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  • Dec 20, 2018

CIF and Transformational Change: Essential Learning for Climate Action

Anna Williams 

Ten years ago, countries came together and launched the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) with a bold and ambitious goal to help catalyze “transformation” toward low-carbon, climate-resilient development. 

CIF’s founders knew this goal faced overwhelming odds and obstacles.  No small task is an understatement. 

Ten years on, the urgency to understand progress toward these ambitious goals is very real.  

As we know from the recent sobering news released by the IPCC, Global Carbon Project, and others, greenhouse gases have continued to accumulate in the atmosphere at alarming rates, and the world continues to see increasing temperatures as well as more frequent and extreme weather events and climactic shifts with disastrous consequences.  Making matters worse, those least responsible for the climate crisis are the most vulnerable.

With this urgency, we have been aiming to understand what transformational change in the CIF context really means and to identify CIF’s role thus far in supporting this change.  

This started when we asked CIF stakeholders what their most pressing questions were, in order to inform the design of the CIF Evaluation and Learning Initiative. Transformational change came up more than anything else, and thus became the largest, cross-cutting priority learning theme. Several months later, CIF launched the Transformation Change Learning Partnership (TCLP) to facilitate a collaborative evidence-based learning process on transformational change. The TCLP is a three-pronged process involving an independent evaluation, an independent evidence synthesis, and a facilitated learning partnership with 60 key CIF stakeholders.

Like CIF, the TCLP is itself a journey. Nearly two years in, we are at an exciting juncture, with answers to critical questions and deeper insights into what will strengthen climate investments to be more transformational in the future.  The TCLP, like the CIF, has learned by doing, and we still are.  Here are some “take home” reflections on our journey thus far.

  1. This is new work and it’s hard.  We knew the TCLP would (like CIF) be bold and unprecedented, and that we would also learn by doing.  We knew we would push frontiers in terms of understanding transformational change in a climate investment context.  We were consciously choosing to ask difficult questions that we might not even be able to answer to our own satisfaction, to push methods frontiers, to support an ambitious stakeholder learning process.
  2. There was and is tremendous excitement and hope around this work, and people across the globe wanted to engage. This excitement was accompanied with hopes and expectations that would be hard to satisfy, that were out of scope or simply not feasible given the time, resources, and mandate of the TCLP. We knew early on that we couldn’t deliver on everyone’s hopes or ambitions, but that we could capture the passion and enthusiasm and support further work either outside of the TCLP or perhaps through a next phase of the TCLP.
  3. The meaning of “transformation” ranges from the deeply personal to the overtly global, such as the invention of agriculture and the Internet.  Yet despite different interpretations and ambiguities, mission-driven institutions readily use “transformation” to signal what they aim to achieve, with an intuitive and accurate understanding that solving the climate crises requires positive transformational change.  We identified a working definition of transformational change for the TCLP’s purposes and know this definition can still evolve.
  4. Fully aware of methodological debates, we embraced methods suitable for this work.  We had healthy debates around suitable and credible evaluation methods. Systems change evaluation is an emerging sub-field, in our case evaluating complex global change embodying a perfect storm: The role of a complex set of (CIF) interventions around a “wicked problem” (climate change) in dozens of countries, each with their own unique context.  Almost nothing about it is formulaic or linear.  This evaluation requires realistic and suitable methods like contribution analysis, recognizing that multiple variables influence outcomes in dynamic and non-linear ways that are neither controlled nor controllable. 
  5. The learning side has equally important challenges.  We aimed for a rigorous, real-time, stakeholder learning process; however, doing so requires a lot of time and direct engagement.  We continue to learn how to do this well.  Encouragingly, we have heard from members that they have found the TCLP experience to be unique and valuable, informing their thinking and work, especially now that we have reached the findings stage.
  6. We now have answers to our questions, and we see clear signs of CIF’s transformative influence.  CIF’s design, including the programmatic approach and country-led investment plans, has set the stage for investments with high-transformation potential.  Over time, usually after a few years of implementation, each CIF program achieved real progress in different ways. For example, the Clean Technology Fund (CTF) has played a clear transformative role in several countries and is particularly strong in the dimensions of scale and sustainability.  The Scaling Renewable Energy in Low-Income Countries Program (SREP), a smaller and more recent program, has seen interim progress on systems change, with some evidence of early scaling around pilots. The Pilot Program for Climate Resilience (PPCR) has had strong influence through mainstreaming into national systems and increased investments by governments and others.  The Forest Investment Program (FIP) shows interim signals of changes in systems and mindsets, with effective stakeholder processes.
  7. Transformational change can be catalyzed by particular interventions, and it also relies on external parties and forces, including governments, the public, and the private sector.  Recognizing this interconnectedness, many CIF investments aim to catalyze critical external actors or dynamics. Macroeconomic forces also play a role, as do cultural norms, and individual choices. Moreover, as global and national context and dynamics change, so too do the factors that influence transformation, so plans made years ago may not be relevant today or tomorrow. These realities make evaluating transformational change even harder.  This is the stuff that many traditional evaluators run away from. We have run straight into it because it is needed!
  8. CIF investments have not been transformational everywhere, and challenges remain to fully realize some aspects of CIF’s transformative vision. This is not surprising, nor does it mean that individual projects haven’t been (or won’t be) effective.  It’s more about evidence of relevant, systemic, and sustainable change at scale, beyond project boundaries, time frames, and (sometimes) control. This is a tall order!  The concept of sustainability appears to be the hardest to secure due to factors typically outside of the control of any financing institution, such as financial commitments by others, market trends, political upheaval, technological breakthroughs, and inherent vulnerabilities (e.g., to forests).   
  9. The TCLP journey has revealed that the fight to prevent and prepare for climate change will require decades-long patience, “riding the waves” of progress and setbacks, willingness to innovate and adjust to changing circumstances, and risk-tolerance to take actions that may not succeed (or that may succeed but where sustainability is not assured). We cannot predict or control all of this, but we can support CIF and others to make strategic investments that are well informed and designed with strong potential to maximize transformative change.
  10. We have embraced the TCLP challenge and opportunity as global citizens seeking to understand real and lasting change on this most critical issue of our time.  We have worked with real-world realities, have acknowledged we won’t meet everyone’s hopes or expectations, and have not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  And still, collectively we have made valuable, timely, and relevant advancements in understanding not only CIF’s role in transformational change but what it takes for any climate funder to support transformation.

CIF programs and projects will continue to be implemented for many years, and CIF will continue to play a significant global role.  As CIF and other climate investments mature, opportunities for joint learning around transformation will abound. Given the moral imperative to rise to the climate challenge, we must keep learning.  The TCLP and work of others have provided a solid foundation. We hope it leads to further collaboration and insight on this critically important topic at this critical moment in time. 

Anna Williams is the Project Director of the CIF Transformational Change Learning Partnership.