NEWS: Africa’s climate change networks debate how to mobilise knowledge for climate action
At a meeting of Africa’s climate change knowledge brokers, delegates sought answers to three big questions in the quest to make their networks function effectively. Lisa McNamara of CDKN Africa reports
A major collaborative forum for knowledge brokers working in climate change in Africa took place in Nairobi in February. Over 20 knowledge networks and platforms attended the meeting to share lessons in mobilising knowledge to support adaptation to climate change across the continent. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) hosted the forum following the launch of its platform, the Africa Adaptation Knowledge Network (AAK Net), which was endorsed at the session as the ‘continental network for adaptation in Africa’.
It is not that Africa lacks knowledge networks, explained Mounkaila Goumandakoye, the Director and Regional Representative for UNEP’s Regional Office for Africa, but that these are ‘overlapped’ and ‘scattered’. ‘We have many networks. We need to bridge various networks and create complementarities’. The sheer variety of knowledge platforms represented at the UNEP meeting underlined his point. Organisations present ranged from online portals to community knowledge centres, from media and research networks to knowledge-sharing initiatives around specific issues, such as global change in African mountains and desertification in the Sahel.
Despite this variety, these networks all experience similar challenges: how to package and translate adaptation knowledge in forms useful for decision makers, grassroots communities and other target audiences; gaps between users and producers of information; limited online connectivity; and financial and personnel constraints. The biggest debates at the meeting revolved around understanding what users need, the best way to structure knowledge portals and whether the continent needs a ‘portal of portals’ for adaptation knowledge.
What do users need?
The networks represented at the forum targeted a wide range of users, from vulnerable groups and smallholder farmers, to the media, policy makers, practitioners and researchers. Producing relevant information in an accessible and usable format that these groups can trust, emerged consistently as an issue. In response to the question ‘Who are our users and what do they need?’ Practical and context-relevant knowledge was the resounding answer.
Understanding of the nature of the climate change problem and Africa’s vulnerability has improved markedly. However, authorities now need to know how to respond. Studies undertaken by the Asia Pacific Adaptation Network (APAN) show that decision makers want best-practice examples and case studies detailing the barriers to, and enablers of, taking action to adapt to climate change. Tools to support decision-making are multiplying as a result of this need for practical knowledge. However participants argued that tools should not be produced in isolation; they must be accompanied by initiatives that build the capacity of people to use them.
CDKN’s work with the Global Water Partnership (GWP) is an example of the approach required. CDKN and GWP jointly supported the African Ministers’ Council on Water to produce a Framework for integrating water security and climate resilience into development planning. The Framework cannot stand on its own and will be accompanied by a two-year capacity-building project. Experts will work with water managers at national, sub-national and local levels to apply it to the decision-making process.
For vulnerable communities, information is often not enough. Moussa Na Abou Mamouda of Africa Adapt said that communities are tired of being participants in research projects, and need ‘concrete adaptation strategies that can change their lives’. Information is required in the context of wider outreach efforts. Lum Edith Achamukong of the African Female Journalists Action on Climate Change, a network aiming to strengthen women’s voices in climate change policy and action, said that journalists need ‘regular bait’ to report on climate change issues, such as workshops, mentoring and competitions. Lum argued that politics always tends to be a bigger story than climate change in the region. Therefore organisations need to constantly think up creative ways to build media interest in climate change.
They also need to understand that online platforms are just one way to reach audiences. Limited connectivity in Africa limits their reach and brokers need to consider a range of ways to connect with people. CDKN, together with the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the Potsdam Institute (PIK), has convened a Knowledge Brokers Group to find new ways to link up, share technologies, and make the online climate and development landscape more user-friendly. Participants agreed, however, that there is often no replacement for face-to-face engagement. Language is also a significant barrier. Platforms producing material solely in English will always have restricted scope.
What is the best way to structure knowledge platforms?
There was a rich debate about the best way to structure knowledge platforms. What is the optimal knowledge architecture? Should knowledge be structured thematically? According to sectors? Or should networks be more proficient at tagging information so it is represented in different ways? REEGLE has developed a tagging tool that suggests tags for documents to help platforms tag consistently.
Some participants thought there is no simple answer to knowledge architecture. Others said that there must be some way to order and cluster information on portals. Belynda Petrie of One World Group argued that networks should not be structuring portals according to themes or sectors, but must take a wider view. Existing adaptation knowledge is often highly specialised and sector-based (around water, agriculture or energy, for example) while climate change is cross-sectoral and requires entire human and natural systems to adapt. Petrie called for a systems-based approach to sharing knowledge related to how decisions get made and the balance of power in these systems. Such an approach would require knowledge dissemination at the level of transboundary water control and land-use management.
Do we need a ‘platform of platforms’?
The multiplying of climate change knowledge networks, many of them online, is evident globally. Geoff Barnard, Knowledge Manager Strategy Advisor for CDKN has called this growth in portals ‘portal proliferation syndrome’. The remaining big question that needed answering at the meeting was: Do we need a portal of climate portals that aggregates information across the fragmented knowledge broker sector in Africa? The answer appeared to be no. All portals offered specialised services and each needed to remain in its niche.
Participants agreed, however, that UNEP’s Adaptation Knowledge Network would be well placed to represent Africa’s knowledge brokers, and help facilitate alignment and sharing among regional players. The group endorsed AAK Net as the continental network responsible for facilitating the exchange of information and knowledge in the region, as well as fostering and supporting strategic planning and policy processes. This represents a step forward for greater collaboration among Africa’s knowledge brokers.