Conservation areas and wild forests are not islands unto themselves; the outside world frequently intrudes. What happens to these ecologically sensitive areas when human development activities—like a new road, bridge, or hospital funded by an aid agency—are located nearby? International aid has an outsized effect on the future of our planet’s environment, as many aid-receiving countries are both economically and environmentally vulnerable. The environment, unfortunately, is ranking far behind the economic-related priorities of leaders in developing countries, as AidData's Listening to Leaders 2018 report finds.
Aid campaigns have mobilized billions of dollars to tackle pressing environmental problems. But decision-makers need actionable insights based on reliable science. In its brief history as a research lab at William & Mary, AidData's environmental research is already informing conservation efforts at a global scale. We've helped the Global Environment Facility, the world’s largest public funder of environmental projects, to put a quantifiable value on their land preservation efforts, informing their future funding rounds; we've evaluated the effectiveness of the World Bank’s environmental safeguards; and we've put a spotlight on the impacts of Chinese-funded infrastructure in ecological hotspots.
Case Study: How well did a global portfolio of projects work to combat land degradation?
Collaborating with GEF and answering critical questions with accurate data
Image showing methodology of GEF's land degradation projects.
Prior to seeking additional funding from 183 countries, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the world’s largest public funder of environmental projects, needed to answer a critical question: where were their efforts to fight land degradation succeeding—and why? AidData collaborated with the Independent Evaluation Office of the GEF to conduct a rigorous study of their projects to slow, halt, and reverse land degradation. We quantified where and how the health of forests in areas with GEF projects had increased dramatically. By training algorithms to analyze high-resolution satellite data, we found that GEF projects increased both the number of trees in forests and the number of leaves on those trees. We also found that the average GEF project, which costs $4.2 million, sequesters around $7.5 million worth of carbon—a real return on investment for the environment. This study, a first of its kind, was published for the 51st GEF Council Meeting in October 2016, and helped inform the GEF’s future work.
Case Study: Do environmental safeguards for development projects prevent forest loss and protect biodiversity?
Examining the World Bank's safety measures and deforestation
The World Bank subjects 89% of its projects that are close to sites of recognized conservation significance to the organization's most stringent environmental safeguards. In a first-of-its-kind study, a team of researchers from AidData at William & Mary, the University of Texas-Austin, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and BirdLife International analyzed how forest cover and biodiversity levels in hundreds of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) changed over time in response to nearby World Bank development projects. The results are encouraging: projects subjected to the Bank’s most stringent environmental safeguards showed no evidence of damaging local ecosystems. And where environmental risks were identified and mitigated at the project preparation stage, we found that World Bank projects were even associated with a reduction in deforestation in nearby areas. Our study is an important validation that establishing strong environmental safeguards can help developing countries protect their forests and wildlife while achieving human development.
Figure of distribution of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas overlaid on a map of forest loss.
Case Study: Can developing countries accept Chinese-financed infrastructure without sacrificing their forests?
A closer look at the forest vs the trees
Map of forest loss in Southeast Asia compared to Chinese infrastructure projects.
The scale and scope of China's overseas infrastructure activities now rival or exceed that the largest traditional donors and lenders. Between 2000 and 2014, China provided over $350 billion in official finance for development, with much of that going towards infrastructure, according to AidData's research. Teaming up with the MacArthur foundation, AidData measured the impacts of these Chinese-funded infrastructure projects on forest health in three of the world’s most ecologically sensitive regions: the Tropical Andes, the Great Lakes region of Africa, and the Mekong Delta. Our study highlights the crucial role that domestic environmental governance plays in protecting forests: forest loss actually slowed in areas with strong protection regimes in place. But these effects reversed, and forest loss increased in countries where forests were not adequately protected by the host government.