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From the ground up: How communities can collaborate to drive local adaptation and influence the national agenda

This analysis from CDKN identifies a series of approaches to help community-level organisations to increase climate resilience in the Caribbean.
Fiona Spuler
Caribbean communities on the front lines of climate change adaptation


While climate change may be driven by global processes, it is at the local level where the damage caused by climate impacts like hurricanes, storms and floods is felt most acutely. Responses to climate change are inextricably linked to the local context in which they emerge. Caribbean decision-makers increasingly recognise that ‘top-down’ approaches to climate adaptation are insufficient to deliver effective climate resilience-building outcomes. Instead, multi-level governance systems are now seen as best practice for delivering adaptation actions at the local level, especially where small and medium sized communities rely on climate vulnerable sectors such as fishing or tourism.

However, community-based, multi-level, approaches are complex and require long-term, active engagement with a wide range of stakeholders, some of whom have limited knowledge of climate change and many of whom have competing interests with regards to managing climate impacts.

The challenge for policy-makers is to coordinate adaptation interventions at the local level with multiple partners across jurisdictional scales. CDKN-funded research in the Caribbean provides several methods and approaches to do just that: empowering communities to take control of local adaptation processes by:

  1. Analysing, understanding and fostering networks of local actors that can work collaboratively to build climate resilience,
  2. understanding local level vulnerability through community-based vulnerability assessments,
  3. assessing adaptive capacity at the local-level, and
  4. connecting local action with regional and national decision-making.

These interconnected approaches can form the basis of an effective multi-level governance system for adaptation, and all have been applied in practice in the Caribbean.

This policy brief*examines each approach in turn, drawing on research and case studies from countries across the region. It describes and discusses: local actor networks, community-based vulnerability assessments, measuring adaptive capacity at the local level, and scaling up local action.

*Download the full brief from the right-hand column. An overview of the methods and the key messages from the brief are provided below. See the full text for much more detail.

Methods and Tools

Mapping local actor networks

Identifying networks of individuals and organisations at the local level, and determining how they connect with each other and how they link with stakeholders at other scales are important steps in understanding what local governance capacity exists. Research undertaken in Jamaica and Saint Lucia uses network mapping to identify sets of relevant stakeholders at the community level and to convene workshops to collectively identify potential adaptation barriers and solutions.

The research uses the ‘Net-Map’ process to identify the extent of the local actor networks that govern climate change adaptation. As well as identifying relevant stakeholders, Net-Map also shows the connections between the stakeholders, and the level of influence and agency each stakeholder has over collective decision-making. – For more detail see the full text.

Figure 1 from page 2 of the brief: The Net-Map toolkit12 which maps actors, connections and influence.

Community-Based Vulnerability Assessments

Primary vulnerability assessments are an important step in understanding existing vulnerabilities and deciding what action needs to be taken for the community to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The vulnerability of a community is a function of its exposure to climate change and its impacts, how sensitive it is to those impacts and the ability of the community to adapt to increase its resilience. Research in the Caribbean has shown that vulnerability assessments can be strengthened if they combine quantitative data with qualitative information. Participatory approaches at the community level can contribute to a more rounded understanding of local vulnerability and lead to better climate adaptation action.

The Global Islands’ Vulnerability Research, Adaptation, Policy and Development (GIVRAPD) programme developed an approach for community-based vulnerability assessments (CBVAs) that can be used by decision-makers to develop a nuanced understanding of climate vulnerability at the local level. Stakeholders in local communities are consulted through participatory workshops and semi-structured interviews with the aim of investigating past and current exposure and sensitivity to climate impacts, existing adaptation and adaptive capacity (and associated barriers) and future vulnerability to climate change. – For more detail see the full text.

Measuring adaptive capacity at the local level

Once communities have identified their exposure and sensitivity to climate change and its impacts, they also need to understand their ‘adaptive capacity’. This means understanding what characteristics contribute to a community’s ability to increase its resilience to climate change and what characteristics might hinder such changes. By identifying these strengths and weaknesses, communities will be able to prioritise measures that will increase their ability to adapt.

To support the ability of local communities and decision-makers to do this, GIVRAPD employed the Local Adaptive Capacity (LAC) framework (developed by the Overseas Development Institute) and provides practical examples of how it has been applied in the Caribbean. Using the LAC framework, decision-makers can undertake a comprehensive analysis of the natural, financial and social resources of an area. – For more detail see the full text.

Scaling up local action

Community-level organisations can build on this knowledge gained through the appraoches above by taking steps to increase their resilience. To assist them, Caribbean-specific tools, such as the web-based, Caribbean Online Risk and Adaptation tooL (CCORAL), are available (see Box 2 of the full text). CCORAL can be used to identify appropriate measures to adapt.

While community-level approaches to adaptation are important, research in the Caribbean has also found that they are not a replacement for other types of governance, such as state-led adaptation action. Bringing national and regional organisations and institutions into local networks not only makes local networks more effective but also allows the solutions identified at the local level to in uence decision-making at other scales.

Institutional capacity at the national and regional levels therefore has a material influence on the ability of local-level networks to adapt to climate change. Communities can help to advocate for better institutional capacity by using the World Resource Institute’s Rapid Institutional Analysis for Adaptation (ARIA) toolkit. – For more detail see the full text.

Figure 6 from page 5 of the brief: The five elements of adaptive capacity analysed as part of the Local Adaptive Capacity (LAC) framework. An assessment of local conditions under each of these elements gives an indication of the ability of a local area to respond to climate impacts. Indicators can be developed at the local level that can help assess adaptive capacity under each of the LAC elements (see Table 1 on page 6 of the full text).

Key Messages

  • Adapting to climate changeis, to a large extent, a local process. Effective solutions to climate challenges should be sensitive to the local context.
  • Multi-stakeholder, multi-level governanceapproaches are increasingly recognised as best practice for local adaptation. They help to develop a shared understanding of climate risks and build consensus behind solutions to overcome them.
  • Local networks of stakeholderscan be analysed and shaped to maximise their effectiveness for dealing with external shocks like those from climate impacts.
  • Community-based approachesto understanding local vulnerability and adaptive capacity can provide useful insights for climate resilience building.
  • Such approaches also stimulate conversationat the local level, raising awareness and understanding of climate change.
  • Local level approachesare not effective in isolation and require good links with regional and national governments to maximise their impact.
  • Adaptation actions are most effective and sustainable when they are embedded in local governance systems that have the capacity and flexibility to identify risks and respond to changing circumstances.
  • The CDKN-funded research referred to here offers tools and methodsfor analysing networks, assessing vulnerability and scaling up local action.
  • Tools such as CCORAL and ARIA can empower communities to take control of the adaptation process and better understand the institutional arrangements that affect their ability to build resilience on the ground.

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