Crowd-sourcing ideas to help community-based adaptation finance reach the most vulnerable

It is easy to assume that a global phenomenon like climate change affects people around the world in the same way. Whether rich or poor, young or old, or living in the global north or south, we're all increasingly experiencing changes associated with a warming planet.

Delegates at CBA8 in Nepal travel to Kirtipur Village, Nawalparasi District to see the effects of climate change as part of the pre-conference fields trips (Photo: Kate Wilson/IIED)

But the truth is that climate change is unfolding in a world of profound inequalities due to economic disparities, political and social exclusion and widespread gender imbalances. This means that it's actually far more difficult for some people to deal with the impacts of an increasingly unstable climate than others. 

Which is why finance to help some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable communities adapt to climate change must also go some way towards improving the odds for those who are worst hit by rising sea-levels and more extreme and erratic weather events.

During this week's 8th international conference on community-based adaptation (CBA8) in Kathmandu we've heard examples from Kenya, Niger, Nepal and many other countries about how the very causes of poverty and vulnerability – inequality, exclusion and marginalisation, living on the fringes of societies and in unsafe conditions – make it difficult for the planet's most vulnerable to benefit from the various financing mechanisms being set up to support climate change adaptation.

And it has become increasingly clear that unless specific efforts are made to ensure people don't fall through the cracks, they are likely to be missing out on the vital support they need.

Which is why our Adaptation Learning Programme for Africa organised an interactive session for more than 70 practitioners and researchers to help crowd-source ideas and examples of good practice to prevent adaptation finance from failing the world's poorest. The discussion was premised on identifying the groups who are most vulnerable to climate impacts. Some interesting principles emerged.

First is the fundamental requirement for adaptation initiatives to be both participatory and 'bottom-up'. Many people agreed that the interests and needs of local communities must form the basis for how adaptation finance is allocated, and that the people most at risk within those communities must not be left out.

Importantly, this isn't a matter of holding a quick "participatory" planning meeting. Instead, it's about understanding who is vulnerable and why. It involves building a relationship of trust with communities over time. In this way, issues of marginalisation and exclusion (and the potential diversion of valuable resources to powerful local elites) can gradually surface. As my colleague Shikha Shrestha, from the CARE and WWF-led Hariyo Ban initiative in Nepal asked the session's panel: "Are we saving communities or [certain] individuals?"

Second, identifying those who are poorest and most vulnerable within a local context, while important, comes with its own caveats. As it often forms the basis for decisions on resource allocation, being labelled as one of the 'poorest and most vulnerable' can also lead to stigma and bias.

As Christian Aid's Richard Ewbank pointed out, a stronger focus on differential risk, instead of differential wealth or vulnerability, can provide a solution. Put simply, enquiring about varying levels of risk can lead straight to the key underlying issues without stigmatising or privileging people in the process.

Third, participants highlighted that 'local' community participation in adaptation planning does not necessarily mean that conversations about what's needed to tackle climate impacts should be limited to individual 'communities'. This is particularly relevant in some regions where certain people – including those who are very remote, or already excluded or marginalised – fall outside the scope of the 'community'.

Matthias Eder of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation is just one of the people who see potential in using the concept of the value chain to make sure discussions about adaptation planning cover a far broader group with inter-linked adaptation needs and interests, even if they are not strictly part of the same community group.

And in Ethiopia, for example, CARE and partners are helping pastoralists to analyse and plan climate change adaptation actions within the ecosystems on which they depend, rather than within individual communities. This not only leads to more sustainable plans but also has the potential to identify issues of economic and geographic marginalisation, helping to put people who have been sidelined firmly back on the map.

But perhaps there's one final element of effective community-based adaptation finance that we also need to be mindful of and take action on. When we talk about 'participation', let's not forget that participation starts right here with us.

If we really want to be inclusive and participatory when it comes to CBA finance, or any element of CBA, we need to make sure the people we're working for and alongside are represented in the room, debating and discussing the problems and solutions together.

Agnes Otzelberger is CARE International's Climate Change Adaptation and Gender Coordinator. For more information see www.careclimatechange.org.