World Resource Institute

Question Three: How can development agencies help vulnerable countries adapt effectively?

What are appropriate roles for development agencies in supporting national-level decision-making processes for a changing climate? Specifically, how can they promote planning and policies that are robust, durable and sufficiently flexible to respond to and prepare for the many challenges posed by climate change, including its uncertainties, long-term impacts and surprises?

In international discussions on how to counter the effects of climate change on developing countries, most of the focus so far has been on how development can support adaptation interventions. Much less attention has been paid to the more specific but vitally important question of how development agencies can support effective decision-making processes for adaptation by national governments.

Climate change presents extraordinary challenges both to preserving current progress in the developing world, and for fulfilling global anti-poverty objectives such as the Millennium Development Goals. Vulnerability to climate change impacts is greatest in poor countries and their capacity to manage this complex problem will be critical to economic and social progress and effective adaptation. Key sectors including water and forest management, agriculture, electricity production and coastal zone management will all be affected by climate change impacts. Not only are development goals unlikely to be achieved if future climate risks are not also taken into account in the near term. Past expenditures may become less effective and previous investments may become obsolete. In other words, the way decision-making processes are designed to integrate climate risks will be a key determinant in a country's ability either to mitigate or to exacerbate current and future climate-related impacts.

Development agencies, including bilateral and multilateral donors and multilateral development banks, will of necessity play a major role in supporting decision-making processes for addressing climate change risks. In doing so, agencies will need to grapple with pressing real world questions such as the following:

  • In drought-prone countries such as Niger, how can development agencies assist in developing and strengthening institutions and processes that can effectively respond to and prepare for more prolonged dry periods?
  • How can development agencies assist planners to prepare for the eventual transition of entire sectors that will no longer be viable in a changing climate?
  • How can development agencies help put in place fast-reacting institutional mechanisms to deal with climate-related surprises, such as a non-native pest migration that results in novel disease patterns and demands on health resources?
  • What initiatives can assist decision-making processes to prepare for projected changes in precipitation, when modelers are uncertain whether a region will receive more or less rainfall in future?

Aid agencies are already pursuing capacity building, sectoral investments and policy reforms to promote broad-based economic growth in developing countries. In many cases such initiatives will also enhance their resilience in a changing climate. For example, efforts to foster the social, environmental and economic resilience of communities have laid useful groundwork for adapting to climate impacts. How can such investments and initiatives be enhanced and augmented to promote governments' abilities to make decisions in a changing climate? Some of the key elements that will be required for successful decision making for a changing climate include the following:

Decision makers will have to contend with changes in the mean state of the climate system and its variability. Some of these changes are uncertain and won't become manifest for decades, but require early planning. Decision-making processes must, therefore, be proactive if planning and policy objectives are to be met in a changing climate. Decisions must also be robust - given the uncertainty surrounding climate risks - if they are to enable communities and ecosystems to prepare for a range of impact scenarios. Since climate change will bring unforeseeable surprises, decision making must also be designed to be responsive and flexible in order to adjust to changed circumstances and new information. And, given the long-lasting nature and magnitude of climate change's impacts, decision-making processes must be durable.

Against this background, in this third expert paper series for World Resources 2010: Decision Making in a Changing Climate, we ask authors to delve into the critical question of what are appropriate roles for development agencies in supporting national-level decision-making processes for a changing climate?

  • Are there innovative examples/good practices of development agency initiatives that support the types of decision making outlined above? Do certain types of development assistance impede or stymie such decision making, presenting hurdles to contending with climate change's surprises, uncertainty, long-term nature, heightened change and variability? If so, which?
  • What recommendations or guidance would you give to development agencies to enable them to adequately support national-level decision making in a changing climate?
  • What has the development community learned from similar efforts to manage other types of risks?

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Expert Perspectives

Philip M. Gwage: Drawing from personal experience in Uganda, it is clear that while development partners do not directly participate in the development of National Development Plans or sectoral policies and plans...» Read Full Paper

Bo Lim and Jennifer Baumwoll: This paper describes the lessons learned from the UNDP’s experience building national capacity to address climate change in the area of adaptation. In doing so, it outlines current thinking on...» Read Full Paper

Mike Muller: Using his top level experience in the water resource management sector in South Africa, Muller provides a detailed list of guiding principles to development agencies seeking to support national...» Read Full Paper

Dr. Paul B. Siegel: There has been a welcome paradigm shift in the development community to focus attention on the causes and cures of human vulnerability. In this context, it is imperative that development agencies...» Read Full Paper