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Promoting Local Adaptive Capacity: Experiences from Africa and Asia

Using a local adaptive capacity framework as a starting point, this research paper analyses 7 case studies from across Africa and Asia that represent a range of different interventions.
Above: Before the Humbo Community Managed Forestry Project the land in Atlaye’s community was affected by flooding and erosion. Today it is a very different story, as you can see Atlaye happily ploughing the land. ©2010 Aklilu Kassaye/World Vision

Executive summary

Uncertainty is increasingly proving to be a key feature of people’s lives. For people living in developing countries, climate change is adding to an already complex system. For those living in fragile contexts, the changing hazards, shocks and, in some areas, endemic stress of violent conflict, has meant that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to date have not been achieved. WorldVision’s development programming aims to promote adaptive capacity in fragile contexts. Adaptive capacity is understood by World Vision, as “the ability of individualsand communities to anticipate, deal with and respond to change – both changing climate and development pressures – while maintaining (or improving) their wellbeing” (Levine et. al 2012).

This research paper has taken the local adaptive capacity (LAC) framework as a starting point for analysing World Vision’s programming. Seven case studies have been selected from across Africa and Asia (Cambodia, Ghana, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya,Vietnam and East Africa) which represent a range of different interventions including: social protection; food security; disaster risk reduction and livelihoods in rural, urban and conflict contexts.The aim is to uncover lessons, challenges and recommendations for development programming to build local adaptive capacity and contribute to child wellbeing.

Findings from World Vision programming in Africa and Asia

Integration is important for local adaptive capacity

The most common feature to all case studies was a focus on asset base, through providing physical, natural and financial resources to support secure livelihoods. However, examples from Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) programme in Ghana and Ethiopia and the green house groups and seed banks through a livelihoods project in Nepal demonstrate that secure livelihoods not only depend on the existence of assets alone, but on the institutional environment which determines access to assets, and the knowledge people have to use assets to develop their adaptive capacity. Growing bamboo shoots in Vietnam highlight that providing assets without training and balancing medium-term investments with the short-term daily needs to survive are real challenges that need to be addressed.

Organisational change is needed to promote agency

Building local adaptive capacity through applying an integrated approach to development programming requires a change in a development organisation’s approach. This involves working with communities to identify their needs and capacity, utilising new sources of information and developing programmes based around scenario planning. This way of working will present a challenge for many practitioners as they will need to be adequately supported with appropriate training and resources. A better understanding of existing programming approaches and methodologies, and how to use them for programme design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation is needed. This must be matched by organisational incentives that promote mainstreaming of integrated risk management, networking and coordination, and facilitation.

Children can be agents of change

WorldVision needs to continue to learn how to include children’s voices in vulnerability and capacity assessments, implementation and review processes. There is also a need to champion the inclusion of children in development to communities and donors. This will help to consider the long-term benefits of development interventions. Local adaptive capacity cannot be properly achieved while children remain invisible within adult-focused development initiatives.

Partnerships are required from the outset of programme design

Building effective partnerships at different levels – local to regional – can help to support long-term resilience. Strengthening the linkages between communities and institutions and creating space for a flow of information and feedback loops may foster accountability.

Long-term benefit must be balanced with short-term survival

The tension between meeting the immediate needs of poor households and investing in a longer term vision of local adaptive capacity remains a challenge. In many of the case studies, few incentives exist to prioritise long- term sustainable development gains, and existing policies and institutions disproportionately reward short-term decision making. There is a need for incentives to support decisions that build resilience.

Innovation can be fostered by incentives and peer learning

People’s ability to innovative in response to the challenges they face depends on other variables such as social acceptance, financial viability, information and knowledge, and institutional support. Therefore it is necessary to identify the forces which constrain innovation in any given context and remove the barriers so that innovative approaches can be supported. Successful adoption of innovation and changing people’s behaviour or practices was encouraged through incentives and peer learning. The Africa Learning Event is a good example of facilitating this process. The event provided an opportunity for different organisations and suppliers to have a space to share their learning and different technologies with World Vision staff from across the region with the aim of brokering new relationships for future development programming.

People’s own agency is essential to make informed decisions

Building resilience hinges on developing the agency and capacity of marginalised people to overcome the range of challenges they face and determine their own future. Building local adaptive capacity is not simply about delivering infrastructure or technology, but is about expanding people’s range of choices as well as access and influence over institutions and decision-making processes. Many of the case studies in this paper show how World Vision is focusing on building the ability of marginalised people to make informed decisions about adapting to future circumstances. However, the challenge remains in turning information into knowledge and supporting people’s ability to use information for behaviour change.

Developing adaptive capacity can support the Child Wellbeing Outcomes

In the case of the projects in Indonesia and Vietnam, developing the knowledge and information of children around sound environmental practices and disaster preparedness through schools-based programmes, contributes to their safety and protection. However, in the case of Ethiopia and Ghana, the innovative FMNR approach may require educational elements in programming to improve child nutrition. Building local adaptive capacity does not necessarily translate into increased child wellbeing and attention to the linkages needs to be made more explicit in programme design and implementation.

Climate information must be integrated for medium to long-term decision making

Building local adaptive capacity is about developing medium to long-term strategies which take into account climate knowledge and uncertainty around possible impacts.Without integrating climate information into scenario planning, short-term development approaches will continue to be implemented, leading to the potential for ill-informed planning or long-term increases in vulnerability.

Need to work in fragile contexts and incorporate conflict sensitivity in programming

Better understanding is needed on how to build adaptive capacity in fragile contexts and how to incorporate conflict sensitivity into an integrated programming approach. Embedding conflict sensitivity will require a greater focus on context and needs analysis to ensure that all relevant components are built into the programming cycle from the outset to ensure appropriate timing of specific interventions. In addition to context analysis and conflict sensitivity, promoting adaptive capacity in fragile contexts requires working in partnership with traditional governance structures and community-based organisations. Empowering local organisations and authorities to promote agency means relinquishing control and facilitating a participatory process of development.


Based on the findings, a set of recommendations for future policy and programming include:

Promote an integrated approach:Maintaining an integrated approach in development, especially in areas where there is high risk, is needed to build local adaptive capacity. As the cases illustrate, promoting adaptive capacity at the local level requires a combination of the five different elements. Designing, implementing and reviewing development with the five elements in mind is a challenge and requires working in partnership and organisational change.

Incentivise organisational change:Prioritising local adaptive capacity through development requires buy in from high-level decision makers in development organisations as well as from donors to support the organisational change process. A shift from compliance to building the agency of practitioners and community members is needed. This calls for a shift in organisational approach of delivery to facilitation.

Champion children’s agency: More also needs to be done to mainstream building children’s agency across all programme interventions. This requires focusing on children’s roles in programme design, implementation and review. In promoting local adaptive capacity, it is the children who are going to see further changes to their ecosystem, increased shocks and stresses. By including future generations in current development programming and policy, the importance of long-term benefits can be held in focus against the need for short-term gains.

Promote a culture of learning and innovation: Facilitating the exchange of information between development practitioners, research institutions, government and the private sector as well as promoting peer learning exchanges between successful programmes should be encouraged in order to share best practice and access to information and networks. In supporting the value of learning elements of adaptive capacity, such as using information, decision making and innovation, will be strengthened.

Instil flexibility and scenario planning and use climate and socio-economic information: Building adaptive capacity is not just about being able to respond positively to anticipated and known risks and vulnerabilities, or existing shocks and stresses, but is also about being able to address uncertainties in the future. A greater emphasis on scenario planning in future development interventions is necessary to deal with uncertainty. Access to timely and relevant information, including climate projections and community perceptions of weather trends and variability, must be facilitated and influence programme design.

Be conflict sensitive: At a minimum, conflict sensitivity is required across all development programming and must be included in the design, implementation and review.This requires ongoing context analysis, scenario planning, and facilitation between a range of stakeholders. Promoting local adaptive capacity involves working with existing institutional structures and promoting entitlements. It cannot be power neutral and must recognise changing power dynamics.

M&E should be for cost benefit as well as local behaviour change: Identifying appropriate indicators for local adaptive capacity is a new challenge. Indicators for effective learning should be developed in a participatory manner. Furthermore, short-term and long-term timeframes must be considered in order to effectively learn how to build local adaptive capacity, as well as demonstrate the social and economic value of such an integrated approach. The type of information needed for behavioural change and innovation at the local level may not be the same type of information needed for cost benefit which is required for donors. A balance between the two is needed.

Explore further the links between resilience and adaptive capacity: Adaptive capacity and resilience share many of the same characteristics but have conceptual differences. More action research is needed which explores both concepts in practice. Furthermore additional analysis is required to understand how supporting local adaptive capacity and resilience in fragile context differs between non-violent and stable states.

Investigate adaptive capacity in urban areas: Aside from the case study from Indonesia, all the other case studies presented in this paper are focusing on building the adaptive capacity of people living in rural agricultural areas. However, with increasing urbanisation and the pressure of a growing population and informal settlements, urban areas are experiencing increasing levels of risks and hazards. More research is required on how adaptive capacity and resilience can be effectively promoted in urban areas.

Suggested citation

Ibrahim, M., Nicola, W., 2012. Promoting Local Adaptive Capacity: experiences from Africa and Asia. Research Report. World Vision.

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