An adaptation project in rural East Africa receives international funding to help small scale farmers adapt their crop type and land management so that they are more resilient to the extreme floods and heatwaves that are increasingly hitting their region as a result of climate change.
The project is approved by the country’s national government, and is part of a climate finance deal that hopes to support a community that has been identified as particularly vulnerable to climate extremes.
To help the project’s managers keep an eye on progress, a task which needs hours of driving across remote back-roads, funders donate a number of off-road vehicles to the initiative.
But this project falls in a province where the country’s opposition party has a strong foothold, and the majority party doesn’t want the opposition to leverage more political influence on the back of the adaptation project’s success. So, the national government officials impound the donated vehicles, and say they plan to use them for other purposes.
This hypothetical example — of ‘elite capture’ of resources — shows one of the ways that climate change adaptation funding could have unintended negative results among the vulnerable communities that it is supposed to assist.
Development funding earmarked for climate adaptation can be misused in the local context and could worsen the kind of community-level vulnerability that the funding is intended to address, explains Dr Katharine Vincent from Kulima Integrated Development Solutions and an associate professor at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
Vincent recently took part in a global study which looks at precisely this: how development funding that is intended to boost adaptation to climate change can have unexpected outcomes, such as reinforcing or creating new forms of vulnerability.
The study, led by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and the University of Oxford with 20 authors, looked at 33 projects from around the world that were supported by international climate finance, but found that there was evidence of ‘maladaptation’.
Researchers found that there were not only unanticipated negative consequences coming from the projects themselves, but that in some cases the adaptation interventions had become ‘tools for marginalisation and instruments of power abuse’, according to Dr Lisa Schipper, an Environmental Social Science Research Fellow at the Environmental Change Institute, Oxford.
Inclusive, co-produced development projects
One way to anticipating and avoiding unexpected ‘maladaptation’ from such projects is to fully involve local communities in the design and rollout from the very start, says Vincent, who contributed to the study. The findings of the research were published in the journal World Development in January 2021.
Vincent, who has worked extensively in the field of climate adaptation in sub-Saharan Africa, argues for the use of co-production methods, where local stakeholders are integral to project design and implementation.
Co-production methods were central to Future Climate for Africa, of which Vincent was a part. This involved cross-disciplinary work across sub-Saharan Africa from 2015 until 2020 where researchers from Africa, the UK and Europe collaborated with governments, civil society organisations and other local stakeholders to produce climate information that aimed to assist a range of decision-makers across African countries with climate-resilient development and planning.
According to Vincent, one of the reasons projects often fail is that funders arrive with preconceived ideas of what a community’s or country’s development needs are, and with solutions already designed to address those perceived needs. But outside researchers or development organisations may not fully appreciate the local context or needs.
FCFA’s processes were designed to include government stakeholders, local communities, and civil society organisations right from the outset of its various projects, all of which aimed to generate accessible climate information that addressed the specific needs of different local contexts. Some of the sectors its projects targeted included urban water and sanitation issues, or rural concerns such as livelihoods or agriculture.
Some of these co-generation processes are captured in an open-access book, Climate Risk in Africa: Adaptation and Resilience, also published this January.
Another example which Vincent gives to demonstrate how existing vulnerabilities can be unintentionally reinforced comes from a visit by a development agency to a coastal village in Mozambique, where they had initiated a community participation meeting through the appropriate traditional leadership structures.
The meeting was headed by tribal leaders, and well attended by men from the community. But Vincent noticed that the village women were mostly sitting in the doorways of their nearby homes, and therefore not given the opportunity to have their say.
Why was this? Were the women not invited, the visitors wondered? Or did the local leadership not have enough credibility amongst the women for them to want to attend?
Either way, the women’s perspectives were not included in an important community dialogue, and in a context where the nature of their vulnerability to climate impacts differed from that of men.
In Mozambique, where cyclone damage is becoming increasingly problematic, women may take longer to recover after an event like this, because they bear the household burden of having to fetch water: clean, safe water sources are often harder to find following a cyclone, when infrastructure is badly damaged. Girl children are also more likely to be pulled out of school to help their mothers with these kinds of domestic chores. Not having these voices heard when addressing local needs runs the risk of an intervention that reinforces the vulnerability of women and girls relative to that of men and boys, whose needs and priorities were voiced.
Vincent points out that the NMBU-Oxford study does not suggest that the adaptation projects it reviewed were failures, but merely that unexpected negative consequences had resulted from them. This, she says, shows the importance of thorough monitoring and evaluation processes for projects, and that lessons learned on the ground are fed back into a global iterative learning process to inform future climate adaptation initiatives.
Download the paper Adaptation interventions and their effect on vulnerability in developing countries: Help, hindrance or irrelevance?
This article was written by Leonie Joubert as part of a series covering the science produced by various FCFA projects, and introduces some of the people behind it.