Climate change adaptation: it’s time we started talking about a revolution

Climate Change

The Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance (ACCRA) has published its report on the effect that development projects are having on people’s ability to deal with change. Simon Levine reflects on what it all means, for development and for climate change.

ACCRA (the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance) is a coalition of just five international organisations and their local partners in three countries in Africa who realised that change is inevitable and wanted to know how we can best help prepare people for it. That’s not defeatism on a climate change agenda, by the way. Just a simple recognition that even if we get the best legally binding international treaties on greenhouse gas emissions, the world’s climate is still going to change and by 2040, many in rural Africa are also going to have to deal with a doubling of their
population, conflict, and a world trade order that has brought mixed bag opportunities and crises.

So, if life in much of the world is all about an uncertain future, made more uncertain by the certainty of climate change, but what should we be doing about it?

The ACCRA coalition started with a fairly simple assumption. We have never found enough funds or skills to “bring development” to enough of the poorer parts of this planet of ours. If we add a new challenge of “bringing the ability to deal with change”, or what the jargon likes to call “adaptive capacity”, i.e. the ability to adapt, then we are never going to have the funds or people to run a parallel set of activities (projects, trainings etc) to run alongside ‘development’. The conclusion that follows is equally simple. We have to work out what
the effect on ‘adaptive capacity’ is from the normal development activities that have been run by governments, UNOs and NGOs for decades, to see how they can best be ‘tweaked’ to kill two birds with one stone: to help reduce poverty and at the same time, leave people better able to deal with change. (First we had to think a lot about what it is that helps people have adaptive capacity and you can read about that in our background document.)

What we found was a little disappointing. The role of tweaking is going to be pretty marginal. Wherever the researchers across the three countries looked, they found a huge potential for all these programmes and projects to help. In fact, it was pretty obvious that for any of the interventions to be sustainable at all, they needed to help people to deal with change. However, despite the ubiquitous talk of ‘sustainability’, the vast majority of these interventions and the people designing and running them, never talked about ‘change’ or ‘the future’ at all. You can
read our report here.

Projects, meaning the NGOs, government services, and so on designing and running these projects, thought a lot about what they wanted people to be doing at the end of the project. They wanted people to be farming in the right way, growing the right seeds, getting the right amount of water from irrigation systems, joining the right kinds of savings clubs and electing the right kinds of committees, or perhaps having the right kinds of skills to diversify their income. That kind of thinking, of course, kills any chance you have of supporting adaptive capacity.

If you want to help people be able to deal with change, then you have to start by thinking about them as people who have their own minds and preferences and plans, and the right to choose, and the right to be able to make an informed choice. They don’t need skills that are right for today half as much as they need to know where they can find the skills they may need tomorrow. And that means knowing what the options are, knowing how to assess which skills would be most useful for their own circumstances, knowing how to find the tools of whatever trade they may want to acquire.

A history of being given instructions on the right way to do things by people who tell them they aren’t capable of knowing for themselves isn’t going to be a lot of help. (If you think that’s a caricature of most development projects, ask yourself when you last saw a project that was designed by someone who asked people what new stuff they were trying out for themselves and what was making that job harder, and who then designed a project to make it easier for people to innovate successfully on their own. After over twenty years in the field, I’m struggling to think of
one example.)

And if we think of people as people (and not as recipients of aid, beneficiaries) then we might also start to think a bit more deeply about how they live, that is, how their society works. The way in which people deal with challenges, and maximise opportunities, is not just about themselves and their skills and knowledge – it also depends on how power is exerted and how decisions are made. ACCRA found little evidence that forward-looking decision-making was widespread: not in the communities where the projects were working, not in the governments planning their development and not in the
NGOs and aid community who were trying to build all their capacities.

This does not mean the projects were all a waste of time or money. Much of what was being done had very positive elements. But if it were done in a different way, it could also be helping people cope with the future. Tweaking might not work, but that doesn’t mean throwing everything out of the window either. It does mean changing the way we think about development. (Admission: that’s hardly new, but none the less true for that). That’s going to be a lot harder than just changing how we think. How do we fill in a logframe that says we have no idea what people will do by the
end of the project, because it’s all about them making their own choices? Who’s going to pay for us to spend a year in a village talking through options, scenarios and getting away from ‘participatory’ meetings that involve villagers telling us what they ‘need’?

If you’re reading this because you’re interested in climate change, you might be wondering if you’ve stumbled on the wrong blog. Not at all. Dealing with climate change is going to need better deals to reduce emissions, new technologies, more funding etc. And, yes, it will also need some of the hardware that we like to build to increase protection from rising tides and more intense rains. But most of all, it’s going to need a quantum leap in people’s ability to predict, analyse and deal with change and not fall into abject poverty. Forget about changing how we do
development. Let’s talk about a revolution.

Read more

Download the report: Rethinking Support for Adaptive Capacity to Climate Change

Visit ACCRA’s website.

Picture caption: Harvesting potatoes in Chongoene, Limpopo Valley, Mozambique, where the local community are adapting to increasing drought by planting smaller gardens and diversifying their crops with the help of Oxfam Austrailia and local partner organisations. Photo credit: Joel Chiziane/OxfamAUS

Author: Simon Levine
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.