Why does climate change adaptation in Africa ignore politics? Great broadside from Matthew Lockwood.

October 24, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

My friend Matthew Lockwood has a habit of asking really big, sensible questions about politics that change the way you see the world. He was so fed upMatthew_lockwood125 with what he saw as the lazy, apolitical thinking behind aid in general and Make Poverty History in particular, that he abandoned the development scene, writing The State They’re In: An Agenda for International Action on Poverty in Africa. It’s a brilliant discussion of Africa’s political economy, and a forerunner to much of the work on governance and institutions that I’ve been writing about on this blog.

Since then he’s devoted himself to climate change, first at IDS and now at Exeter University. But he’s found himself facing similar problems – a lack of political analysis that leads to ‘magical thinking’ in which climate lobbyists churn out endless blueprints (greenprints?) on the basis of ‘if I ruled the world, this is how I would fix it’. In response he set up the wonderful Political Climate blog.

Now he’s added to that with a piece on the political economy of climate change adaptation in Africa. It’s in Development Policy Review, which is gated so I’m not going to link to it, but he’s put up a draft here.

Matthew argues that the climate change adaptation ‘community’ has failed to keep up with the improved understanding of governance and institutions in developing countries (see yesterday’s review of the new book by David Booth and Diana Cammack) and is just as naive as Make Poverty History at its hubristic height.

Yep, that should do it. Not.

Yep, that should do it. Not.

‘There has been relatively little thinking about the political context of climate adaptation policy in sub-Saharan Africa, what this means for the quality of governance, and the capacity to plan and deliver what are often quite complex policies and programmes. This is all the more surprising given the quantity and depth of what is already known about politics and governance in Africa.’

This really matters because Africa will be the destination of much of the promised $100bn in adaptation funding (itself some pretty magical thinking – where’s it going to come from?!)

‘By failing to acknowledge the constraints of the political and governance context, much thinking about adaptation policy in Africa is unrealistic, and much donor activity is likely to have little effect. Indeed, in some cases, a large increase in climate finance may have a perverse effect, sustaining political systems that undermine the capacity of states to build adaptive capacity. A perspective on adaptation informed by political analysis helps not only to anticipate where particular problems are likely to be encountered, such as specific sectors or locations in a country, but also to point to more effective responses.’

Adaptation policy in Africa, as elsewhere, is largely discussed in as an administrative challenge, requiring lots of technical assistance and cash to build up state capacity, but:

‘It is not clear that, at present, a lack of technical capacity in most African countries is the most binding constraint on adaptation policy, especially given the range of donor-funded technical assistance on offer. For technical assistance to be effective, governments have to be really interested in adopting and applying it to public policy. For guides and toolkits to be useful, there has to be demand for them from a policy actor sufficiently senior and sufficiently committed to the public good. There is some evidence to suggest that, with a few exceptions, this demand is not present.’

Introducing a greater understanding of African politics into the adaptation discussion would help in a number of ways:

Rural adaptation is a large part of the agenda, and in many countries agriculture has hitherto been neglected by African governments (for example in comparison to Asia). Any attempt to promote adaptation in rural areas needs to understand the reasons for this, and develop plausible ways to overcome it.

Fragmentation across government departments (Uganda takes the biscuit, with a cabinet containing 70 ministers) poses a huge challenge to a system-wide issue such as adapting to climate change.

African politics often sidelines precisely the regions or groups most affected by climate change. It is no use saying ‘pastoralists are the future’ in termswindmill of climate change, if governments insist on seeing them as the past, and starving pastoralist areas of investment (when they’re not selling off their land).

What is to stop climate finance (should it ever arrive) having similar impacts on governance and accountability to other ‘curses of wealth’, such as oil and gas? Big issues on absorption, governance and accountability there.

Matthew ends by sketching out an important ‘institutions meets climate change’ research agenda – hope someone is listening.

October 24, 2013
Duncan Green