International development is rife with buzzwords. New concepts spring to the fore — many of them refashioned or remarketed versions of old concepts. They flood panel discussions, procurement orders and program design documents — that is, until the next “big thing” emerges to take their place.
Will “landscapes” be that next trendy development fad? Or will it be a framework capable of assembling a broad coalition of actors around a clearer vision on how to invest in sustainable development where past efforts have failed?
Advocates of a “landscapes” approach are looking for ways to integrate historically disparate expert communities, particularly forestry and agriculture. By orienting strategies and programs around the landscape as a whole — rather than around certain individual features such as forests, farms or carbon sinks — practitioners hope they can arrive at some clearer descriptions and indicators for what “sustainable development” looks like at a larger scale.
Armed with those common criteria, advocates say it will be easier to market private investments in projects and funds that advance sustainable development goals — and help bridge the gap between what’s needed to achieve the SDGs and what currently exists to spend on them.
“Investing in landscapes feels like the next big thing for us,” said Bilal Rahill, the World Bank’s director of the environment and natural resources global practice, at the Global Landscapes Forum, which convened sustainable development experts and green financiers inside the storied Royal Society’s London headquarters last week.
The Royal Society has borne witness to some of the most significant breakthroughs of the past four centuries. Stephen Hawking is a current fellow and Sir Isaac Newton a former president.
Few would suggest a “landscapes” approach to sustainable development finance is anything like the scientific achievements debated by the U.K. institution’s fellows. Yet practitioners uniting under the landscapes banner see its potential to break down institutional barriers in ways that create opportunities for real solutions to planetary problems like climate change and deforestation to emerge.
“By bridging these boundaries and opening up the conversation you will also find new solutions that you wouldn’t find in the separate, more isolated situation,” Peter Holmgren, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research, told Devex.
CIFOR, which has convened the first two editions of the Global Landscapes Forum, sees the platform as an opportunity to find common ground that establishes a cohesive community of participants from environment, development and finance backgrounds.
“Is it possible to find generic parameters that are valued across the landscape? … If that is the case, then we might have a much more effective way of both monitoring and measuring, but also of communicating to the wider public that this is the way we want things to move,” he added.
The effort to unite sectors in a search for common indicators stands in stark contrast to the process currently underway to assemble a list of SDGs. The number of goals stands at 17, with 169 associated indicators — the result of patching together a multitude of expert communities’ and countries’ individual priorities into one comprehensive agenda.
For Holmgren, the post-2015 process has been “both useful and necessary,” but cautioned that “we shouldn’t confuse the SDG goals and indicators with something that is practical to implement.”
“We have political alignment on what we mean by sustainable development,” he said. “Now, how can we transform that into something that is practical to use?”
CIFOR is in the process of assembling a new “Landscapes Fund,” which would aggregate a variety of small loans to farm and forestry projects that meet some common land-use improvement criteria and allow private investors to purchase — and, in theory, profit from — bonds that support those projects.
Some forum participants warned against generating too much excitement for investment products that still lacks the rigor and depth of knowledge to ensure money “will chase the right type of projects.” Microfinance, another investment model many mistook for a “silver bullet” in the fight against poverty, offers a helpful cautionary tale, according to Elvira Lefting, managing director at sustainable development finance company Finance and Motion.
“Too much money has chased too few of the projects in too quick a time,” Lefting said of microfinance.
Over the past two decades, she pointed out, a lot of microfinance institutions were “very concerned with growth, but not with deepening. They were very concerned with replication, but not with innovation.”
“The entire value chain … needs to be filled with expertise, with in-depth knowledge of what really is needed so that the right interventions are happening, that the right incentives are being set, that there’s the right alignment, the right pressure,” Lefting added.
The heavy focus on designing the right financial products also risks discounting the political challenges of working within rural communities, where heterogeneous interests compete and complicate notions of what “sustainable” really means.
“Our private sector clients — even our public sector clients — very often find that engagement with communities, with smallholders, is the most difficult part of developing a bankable project,” Rahill said at the forum. “That whole social dimension is incredibly important as we look at expanding investments in landscapes.”
The scale of the financing challenge is massive. Private investment into landscapes will have to increase 35 times over to achieve sustainable development in our lifetimes, according to Mark Burrows, managing director and vice chairman for global investment banking at Credit Suisse.
Achieving that kind of scale up will depend in part on whether environmentalists, global development professionals and finance experts can package sustainable development as a profitable investment. The landscape, they hope, offers that opportunity.
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Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.
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