13 January 2017

Opinion: Norway's Tanzania REDD+ adventure. Another forestry experiment gone awry

This news is redirected by The Secretariat for Development Cooperation at SCIENCE from Department of Food and Resource Economics.

Associate professor Jens Friis Lund, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen, Mathew Bukhi Mabele, University of Zurich, and Susanne Koch, Technical University of Munich

(Published 25 November 2016 in Development Today)

Norway's climate forest engagement in Tanzania, launched in 2008, not only failed to produce model that work. It ignored promising forestry initiatives that existed at the time, instead re-inventing the development wheel, write Jens Friis Lund, Mathew Bukhi Mabele and Susanne Koch.

Norway’s effort has therefore not only wasted time and resources. It also represents a lost opportunity for forests and people in Tanzania. The reason, we believe, is that Norway fell into a common donor trap, disregarding on-going processes and setting up parallel structures that had to start from scratch.

In 2008, the Norwegian International Climate and Forest Initiative agreed with the government of Tanzania to support a programme for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+) with NOK 500 million (USD 80 million) over a five-year period. This engagement was part of a global effort to support developing countries to reduce their forestry-related carbon emissions – something that was seen as a potentially fast and cost-effective route to climate change mitigation.

Obvious candidate

In Tanzania, the Norwegian financing was spent on establishing new institutions, formulating a national REDD+ strategy and action plan, and funding research, mostly from Tanzania and Norway. It also supported conservation organisations to carry out nine REDD+ pilot projects across the country.

Tanzania was an obvious candidate for Norwegian REDD+ funding. The country features a large forest area with a high deforestation rate, it is politically stable, and has been the largest recipient of Norwegian development aid over the period 1960-2015. Moreover, Norway had a long history of cooperation in the Tanzanian forestry sector. The pledge of NOK 500 million made Norway by far the largest funder of REDD+ in Tanzania.

Norway’s REDD+ scheme did not start with a blank slate. At the time, Tanzania was pursuing a strategy of decentralisation under the heading of “Participatory Forest Management.” The adoption of this approach had been strongly pushed by the aid community since the late 1980s. Through the 1990s, donors spent approximately USD 60 million on pilot projects and a comprehensive reform of policy and legislation. Interestingly, this figure is roughly the same as the total Norwegian REDD+ pledge when converted to a 2008 USD value.

Research indicates that Participatory Forest Management showed promise. It appeared to foster sustainable forest management in the few places where it was fully implemented on village lands. One of the main constraints to rolling out this model of forestry on a larger scale was deficient funding.

New policy model

When REDD+ arrived on the scene – as a concept subsuming forest protection under the climate change narrative - it might have seemed an obvious choice to use these new resources to scale up the implementation of the existing forestry policy, combined with the added focus on carbon monitoring.

This did not happen. On the contrary, REDD+ was discursively set apart from Participatory Forest Management and was presented as a completely new and separate policy model. As such, Tanzania repeated all the steps that the Participatory Forest Management process had already trodden: once again conservation and development professionals at aid organisations, embassies, NGOs, research institutions, consultancy firms and ministries engaged in consultation processes; they drafted new policies and implementation guidelines; they conceptualised safeguard mechanisms; and, last but not least, they again initiated pilot projects across the country.

If Norwegian REDD+ funds had been spent (even partially) on rolling out the existing Participatory Forest Management policy, resources would have gone through the government of Tanzania to district-level offices. While there is of course no guarantee that large-scale implementation and forest conservation would have been achieved, such funding would have comprised a major boost to the existing effort. Instead, the money ended up benefiting mainly the same conservation and development professionals that had been pushing PFM before. And they ended up using a large part of the new funds to cover their own overhead. Expenditure details from a few of the Norwegian-funded REDD+ pilot projects illustrate this: The African Wildlife Foundation spent one-third of its USD 2.1 million project budget on personnel, staffing, and administration. CARE also spent one-third of its USD 5.5 million budget on staffing and benefits, procurement of materials and equipment, and travelling. The Jane Goodall Institute used over half of its USD 2.8 million budget on staffing and administration costs.

End of the honeymoon

While the nine pilot projects had some successes, none of them managed to sell carbon. Thus, even in the favourable context of well-funded small-scale pilots, it proved challenging to put the central incentive mechanism of REDD+ into practice.

At the same time, with the Tanzanian forestry bureaucracy occupied with facilitating the Norwegian REDD+ process, little if any progress was made on the national-level effort to drive forth the implementation of Participatory Forest Management. The legislation was ready, and implementation routines and capacity were in place. But no new funding was being made available.

Today, the honeymoon days with REDD+ in Tanzania have been replaced by a sense of disappointment and skepticism. This was expressed by participants at a workshop last August where the final REDD+ evaluation reports were presented. Many people pointed to the need for more resources to scale up the lessons learned from the readiness activities and pilot projects. Such funding does not appear to be forthcoming. While most of the NOK 500 million has been disbursed, Norway has not made new financial commitments for REDD+ in Tanzania and no one else has stepped in to fill the void. Thus, the current state of affairs with regard to REDD+ in Tanzania resembles that of Participatory Forest Management a decade earlier when REDD+ arrived in the country.

Back then, REDD+ was pitched as a new and promising policy model that justified the release of massive amounts of donor funding to build technical, legal, and institutional capacity at multiple levels. This optimistic representation of REDD+ follows the logic of the development and conservation industry, which continuously reproduces and feeds off the testing of new policy models or development fads. According to this logic, international expert cadres and local elites continue to gain access to development funding. This logic perpetuates a cycle of ever-changing policies that never take effect. Even worse, it creates disappointment and resentment among the rural communities who are promised benefits. They rarely ever gain from these ephemeral fads that neither improve their livelihoods nor change anything on the ground.

Development fads

To date, the enthusiasm with the REDD+ fad has faded. The pilot projects have come to an end and there are no funds to turn whatever experiences and learning they generated into a national-level REDD+ effort. Predictably, and depressingly, donors are now turning their attention to the next forestry-related development fad: private plantations and carbon forestry.

The problem of development fads is not confined to REDD+, Tanzania or Norwegian aid. Rather, it appears an increasingly entrenched tendency in the context of the neoliberal ideals that reign in the development marketplace. Donors, NGOs, research institutes and other actors must constantly market change and sell successes to remain relevant. Their legitimacy is based on continued identification of new solutions to recurrent, unresolved ‘development’ problems. The pace of policy change induced by this practice is, in many ways, detrimental for the places and people that ultimately serve as fields of experimentation.

REDD+ in Tanzania exemplifies this dynamic. And while the intensive and widely shared enthusiasm about the REDD+ experiment in Tanzania has evaporated, the thorny problem of climate mitigation which REDD+ was supposed to address remains. Norway’s many millions have not done much to address that problem. Rather, as Chris Lang put it more than two years ago in these pages, Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative looks increasingly like a distraction from the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.