Across the world, climate change is already a major threat to people and their livelihoods. The impacts of climate change are already here, and local actors — including community-based organizations, citizen groups, local government and small businesses whose livelihoods largely rely on natural resources — are the most vulnerable, often being the first and hardest hit.

To address these impacts, there has been a recent push to make sure local communities have the power to influence adaptation efforts. Locally led adaptation recognizes that people and communities on the front lines of climate change are often best placed to identify solutions. It must be carried out thoughtfully to avoid overburdening local partners, and in some cases may not be the right approach, but represents an important shift toward adaptation that centers local cultures, contexts and interests. This approach also distributes power and resources more equitably.

Many governments and large international organizations also want to make sure funding for adaptation reaches the local level. Despite this, international and national actors removed from the direct impacts of climate change continue to hold most of the money for adaptation and decide how to spend it.

Following the Climate Adaptation Summit in January 2021, over 50 institutions endorsed eight Principles for Locally Led Adaptation. These principles aim to create greater decision-making and leadership spaces for local communities, local organizations, civil society groups and other local actors at the forefront of climate impacts. They also underscore the importance of local actors playing meaningful roles in planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating adaptation measures so they are context-specific and sustainable over time.

Now, institutions must put these ideas into practice. Improving locally led adaptation will require implementing the principles at every stage, from designing and planning projects to monitoring and evaluating their success.

Adaptation is Not Yet Locally Led

WRI reviewed 374 community-based project and programs around the world. Although about a third of reviewed examples included aspects of traditional community engagement or participatory planning, only 22 — or about 6% of examples — strongly featured locally led elements. Locally led adaptation is currently not happening at a large scale, which is a problem given its necessity.

In many of these cases, the deciding factor on whether a project is locally led was the communities’ or their representatives’ control over funding allocations. Communities and other local actors are frequently the best placed to understand their own priorities and needs. Despite this, they tend to be recipients of distant experts’ choices instead of leaders and decision-makers for planning and implementing climate finance. This prevents local actors from having the power to make most decisions about how to adapt to climate change.

Funders are often reluctant to invest in local actors, institutions and organizations due to external perceptions of risk, high transaction costs and insufficient subnational capacities from local governments and organizations. Accessibility also remains a barrier to locally led adaptation because various intermediaries are involved before it reaches the local level. As a result, funding is “lost on the way in complex processes.” Even when the funding does reach local actors, it may not be adapted to local priorities.

Whether local actors are in leadership roles — which is strongly connected to funding allocation — is also a critical factor in deciding whether a project is locally led. The leadership and agency of local actors at various stages is instrumental to locally led adaptation. Because vulnerable communities at the local level are disproportionately affected by climate change, not including their voices in the decision-making for adaptation solutions can result in measures that are not as effective, inclusive or long-lasting. It also misses an opportunity to enhance the capacity of existing local actors and create buy-in so that efforts will endure over time.

A graphic showing how local involvement in projects increases when local actors have agency and leadership.

Bringing decision-making closer to those most affected can deliver democratic, equitable and context-specific solutions. This approach to decision-making can bring about multiple benefits, such as recognition of local knowledge and more holistic, flexible solutions that accommodate different future scenarios while achieving development and poverty alleviation gains. Diverse participation can also help coordinate adaptation actions, avoid duplicating adaptation efforts and enhance best adaptation practices.

Enacting the Principles of Locally Led Adaptation at Every Phase

Successful locally led adaptation depends on turning these principles into action at every phase of intervention. Two WRI working papers, Locally Led Climate Adaptation: What Is Needed to Accelerate Action and Support? and Reshaping Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning for Locally Led Adaptation, explore how to incorporate the elements of locally led adaptation into different phases on intervention and provide examples of effective implementation.

Here are the three strategies identified in this research:

1. Putting Design and Funding in the Hands of Local Actors

Decisions about how funding will be controlled should include local voices so that funds reflect local needs, priorities and evolving contexts. Funding should also be flexible so that local actors can adjust activities as needed. This flexibility should ensure that the recipient has autonomy over the funding, allowing them to take action such as putting capital aside for special or unforeseen circumstances, or redistributing to different community groups as they see fit. Flexible funding can also contribute to longer-term results by addressing changing priorities over time. Local actors can also leverage this flexibility to demonstrate and scale up efforts, which can attract greater support and resources.

Two people collecting grains in a large field.
Villages engaged in mountainous agriculture in China, who directly depend on natural resources for their livelihoods, tend to be highly vulnerable to climate impacts. Photo by GEF / Flickr

The Urban Poor Fund International (UPFI) provides communities across the globe with direct control of an initial amount of capital. UPFI aims to enable people living in urban poverty to design and co-manage their own development agendas, recognizing that vulnerable and resource-scarce communities often face institutional barriers to obtaining initial funds for adaptation. This approach to capital gave India and South Africa some leverage to negotiate with banks and the government for housing and infrastructure-financing projects.

2. Enhancing Institutional and Technical Capacity-building

Grassroots organizations, local governments and other local actors often do not have all the resources they need to operate outside of narrowly-defined projects, making it difficult to plan for the long-term impacts of climate change. Investing in local institutions can result in partnerships with government, the private sector and others to develop complementary approaches to tackle climate change. It can also enable long-term adaptation and allow these institutions to evolve to community needs, facilitate project continuity and build trust with the community.

Four people in Fiji sitting around a table and discussing an adaptation project.
Adaptation project coordinators meeting in Fiji. Photo by GEF / Flickr.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme (SGP), created in 1992, seeks to address communities’ livelihood challenges while reducing environmental threats. It provides direct and continuous technical and financial support to local civil society organizations (CSOs) and communities through modest grants. These grants are based on the idea that a proven, community-driven idea will be easier to scale up through local networks and partner organizations. An independent evaluation of 144 projects found that the program created substantial benefits at the community level, such as higher incomes; better access to microcredit, water and energy; time savings; and environmental benefits.

3. Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning

Processes for monitoring, evaluating and learning (MEL) about locally led adaptation should themselves be locally led to inform what success looks like, how it should be measured and who has ownership over these processes. However, these processes are typically skewed toward players who hold the most power. As a result, local partners use their time and resources to collect data and evaluate programs so they can report up to funders. This top-down evaluation approach does not necessarily have added value for the people, communities and local partners central to these interventions. It also may not provide useful information for the local partners who are donating their time and expertise.

A group of community members in Kenya participating in a survey on livestock.
Community members in weigh in on a survey for a sustainable ruminant breeding program though the climate-smart villages project. Photo by S.Kilungu (CCAFS)/Flickr

CGIAR’s climate-smart villages (CSV) project — which supports farmers to identify strategies for adapting agricultural practices to climate impacts — employed a more bottom-up evaluation approach that uses methods such as surveys, farmer group evaluations and information and communications technology (ICT) feedback tools like crowdsourcing. The result is response-based evidence on the effects of climate change on agriculture that is locally driven and tailored to hyperlocal contexts. Additionally, this learning is available globally through an online platform, giving both funders and farmers access to this information in real-time.

In addition to using a bottom-up approach, MEL processes must intentionally balance power between local partners and funders and large intermediary organizations. This includes addressing bias in the knowledge, values and cultural norms that are privileges, promoting downward accountability to local actors and letting local demand drive decisions about adaptation metrics, training, capacity building, use of technology and innovation.

Locally Led Adaptation: Looking to the Future

As the locally led adaptation movement grows, more practice and research will be needed to better understand the impacts and benefits of locally led adaptation; how it can be scaled and integrated into climate and development efforts; and how it can support social equity and justice.

Prioritizing the role of local actors in designing, implementing, monitoring, evaluating and learning from interventions can help meet actors’ priorities and needs, while providing real-life lessons on adaptation. The Principles for Locally Led Adaptation are a guide on how to improve adaptation, but they must be put into practice. Enacting the principles at every stage of interventions will be essential to effectively place frontline communities at the heart of climate action.

The community of institutions endorsing the Principles for Locally Led Adaptation continues to grow. If your organization is interested in joining this effort, please see our webpage for more information.