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10 things not to do with climate aid

Written by Katie Peters, Simon Levine


It’s clear by now that we need to do something about climate change. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State (speaking in Indonesia) and UK opposition leader Ed Miliband (speaking about floods in the UK) are just some of the most recent champions for urgent action on climate change. It’s true that doing nothing would end up costing an awful lot more than global action on the scale required – but we can’t measure our progress on climate change merely by counting how much we’re spending rather than how well we’re spending it.

Here at the Overseas Development Institute, we took a look at how climate action and climate aid can play out in the real world, especially in places where there are political conflicts. Here’s our list of some of the mistakes to avoid.

Mistake 1: Spending aid in places with conflicts without doing a thorough analysis of the conflict first. Sounds obvious? Both Kerry and Miliband linked climate change to world security, but we found that decisions about climate funding too often forgot to think about insecurity and conflict in the actual countries receiving climate aid. Many of the countries that are (deservedly) attracting the most attention on the climate adaptation agenda are not exactly bastions of political stability, but how often is a proper analysis of the political tensions and drivers of conflict really done properly? (That's a rhetorical question.)

Mistake 2: Reducing complex situations to a simple equation of ‘more climate change equals more conflict’. Over-simplistic portrayals can be a shortcoming of the media, but when policy or aid experts fall into this, it can lead to decisions that can make things worse.

Mistake 3: Presuming that choices about how to adapt to climate change are politically neutral or immune from political manipulation. We want to think that our solutions are the correct ones, and that means that they’re ‘objective’ and don’t depend on politics. Everything is political, though. All change brings winners and losers, and when you’re pouring in huge volumes of resources, anyone with power will try to make sure that the solutions favour them as much as possible.

Mistake 4: Establishing programmes which presume that the countries function well, when they don’t. It’s amazing how often our aid solutions depend on good transparent governments and a competent, efficient and benign civil service. Since these are often among the causes of the problems we’re trying to help with, that means that the solutions would only work in places where they wouldn’t be needed! Countries that don’t function well do also need help – but the right kind of help.

Mistake 5: Failing to join the dots. Forgive the metaphor, but climate change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s part of the set of challenges facing societies, and climate aid is part of the flow of aid going on. Everyone sees the issue they are working on as the key challenge. That’s fine if everyone’s paying attention to what’s going on around them and understanding how that will affect their own work. You can’t understand the challenges of climate change or how aid might affect people’s lives if you look at things in isolation.

Mistake 6: Working in isolation. There is no way that one expert can understand everything. That's pretty obvious within the world of climate change, since it’s clear that meteorologists and adaptation experts can’t do each other’s jobs. Likewise climate aid experts can’t be expected to understand conflict, poverty and vulnerability on their own (and vice versa). Unless experts from all the fields get together, they’re all going to be missing a few vital pieces of the puzzle.

Mistake 7: Allowing people from the same agency to work without talking to one another. Far-fetched?  It’s common to find that in the same country, an irrigation adviser (for example) is supporting projects in places where the conflict adviser is warning against large investments in such infrastructure, or the climate experts are warning of dwindling ground water resources. Aid bureaucracies keep people focused on their own bit of the problem. It would be nice if we could talk to people outside our organisations, but let’s at least get our own houses in order and talk to our colleagues from other sectors.

Mistake 8: Making your work fit yesterday’s world.  Too often initiatives are designed for the world we were analysing yesterday, forgetting that they have to work in the world that will exist in five, ten or even twenty years’ time. We can’t know for sure what the world economy, the country’s demographics, the local political situation or underlying social conflict will look like as our work unfolds – but if we haven’t thought about it, we’re relying on luck that we’ll do more good than harm.

Mistake 9: Assuming that ‘building resilience’ will help the poorest. ‘Resilience’ is the current jargon for stressing that aid should focus on improving the lives of the poorest. Yet the poorest are often poor because of uneven power structures that are usually very ‘resilient’ themselves and resistant to change. International aid of all kinds often channels resources to rich people who live in poor countries. Unless unequal power structures are changed, even if aid is intended to help the poorest, some people will continue to flourish – and others won’t.   

Mistake 10.  We know that lists usually have ten things. So, help us complete the set – what’s the mistake that you think we’ve missed?