Attend Spring Meetings on Development topics from Apr 17-21. Comment and engage with experts. Calendar of Events

Syndicate content

Climate adaptation from the bottom up

Rasmus Heltberg's picture

One of the largest and hardest challenges facing us as development professionals is how to empower the poor to better manage climate risks and climate changes. This question is also at the heart of this year’s DM competition where we seek practical solutions to poor communities’ tough climate problems. I am excited to see what kind of proposals we’ll get and feel confident that the global community of development practitioners – NGOs, indigenous peoples groups, universities, local governments, etc – will come up with really innovative ideas and solutions.

I am more concerned with the way in which the donor community is gearing up to climate change. Yes, it is encouraging that we see increasing amounts of donor funding for climate, including the new $6 billion climate investment funds housed at the World Bank. But the old pattern of mistrust and suspicion between the rich North and the poor South continues to poison the debates and block for a partnership of trust and collaboration. The South does not trust the North to deliver funds and technologies and the North does not trust the South to reduce emissions and spend donor funds wisely. It is like a bad marriage where the partners’ mistrust of each others’ intentions overshadows everything else and the partners do not realize that the survival of their marriage is at stake. The twist, of course, is that now the survival or our planet and civilization is at stake.

The way we plan to fund adaptation to worsening climates also causes concern. Rich countries insist that adaptation funds made available to developing countries be spent according to agreed plans that are to be drawn up in certain ways. While there is nothing wrong with plans per se, I am concerned when plans are overly rigid and centralized, omit the private sector and civil society, and rely on central ministries to deliver in areas where they haven’t been able to deliver in the past. How much pro-poor community-based adaptation has there been in adaptation plans so far? I guess not a whole lot.

But are there alternatives to top-down aid for adaptation? Yes, livelihoods and community-driven development projects have come up with a mechanism for giving money and empowerment directly to poor communities to priorities defined by the communities themselves through inclusive consultations. This is relevant to adaptation because the climate risks, and possible solutions to manage those risks, are highly localized and need local solutions; there is little reason to believe that central plans can accurately account for all the local variation in environment and climate and other factors that needs to be considered when crafting community resilience.

Let me quote the World Bank’s Adolfo Brizzi on this point:

“Livelihoods projects have demonstrated how important it is to help the poor organize themselves so that they can juggle their own interests, make their own decisions, and take charge of their own development. Supporting institutions of the poor, instead of institutions for the poor has turned the development paradigm on its head and unleashed the innovative potential of rural communities across South Asia." (Livelihoods Newsletter #3”)

So, we already have a successful model to empower the poor and unleash their innovative potential. In fact, community-driven development projects have been used for years to protect forests, water sheds, and coastal resources as well as the rural livelihoods depending on these natural resources. The parallel between this and some of the adaptation challenges is striking. Why are we not drawing on the best of the community-driven development experiences as we gear up for the huge climate adaptation challenges ahead?

There is one objection I hear whenever this idea is discussed, namely that there is nothing specific to climate change in helping poor communities become more resilient to climate risks and disasters; this is something that needs doing whether or nor there is climate change. I don’t think this is a valid objection: climate change makes community resilience more important than ever. It is wrong to say that we don’t need to do this differently: we need to do more and do it better. As I have said before, climate thinking needs to move from the direct risks (changing temperature, precipitation, and so on) to the indirect risks and vulnerabilities of the poor stemming from their highly exposed livelihoods.
As I wrote in my last blog entry, a few months of drought can trigger a lifetime of poverty. We must do more to help the poor manage climatic risks, old and new.


We have analysed, ex post, 11 community based NRM and poverty reduction projects for their potential contribution to adaptation to climate change. The synthesis report and cases are at: The approach uses the SLA framework together with the `continuum' between development and CC adaptation explored by Mc Grey et al, WRI 2007. This document is aimed at empowering development actors with practical thinking tools and appoaches to deal with the challenge of CC adaptation. Enjoying your blog, Rupa Mukerji

Add new comment