Practical lessons on implementing business unusual 

Responding to the least developed countries’ call for a move away from business-as-usual climate action, IIED has been embedding business-unusual approaches in our ways of working. This blog shares some of our learning.

Sarah McIvor's picture
Blog by
15 June 2022

Sarah McIvor is a senior researcher in IIED's Climate Change research group

A flooded village with damaged houses.

Cyclone damage in Mozambique in 2019. Climate impacts are increasing: since the start of 2022, Mozambique has been hit by five tropical storms and cyclones (Photo: Denis Onyodi IFRC/DRK/Climate Centre via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

Having recognised that business-as-usual climate responses were not fit for purpose in their countries, IIED’s longstanding partner, the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group, launched the LDC Initiative for Effective Adaptation and Resilience (LIFE-AR) in 2018. Here, we outline what we mean by 'business-unusual' and summarise some practical lessons from our experiences.

A new way of working in climate action

Leading by example, the LDC Group encourages LDCs and the international climate community to shift away from the traditional approach to climate action – characterised by top-down, short-term climate projects, that work in silos, have high transaction and intermediation costs and a reliance on external expertise – towards:

  • LDC- and locally-led climate programmes with inclusive governance and decision making
  • Long-term (ten-year-plus) programmes that effectively build climate resilience
  • Multi-sectoral integrated approaches across whole-of-society (government, civil society, private sector, academia, and communities) 
  • Maximising finance to the local level, ensuring at least 70% reaches local communities, and
  • Engaging and building the capabilities of national and local LDC institutions, to retain skills and knowledge within countries.

Achieving business-unusual will take time, commitment and energy and is a journey along a pathway for change that supports doing development and climate action differently and more effectively.

A two-column table listing what business-as-usual and business-unusual approaches to climate action look like, under three headings: 'decision-making', 'programme design' and 'implementation'

Business-as-usual versus business-unusual approaches to decision making, programme design and implementation. Click on the image to enlarge it

What have we learnt about business unusual?

IIED has been privileged to work with the LDC Group in establishing LIFE-AR. Recognising that we are part of the international climate action space, we, too, have adopted more business-unusual practices while implementing our role as interim LIFE-AR secretariat. In so doing, we have learnt that:

1. Decision making must be led by LDCs and take place in equal spaces

This means:

  • We need to work with and for LDCs: IIED’s role is to follow the direction and decision making of LDCs, listening to the priorities set out in their LDC 2050 Vision and country workplans and supporting them on request. This requires working with humility, equality and transparency, and welcoming and valuing everyone’s expertise, most especially the LDCs.
  • It starts with us: we need to reflect on our role and power within the international development system as an organisation that receives and channels funding, and how we can shift and share that power to create more inclusive decision making by LDCs and communities. 
  • We need to create equal platforms for decision making: under the guidance of the LDC Group and its chair, we set up the LIFE-AR board as a space for equal decision making where global stakeholders from the LDC Group and development partners can work together to agree decisions. Regular LIFE-AR partner dialogues also provide the space to share learning, good practice in business-unusual and ideas to solve climate challenges from across all countries.  

2. Programme design must be long-term, flexible and cross-sector

This means: 

  • We need to develop long-term strategies: LIFE-AR’s ten-year strategy helps shift thinking away from short-term projects to longer-term programmes. This approach has brought development partners together to collectively support one strategy with one reporting framework, reducing the reporting burden. Both LDCs and development partners feed into the reporting, to capture joint efforts to achieve a shared LDC vision. 
  • Countries need flexibility to determine their own path towards overarching outcomes: The LDC Vision provides five overarching outcomes that LDCs seek to deliver, but countries engaged in LIFE-AR are free to determine the most effective and suitable approach to achieving these outcomes, for their context working at an appropriate pace.
  • Bringing sectors together through national platforms leads to collective and inclusive decision making: LDCs set up or strengthened existing climate coordination structures to create national platforms for LIFE-AR and brought in additional representatives of marginalised groups and different sectors, for making collective and inclusive climate decisions. 

3. Initiatives must be led and implemented by LDCs, for sustainability, building capabilities, and budgeted wisely to ensure finance reaches the local level

This means:

  •  We must recognise and value the expertise and experience that already exists in LDCs: where possible, LDC government staff should lead and undertake activities, with support from LDC institutions, such as universities, to build capabilities and retain knowledge. IIED’s aim as part of the LIFE-AR interim secretariat is to work ourselves out of our role and support the transition to an LDC secretariat for LIFE-AR. 
  • Applying cost-effective measures helps maximise funds to local communities: LDCs made use of existing facilities – including government meeting rooms and training centres – to avoid paying for expensive hotel facilities. As part of the LIFE-AR interim secretariat, IIED worked within budget allocations agreed by LDC Group and used staff on a part-time basis to bring in more expertise from a diversity of skill sets with minimal cost. Keeping costs down ensures more finance reaches the communities that need it.

Join us in this shift to business-unusual

Moving to business-unusual means we need to challenge existing practice and try new and innovative ways of working. This is vital to ensure the effectiveness of climate action, particularly for the world’s most vulnerable countries and communities.

IIED is on a journey to embed business-unusual in all our work and improve our own practice for the better. We applaud the LDCs for taking the lead on business-unusual and other organisations that are leading similar efforts.

We are keen to hear from your experience and learn from you. We invite you to get in touch so that we can reflect together on our ‘business unusual’ ways of working.

About the author

Was this page useful to you?