Sharing knowledge to climb the adaptation ladder

When it comes to climate adaptation, the Least Developed Countries have the greatest expertise and other countries may benefit from learning from what they have done.

Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to climate change and is at the forefront of adaptation efforts. This homestead has been designed to offer flood protection (Photo: CGIAR, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Over the last decade the world's poorest countries have been on the frontline of learning about how to adapt to climate change – and have become experts in this field. With all countries now expected to deliver National Adaptation Plans (NAPS), as part of the UNFCCC process, it is time to look at how to make the most of this expertise.

The 48 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have not only prepared their National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), in which they identify the most urgent and immediate adaptation actions, but have also implemented many adaptation projects.

As a result, many individuals and institutions in these countries have gained considerable knowledge, and even expertise, in both planning as well as implementing adaptation activities. 

Some have even moved on from stand-alone adaptation projects to integrating or mainstreaming adaptation to climate change into national and sectoral development planning, and even into national budgeting (a significant step up the learning ladder).

National Adaptation Plans

Under the Cancun Adaptation Framework, all developing and even developed countries are supposed to prepare NAPs. These are meant to be more of a process than plan and the LDC Expert Group (LEG) has provided guidance for the process to be followed for preparing NAPs. At the same time United Nations agencies and bilateral donor agencies have initiated NAP support programmes of various types.

The challenge

I believe that the main challenge at this stage is how to best enable countries to learn from each other in South-to-South, South-to-North as well as North-to-South pathways of knowledge exchange. 

A significant impediment to meeting this challenge is that the default means and tools of support from UN and bilateral agencies are confined to either holding one-size-fits-all "training workshops", or preparing "tools" and "guidelines" by consultants, or sending Northern consultants.

This assumes a North-to-South 'knowledge delivery' paradigm where the Northern 'experts' tell southern people and institutions how to do NAPs.

I believe this model is quite inadequate and may be even be inappropriate. 

Meeting the challenge

The countries that have developed their NAPAs are no longer at the bottom of an "adaptation learning ladder", but are now several steps up the ladder, albeit each on a different aspect. 

This means designing a one-size-fits-all methodology is no longer appropriate. The current challenge is rather how to learn from each other in an effective manner. This would primarily involve countries in the South learning from each other, since the LDCs are the countries furthest up the adaptation knowledge ladder.

One of the key aspects of adaptation science is that it is a learning-by-doing process. Knowledge on successful adaptation is acquired by practitioners from experience and this can then be combined with theory to produce a better understanding of what works.

This means that understanding what is effective adaptation needs to be co-produced by practitioners and theoreticians working together. It also requires a combination of indigenous or local people's knowledge combined with scientific expertise.

Sharing knowledge

What we need now, in my view, is: 

  • To promote knowledge exchange visits through tailor-made peer-to-peer visits between key stakeholder groups from one developing country to another to learn from each other
  • To hold bespoke tailor-made training workshops for very specific cohorts of people, such as officials from finance ministries on climate finance, or officials from planning ministries on mainstreaming adaptation into planning, and so on, and
  • To send experts from countries who have actually tackled climate change and done adaption to share their experiential knowledge with other countries.

IIED and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) are trying to address this issue, albeit in a very modest way, through a South-South Knowledge Exchange Programme on Adaptation to Climate Change which invites participants from other countries, including LDCs, other developing countries and even developed countries to visit Bangladesh, where ICCCAD is located, and meet with people who have actually done something to tackle climate change and learn from their experiences. 

We are also seeking to mobilise the 400-plus ICCCAD alumni from more than 40 countries in Asia and Africa as 'resource people' to visit other developing countries to share their experiences. 

Finally we plan to hold a series of "learning courses" on specific topics for specific cohorts of actors (e.g. the next one will be on climate finance aimed at people working in finance ministries). The aim is to enhance learning from one another's experiential knowledge of adaptation, in addition to the traditional "teacher-student" relationship of knowledge transfer.

It is only by learning from each other that we can make the most of what we already know.

Saleemul Huq (saleemul.huq@iied.org) is a senior fellow at IIED and director of ICCCAD.