Can environmental assessment reduce poverty?

In 2002 Ghana published a Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), as a framework for national economic policy and all development assistance to Ghana. But little attention was paid to the environmental impact of policies, such as improving transport, intensifying farming and developing the private sector. This may ultimately harm or even stop economic growth. Moreover the strategy did not explore the potential contribution of natural resources to the economy. The government therefore decided to carry out a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to adjust the strategy as required. The SEA was applied at national and district level, with options that favour both the poor and the environment. They may be used to update the strategy and enhance the sustainability of more than 100 district development plans.
By Ineke Istenhauer, Netherlands Commission for Environmental Impact Assessment

The prime aim of the SEA was to bring parties together and build up mutual understanding on poverty reduction and the environment, a process that started with the make-up of the SEA team itself, combining environmental and economic planning expertise.

The team doing the assessment had six members: three from the Environmental Protection Agency and three from the National Development Planning Commission. They enjoyed the support of a local and an international consultant and the advisory services of the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Impact Assessment. A steering committee provided regular inputs. The team did all the actual groundwork, to ensure the process and results were completely “Ghana-owned”. Hiring a foreign consultant would have been easier, but far less effective in terms of scope for training-on-the-job and commitment to using the outcomes.

The relevant ministries came onboard right from the start, with the organisation of a national workshop. It set out to explain how an SEA enables the environment to be integrated in framing policy and planning. The findings of a preliminary pilot assessment showed how a more detailed assessment could provide an opportunity for all sectors to pool their energies and discuss common issues – especially those that give rise to conflict or can mutually reinforce each other to achieve sustainable poverty reduction. A number of conflicting policies were identified. For example the Ministry of Food and Agriculture’s policy of rehabilitating existing irrigation facilities conflicted with the Ministry of Health’s malaria control policy. Similarly the Ministry of Lands and Forestry’s establishment of plantations and the Ministry of Works and Housing policy of acquisition of land for housing may compound land availability problems.

The workshop produced a consensus on the key recommendation that the SEA should proceed, involving district assemblies, due to their responsibility for framing District Development Plans, the main way of implementing the PRS. Ultimately all 27 ministries and 108 out of 110 districts participated.

At national level ministry staff, supported by the expert team, reviewed all policies, plans and programmes in the strategy. Each review sought to modify and improve policies to make them facilitate, rather than hinder, environmental objectives. In the meantime guidelines, manuals and training material were produced on how to apply the SEA to all ministry staff.

On the basis of this exercise the expert team suggested measures to refine policies in line with environmental risks. The assessment clearly demonstrated the link between over-exploitation of natural resources including soil, water and forest cover and environmental hazards such as bushfires and drought, and the resulting hardship faced by subsistence farmers. The team consequently recommended developing specific programmes and policy measures to help subsistence farmers improve soil quality and reduce exposure to hazards. It also suggested alternatives to the most hazardous policies, with greater potential for assisting the poor and protecting the environment. The relevant ministries discussed these options, leading to practical recommendations endorsed by the expert team. For example the overall objectives of the medium- term macro-economic framework should include increased government expenditure on natural resource conservation, sustainable development initiatives and enhancement of degraded environment to support agricultural production. Small-scale business development proposals that should provide incentives for community-based initiatives to manage natural resources, such as agro-forestry, wetland conservation and eco-tourism.

At district level, District Development Plans were reviewed and improved. District staff assessed the plans directly, after prior training on assessing the sustainability of programmes and budgets.

The SEA has resulted in broad awareness and recognition of the importance of integrating environmental issues in plans and policies at national and district level. It even convinced ministries which once thought the environment did not concern them. It also led to clear recommendations for a more sustainable PRS for 2006-8. The expert team is currently fully involved in framing the new strategy as members of “cross-sectoral planning groups”. There is good reason to hope results will play a key role in the new PRS.

At district level the SEA led to a better grasp of how district plans can be made more sustainable and some districts have adjusted plans and budgets to incorporate environmental activities.

The manuals, guidelines, reports, checklists and training material produced in the course of the assessment have helped to raise environmental awareness. This is a prerequisite for real changes in activities on the ground and the relevant ministry and district budgets, ultimately decisive for poverty and the environment.

Non-governmental organisations have played an active role and the public sector is starting to take the environment seriously.

It is too early to say whether the SEA has really contributed to reducing poverty in Ghana, but there are signs of some promising spin-offs. Some ministries have used SEA methods for internal planning purposes. The environment has thus been integrated in planning. But the SEA has also made for more transparent and participative planning, thanks to dialogue with other ministries. Some ministries have included new budget lines for environmental activities, or strengthened or upgraded in-house environmental units. Having their own budgets and units, rather than relying on the Ministry of Environment, will show how the environment can contribute to poverty reduction.

There is clearly room for further improvement. For example, most of the assessments were based on qualitative expert judgement. Additional justification and supporting evidence would probably have made the conclusions more objective and convincing as a basis for decisionmaking. The same is true of the cost of implementing recommendations, which the SEA overlooked.

District and sector pilot assessments will be undertaken in a follow-up phase. They will be an opportunity to develop more concrete policies in favour of the poor and the environment and to gain a clearer idea of the budgetary consequences of recommendations. Pilot studies will also be used for capacity building, through learning by doing.

Another priority is to develop and implement a system to monitor SEA impacts. This is important to determine whether the new PRS performs better than the existing strategy. It could also check whether programmes, projects and district development plans, resulting from the strategy, pay more attention to the environment than current plans. This will ultimately lead to tangible improvements in the conditions vital to successful poverty reduction.

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