Sub-Saharan African countries are failing to plan for climate change

Article published origionally at the Guardian

Image: Ninara

Failure to factor climate change into long-term investment and planning risks leaving countries across sub-Saharan vulnerable to droughts, floods, heatwaves and rising sea-levels

Communities around the world are feeling the impacts of climate change already, but many of the most severe effects will be felt in the decades to come, particularly from mid-century onwards. Nowhere is this more apparent than in sub-Saharan Africa which will be one of the hardest hit regions of the world.

Right now, African countries are busy investing in infrastructure and development to help support current economic growth. Many of these long-lived investments – such as ports, large dams, and social infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools – will most likely last well beyond 2050. But by then, Africa’s climate may look quite different to what it does today. Factoring climate change into long-term investments and planning decisions is essential for supporting climate-resilient development – but it’s not happening.

New research, coordinated by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), shows that governments and businesses across sub-Saharan Africa are failing to consider long-term climate information in their investments and planning decisions. This includes studies from Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Ghana and Mozambique. The worst case scenario is that poor use of climate information could lock societies into patterns that make them highly vulnerable to droughts, floods, high temperatures or sea-level rise in the future.

Why do decision-makers have this blind spot? First and most importantly, other challenges such as eradicating poverty and promoting access to primary and secondary education are extremely pressing, forcing decision-makers to think and act in short time frames.

Secondly, long-term climate information is often ill-suited to informing local economic, social and environmental contexts in sub-Saharan Africa.

Knowing what the average temperature in 2050 will be for rural Nakuru County, Kenya, is of little practical use. What decision makers really want to know is how higher temperatures are likely to influence water resource availability or crop yields: outcomes that affect local people most. But what decision makers ask for is not often technically possible as there is a lack of information that combines knowledge of future climate with other disciplines such as hydrology or ecology.

There is also a communication mismatch between the producers and users of climate information. The information delivered to decision-makers is often overly technical and easy to misinterpret. Likewise, decision-makers’ needs are rarely fed back to climate scientists.

So what should be done to address this?

Perhaps the most obvious starting point is enhancing the quality and quantity of African climate observation networks and scientific capacity in sub-Saharan Africa. Not only will this help to establish information about past and current climates, it will also help to ‘ground-truth’ climate science by generating local knowledge, perspectives and expertise. Also, these people will be able to act as intermediaries among scientists, policy-makers and practitioners and help with presenting climate information in a format that decision-makers can act upon.

Spending time and resources to understand the local political context, and engaging with local partners, can also help funders and knowledge brokers to communicate climate information more effectively. Above all, funding for climate-related programmes in sub-Saharan Africa needs to shift away from short funding cycles, rigid structures and targets, and donor-driven agendas, and move towards longer-term partnerships between international and national partners.

Importantly, climate information has to be taken up by the people and policies that matter most. Adaptation to climate change still falls under the mandate of ministries such as environment or natural resource management, which are relatively weak in governments. It is only when influential ministries, such as those responsible for economic growth and development, have the incentive and responsibility to act on climate-related issues that effective action occurs.

A large part of this is engaging with high-level ‘champions’ to drive the climate agenda forward. These champions are often vital in gaining legitimacy for climate change discussions and overcoming political obstacles to the use of climate information. In Rwanda, president Paul Kagame’s strong backing for national action on climate change, alongside involvement from relevant ministries, led to climate change being at the heart of the country’s development planning processes.

Lastly, the research raises a number of ethical challenges. Is it justifiable to push for a long-term development agenda in places where addressing current concerns, such as meeting basic economic needs and promoting the wellbeing and development of local communities, is a higher priority? Should we be pushing a long-term agenda where there is little immediate appetite or demand? Sadly, few donors, development agencies or governments are willing to address these questions.

A failure to promote honest and transparent communication of climate information can therefore only result in a further push-back from local decision makers, continuing to put vital infrastructure and long-term development in Sub-Saharan Africa at risk of future climate change.

How do you prepare for an uncertain future?

Article origionally published at Thompson Reuter Alert Net

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Image: Marc Sayce

Games to try out options, winning political buy-in and recognising that changes takes time all are key

Just how well-equipped is the development sector to deal with uncertainty? And what could we do to prepare it for future change?

We know that development planning is often heavily oriented toward the near-term, with little room for manoeuvre or contingency. In addition, planning cycles rarely run beyond three- to five-years. Many of these shortcomings are as familiar to the operational environments of non-governmental organisations as they are to the activities of national and local governments or donor agencies.

One option, proposed by the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance, is to promote Flexible and Forward-looking Decision Making (FFDM).

It’s not the catchiest name in the world, but the thinking behind it is that FFDM can help organisations achieve the structural changes they need to better deal with future change and uncertainty.


Our recent paper  goes into detail on how we can make it happen. But in short, FFDM means:

  • Recognising that change will happen and requires adaptation (even if the direction is uncertain)
  • Assessing the impacts of different drivers of change on development trajectories
  • Identifying enablers and initiating steps to overcome barriers to adaptation.
  • Making changes to structures and planning processes to implement adaptation effectively (incremental or transformational)

As a basic concept, FFDM is relatively straightforward to understand. However, it is often hard to communicate and relate to complex real-world problems. The African Climate Change Resilience Alliance therefore needed to find a way of translating an abstract term into tangible processes and tools. To do this the programme developed a game, and linked it to reflection sessions so that participants could relate game-play to their day-to-day activities in the real world.

This approach was trialled in three Africa countries: Uganda, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. In so doing, the resilience alliance sought to investigate two main questions:

  1. Whether FFDM is of value to local and national policy-makers
  2. Whether innovative and interactive tools are effective in promoting FFDM (or other conceptual approaches to supporting development)

After two years of research and capacity building, those findings are documented in a new Overseas Development Institute report.

The research highlights three key lessons:

1. Understanding the context is crucial: Any initiative that aims to encourage better planning and decision-making needs to be mindful of the complex political situations that local and national policies operate within. For example, a key determinant of the success of the resilience alliance’s activities in all three countries was the ability to secure political buy-in from local leadership and to identify suitable ‘champions of change’.

2. Investing in better communication can bring development dividends: Communicating an abstract concept is difficult (whether that’s FFDM or resilience), but a ‘game-enabled reflection’ approach can help decision-makers understand the need for change and how to go about putting it into practice.

The alliance’s approach showcased practical ways to deliver change while working within the current system. Indeed, it even spurred on new partnerships: creating closer links between the National Meteorological Office and district governments in Uganda for better uptake of seasonal and decade-long weather forecasts.

3.  Recognising that delivering meaningful change will take time and resources: Organisational structures, mind-sets, and the incentives facing development actors are deeply ingrained and often slow to change.  Encouraging organisations to better deal with future change and uncertainty will, in many cases, require transformation and an overhaul of current practices.

This often translates into considerable financial and time investments to support such a transition (even something as seemingly trivial as a game can take many months to design and test). To some extent this is a welcome challenge, as safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that new policies are indeed better than the old ones (and without rushing to encourage transformation simply for the sake of it).

The resilience alliance’s findings show that reforming planning processes to better deal with future change and uncertainty is not easy. Games won’t change the world. But they are a start. They help people to break down the complexities of the real-world, identify the basic problem and work towards solution. We need more such innovations.