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Adaptation and resilience in Vanuatu: Interpreting community perceptions of vulnerability, knowledge and power for CBA programming

This report documents findings from fieldwork aimed at contextualizing the resilience-building work of the Vanuatu NGO Climate Change Adaptation Program and linking it to the academic literature.
Gill Vogt


Climate change is a growing threat to Vanuatu, and community-based climate assessments have recorded increasing temperatures, changed rainfall patterns and rising sea levels. This research is concerned with how development and humanitarian agencies have aimed to increase the resilience of women and men in Vanuatu to the unavoidable impacts of climate change, and is focused on the context in which this work has taken place and the methods that have been adopted. The work of the agencies is guided by the Community Resilience Framework (see below) which connects members of the consortium in the “Yumi stap redi long climate change” program– the Vanuatu NGO Climate Change Adaptation Program, led by Oxfam in Vanuatu. In framing their work around the concept of resilience, the program is connecting with a growing body of thought about what resilience means in the context of global environmental change, and how it can be supported in practice.

This report* documents findings from fieldwork in Vanuatu aimed at contextualizing the resilience-building work of the Vanuatu NGO Climate Change Adaptation Program and linking it to emerging themes in the academic literature on adaptation and resilience. This report is based on research undertaken in Vanuatu between 16-27 November 2015, and follows on from fieldwork undertaken a year earlier, during November 2014. Findings and analysis from the second phase have been published in a joint Oxfam and SEI report, titled Resilience Realities: Resilience and Development Practice in Vanuatu.

These themes challenge those concerned with adaptation to think more critically about the nature of communities, and to explore how power and politics at different scales (from the local to the global) influence the opportunities for and constraints on adaptation for different members of a community. The resilience perspective pushes understanding of adaptation further, inviting systematic consideration not only of how programming can address not only climate change impacts, but also of how agency and structure can be addressed to empower vulnerable groups in the face of climate change.

*Download available from right-hand column and via links provided under Further Resources. An overview of what the report covers, a brief description of the methods employed, the resilience framework used by practitioners in Vanuatu and the main lessons learnt are provided below. Please see the full report for much more detail.

In the report

This comprehensive report includes discussion of the following:

Community-based adaptation, resilience and transformation

  • Understanding communities
  • Power, politics and adaptive capacity
  • Resilience and transformation
  • Summary: a spectrum of adaptation actions

Understanding communities

  • Multiple dimensions of vulnerability
  • Local inequalities
  • Cross-scale relationships
  • The significance of understanding communities

Power, politics and adaptive capacity

  • Power relations and decision making
  • Adaptive capacity and power sharing
  • Adaptive capacity: knowledge and experimentation

Resilience and transformation

  • Structural transformation
  • Transformation through rights-based approaches
From page 17 of the report – Futuna, Vanuatu: A woman catches fish in the shallows near Mission Bay. Futuna’s steep terrain, rocky soils, isolation and exposure to cyclones make for a challenging way of life. Photo: Simon Bradshaw/OxfamAUS.


This research used a mix of methods, including interviews and group discussions with community members, interviews with key informants including government officers, NGO staff and other stakeholders, and a review of critical program documentation. The fieldwork was undertaken in November 2014.

The Resilience Framework

The agencies working on the Vanuatu NGO Climate Change Adaptation Program were guided by a Community Resilience Framework developed as part of the program. This states that a resilient community in Vanuatu:

  1. Has their basic needs met, so they are healthy and safe;
  2. Can build their livelihoods on a diverse range of material assets and know how to best utilise and improve their value and sustainability in a way that provides equitable access and control across the community, including shelter, land, water, natural resources, financial assets has strong social structures that support its members in times of need;
  3. Has leadership and decision making processes that are fair, inclusive and responsive to the needs of the whole community including women, young people and vulnerable groups that can plan for current and future needs that fosters belonging and connection;
  4. Has access to relevant information, both traditional and external, and can use this to their advantage — this means the mechanisms for all community members to access and share information they need are in place;
  5. Is supportive and open to innovation and new ideas, and has leadership that is flexible and forward looking;
  6. Has a belief system and culture that can help understand and act on shocks and changes, and foster relationships between the natural environment, social and cultural systems;
  7. Has social networks that extend beyond the immediate community, so that it can draw on knowledge, resources and new ideas; and
  8. Has governments at different levels that are connected, listen to and are responsive to community needs, are innovative, have strong leadership and are transparent and accountable.

In this report, resilience programming is seen in terms of marrying stability and flexibility to enable continuous adjustments in response to emerging climate change, but with an important additional focus on the structural constraints that can limit individual agency. A focus on structure politicises adaptation, as it draws attention to social, political and economic factors that underpin the uneven distribution of resources and opportunities. However, structural constraints are also frequently overlooked in community-based development practice.

From page 13 of the report – Figure 1: A spectrum of adaptation actions (adapted from Béné et al., 2014; Pelling et al., 2014).

Lessons Learnt

The findings of this report can be summarised in terms of ten lessons for those engaged in the design or implementation of adaptations focused on poor or vulnerable communities:

  1. A fundamental challenge is for NGOs, donors and government actors to move beyond a short-term view of addressing climate change impacts, and beyond seeing adaptation as a non-political, technological challenge.
  2. Vulnerability is defined by multiple interconnected issues that have different significance in the lives of different community members, each of whom have their own perceptions of risk and access to opportunities.
  3. Relationships defined by power and cultural norms shape how local risks are understood, prioritised and managed in adaptation decision making processes.
  4. A focus on equitable decision making processes can shift relations of power and support the emergence of adaptive capacity that is the basis for future adaptive actions that benefit the whole community.
  5. Building technical and decision making capacities and relationships with external actors who can bring information or support are central if communities are to continue to make informed adaptation decisions.
  6. It takes a change in perspective and a significant investment of time if NGOs are to step back and restrict themselves to facilitating community access to information and knowledge as a precursor to informing their own processes of decision making.
  7. Introducing discussion of adaptive capacity shifting the discourse of adaptation is a critical first step, but translating this into changes in practice is a slower process that demands changes in thinking and skills among NGO staff at all levels.
  8. Structural issues normally remain in the background to projects, but cannot be avoided. For example, in Vanuatu equitable social relations at the community level are impossible unless endemic violence against women is addressed, rendering any efforts at participatory development illusory.
  9. The baseline assessments that underpin communitybased adaptation must take account of structural issues at multiple scales, and establish whether support for more equitable social, cultural or political change is a necessary part of action on adaptation.
  10. Rights-based approaches offer strategies to address structural constraints on adaptive capacity, exploring the mechanisms that underpin marginalisation and exclusion and supporting the vulnerable to seek reform via social and political processes or through appeal to legal or administrative systems.

The Vanuatu NGO Climate Change Adaptation Program is a consortium comprising Oxfam in its role as lead agency, Save the Children, CARE International in Vanuatu, the Vanuatu Rural Development Training Centres Association (VRDTCA), the Vanuatu Red Cross Society (VRCS) [supported by the French Red Cross (FRC)], and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). The program is implemented in eight islands across four provinces, as illustrated in the map on page 7 of the report.

Suggested citation:

Ensor, J. (2015) Adaptation and resilience in Vanuatu: Interpreting community perceptions of vulnerability, knowledge and power for community-based adaptation programming. Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam.

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