Environmental Programmes in Latin America and the Caribbean:

An Assessment of UNDP Experience


Hugo Navajas

María Teresa Szauer

Francisco Szekely (Team Leader)

December 1996

OESP Series on Lessons Learned
Editorial Board: Sharon Capeling-Alakija, Abdenour Benbouali, Barbara Brewka and Djibril Diallo
© OESP, 1997
Office of Evaluation and Strategic Planning
United Nations Development Programme
One United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017



Executive Summary

I. Why Conduct an Environmental Evaluation?
II. Latin America and the Caribbean: A Paradox of Abundance and Poverty
III. Environmental Agenda of UNDP
IV. Factors Contributing to Project Success
V. Preserving Natural Wealth: Living from the Interest or the Capital?
VI. Pollution Reduction and Prevention
VII. Institutional Strengthening and Capacity-building
VIII. Recommendations


Projects Evaluated
Abbreviations and Acronyms



The Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean (RBLAC) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) financed and supported approximately 3,000 projects from 1988 to 1996. Of these, 200 are concerned specifically with environmental aspects of development or focus primarily on the environment. The present OESP macro-evaluation of 22 projects is the first that focuses on the environmental programmes and projects in the region.

Purpose of the Evaluation

According to the terms of reference, the evaluation was to provide an initial view of the environmental projects as well as guidelines for the examination of specific priority issues in even greater depth and detail at some point in the future.

Its broad objectives were: (a) to assess the extent to which UNDP cooperation has contributed to the achievement of concrete results at the country level in the environmental sector and (b) to identify specific lessons that can be applied in orienting future UNDP investment in this priority area of sustainable human development (SHD).

More specifically, the evaluation was to examine:

Lessons were to be drawn and recommendations were to be made for improving UNDP capacity to provide strategic support to the environment in the region, including consideration of priorities and critical issues in subsectors, geographic concentration, strengthening of management and beneficiary participation.

Scope and Methodology

Twenty-two projects were chosen for analysis according to five main parameters: geographical distribution, type of ecosystem in the project area, environmental priorities of the region as identified by Governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), project performance and the age of the project. In view of the average duration of the type of project to be evaluated, the evaluation spanned the period from 1988 to 1996. The field visits were carried out during the summer of 1996.

The projects in the evaluation sample are located in seven countries that represent a wide diversity of natural ecosystems, ecozones and geopolitical features: Argentina (temperate pasture or pampas), Belize and Cuba (coastal ecosystem), Brazil (tropical forest and tropical pasture), Bolivia (Andean ecosystem), Costa Rica (tropical rain-forest), Cuba (island ecosystem) and Guyana (humid tropical ecozone). The selection was the result of several consultations with staff from various UNDP offices, e.g., RBLAC, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Sustainable Energy and Environment Division (SEED) of the Bureau for Policy and Programme Support (BPPS).

The sample included projects in three environmental priority areas: natural resource management, biodiversity and pollution control. Issues such as capacity-building, institutional strengthening, environmental education and the role of women in environmental sustainability were considered in the analysis of the three broad environmental areas.

The criterion of project performance was addressed by evaluating projects that represent all types of implementation experience, including those that have been successful, controversial, interrupted or abandoned. The status of projects varied from those that were completed three years ago to others that are in an advanced phase of execution.

The Office of Evaluation and Strategic Planning (OESP) selected three consultants from the LAC region to undertake the evaluation. Their collective experience included a working knowledge in the fields of environmental management, sociology, engineering, economics and international business. In addition to their professional training, the consultants had extensive field experience in the region in environment and development issues and were familiar with the procedures and development approach of UNDP.

The evaluation team developed the following methodology for its analysis of the projects: (a) gather all available information about a project (project document, interim evaluation reports, publications, news clippings); (b) identify all of the actors relating to that project (including UNDP international and national staff, government counterparts, relevant NGOs, potential beneficiaries of the project, and other people who might otherwise be affected by its implementation; and (c) carry out field visits to observe the project area and interview, individually and collectively, all of the strategic actors to obtain their views on project performance and the impact of the project on the environment.

The evaluators developed guidelines for evaluating the impact of the projects on the environmental priorities of the region. The guidelines, which included numerous questions, consisted of two main sections. The first part focused on how various aspects of the project cycle (including project identification, definition, design, implementation management, participation and coordination among stakeholders, project monitoring and follow-up, ownership, and sustainability) contributed to the achievement of the environmental goals. Part two was directed towards assessing the impact of project activities on the environmental priorities of the LAC region, and particularly the positive environmental gains that have been made.

General Findings

From their assessment of the 22 projects, the evaluators found the following:

Project Design


Project Ownership


Conflict Resolution

Resource Mobilization


The impact that UNDP projects have had on improving the environmental conditions in Latin America and the Caribbean is directly linked to the performance of the project during the different phases of the project cycle. In other words, the way in which a project has been selected, designed, implemented and monitored affects the potential of that project to improve those conditions.

Conclusion: UNDP has played an important role in project identification. However, environmental projects have been identified according to the availability of funds and/or government interest and not on the basis of an explicit UNDP environmental strategy for the region.

The design phase of a project is a key factor that determines its potential success in improving the environment. For example, when projects are designed by external consultants who are detached from the national context, stakeholders or other strategic actors may not take possession of projects in a timely manner, thus weakening national ownership and sustainability.

Conclusion: Using local consultants contributes significantly to successful project design.

One of the limitations to project efficiency and effectiveness noted by the evaluation team is illustrated by the Low-cost Bamboo Housing Project. When the project was initiated, little research was carried out within UNDP on similar projects that could contribute to a better design of this rather innovative programme. A lack of systematization of data on projects and experience was detected in the country office and in RBLAC. Therefore, projects are unable to profit from the knowledge and past experience of UNDP. In spite of the successful demonstration of bamboo technologies, the project has also made little advancement in transferring its expertise in bamboo cultivation to rural communities. When consulted on this issue, project staff seemed somewhat vague and non-committal.

Conclusion: There is no user-friendly central database from which UNDP staff can retrieve information about UNDP experience on a particular topic.

Additional factors were identified as critical in determining project success.

UNDP image

Regardless of the execution modality or quality of support, all national and NGO counterparts recognized that one of the main comparative advantages of UNDP was its image, including the degree of security and respectability the organization provided to the project and the project personnel. For government institutions, UNDP sponsorship offers autonomy and a degree of protection from the political and financial pressures that are often brought to bear upon public sectors in developing countries; project resources are less likely to be diverted for other uses or mismanaged than when funds are allocated and managed internally.

Although complaints about UNDP bureaucracy are common (particularly when agency execution is involved), it is often considered the lesser of two evils when compared to government administrative procedures that can take months to effect basic purchasing and disbursement operations.

Project Ownership: Participation of All Stakeholders

A total of 16 out of 22 projects (70 per cent) have mechanisms for the participation of counterparts and-to a lesser extent-beneficiaries in managing project implementation. The most common mechanism is the steering committee, which advises, assesses, assists with coordination and sometimes exercises approval authority over project work plans, revisions, recruitment and so forth.

The success of the project Patagonian Coastal Zone Management Plan lies in having been able to bring together all of the different stakeholders in the Patagonia coastal area and to coordinate all the diverse activities that the stakeholders were carrying out in favour of the environment. In the short term, this produced concrete outputs and positive outcomes in a rather large area. The creation of awareness and real participation on the part of the public and local government commitment concerning the protection of biodiversity, pollution control, ecological tourism and the need to formulate an integrated plan for the management of the area's natural resources figures among the project's most important achievements.

Conclusion: Participation of stakeholders in a project is a key factor for success.

Regular, Proactive Monitoring and Evaluation Practices

In theory, the monitoring and evaluation of projects are regular practices in UNDP. Project documents always make reference to tripartite reviews and other regular assessments that must be carried out during the life of the project. However, it was found that in the best of cases, the projects in the sample were sporadically monitored from the point of view of project implementation but not from the perspective of their impact on the environment. A total of 59 per cent of the projects evaluated did not have any mechanism for environmental monitoring or any indicators of environmental impact. In addition, the evaluators found that the monitoring role of UNDP was reactive instead of proactive.

A project succeeds in improving a specific environmental condition when project design takes into consideration existing environmental baseline data, when realistic targets for improving a specific environmental situation are set, and when the necessary scientific, managerial and financial means to achieve the proposed targets are provided.

Conclusion: Baseline data must be developed on the environmental condition or problem that a project will attempt to improve or solve.

Conclusion: UNDP projects must include mechanisms for the monitoring and evaluation of environmental progress.

For the Programme for Sustainable Forestry (Iwokrama Rainforest Programme), project-generated knowledge played a major role in the later development of conservation proposals. In addition, the delimitation of the project's area for forest conservation and sustained use in itself represents an important contribution to the conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity in the country.

Conclusion: UNDP projects are a unique vehicle for the generation of information about the nature and status of natural resources.

Motivation and Professional Capabilities of UNDP Staff

Most of the government and NGO representatives interviewed by the team concurred that an essential ingredient for a successful environmental project is the degree of professional education and motivation of UNDP staff in the field of the environment. Not all UNDP staff appeared to be professionally equipped to discuss some environmental issues with national counterparts.

Respecting Work Plans and Timetables

The project document of every UNDP project includes a detailed work plan and timetable. However, very few project managers feel constrained to follow these plans and timetables strictly. There is no accountability for project implementation. If a project is implemented on time according to the timetable in the original project document, this is appreciated, but there does not appear to be enough concern about delays in project implementation.

Flexible Project Management

In many instances, project implementation has depended on UNDP flexibility to be successful. For example, in Brazil, the project Support to the Amazon Working Group of the G7 Pilot Programme has been successful due to the collaboration of the UNDP country office in Brasilia, which has helped various NGOs to prepare their own project proposals for consideration by the Amazon Working Group for funding. In the case of Cuba, the country office has been instrumental in contributing to the organization of international technical workshops within the framework of the regional project Planning and Management of Heavily Contaminated Bay Ecosystems and Coastal Areas of the Wider Caribbean.

Conclusion: The design of a project needs to be flexible and allow for modifications according to changing local conditions.

In Bolivia, the UNDP country office played a decisive role in the creation of the new Secretariat for Indigenous Affairs, Gender and Generation Issues and has provided extensive organizational support to the Under-Secretariat for Indigenous Affairs.

Conclusion: The enthusiastic support of the UNDP country office contributes greatly to project success.

Numerous and dispersed field activities have made logistical demands on the Chaco Ecosystem Programme. Implementation arrangements emphasize the use of short-term consultants. While this has provided flexibility and minimized overhead costs to the Programme, the uneven quality and methodological inconsistency of the consultancy support have often undermined impact. Training activities in particular seem to have been affected.

Conclusion: The logistical arrangements of a project affect its success.

Although the Low-cost Bamboo Housing Project in Costa Rica was a successful undertaking, difficulties arose in understanding the admin-istrative procedures of UNDP. This generated frequent friction between project staff and administrators at the UNDP country office. The administrative needs of environmental projects can surpass field office capacities, particularly when they require a constant stream of small, scattered disbursements to individuals or informal community organizations at short notice. The bamboo project as well as the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP) and the Support to the National Indigenous Programme, both in Bolivia, are familiar with the difficulties involved in servicing dispersed, micro project activities that are susceptible to external factors such as distance, climate, agricultural calendars or community labour cycles.

Conclusion: To promote SHD, UNDP must (a) improve its performance in contacting groups/institutions that potentially could benefit from/be affected by its projects; (b) increase the participation of potential beneficiaries in the prioritization of project activities; and (c) increase its ability to resolve the conflicts generated by its projects.

Project Impact on the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources and Biodiversity

It is somewhat difficult to assess the impact that UNDP-financed/coordinated natural resource and biodiversity projects have had on the sustainable management of natural resources for two main reasons. First, environmental baseline data and in-depth analysis of the present status of the natural resources of the region are lacking. Thus, it is not easy to ascertain whether a UNDP project on the sustainable management of tropical forests, for example, has or has not improved the general situation of the rainforests of the region since the status of the rainforests was not accurately known before the start of the project. Second, the real impact of a project on natural resource management frequently becomes apparent only after a long period.

Main Findings

Despite these limitations, and after examining the nine natural resource projects included in the sample, the evaluation mission found the following:

Knowledge of Resources

Economic Value of Resources

Long-term Solution: Education

Some UNDP-sponsored projects have helped to introduce new technologies that are of paramount importance in conserving and protecting biodiversity and natural resources, e.g., the changes in fishing technology introduced under the Patagonian Coastal Zone Management Plan.

Conclusion: By introducing environmentally sound technologies, UNDP has contributed significantly to the promotion of the sustainable management of natural resources.

Resource Management and Economic Opportunities

Since the preparatory phase of the Low-cost Bamboo Housing Project in Costa Rica, for example, 737 low-income housing units have been built in rural communities and approximately 30 additional units are presently under construction. Of this total, 90 were built entirely by local beneficiaries through community self-help initiatives; the remainder have combined self-help and recruited labour. Each constructed unit has provided tem-porary employment for eight persons. Building methods are environmentally sound, simple and labour-intensive; bamboo panels are plastered with cement to give the appearance of a standard home. Self-help housing recipients are able to choose from four different housing models, designed in consultation with communities; when financing is obtained through BANHVI (the housing bank), beneficiaries can choose from two models.

UNDP-sponsored projects have succeeded in interesting people in the conservation of local biodiversity resources when the projects have highlighted the potential economic benefits that the local population can derive from protecting that biodiversity, managing it in a sustainable manner. For example, the Chaco Ecosystems Programme has contributed to the identification and establishment of conservation measures to exploit, in a sustainable fashion, the shad population in the Pilcomayo River. "Responsible Tourism" was the motto of the ecological tourism programme developed by the project Patagonian Coastal Zone Management Plan.

Conclusion: By linking economic opportunities with resource management, UNDP has contributed to the promotion of SHD.

Conclusion: The training of local people in environmental aspects of natural resources is an important factor in ensuring the protection and sustainable management of those resources.

Sustainability of Project Activities

One of the criteria the evaluators used to measure the impact of UNDP projects on the environ-ment was the sustainability of project activities. The team sought answers to such questions as: "What happens after a project ends?" "Will the Government, institutions and other stakeholders continue the initiatives that the project started?" The results of its inquiries are described below.

Conclusion: Sustainability cannot be reliably assessed when provisions for ex-post monitoring or follow-up support are lacking.

Conclusion: The sustainability of project activities is directly related to the degree of participation of various stakeholders in project design and implementation. The greater their participation, the better the chances for sustainability.

Conclusion: A number of natural resource and biodiversity projects have developed a high level of dependency on UNDP. Thus, the initiatives begun by those projects will be sustained only if further funding is provided.

Conclusion: The sustainability of project activities depends on the political will of the authorities to continue those activities.

Conclusion: Sustainability of project activities also depends on a project's economic performance.Many women in Latin American countries work on the land and use resources (water, coal and other energy inputs) to provide food and shelter for their families. Unfortunately, none of the projects analysed by the evaluation team showed any specific, explicit effort to enhance the participation of women in the protection and conservation of natural resources and local biodiversity.

Conclusion: The participation of women in the protection and sustainable use of their local environment is of paramount importance to the sustainability of the activities and results of environmental projects.

Project Impact on Reducing and Preventing Pollution

The analysis of the five projects with a focus on reducing and preventing pollution shows that UNDP has contributed to pollution reduction in some areas of Latin America and the Caribbean. The main findings of the evaluation team are:

Knowledge of Pollution Sources

Economic Gains of Pollution Reduction

Influence on Environmental Policies and Standards


Conclusion: Knowledge of and access to baseline data on existing pollutants and sources of pollution are essential determinants of a project's success in reducing pollution.

Conclusion: UNDP needs to develop indicators of environmental performance in order to promote projects aimed at reducing pollution.

Conclusion: The participation of the local population is a key factor in reducing pollution.

Conclusion: Encouraging the participation and collaboration of institutions involved in the monitoring of pollution increases the likelihood and extent of project success.

To spend resources only on reducing pollution is an inefficient allocation of those resources. UNDP pollution-oriented projects have a greater impact when the economic benefits derived from pollution reduction are clearly demonstrated.

Conclusion: UNDP projects to reduce pollution need to identify the potential economic gains to be derived from that reduction.

Project Impact on the Strengthening of Environmental Institutions and Capacity-building

Twelve of the 22 evaluated projects refer to capacity-building and some form of institutional strengthening. However, many of them still have a great deal of work to do with regard to obtaining information on two topic: the institutions themselves and the extent of the improvement in the management of the institutions where projects were developed. On the other hand, many of the projects made contributions to the education and training of the staff of the institutions influenced by the projects.

Main Findings

Four projects focused on institutional strengthening and capacity-building. The main findings from the assessment of those projects are:

The evaluation mission reached the following conclusions.

Conclusion: UNDP has contributed significantly to enhancing the skills of professionals as well as other people in local communities to improve their capacity to manage the environment.

Conclusion: UNDP has also made an important contribution to the strengthening of national and local environmental institutions.


After assessing the ways in which UNDP has designed, developed and implemented its environmental projects, the evaluation team made the following recommendations.

Developing a Regional Environmental Development Strategy

Taking National and Regional Priorities into Account

Developing Baseline Data

Benefiting from the Institutional Memory of UNDP

Using Local Knowledge and Expertise

Clearly Defining the Project

Designing the Project

Monitoring Environmental Impact


Sharing of Information

Training of UNDP Staff in Environmental Management

Empowering People to Promote Sustainable Development through Capacity-building

Participation of Women in Environmental Projects

Characteristics of Successful Projects

Impediments to Quality Performance

Clear definition of the situation or problem that the project attempts to improve or solve, with project objectives stated clearly and succinctly

Lack of human and financial resources needed to implement the project activities


Identification of project according to national and design as regional environmental priorities


Lack of attention to project well as to the selection of national governmental counterparts

Description of the local environment of the project area

Lack of project performance indicators

Special attention given to the design phase of the project by consulting local stake-holders & stakeholders beneficiaries and assessing their capability to contribute to project implementation


Inefficient consultation with project stakeholders


Use of the extensive experience gained by UNDP in similar projects and activities

Attitude that reflects lack of commitment to learn from and work together with national governmental counterparts

Good project document, containing clearly stated objectives, responsibilities, schedule, deliverables and expectations

Identification of projects based on availability of funds or attention received by fashionable topics or induced by funding agencies whose priorities do not coincide with national and regional priorities

Detailed work plan and timetable for the implementation of project activities and the inclusion of a budget that is adequate to carry out those activities

Lack of understanding of key sustainable development stakeholders

Roles of project staff clearly defined, including the roles expected of participating national government counterparts

Unilateral selection (UNDP and United nations agencies) of consultants assigned to the project

Clear accountability for all project staff

Lack of attention to the identification of people whose immediate interests would be negatively affected by the implementation of the project

Information-sharing during all phases of the project cycle with all project staff and stakeholders

Open-ended project objectives

Capacity development for different stakeholders relating to project implementation

UNDP resident representative lacking personal interest in the implementation of the project

Responsibilities given to project staff are always accompanied by appropriate human and financial resources

UNDP headquarters and local staff unable to provide professional, technical feedback to national counterparts

Participation of local consultants during the entire project life cycle

No mechanisms to monitor impact of project on the environment

Special attention to all stakeholders involved in project design and implementation; potential beneficiaries as well as others potentially affected are consulted and informed throughout the entire project life cycle

Lack of accountability for project timetable and project results

Enthusiastic personal interest and support of the local UNDP resident representative

Recommendations of mid-term evaluation teams not taken into consideration

UNDP staff at headquarters and in the field professionally trained in environment-related matters to enable them to deal with the project


Monitoring of project results and mid-term and final project evaluations


Indicators of project performance


Potential impact of project assessed in terms of fulfillment of needs of the national governmental counterparts