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'The future of the Earth is in our hands'

In fact, the growing environmental movement challenging the World Bank and IMF in the late 1980s was partially headed off at the pass with the help of GEF’s new conservation money. Billions of additional aid dollars promised for conservation projects eclipsed Southern and radical Northern environmentalists’ claims for global ecological justice, environmental regulation on international trade and full and fair cost-benefit analyses of economic investments to ensure the polluter always pays. Suggesting that governments were, after all, willing to commit to environmental action, GEF’s additional green aid also aspired to bring in new partners and co-ordinate existing international institutions to respect the global environmental commons. Thus the World Bank could turn its critics into consultants - accepting their advice within limits, offering project contracts and promising participation in the catalysis of global capital’s evolution towards sustainability.

A publicly funded experiment, GEF was intended to generate lessons for a mission in which - as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP, created twenty years earlier) had already found to its cost - there are no easy answers. So far little known and less understood, the story of the GEF may shine a light on conservation and colonialism, capitalism and complexity, compromise, co-option and commodification in a rapidly transforming world. It may even suggest things that could be done differently - more fairly and effectively - in future innovations for global environmental security.

¹ Popularly known as the Rio Earth Summit, this event is formally referred to as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Where possible this accountavoids the use of acronyms, but since some do have to be used for the sake of space, a list of acronyms is provided.

² Unless otherwise specified, all $ signs refer to US dollars.