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FEATURE: When business as usual is not enough

Pasi Hellman, Managing Director of the Nordic Development Fund (NDF) outlines the promise and potential of climate adaptation projects – and what can happen when they are poorly designed. The findings are published in a new book by NDF, ‘Climate Change Adaptation and Development – Transforming Paradigms and Practices’. NDF is a multilateral development finance institution focusing on activities that address the causes and consequences of climate change; it is owned by the five Nordic countries.

‘Development experts’ have for quite some time now taken it for granted that ‘development projects’ cannot be planned in isolation. There are always social, structural and political aspects that need to be taken into account. What about ‘climate projects’ – are people working with climate change adaptation paying as much attention to these aspects?

This question led the Nordic Development Fund (NDF) to initiate a research project to analyse the relationships among adaptation, development, social issues, and political structures. The process culminated in a recent publication Climate Change Adaptation and Development – Transforming Paradigms and Practices (Routledge, 2015).

It seems that in climate change adaptation there are indeed lessons to be learned from a broader group of development experts, practitioners and from different approaches. “Business as usual is not enough” is one of the key findings of the research project.

When designed and implemented poorly, adaptation measures can reinforce existing inequalities and power asymmetries. If a project to support, for example, pastoralists in Ethiopia, depends on materials and technologies that cannot be locally maintained, it may offer false, unsustainable improvements.

Or if one wishes to focus on the poor remote rural households in Nepal mainly by providing tools and seeds for farming, without addressing rights (to land or to other resources) issues, or possibly even pushing them at the same time to lower-yielding areas, the vulnerability of these groups could even increase.

Or, somewhat differently and as revealed by a case study in Kenya, heavy promotion of environmental conservation measures may overlook the significance of other activities, such as charcoal production, as important adaptive measures and livelihoods.

The research argues that climate change may appear to be different compared to other environmental challenges because it cuts across all sectors of society. Climate change should therefore not be treated as an isolated factor from other environment and development challenges.

When done properly, adaptation measures can trigger changes into more equal and socially just development pathways. One needs to assess how projects may affect the intersectionality of relations of gender, ethnicity, social structure and class, etc. Action should be planned with both top-down and bottom-up approaches. Since adaptation happens at local levels, community-based adaptation often works best. Special attention is needed on vulnerable and marginalised groups, such as indigenous peoples.

It all may sound quite simple but this is where the heart of the problem is: it is difficult to address structural and political aspects, social hierarchies and power structures properly. Doing this often touches on the interests of various groups. Sometimes these interests can be conflicting, with vested interests involved.  Hence the need – according to the research project – for “transforming paradigms and practices”.

There is an analogy on the global level. Can it be that the ‘international climate community’ is following somehow behind the footsteps of the ‘international development community’? In development, many advances have been made over the recent years to develop common views and approaches – on issues like aid effectiveness, results-based management of aid, financing for development, or the Millennium Development Goals. It is to be hoped that in climate discussions and policy development the wheel does not need to be re-invented. There is a lot of experience gained and lessons learned in the earlier development work.

The research project demonstrated that ‘climate’ and ‘development’ are part and parcel of the same thing and therefore they need to be addressed together. The forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals can serve as a common framework for both development and climate. The approach and work of the Green Climate Fund, and other climate finance institutions, can build on a solid base found in the experiences and knowledge of development finance institutions.

Similarly at the project level, as demonstrated by our research project, climate adaptation and development can be mutually reinforcing factors. A researcher in the project even asked whether properly done adaptation to climate change could, or should, “trigger ethical change in development pathways”?

It is a tall order. I hope that the Climate and Development Knowledge Network – with its expertise, partners, outreach activities and influence on both policy makers and practitioners – will work together with NDF and others to advance these insights and enable the change.


 Image: Ethiopian farmer, Copyright ILRI



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