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The Climate Challenge: Reversing the Declining Resilience of the Poor

By Belay E. Begashaw


Commentaries were commissioned by the World Resources Report to react to the Expert Perspectives series. This commentary responds to Question 3: How can development agencies help vulnerable countries adapt effectively?


All the authors in this interesting series of papers agreed that climate change has cast an enormous shadow on the present efforts by developing countries to end poverty. Cognizant of the fact that climate change is not a standalone challenge, some call for the need for holistic approaches to address the negative effects of climate change. Others emphasize that to effectively benefit from foreign assistance, poor countries need to embrace multi-fold approaches in which climate change is addressed as a major challenge while also underscoring the importance of other prevailing challenges to poverty alleviation. One of the writers also emphasized that an effective strategy requires strong political and institutional leadership, technical knowledge and support systems, financial management expertise, access to sufficient funding and appropriate technologies, and accountability and reporting systems. The importance of involving development partners in adaptation planning in developing countries and the role of information technologies, communication, logistics, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and spatial data in a changing climate were among other issues the writers dwelt on.

What it will take for developing countries to have functional systems in place, however, has only been slightly touched upon in the papers reviewed. Reference is not made to the human, institutional and physical capacities that are required to maintain such systems. The political will to implement some of these systems is equally lacking, in good measure due to poor governance and insufficient data.

Significantly, the ever-increasing dynamics involved in climate change have sharpened the decline in the resilience capacity of millions of citizens in poor developing countries. There is no doubt that climate change has exacerbated existing economic, political and social stresses throughout the world, especially in poor countries. Indeed, this situation has seriously harmed the sustenance of the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of farmers and urban dwellers already suffering from the vicious cycle of low-income, low-investment and low-productivity conditions.

Adaptation, mitigation, vulnerability and resilience capacity are often referred to today in explaining the concept of climate change, its consequences to mankind, and how to respond to it. As a development practitioner from a poor African country, these terms and concepts are beyond resorting to jargon and rhetorical characterizations. Instead, they are an expression of the pain which millions of people are suffering from every day. Ironically, and unfortunately, it is the same people who are least responsible for the serious damage that climate change has inflicted on the world's environment who are the ones who are suffering disproportionately and who will continue suffering most if they don't move swiftly and proactively to mitigate the effects.

One argument that I would like to raise is whether the distinctions between these terms-adaptation, mitigation, and vulnerability and resilience capacity-are relevant beyond academic purposes. Personally, I have a problem in differentiating adaptation from mitigation, and vulnerability from the depletion of assets which leads to a minimum or little resilience capacity. It is true that adaptation is about adjustment to response to climate stimuli, however this occurs. To me, climate change is already with us. We have been living it and experiencing its consequences for years if not decades. Any action that we take to mitigate its further impact should center on addressing such consequences that have left millions without any assets and coping mechanisms or little to no resilience capacity.

The new Drylands Initiative-signed by seven countries in the Horn of Africa to address poverty and impacts of climate changes-is a special initiative that we have recently launched that will support technical, policy and political activities that are considered imperative to address the situation. Though a large number of problems may still need technical solutions, experience shows that exclusively technical panaceas will not bear any fruit.

An effective strategic response requires three elements: a long-term perspective; a regional orientation sensitive to cross-border challenges and possibilities; and national strategies that recognize the need for capacity building at local and national levels, good governance, and community-driven project interventions focused on improving livelihoods and eliminating poverty.

Long-term perspective. Any effort towards sustainable solutions should not undermine policy- and political-level solutions including good governance. Both adaptation and mitigation efforts have to put human beings and their welfare front and center. The unique nature of the climate change problem may call for measures and actions beyond those focused on short-term impacts. Hence, any endeavor in this regard should give due attention to ensuring the existence of the right capacity that will enable taking care of the situation.

Regional approaches. The fact that climate change is a borderless plague is an additional reason for the need to think similarly beyond geo-political border solutions to the problem. One should not underestimate the impact of present poverty-prone lifestyles that have been adopted by many in the areas where the impact of climate change has been significantly felt. In order to combat the borderless nature of natural phenomena such as diseases, droughts, floods, and the shortage of feed, among other consequences, many people have been forced to cross borders in search of food and pasture - a situation which unfortunately may not be sustainable nor welcome by sedentary politicians and development advisors. Technical policy measures and solutions-that will meet the need for structural transformation in areas where climate change is now adversely affecting people's lives-are imperative. Once this issue is appreciated and embraced among priorities at national level, it should be underpinned by regional harmonization measures for its maximum impact for sustainability.

National and local level strategies. Similarly, national policy efforts should be extended to support the building of vigorous good governance at local levels. Once these frameworks are in place, technical solutions should be tailored in such a way that they help kick off the development process. Practically speaking, many of the areas vulnerable to the impact of climate change are areas with little to no capacity for development. Climate change-driven problems-such as water stress, drought, and floods-are not the only sources of failures in livelihood. Poor infrastructure, low literacy levels, and the lack of social services such as schools and health facilities, due to long-term neglect by policymakers, are also debilitating factors responsible for the present situation.

In conclusion, what is needed is a comprehensive development approach that will bring about significant changes in the livelihoods of people in these areas. Given the decisive nature that some climate change-driven factors such as water stress and agriculture may have in these areas, development program should begin to address these factors as entry points into climate change-affected communities and plan all other elements of development around them. Improving access to water and livestock development activities, for example, are the two essential entry points in the drylands pastoral system for development. Effective development interventions should also:

Build essential social and economic infrastructure at the same time to help ensure the existence of a threshold institutional and human capacity that will be required to kick off development in the area.

Utilize an integrated development approach within each community, by which all of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be tackled simultaneously.

Encompass asset building that will help create development opportunities. Given that most of the people living under this condition are either transitory or in a chronic food insecure situation.

Operate at regional levels (cross country), as climate change adoption and mitigation efforts need to create the perception of establishing a single economic/environmental space. As ecosystems and watersheds cross national boundaries, so do a region's challenges and opportunities. As the impact expands at an increasingly alarming pace, failure to check the situation in time may lead to irreversible conditions in the region.

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