“As a small company, the EcoLinks Quick Response Award was very instrumental in assisting our fact-finding mission and learning what we needed to know to develop this new market. The grant was helpful. More valuable to us were the people that we met.”
— Fred Swartling, President, GreenTech Texas (2003)
EcoLinks was one of REC’s longest-running programmes, as well as one of its largest. EcoLinks was involved in 187 Challenge Grants projects worth more than USD 8.6 million, and distributed a further 404 Quick Response Awards (QRAs) worth USD 1.7 million. Altogether, the five-year project facilitated environmental investments worth USD 86.5 million.
A novel aspect of the EcoLinks programme at the time was that it allowed the REC to achieve many of its goals through working with a less traditional category of stakeholders — businesses, local utilities and associations between these two groups.
The four main EcoLinks programme objectives were to:
- promote market-based solutions to urban and industrial environmental problems in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and newly independent states (NIS);
- create cross-border partnerships;
- facilitate environmental investment and trade; and
- provide information on environmental best practices, technologies and management systems.
The EcoLinks programme was divided into two main areas of activity, each of which involved two main players. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Global Technology Network and the U.S. Department of Commerce were in charge of the programme’s Investment and Trade component. The Partnership Grants component, on the other hand, was managed by the Institute of International Education and the REC.
EcoLinks Partnership Grants were introduced to strengthen the capacity of businesses and municipalities to develop market-based solutions to urban and industrial environmental problems. By providing support for cooperative approaches to environmental projects, EcoLinks grants helped to leverage additional investments and improve the environmental and economic performance of businesses and municipalities. The Partnership Grants component itself was broken up into three types of awards:
Challenge Grants (up to USD 50,000); Quick Response Awards (up to USD 5,000); and Follow-on Grants (up to USD 10,000).
Challenge Grants were awarded to support one-year, cost-shared projects falling within three priority environmental investment areas identified by EcoLinks: water quality management; cleaner production; and global climate change. Through a competitive, regional selection process, an independent panel of experts selected the best grant applications from a pool submitted from eligible countries. In 2002, the last year in which EcoLinks awarded Challenge Grants, more than USD 1.06 million went to 22 recipients from seven countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Kazakhstan, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia (Far East) and Ukraine.
The purpose of the QRAs was to initiate partnerships for Challenge Grant applications, which, in many cases, facilitated trade and investment opportunities. The QRAs were awarded in amounts of up to USD 5,000, with applications being approved on a rolling basis by staff within a two-week period. The QRAs were often used to pay travel expenses for business meetings, site visits or technology demonstrations. In 2002 alone, 99 QRAs were granted to recipients in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Kazakhstan, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Poland, Russia (Far East), Romania, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
Follow-on Grants, introduced in September 2002, were awarded to past grantees in order to maximise the impacts of the Challenge Grants programme. Activities funded by these grants included preparing business plans and project documentation, marketing financial proposals to appropriate financing institutions, and developing project proposal documents.
The EcoLinks programme successfully raised regional awareness of the benefits of eco-efficiency, while also strengthening local capacity to address and solve environmental problems through market-based solutions and cross-border partnerships through a total of 187 Challenge Grants. The programme also catalysed more than USD 86 million in additional investments in the environmental sector, and assisted local companies with capacity building for project management and reporting. The results of 46 best practices gleaned through the programme were published online, 84 percent of Challenge Grant recipients reported continuing partnerships, and 54 percent reported having implemented recommendations. Among the QRA grantees, 90 percent reported continuing partnerships and 72 percent rated EcoLinks staff support as “excellent”.