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Consulting the real experts on climate change adaptation

A workshop in Othidhe, Kenya, began with farmers answering the 
simple question, 'What is important to you?' (© Neil Palmer (CIAT))
A workshop in Othidhe, Kenya, began with farmers answering the simple question, 'What is important to you?'
© Neil Palmer (CIAT)

As global efforts to contend with climate change gather force, national and international agencies are directing funds into programmes that aim to help those communities under the greatest pressure. Most of these are agricultural communities, and their resilience depends on numerous locally diverse factors. But high-level data can easily miss the local target of where, and how much, investment is needed.

Fortunately there is a large group of experts who study climate and solve climate problems every day. These are farmers, for whom cost-benefit analysis is a way of life. When the process of costing and planning is put in the hands of farmers, the project has found that the result is not just new sums, but new ways of calculating.

Planning from the bottom

Last year the CGIAR Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security programme (CCAFS) and researchers from Oxford University began working together with farming communities to identify and evaluate strategies for adapting to climate change. Through a framework of participatory workshops and interviews focussing on local contexts, the collaborators aim to turn the economics of climate change upside down.

"We need to incorporate vulnerable farming communities in adaptation planning and economic analysis," says CCAFS researcher Chase Sova, "as their norms, values and visions of their own future development pathways can provide key insights to improve how macro-level planning is conducted and how climate finance is delivered."

Farmer participation has become ever more familiar in agricultural research and development over the last few decades, but it's a new direction in climate change planning. CCAFS's approach is called Participatory Social Return on Investment (PSROI)*, a framework for identifying community-based adaptation strategies and discovering their costs and benefits - economic, social or environmental. "In a world with finite resources, there are always competing priorities," says Oxford researcher Abrar Chaudhury. "Hard choices have to be made and PSROI aims to monetize these choices, but along this process also documents the change that these choices bring.

A vision of trees

In an exercise in Kochiel, Kenya, notes and magazine clippings 
became a map of village livelihoods (© Anna Wikman)
In an exercise in Kochiel, Kenya, notes and magazine clippings became a map of village livelihoods
© Anna Wikman

The first test of the PSROI framework took place in 2011 in Kochiel, a village in the drought-prone Nyando Basin of Western Kenya. In the workshop's first day, participants identified the challenges facing their community, including inadequate farming knowledge, water issues, and food insecurity. They wrote these on post-it notes and began building a visual map. On day two, they listed assets and resources available within the village and envisioned their desired future state.

The mapping led to an evaluation of possible interventions, of which tree planting became the top pick. In a "backcasting" exercise on the third day, participants filled in the post-it map by planning how the community could use its current resources to work towards their desired state. Backcasting revealed that one limitation was a lack of knowledge on how best to incorporate trees on small farms. The solution: a system of agroforestry using short- and long-term tree species spaced within maize crops.

In the workshop and subsequent interviews, the community rated the proposal's return on investment very differently from a traditional analysis. They were aware of more labour and tool costs, and were realistic about their abilities to balance the long-term payoff from slow growing trees with immediate needs. But they also perceived different benefits: everything from tree shade to the small businesses that tree-based incomes could support. These insights into the community's needs and expectations replaced what would have been a simplistic calculation.

Numbers with stories

Surprisingly, this approach to climate change costing is not always about climate change, nor is it always about costs in the economic sense. In fact the organisers try not to mention climate change at the start of the workshop, because they want to draw out the whole range of challenges that farmers face. It's in the technical design of interventions that they bring in projections for future shifts in temperature and rainfall, ensuring that the designs anticipate these.

Meanwhile, the use of a visual Impact Map allows inclusion of factors that don't have an easy price tag. "The map allows us to associate inputs and outcomes to each stakeholder and tells the story of change," Sova explains. "We can include hard-to-value outcomes on the impact map qualitatively, alongside monetary values. They are not lost as they typically are in standard cost-benefit analysis, which simply produces a number without the story."

Taking it global

Local partners in Vietnam are being trained to implement the methodology (© Caitlin Corner-Dolloff)
Local partners in Vietnam are being trained to implement the methodology
© Caitlin Corner-Dolloff

Sova is now in Vietnam with collaborator Caitlin Corner-Dolloff, who is training local partners there and in Laos to implement the methodology. "The idea is to see if government and NGOs can really pick this up on their own, and in different cultural and climatic contexts," Sova says.

With such a local focus, the findings that come out of a workshop can't be extrapolated to a whole region or country. For this reason the team believe that the framework should be scaled up, not the results it produces. They see it being adopted into existing work plans of community-based organisations or government agencies that already operate at ground level.

From here, the participatory analysis could feed into multi-level adaptation planning and funding schemes that build capacity at every level - the organisers' own vision of the future. "Given the uncertainties of climate change," Sova says, "much of adaptation will be about empowering communities to create their own unique solutions, as they are the real experts."

* PSROI - a term coined by Oxford researcher Abrar Chaudhury

Written by: T. Paul Cox

Date published: May 2012

 

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