares to meet in Cairo for its 18th Board Meeting (B.18) tomorrow, Board members should reevaluate their actions toward their civil society colleagues and recommit to upholding public participation as a fundamental right.

On paper, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) allows for more inclusive public participation than some other financing institutions, as paragraph 16 of its Governing Instrument authorizes the Board “to allow for effective participation by accredited observers in its meetings.” But what’s on paper has not always been what happens in practice. For civil society to effectively participate, Board Meetings must be transparent and allow civil society’s elected representatives, or “active civil society observers,” to participate at even the most basic level: by speaking at meetings. Unfortunately, at the most recent Board Meeting in July (B.17), the Board seems to have forgotten this mandate.

Civil society observers play an important role in helping the GCF fulfill its mandate of promoting a “paradigm shift towards low-emission and climate-resilient development” in the context of sustainable development. As the largest climate fund, the GCF assists developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. When civil society members actively participate and Board members respect their contributions, their engagement helps ensure that the GCF backs only the strongest projects that make a positive impact on both local communities and the planet. It also helps the Board manage the GCF’s reputational risk.

But the Board seems intent on hindering civil society’s ability to participate at B.18 in Egypt and beyond. During B.17, a proposed Policy on Ethics and Conflict of Interest for active observers of the GCF was introduced at the last minute. While it is important for civil society to be held to ethical standards, this policy goes far beyond what is necessary, exceeding the standards that civil society is held to by other entities, like the Climate Investment Funds.

Most insidiously, this policy is effectively a gag order. Paragraph 8 of the policy says that the active observers cannot act in a way — in or out of meetings — that would “undermine public confidence and trust in the Fund’s governance.” The role and duty of active observers to the GCF is not the same as Board Members or others who work for the Fund. Therefore, the conflict of interest policies should not be the same either — though much of it seems to be copy-and-pasted. This overbroad statement could, in fact, hinder active observers’ ability to do what they are selected to do: represent their constituencies, monitor the GCF, and provide critical feedback to ensure that the GCF is living up to its Governing Instrument and serving communities.

The role of civil society is not to rubber-stamp projects and sing the GCF’s praises. Likewise, it is not enough for the GCF to simply “check the box” by having active observers in the room. True public participation requires meaningful engagement, which is only possible when the Board provides documents and drafts with reasonable time to allow civil society to provide feedback that is sometimes — though not always — critical of the GCF’s proposed projects, accredited entities, and policies. In fact, civil society organizations (CSOs) help the GCF’s reputation by ensuring that it doesn’t fund projects that harm the environment and people’s rights and that it doesn’t accredit entities that have dubious track records of human rights abuses and environmental violations. These concerns stand in stark contrast to the reputational risks the GCF is currently running through its recent behavior: engaging in risky projects, partnering with entities that have poor track records, and treating civil society with disrespect.

The proposed ethics policy is a continuation of a trend of decreased transparency and civil society participation in the GCF, a concern expressed in a letter from over 70 CSOs after the last Board Meeting. Unfortunately, with its recent policies and practices, the GCF seems to be taking a page from development finance institutions like the World Bank, which doesn’t allow any CSO participation or transparency on the Board. Instead of discussing and making decisions in an open and transparent manner, the Board held two “formal” days and two “informal” days of meetings. Contrary to international best practice on transparency, the Board discussed crucial policies in closed-door “informal” meetings, without webcasting or participation of broader civil society.

In the open “formal” days, participation didn’t improve much. During the “discussion” of accreditation of entities, which was extremely abbreviated, the active CSO observer wasn’t allowed to speak until AFTER the Board decision, despite having asked for the floor. Not only is this contrary to the GCF Governing Instrument, it is contrary to international law and the right to public participation in decision-making before decisions are made. To make matters worse, before being allowed to speak, the active CSO observer was told what she could and could not say with regard to naming entities up for accreditation — despite the fact that this is publicly available information.

Just as Board members are allowed to speak freely, civil society should not be censored in what they can and cannot say in their interventions. CSOs have considerable expertise and experience. They provide information from local communities and NGOs that cannot always attend or engage with the GCF and vital inputs to which neither the Board nor the GCF may have access. Because GCF projects impact local people, the Board should not censor information about how projects may harm people, but instead welcome CSO interventions that help the GCF better understand the risks and opportunities.

Civil society provides a valuable and critical voice. If the GCF intends to be a leader, it must be more transparent and allow for inclusive public participation. What happened at B.17, including censoring public participation, closing CSOs out of meetings, and preventing participation prior to decision-making, is unacceptable. At B.18, the GCF needs to reaffirm its commitment to transparency and public participation. It can and must do better.

By Erika Lennon, Senior Attorney

Originally posted September 29, 2017