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Why Institutions Matter For Climate Change Adaptation In Developing Countries

This post was written with Youba Sokona, coordinator of the African Climate Policy Center (ACPC) at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. ACPC and WRI have signed a memorandum of understanding to partner on analysis, convening, and other joint activities to promote low-carbon, climate-resilient development in Africa.

WRI recently published "Ready or Not", a report on the roles of national institutions in adapting to climate change, based on WRI’s National Adaptive Capacity (NAC) framework. On February 21, WRI Vulnerability and Adaptation Initiative Co-directors Heather McGray and Johan Schaar led a workshop introducing the NAC framework to 17 staff and fellows of the African Climate Policy Center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Gebru Jember of the Ethiopia Climate Change Forum also shared his organization’s experience using the NAC through the ARIA project.

When you have a simple headache, you can take an aspirin, and it usually clears up. But if you have heart disease, you will likely need to make some major changes in your lifestyle: diet, exercise, plenty of doctors’ visits, and perhaps a long-term course of expensive prescription medicine.

Climate change, unfortunately, is no mere headache. Building a climate-resilient society will require long-term and potentially fundamental transformations, including changes both large and small. This is why institutions are central to the climate-resilient development agenda.

The Role of Institutions

Institutions are the formal and informal organizations through which society structures shared decision-making and takes collective action.

Many would add that the rules and norms – both tacit and explicit – through which people interact are also institutions. Organizations, rules, and norms all are critical building blocks for short- and long-term action on climate change. These institutions may need to adapt substantially as the climate problem worsens.

The challenge to climate resilience in much of the developing world – including Africa – is that many institutions that fulfill key functions of an adapting society are weak or absent. Which organizations will gather and synthesize information about changes in the climate? By what criteria will decision-makers prioritize investments of scarce adaptation funding? How will different players – government, civil society, academia, business – coordinate their adaptation actions across sectoral and administrative boundaries? Answers to these questions are hard enough in places with well-established governments, markets, universities, and advocacy communities. But many African countries lack these institutions altogether.

Of course, in some respects, weakness in existing institutions creates an opportunity for Africa in contending with climate change. As climate change reveals a need for new institutions – such as for channeling climate finance, coordinating adaptation actions across sectors, and reconciling long-term resilience with short-term development priorities – it may be easier to start from scratch than to reconfigure existing systems. Because the continent is less locked into formally established ways of making decisions, Africans have the opportunity to design new institutions to be flexible and climate-resilient.

Enter: The African Climate Policy Center

The African Climate Policy Center (ACPC) – itself a new institution, fewer than two years old – aims to help improve climate change and development information for Africa, as well as strengthen the use of such information and knowledge in decision making. Like WRI, it seeks to go beyond research to promote tangible change – putting ideas into action. Last year was ACPC’s start-up year, spent hiring staff and “getting on the map” with a major conference, a series of working papers, and roundtables in the COP 17 Africa Pavilion in Durban, South Africa.

In 2012, as ACPC settles into its core work and deepens its partnership with WRI, institutional mapping is high on the agenda. To help African countries make climate-resilient development a reality, ACPC analysts need to understand the institutional strengths and weaknesses that these countries bring to the challenge of adapting to climate change. Drawing on WRI’s National Adaptive Capacity framework, ACPC plans to study four or five countries to develop:

  • A map of key institutions for managing climate-relevant data, information, and knowledge, both at national and regional levels
  • An inventory of African organizations responsible for various aspects of water management
  • An in-depth understanding of the various climate change policy approaches to agricultural development being tried across the continent

With this kind of information, ACPC and WRI will be able to identify where institutional barriers to adaptation action need to be addressed and decide how to target capacity-building activities to have a sustained effect. It’s a first step in the long-term “treatment” of forging climate-resilient development paths, instead of simply treating symptoms with an aspirin.

Read the full report: Ready or Not: Assessing Institutional Aspects of National Capacity for Climate Change Adaptation

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