Putting local people at the centre of climate change adaptation


Putting local people at the centre of climate change adaptation

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Date: 15th January 2021
Type: Feature
Countries: Africa, Asia

Drawing from a wide range of case studies, Lucia Scodanibbio provides evidence for why climate change adaptation must be locally-led in order to be effective.

When cyclone Amphan hit southern Bangladesh, exacerbating the impacts felt by the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Bamia Village Savings and Lending Association had to act and find a way for the women’s group to resume its activities, which had been forced to stop with the lockdown restrictions. Through a consultation with the members, a decision was taken to meet only twice per month, in reduced numbers; to create a special COVID-19 fund for the most impoverished families; and to shorten lending cycles to enable the members to respond to urgent household needs which escalated as a result of the multiple shocks being faced. At the now outdoors meetings, where members would keep strict physical distance, in addition to once again being able to strengthen social networks and borrow funds for livelihood activities, the women received information on hygiene and health practices, as well as on staving off child marriage, despite the appeal of this option during such grave times.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous stories of resilience, proactiveness and solidarity emerged from the ground, serving as testament to the critical role played by local groups in responding to emergency situations and meeting their own needs and those of the most vulnerable members of their communities.

These stories from the frontline have challenged an often-held assumption that the poor are victims, lazy, unable to respond or take adequate decisions. Current approaches which see vulnerable groups as targets or beneficiaries of aid actions are contrary to recognising, fostering and empowering the actions and responses that these communities can and are currently taking. Going one step further, building upon the energy, initiative and capacities of grassroots groups can result in more sustainable, co-owned solutions.

Why must adaptation be locally led?

The Global Centre on Adaptation has as one of its core cross-cutting areas the promotion of locally-led adaptation. This is vital for a number of reasons. Firstly, adaptation – unlike mitigation – occurs at the lowest governance levels, where the impacts of climate change are felt. As a consequence, it is primarily about the people living in those areas, who are often the most vulnerable and with the least access to different types of support (e.g. information, influence on decisions, capacities, funds). One of the objectives of the GCA is to increase the volume of devolved and decentralized funding to these levels, to enable the identification, prioritisation and implementation of adaptation solutions by actors there.

Getting funding to the local level is just one aspect, however. Local communities need to be at the fore of decision-making and planning processes. As shown in the stories from the frontline and the Know Your City work from Slum Dwellers International, local communities know their needs best and are able to mobilise information on who are the most vulnerable, the risks they are exposed to, as well as different aspects of the living conditions in their locations (e.g. in terms of availability of services like water or sanitation). While to an outsider, impoverished communities may look homogenous, within localities, and all the way down to within households, people’s vulnerability and ability to respond to risk varies according to multiple features of their identity (age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, language, whether they are a migrant, etc.).

Local inhabitants’ knowledge and experience is thus crucial to avoid cookie cutter top-down solutions that can exacerbate inequalities, result in unsustainable or ineffective solutions, or in maladaptation in the longer term, or for certain groups. As a Ugandan proverb says, “If you want to know what goes on underwater, you ask the hippo and the crocodile, not the eagle”. Working together, to co-create solutions based on this knowledge, is the next step.

How do we do it?

We need a change in thinking and acting, all the way from donors to governments, international to national NGOs, from northern researchers to local project implementers. A change that recognizes, values and nurtures local groups’ capacities and leadership, yet seeks to also identify the systemic barriers that prevent these local initiatives from being successfully scaled up. One that puts in place more collaborative governance and decision-making mechanisms which cut the distance between these different levels, to lead to more sustainable and equitable plans and actions.

While there is no doubt that the climate challenges we face are enormous and urgent, when it comes to implementing sustainable, locally-owned and led solutions, external donors and project implementers need to take the time to value the process as much as the outcome. That means we need to start by asking, listening and being humble, shifting away from a mentality of “helping beneficiaries” or coming in as the experts. There are numerous participatory tools that can help to stimulate dialogue, to better understand the root causes of local vulnerabilities, the core gaps that communities feel need to be addressed, the challenges faced and the way these are currently handled.

Such breadth of valuable knowledge can be used as a starting point to support communities to create responses that are locally appropriate, with the types of assistance and backing that they specify – and which in many cases will surprisingly not be funding. In the process, these multi-stakeholder interchanges also strengthen the capacities of all those involved and build the trust that can result in longer-term partnerships between government and non-government stakeholders. This helps to create an environment where learning together is valued and is a two-way process.

Recognising community members as part of the solution also saves money and leads to more sustainable results. This means providing the enabling conditions for partners on the ground (e.g. from grassroots groups, traditional authorities, academia) who have expertise in the local context and pressing issues to take the lead. In Uganda, members of the National Slum Dwellers Federation have collaborated with different municipalities to unblock and maintain drainage channels that were choked with weeds and solid waste, causing frequent floods. This has resulted in reduced council budgets and strengthened capacities and trust.

One should not be naïve, however, as there are deeply entrenched power relations and issues of mistrust tied to histories of dispossession and injustice which can only change through a genuine desire to address these issues (e.g. with the help of experienced facilitators and mediators) over timescales that go beyond quick fixes and bound projects.

Furthermore, for actions on the ground to be locally led, sustainable and effective, there must be a commitment by all stakeholders involved to also address systemic and structural barriers. These may be disincentives at market or policy level, they may be policy disconnects that develop laws and plans which conflict with local realities or undermine existing coping mechanisms, they may be governance and sectoral silos which prevent actions from being successful. It is critical to become aware and address these complex, interacting factors (e.g. through scenario planning processes), so that more collaborative decisions and actions can result in sustained positive change.


Concluding thoughts

In light of the above, it is clear that for adaptation to be locally led and owned, it cannot be implemented top-down, simply through ensuring funds reach the local level, or through the implementation of technological solutions that are planned in a vacuum from the local context and realities in which they will be executed. It will not work if it relies on consultants from the north who bring in one-sided expertise, nor if it is believed that one workshop with few stakeholders constitutes adequate participation and capacity building. On the contrary, for adaptation to be sustainable and just, we must take the time to adequately understand people’s unique social, cultural and governance context through open dialogue, genuinely seek to see the problems through their eyes to build on what exists and has already been done, and co-create responses relying on everyone’s expertise and knowledge. In this way, we will have put people at the centre of adaptation.


Lucia Scodanibbio has been a 20/20 Professional at the Global Centre for Adaptation since April 2020, working with the Locally Led Action team to seek to increase the inclusiveness of the GCA’s climate resilient urban planning activities. The views in this blog are her own and do not represent the GCA’s.

Images - top right: Ethiopia participatory scenario planning (credit Mark Tebboth); above top: Ghanaian women farmers in group workshop (credit Rahina Alare); above bottom: Malian participatory scenario planning (credit Edmond Totin).

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