Getting local adaptation expertise into global spaces: five key messages we’re taking forward from CBA17

CBA17 was a hotspot for sharing the latest in local climate adaptation expertise and ways to put that expertise into practice. Aaron Acuda and Sushila Pandit set out key takeaways from the four-day global event

Aaron Acuda's picture Sushila Pandit's picture
Insight by 
Aaron Acuda
Sushila Pandit
Aaron Acuda is a researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group; Sushila Pandit is a climate resilience specialist and CBA programming co-chair
20 June 2023
UN climate change conference (COP28)
A series of pages related to IIED's activities at the 2023 UNFCCC climate change summit in Dubai
Groups of people talking to each other

A discussion session at CBA17, the first in-person conference since 2019 (Photo: IIED)

The 17th International Conference on Community-based Adaptation (CBA17) held in Bangkok, Thailand, brought together more than 250 practitioners, community representatives, local and national government planners, policymakers and donors from over 60 countries to discuss, debate and devise practical ways for driving forward locally led adaptation (LLA) to climate change. 

This first in-person CBA in four years created a dynamic and interactive space with diverse sessions geared towards learning, connecting, networking and collaborating.

The agenda was built around the following themes: climate finance, nature-based solutions, youth-led LLA, and innovation. A new theme ‘decolonising climate action’ explored how unjust legacies, racism, systemic exclusion and related power imbalances all undermine progressive climate action.  

Here are five key messages from the CBA community that emerged from the event: 

1) Disrupt the colonial systems that underpin and dominate climate action 

This theme set out to identify where responsibilities lie for dismantling the mechanisms that reinforce ongoing colonial legacies. 

Discussions established how concepts defined in the global North such as ‘efficiency’, ‘long-term’, or ‘capacity’ continue to shape adaptation dialogues. Coupled with their control over funds, donors and international NGOs maintain conceptual and practical control over how climate adaptation programmes develop.  

This triggered serious concern within the CBA community that emerging efforts to decolonise climate action will themselves be dominated by global North donors and the international NGOs that deliver funds on their behalf.  

Participants called for immediate action to disrupt colonial systems by creating more direct relationships and more frequent dialogues between donors and the local organisations their funding needs to reach.  

Capacity building and decision-making continue to be top-down and ineffective, despite this approach being repeatedly called out because of the power imbalances that underpin it. Co-creation of programmes with communities and active recognition of the value of local and Indigenous as well as scientific knowledge would help to rebalance the system. 

Let’s not fake locally led adaptation; there is a difference between ‘with the community’ and ‘led by the community’ – Michelle Du Toit, South-South North

Donors must be open not only to shifting resources directly to the local level but also creating flexibility for their local partners to apply adaptive management – changing in response to changing conditions and circumstances − when implementing projects.

They must accept that learning curves may be slower, and that failure happens and is an essential part of a two-way learning process.  

2) A call to youth: international activism is crucial, but devote energy to community-level advocacy too 

In recent years, the focus of many organisations supporting young people has been to encourage activism at major international policy events such as the UN climate negotiations.  

We need youth activism to challenge the status quo. But CBA participants also highlighted the power of influence through advocacy, particularly at community level.

We heard, for example, how Green Africa Youth Organization (GAYO) is actively contributing to local-level policy change by providing research on policy implementation and the impacts of climate change on the community. GAYO works alongside other youth-led organisations and national governments to review existing policies.  

Youth needs more inclusive opportunities so they can transition from activism to more actionable outcomes – Shohail SaifullahI, ICCCAD

To support meaningful youth engagement, donors should develop dedicated youth programmes and target funding streams directly towards youth-led organisations – rather than seeing youth as a subset of INGO projects. Dedicated funding streams to mobilise and harness the power of young people in their communities could have significant impact without needing huge sums.

3) More policies recognise nature-based solutions: now we need to sharpen and implement

Discussions noted significant advances around nature-based solutions (NbS), with more policies now recognising how NbS can build climate resilience and support adaptation.

Yet a gap remains between vague policy commitments and what is needed to put them into practice. Governments must explore how NbS is incorporated into planning, recognising the potential benefits to wellbeing, mental health and community cohesion that these solutions can bring.

Setting concrete targets will motivate action across government. Solutions that draw on Indigenous and local knowledge help build resilience while respecting community agency and dignity.

The NbS conversation needs to move beyond simplistic approaches that make blunt distinctions between ‘green’ and ‘grey’ infrastructure or that try to brand interventions as ‘nature-based’ by “simply placing and park or pond there” – as one CBA participant put it.

Governments must set up institutions that can foster effective collaboration between municipalities, communities and their representatives, scientists and engineers for sustainable and scalable integration of their perspectives in planning, implementation and subsequent learning.

4) Making adaptation innovations truly local calls for community integration and local leadership

Participants highlighted that innovation needs to be sustainable. Donors and governments need to resist the draw of shiny new pilots and think about how to scale up ones that have brought proven success. This means considering practicalities such as costs – innovations are useless unless they are affordable – and they must be developed in a regulatory and policy space that allows them to be widely adopted.

Innovations also need to be grounded in local realities. Innovations that foster dependencies on new technologies – such as drought tolerant seeds or power generating infrastructure – but are counter-productive if they can’t be maintained or reproduced locally. Engaging communities and their small and medium enterprises directly in the process of developing, testing and learning from innovations can help to reduce these risks, as communities can articulate what is working and what is not in real time.

Intermediaries such as INGOs and think tanks have a role to play as knowledge brokers and communicators, sharing learning and progress from other contexts with the wider community.

5) Climate finance and risk: we need to talk about risks – and who’s really carrying them

The issue of risk dominated discussions on climate finance. Local organisations highlighted the high levels of personal and reputational risks they take on, far outweighing the fiduciary risks held by donors.

When funds don’t come through to local organisations, when projects are cancelled or when individuals have to carry cash for payments, they face risks that compromise their operations. Surfacing and talking about these risks during early project discussions is the first step to addressing this.

Another critical question raised was “who decides success?” When INGOs and donors control how adaptation projects are run, the processes to monitor the impact of the climate finance and then integrate learning from it are neglected. In such cases, monitoring often ends up focusing on indicators and outcomes not relevant to the community, and is carried out as a box-ticking exercise rather than a tool to support long term and institutionalised learning.

Looking ahead

Trying to answer the big questions around the event’s five key themes gave rise to new thinking, fresh ideas and practical takeaways for immediate trialling and testing at community level.

But while new ideas surfaced, old issues remain. Some of the most basic asks to advance local-led adaptation are still going unheard – from shifting power to local communities, to calls for co-creating solutions.

Nonetheless, the energy of CBA17 galvanised commitment to get voices of those on the frontline of the climate crisis heard in global discourse. Our next step is to feed these messages into upcoming international discussions at London Climate Week, Africa Climate Week and the UN climate negotiations (COP28) later this year in Dubai.

With thanks to Sam Greene and Teresa Corcoran for contributions to this blog.