Map vs territory: tackling the mismatch between adaptation policy and on-the-ground experience

Noel Oettle and Bimal Regmi discuss issues they will explore alongside delegates under the ‘policy engagement’ theme at CBA13. Using examples from real experience, sessions will challenge existing evidence-to-policy mechanisms and test emerging ones.

Article, 18 March 2019

Noel OettleThe 13th international conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change (CBA13), taking place on 1-4 April 2019 in Ethiopia, will examine how the wealth of learning generated through widespread experiences of local climate action best inform the policies of the most vulnerable countries.

Bimal RegmiTogether, participants will build up a picture of how iterative and continuous engagement in policymaking processes and discourse can enable effective learning at all levels. Noel Oettle (NO), of the Environmental Monitoring Group in South Africa, and Bimal Regmi (BR), at Oxford Policy Management, will co-lead the theme and here, set the scene.

Q: What are the challenges with ensuring adaptation policies speak to the realities of communities on the ground? 

NO: Globally and locally, high levels of uncertainty and the fast-changing nature of the impacts of global warming call for improved ongoing learning cycles. Lived experience of adaptation solutions that are – or aren’t – working at community level must flow into feedback loops that connect with and inform policy, programmes and projects, whether these be at sub-national, national or international level. These feedback loops must be continuous and iterative.

Under the ‘policy engagement’ theme at CBA13, participants will examine – in a practical, hands-on way – how learning generated through local experiences of climate adaptation can improve policies to benefit the most vulnerable communities. Together, we’ll be seeking the evidence and experiences that provide insight to enlighten policies and interventions that build the resilience of communities on the ground.

At the same time, we’ll be looking critically at when and why interventions or policies fail to contribute to resilience building or possibly even have a counterproductive effect. And in the light of these insights, how policies can be tweaked and adjusted and so avoid maladaptation and negative impacts.

BR: Active citizenship in policymaking becomes more important for reshaping and redesigning policies to deal with complex issues such as climate change adaptation. The multi-sectoral nature of climate change policymaking requires active engagement of different stakeholders, including citizens, in both the design and implementation of policies. However, the process of designing adaptation policies for the least developed countries is problematic: policy formulation is still confined to invited, but hand-picked, individuals and organisations.

Q: Can you share an example of when interventions have been counterproductive? 

NO: One classic historical example of how well-planned policy interventions can have unforeseen negative impacts is from India in the 1960s during a major drought. An innovative policy response was formulated and in July 1969 the Rural Electrification Corporation was established, with a mandate that included providing power at no cost to small-scale farmers to overcome the crippling impact of three successive years of deficient monsoons by increasing agricultural production.

Pump irrigation on a farm in Cooch Behar, in the Indian state of West Bengal (Photo: ICIMOD Kathmandu, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The scheme was so successful that millions of farmers were able to produce irrigated crops year-round. On the one hand the intervention worked, and India has not experienced famine since that time. On the other hand, the scheme has had a hugely detrimental effect on groundwater levels, which have become severely depleted in many parts of India. This is a clear example of how well-intended policy can have negative impacts.

In cases where interventions are developed in consultation with civil society, it’s a fair assumption that the schemes would be effective in responding to local realities. The Adaptation Fund put in place a comprehensive environmental and social policy in response to engagement with civil society. The policy seeks to ensure that “projects and programmes supported by the fund do not result in unnecessary environmental and social harms”.

However, sound policy must also be implemented in sound ways, at all levels. If institutions at the higher level pass down the responsibility for compliance with social and environmental policy to affected communities in order to avoid risk and responsibility, they will unnecessarily hinder people’s ability to take ownership and to innovate.

Organisations should not be responsible for navigating a complex set of rules that meet multiple, often elaborate criteria. And given this organisation would typically be small and relatively informal, execution can be a huge administrative burden.

Even the best planning processes cannot anticipate all of the opportunities that will present themselves in the future, or the challenges that will emerge. As the saying goes, the map is not the territory – so even using the best information and integrating the best thinking does not guarantee the desired policy outcome. This is why robust feedback loops must be in place – providing safety nets that prevent inappropriate policies becoming a hindrance or an obstacle to local level adaptation.

BR: Examples of issues around public policymaking can be drawn from Nepal. Policymaking processes in the context of development and climate change have been centralised and limited to a few international agencies working at the centre: the process has lacked local and national level ownership. 

This has implications for policy implementation – due to lack of public support and ownership from across government agencies, policies have not achieved what they set out to do.

Sectoral and isolated approaches (top-down or bottom-up) to climate change policy design – as practiced in most of the countries – fail to mainstream climate change because policy contents are fragmented, the process of policymaking is exclusive, and there is not sufficient ownership by major stakeholders, including the communities.

This had implications when it comes to the practical implementation of adaptation projects. Due to a mismatch in local demand and government priorities, the scale of adaptation support was limited to a few geographic areas and often dependent on external development agency support. Interestingly, local governments were reluctant to allocate financial resources and prioritise adaptation activities on ground.

Q: Picking up the point on feedback loops, what do effective feedback loops look like in practice? 

NO: Robust feedback loops require collaborative working with clear lines of communication running up and down the chain. In some cities in southern Africa, different government departments – planning, health, water – and municipalities had not been coordinating effectively or connecting with how national policies they were implementing were playing out on the ground. An adaptation intervention might, for example, support people to improve household water security by increasing rainwater storage but might simultaneously increase the risk of malaria.

Recent work led by the FRACTAL (Future Resilience for African Cities and Lands) partners has helped to create the necessary links and ongoing forums to enable policy and practice to be better aligned and more responsive to emerging realities. The success of this process has been rooted in its iterative nature. It has enabled officials to explore alternatives and to develop connections with one another over an extended period of time.

Feedback loops that support an iterative implementation process must be built into the national system. That said, governments typically work to long planning and budgeting cycles, often around five years; being responsive and agile is challenging for institutions with necessarily long planning cycles.

At CBA13 we will be exploring how governments can increase their flexibility to be able to reflect and learn from practice, and how local communities can be enabled to contribute their perspectives and experiences into policy formulation and review processes.

BR: We need integrated policy frameworks to strengthen the feedback loops. Developing these will take a two-pronged approach: first, creating meaningful spaces for inclusive citizen participation and second, by reflecting the spirit of decentralising and devolving power and authority to local institutions. 

Q. How will ideas emerging from the policy engagement theme at CBA13 be taken forward? 

NO: The CBA conferences are part of a broader, holistic process that actively enables its community of practice to keep engaged throughout the year with a range of other live policy processes. So, we’ll be joining up the dots and taking messaging that emerge to various forums including the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit in September. The Development and Climate Days at this year’s UN climate negotiations will also be an important landing and launching zone for sharing emerging lessons on adaptation at local scale and applying solutions and innovations for building resilience of communities on the front line of climate change.

BR: Discussions from CBA13 will feed into ways to improve processes and practices at the national and local level. Policymakers will be able to reflect and learn ways to make these processes more effective while building downward accountability.

Q. What can delegates expect from the policy engagement sessions?

NO: Creating a platform for amplifying lived experiences of climate vulnerability and resilience is at the very core of the CBA13 programme (PDF). Discussions and debate will remain grounded and firmly rooted in local realities.

We will keep a strong focus on gender – recognising that gender inequalities persist with knock-on effects for the validity of any evidence that is gathered. Participants from CBA12 in Malawi explored how climate adaptation can be an entry point to address gender inequalities; we will be ready to further unpack this thinking of how to ensure women are engaged in and empowered to fully participate in evidence gathering processes.

Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson (left) and IIED's director of climate change Clare Shakya talk to participants at CBA12 in Malawi (Photo: Teresa Corcoran/IIED)

Delegates should come prepared to engage and re-imagine, to challenge existing evidence-to-policy mechanisms and test emerging ones. Using examples from real experience, we’ll build up a picture of how iterative and continuous engagement in policymaking processes and discourse can enable effective learning at all levels – from those on the ground affected by climate impacts to those sitting in capital cities in air-conditioned offices. Together we will gain locally-inspired insights into how to nurture sustained resilience for the most climate vulnerable communities.

BR: CBA13 delegates will hear and share lessons from around the world on the approaches, processes, mechanisms that enable effective adaptation policies. What do these look like? How can they be achieved? How can we improve policymaking to ensure local demands are met, and with greater downward accountability? We’ll be tackling these and other key questions in Addis Ababa. Join us!

This interview was compiled by Teresa Corcoran (, communications content officer, IIED's Communications Group.