$400m climate cash mired in donor politics, short-termism

People at the scene of a landslide, which buried a home in Bumasugu Village, Buluganya Sub-county in Bulambuli District in May 2023. PHOTO/FRED WAMBEDE

What you need to know:

  • Climate change and environmental issues are now among the top five global risks in terms of both impact and likelihood.
  • In 2015, the Ministry of Water and Environment put the economic toll on key sectors such as agriculture, infrastructure and energy at between 2 and 4 percent of total GDP between 2010 and 20250, and the cost of inaction in the range of $273b - $437b.
  • Over the last decade, Uganda has received over $400m for climate action interventions. But as Gillian Nantume explores, questions linger about where the money is going.

On a typical day in the dry season, the sunrise transforms the verdant Bududa hills into idyllic breathtaking scenery. The full tourism potential that these stand-alone hills and v-shaped valleys, which form part of Mt Elgon in the Bugisu Sub-region, offer is yet to be explored.

Agriculture forms the basis of livelihood for the impoverished communities living in these hills, with majority of the small-scale holder farmers growing food crops, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos).

Often unpredictable torrential rains, accompanied by gusty winds, are the underbelly of this area at the border with Kenya, many times triggering landslides and mudslides that leave a trail of death and destruction.  There have been several episodes of landslides and mudslides recorded over the years.

Seventy-five-year-old Kalist Kibalazi has spent his entire life on these hills in Bunamulembwa village in Bumwalukani Parish, Bulucheke Sub-county in Bududa District. He had seen it all over the years: heavy downpours, thundering sludge, but nothing like what happened in a neighbouring village in March 2010,  when a huge landslide powered downhill by violent storm water buried 350 people in the country’s worst natural calamity.

The incident awakened residents, the government, donors, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to the climate-induced risks that linger in the landslide-prone region, and paved the way for a catalogue of interventions to boost resilience and adaptation.

Kibalazi vividly recalls the flurry of activities around his village as a coterie of officials — from the district, central government and NGOs — flooded the area for sensitisation meetings.

“They were telling us what to do; what trees to plant, and when to plant,” he told Daily Monitor during a recent visit to the area. The officials, Kibalaza recalled, underlined the importance of afforestation and reforestation to hold the soils compact to prevent or reduce the frequency of soils washing away. Since they were facilitated to travel, Kibalaza recalls attending several town hall sensitisation meetings, although he does not remember the names of officials who participated.

Subsequently, they were given varieties of saplings, particularly eucalyptus, for planting, and the officials kept revisiting the area to monitor progress. After a while, they stopped coming, and everything went quiet.

Neither Kibalaza nor other residents we talked to know the tree-planting project as the Territorial Approach to Climate Change (TACC). All they recall is being told to plant trees.

Bunamulembwa was among the villages chosen for the implementation of the TACC, one of the pilot programmes of the National Adaptation Programmes of Action [NAPA] projects financed through several donor agencies, with government offering counterpart funding.

Uganda developed its first NAPAs, a key resolution of the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP7) held in Marrakesh, Morocco, from October 29-November 10, 2001 to enhance responses and communication on climate adaptation needs owing to population growth and related challenges. The projects were submitted to the Least Developed Country Fund (LDCF) in the same year, and the country started accessing climate funds in 2012. Other NAPA projects were piloted in the districts of Pallisa, Bundibugyo, and Nakasongola.

The TACC project cost roughly $1.6m Shs6b:  pooled:  $300,000 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); $450,000 by the Department for International Development (DFID); and $250,000 by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA).

Smaller amounts were also contributed - $100,000 co-pooled by UNDP and Global Environment Facility (GEF); $225,000 from the Waterloo Foundation; and $330,000 from the Welsh Assembly Government.

The hard trail
According to UNDP, the lead agency, TAC was designed to assist the districts of Mbale, Manafwa and Bududa, to realise low carbon and to fully integrate climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies into their regional development planning, policy development and investment planning.

The districts are major producers of bananas and Arabica coffee, hence the need to cushion them from climate-induced shocks.

In Bududa, which the Uganda Bureau of Statistics says has a population of 210,173, TACC was implemented in four sub-counties; Bulucheke, Bushika, Bubita and Bukalasi.

Fourteen years later, except for a nursery bed, there is hardly a trace of the TACC project on the ground.

“We know trees are useful, but we cut them down because where else would we get firewood?” Kibalaza told this newspaper, adding: “Even then, most of the trees withered early due to missteps in planting. We told them (officials) that it is better to plant in April, but they insisted on us starting right away, in October, when the rains were very bad.”

Simon Matayo, a resident of Bunamulembwa, explained that their views were not considerably taken into account.

“They (officials) brought tree seedlings and, for a few days, monitored us as we planted them. And then, the officials disappeared. We did not know what to do next. Were we supposed to keep the trees? And for how long? What was the intention of the project? Of course, we get worried when the rainy season begins, fearing for landslides, but in the dry season, we are OK,” Matayo narrated.

Several residents echoed similar concerns of not having “fully understood” the purpose of the project. Some, despite being taken through several trainings were mistrustful of the intentions of project interpreted as meant to “grab their land.”  Others claimed they were given tree saplings of bad quality, which withered fast.  

A Bududa District official said the project added a component of biogas harvesting with the aim of making the communities less reliant on firewood.   The residents, however, refuted this, with many claiming firewood is their only source of energy.

Residents retrieve a car wreckage from River Nabuyoga on August 1 after it burst its banks on the night of July 30, 2023 in Mbale City. PHOTO | MICHEAL WONIALA

Mr Charles Wekube, the Mbale District environment officer, who acknowledged participating in some of the inception meetings for the TACC project at the local government level, said part of the problem “was the little buy-in from the community.” By contrast, the TACC was fairly successful in Mbale, triggering several offshoot projects that are still running today.

“I cannot speak for another area, but what I can say is, as Mbale, we made a deliberate effort to work around those challenges. One can say we borrowed lessons from elsewhere to here,” Mr Wekube added.

A January 2014 evaluation study of TACC by a joint government and UNDP team concluded that although the project was successful in achieving its targets, there were a few practical problems, such as weak field monitoring and failure to establish formal links with the ongoing environment and natural resources sector programmes to ensure continuity.

Ten years after this study, the reality on the ground is different. During the two days we spent in Bunamulembwa and neighbouring villages, tree cutting was the norm, which residents justified for, among others, firewood and making makeshift bridges to move across streams, which responsibility they said was long ignored by the district local government.

According to the disaster risk profile of the National Emergency Coordination and Operations Centre (NECOC), under the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), large swathes of the Mt Elgon area are unsuitable for human settlement due to susceptibility to climate disasters.  In Bududa, despite repeated warnings by the government, residents continue to reside in the hills.

The green cash prize
The Commissioner for Climate Change in the Ministry of Water and Environment, Ms Margaret Athieno Mwebesa, admitted that there were major challenges encountered in the implementation of TACC, it being among the first “significant climate-related projects.”

“During the NAPAs, most of our projects were not well integrated. We didn’t employ the landscape approach; for instance, if you have an environment project on forests, it is not only about trees; it is about the ecosystem, the wetlands, water, animals, soils, and the communities around. In the community, there are issues of livelihood; water, food, firewood, etc., which the NAPAs did not look at well, and this is the reason why the projects did not do well,” she acknowledged.

The silver lining, Ms Mwebesa revealed, is that several lessons learnt during the implementation of NAPAs have been integrated into all projects that followed.

“We are guided within a large framework of how projects should be structured and designed. So far, Uganda has received almost $276.6m, and that is not small money. We got this money because we met the criteria; the money is coming from the likes of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), Green Climate Fund (GCF), and Least Developed Country Fund (LDCF). So, we have done well, in my view.”

Where the money comes from and where it is going remains a subject of discourse at various levels, from international financing debates to academia. In Uganda, Ms Mwebesa says the largest portion of the money, which trickles in as off-budget and on-budget expenditures, respectively, has gone to interventions in the water sector.

A boy uses a makeshift raft to save his property from floods that submerged several villages after River Semliki burst its banks in Bweramule Sub-county, Ntoroko District, in May 2023. Uganda has since 2019 witnessed an increasing number of environmental disasters. PHOTO/ALEX ASHABA  

Mr Anthony Wolimbwa, the National Coordinator for the Climate Action Network Uganda, which works on climate action, maintains that the $276.6m is “merely estimates.”

“We commissioned studies way back in 2011/2012 and 2016. Our interest was to see how much funds were coming in and where they were going and what some of the challenges were and which models existed at the time. Using Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) data, we noted that a lot of money was coming in generally,”  he said.

“Between 2011 and 2023, the country received $273m, and over 50 per cent was utilised in the water sector – production, watershed management and stuff like that. This money has kept increasing. As of last year, it was estimated at around $400m and, this year, it is likely to drop to about $300m, for both on-budget and off-budget support,” Mr Wolimbwa added.

The major problem, which also remains the subject of fiery debate, Mr Wolimbwa says, is the projectisation (the traditional donor model) of climate financing “meaning it has a specific period, usually three to five years, and a very small percentage goes to eight years.”

“One to three years is a very short time within which to create the desired impacts for projects like these. When donor financing stops, everything goes back to how it was before the funding came,” Mr Wolimbwa said, adding: “The other major problem is that a huge percentage of the funds is spent on transactional costs. So, for every $10, you will find $3-4 dollars go to the ground, and the rest goes into transactional costs, either administration costs or other mandatory costs. Then, there is money that remains for capacity building, or technical assistance as they call it; there is a lot of capacity required.

That is why, despite the huge sums of money coming in, there is little reflected on the ground.”

He who pays the piper...
Uganda is party to the global climate change response mechanisms through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — the main international agreement on climate change — reached in 1992.

Children on the verandah of their flooded home in Doho Village, Mazimasa Sub-county in Butaleja District in April, 2024. PHOTO/YAHUDU KITUNZI 

The 194 countries signatory to the UNFCCC agreed in 2001 to establish the Least Developed Country Fund (LDCF) to mobilise climate funds to support developing countries’ efforts to cope with climate change effects.

The LDCF is overseen by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Trust Fund, which was established in 1992; now in its ninth cycle, which ran from 2022 until 2026 with $5.33b (Shs20 trillion) available for countries to undertake projects to mitigate the effects of climate change.

There is, however, no proper record of how much Uganda has raked in in climate change financing since the money is funnelled or sometimes pooled from the different development agencies. A 2015 study titled “The Adaptation Finance Accountability Initiative” by Oxfam and Climate Action Network Uganda underlined to this effect that “in Uganda little is known about financing climate change adaptation activities, as well as its effectiveness in delivery”. 

This, Mr Wolimbwa says, comes against a backdrop of “a more fundamental issue,” such as how much is coming in; where is it coming from; and where is it going.

“Environmental work requires long-term periods; to see an impact you need five to ten years. If you are working on a tree-planting project, a lot of tree planting has been done in communities, but two years, three years later, as soon as you leave, the communities walk away. That is a chronic problem with donor financing, and yet climate change issues require presence in the mid to long-term. The short-termism/projectisation is what is causing problems not because the money was not there but because of the fundamental design issues by the donors,” he said.

He adds, “The other challenge is money coming in from private sources, foundations, who merely donate. Short term financing is problematic and you search for the money and what it has done and never find it, even if it has been spent.”

One expert who requested anonymity to speak freely because they consult with several agencies on climate change mitigation projects, acknowledged that while development partners are pouring a lot of money into climate change mitigation projects, most of it is spent on mundane aspects such as, flying in experts, conferences in hotels, writing reports on a host of related issues, which weighs down the intended purpose of the projects.

“The money is very time specific; to run from point A to B, and yet some of the interventions require time, especially to get the buy-in of the host communities,”  the expert revealed, adding: “That explains why for every project that closes there is hardly anything to show for it on the ground.”

There are also no engagements with the cash-strapped district local governments to take over the projects once donor funding ends. And it also appears that while the input of the local governments is routinely sought by the back-to-back studies of the few projects sampled, they are essentially not a priority for the government to continue funding.

Ms Mwebesa, however, says “the good news is that the government of Uganda is now an implementing agency, and we have direct access to many of the climate funds, and henceforth we shall be able to come up with bankable projects and be able to put in place robust monitoring and tracking mechanisms.”

Climate finance dilemma: Uganda’s $400m green cash mired in donor politics

A 2020 study titled “Climate Finance Mobilisation In Uganda” by Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), underscored the government’s need to scale up its own capitalisation of the national climate financing mechanism through among others, contribution directly through the budget or, as subvention from the budget to the dedicated climate fund within the budget, something Kenya is doing, and continuing to compete through proposal development and submission to global funds like GEF and GCF, among others.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.