Does funding to integrate conservation and development go where it is most needed?

Biodiversity status was not an influential determinant
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A farmer with livestock in Acre, Brazil. CIFOR/Kate Evans

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Over the past few decades, initiatives that aim to integrate conservation goals and development targets at a landscape scale have become increasingly prevalent. But as more resources are allocated to such initiatives, what are the dominant factors driving funding decisions?

Is money going to where it is needed most for biodiversity conservation and/or economic development, for example; or do governance and political-economic considerations have a stronger pull?

Given the dearth of data and understanding around this topic, we decided to investigate. What we found was somewhat unexpected.

Landscape Initiatives

The basic premise of such initiatives is that the “landscape” represents an appropriate scale at which broader social and ecological issues intersect, bringing together a diversity of people and their interests to identify sustainable pathways that could potentially balance their competing agendas.

With increasing support from donors, governments, and the research community, resources (both financial and technical) directed towards such initiatives have increased over the past 20 to 30 years, leading to an assumption that funding and implementation has become globally widespread.

However, there has been limited understanding of how much funding is directed towards joint conservation and development projects and where, geographically, that money is directed. We have addressed this gap by analyzing projects supported by the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and conducted between 1995 and 2013.

We aimed to estimate how much money was spent, where funds were directed and if that direction was towards areas of greatest environmental and developmental need and, finally, what factors were associated with these funding allocation decisions.

We found that financial flows from the World Bank/GEF for joint conservation and development projects were distributed to a total of 75 countries across the tropics and sub-tropics. Funding over this 19-year period totaled $16.5 billion, representing an average of approximately $870 million per year.

However, the amount and frequency of funding across countries was highly variable over the study period. Of those 75 countries, Mexico, Brazil and India received the majority of financial support, while Djibouti, Ivory Coast and Comoros received the least. At a regional scale, Latin America and the Caribbean had the most projects funded (148) and were by far the largest recipients of funding, accounting for more than half of the total amount spent, for a total of over $8.5 billion.

High biodiversity, low economic development

To further explore these funding trends and to try and understand what factors were influencing funding decisions, we developed a general typology to demonstrate country level environment and development status. We mapped and overlaid human development index (HDI) data and species richness data to show tropical areas with high biodiversity and low economic development (HBLD).

We then overlaid this with the financial flow data to visually illustrate the extent to which funding is directed to areas of highest priority, from both an environment and development perspective.

We then ran models to show whether high biodiversity and low development (HBLD) were predictors of financial funding. Overall, our analysis showed that while HBLD countries were financially supported in broad terms (35 out of 39 received funding), no significant difference was found between HBLD and non-HBLD countries in funding per capita or funding per area received.

In short, high biodiversity and low economic development status was not a predictor of funding, contrary to what might be expected.

There was also no association between a country’s development status and funds received, measured either in per capita or per area terms. Perhaps even more surprisingly, we found that countries with relatively low biodiversity value received more funding per capita than countries with high biodiversity after controlling for land area, governance factors and inequality. Thus, biodiversity status alone was not an influential determinant of donor’s funding decisions.

We also tested the relationship in each country between number of threatened species (using data from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) and funding allocation. Again, we found no significant association. This means that, surprisingly, countries with rare and endangered species received no additional funding for conservation and/or economic development, relative to countries in general.

Governance, political stability significant factors for funding

We then considered the impact of a country’s governance status and found that countries with a higher rating, i.e. those with more efficient and less corrupt reputations, received more funds per area, suggesting that political stability might be a consideration when funding is allocated.

Recent allocations of funds may also be driven, at least partially, by other conservation targets, such as climate change mitigation potential. For example, the enormous carbon storage and sequestration values of the humid tropical forests in South America, Central and West Africa, and Southeast Asia likely explains part of their appeal to donors; while the absence of strong climate change mitigation benefits may explain the lack of funding in some of the world’s dry regions, despite their susceptibility to the impacts of climate-induced environmental changes.


In summary, we found that neither biodiversity nor HDI status appeared to drive funding allocation. Instead, our analysis shows that governance and political-economic factors, as proxied by inequality in our models, are likely more influential.

Notably, we faced significant challenges in trying to acquire the necessary data to conduct this study, which suggests that more effort is needed to develop robust (and publicly available) indices of biodiversity at the national (and sub-national) scales. Similarly, more thought must go into how we define, measure and compare country-level progress, and analysis should incorporate other variables (i.e. beyond GDP) that cumulatively contribute towards a country’s economic, social, political and environmental health.

Finally, future research can build upon our study by examining the performance and cost-effectiveness of joint conservation-development projects to better understand how, and why, certain areas are prioritized and ultimately, to what effect.

For more information on this topic, please contact James Reed at  or Terry Sunderland at or Amy Ickowitz at
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