Funders are working to direct more dollars to the frontlines of climate change

Kwa Falls and the Cross River State rainforest. Photo by: Shiraz Chakera / CC BY-SA

SAN FRANCISCO — Cross River State is home to more than half of Nigeria’s forests, and as commissioner for climate change and forestry, Alice Ekwu’s job is to protect them.

She does so primarily by working with the indigenous peoples who live in the forests to find new sources of livelihoods, such as beekeeping, use new sources of energy, such as solar-powered cookstoves, and engage in new farming practices, such as climate-smart agriculture. She said her goal is to bring their voices to the tables where government policies are made.

Ekwu said she believes that more donors are starting to recognize the value of working with subnational actors as well as indigenous groups, but that the transition is not happening as quickly as it should given the pace of climate change, and the way money gets held up in bureaucratic processes at the national level.

Alice Ekwu, Cross River State, Nigeria. Via YouTube.

At the Global Climate Action Summit, which focused on the role of subnational and nonstate actors in climate action, philanthropists announced a joint commitment of more than $4 billion to combat climate change over the next five years.

Each organization has its own mechanism for directing their funding, managing how it is used, and tracking their results. Between efforts to elevate the voices of communities on the frontlines of climate change, and commitments to support local governments and grassroots organizations, there seemed to be growing recognition among funders that the effective strategies against climate change must include individuals and organizations on the frontlines.

A number of the affiliate events at the Global Climate Action Summit focused on subnational government action, including C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, and the Under2 Coalition, which organized the largest ever gathering on global states and regions on climate last week, and included Ekwu from Cross River State.

“A lot of the solutions are turning out to be local, and part of that is because national governments are less nimble and less effective and more beholden to special interests than metropolitan level or subnational governments,” Howard Frumkin, who heads the “Our Planet, Our Health” initiative at the Wellcome Trust, told Devex.

Funders might initially think that funding something in point A may not affect what happens in point B or C, but Frumkin said networks like C40 and Under2 allow cities, states, and regions to network and share solutions with one another, meaning that a lot of these individual investments can become more scalable.

“A lot of the best solutions are coming from the ‘global south’ — nimble and creative solutions in situations of resource scarcity,” he said.

Q&A: Darren Walker on heeding the wisdom, and funding the work, of local communities

The president of the Ford Foundation spoke with Devex at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco about the challenges and opportunities for funders to support local climate solutions.

Following a pledge by nine foundations to spend $459 million to conserve forests — primarily by protecting the rights of indigenous people to their lands — Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, spoke with Devex about some of the barriers that often prevent big funders from supporting local solutions.

“Ideology stands in the way. Arrogance stands in the way. Tradition and customary policy stand in the way,” he said.

Donors often argue they do not have a mechanism to reach people on the ground, or they are not comfortable giving money to intermediaries, but this kind of thinking leaves many organizations without the resources they need to have the impact they are capable of, Walker said.

The Grassroots Climate Solutions Fund — a partnership between four grantmakers including Global Greengrants Fund, Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, Grassroots International, and Thousand Currents, which houses the fund — is one example of a growing number of efforts to make the case to donors that they should invest directly in the communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“We don’t get to a safe climate future if we just all change lightbulbs. At the end of the day, we need system change.”

— Justin Guay, director clean air, clean energy, the ClimateWorks Foundation

Part of the approach is to have honest conversations about the worldviews donors bring to their funding decisions, said Lindley Mease, coordinator of the fund. The GCSF’s goal is to get donors that might typically support governments, or seek out market-based solutions, or work on international policy, to also consider the value of bottom-up solutions.

While Mease welcomed the $459 million pledge, she still has questions about how the money will be tracked, what mechanisms are in place to ensure indigenous groups have access to the funds, and how to hold foundations accountable.

“It’s interesting that the same small group of funders are being asked and joining these initiatives,” Mease said.

“I’d like to see more inclusive commitments, where the ‘beneficiaries’ are part of shaping the commitment itself,” she added.

Indeed, from the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the challenge remains: Those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change often do not feel like their voices are heard.

It is incumbent on climate change funders to get better at building local power, mobilizing communities, and amplifying public demands for change — and there have been concerted efforts to do that, said Justin Guay of the San Francisco-based ClimateWorks Foundation.

“At the end of the day, the climate and energy transition is systemic. And while there are local solutions and it’s important to have local actors — especially on that political power building level — it’s also really important for all of us to realize that we don’t get to a safe climate future if we just all change lightbulbs. At the end of the day, we need system change,” he said.

Climate funders have often invested from the top down when it comes to building power, and while working with national policymakers will remain critical, more investments need to happen — and are happening — from the bottom up, Guay said.

About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.