Sophie Rigg

Participatory, community-led disaster resilience programmes sound like the development gold-standard, but they’re not without their problems, explains Sophie Rigg from King’s College London.

In the wake of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and Sustainable Development Goals, and in the lead up to the Paris climate talks, approaches to global development and humanitarian response are in the limelight. This gives us an opportunity to take a step back and look at what really works and why.  I wanted to share some of what I’ve learnt from my work on two BRACED projects (Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters).

BRACED is funded by the Department for International Development (DFID) and takes a holistic approach, interweaving development, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.  The two projects I work on aim to build the resilience of vulnerable communities in Ethiopia and Burkina Faso by:

  1. Strengthening livelihoods and empowering people through participatory and community-led resilience activities
  2. Improving the access, reliability and relevance of climate information for these communities

However, whilst these approaches are highly pertinent given the current calls for greater interdisciplinarity and bottom-up approaches to development, they each come with challenges.

CHALLENGE ONE: Strengthening livelihoods and empowering everyone in the community

Structural inequalities shape vulnerabilities and capacities and mean that men and women often have different livelihood practices and climate information needs.  However, women – and other marginalised groups – are often underrepresented or quieter during community participatory empowerment exercises.  This can result in gender-biased community resilience plans that mainly reflect the livelihood and climate information needs of dominant men and thus reinforce cycles of vulnerability.

So how have we sought to increase inclusiveness within the BRACED projects?

 Successfully negotiating power relations relies on the skills and experience of the development practitioner. We have found that effective training and capacity building in facilitation and gender-sensitive programming is key, especially for those that work on the frontline.

Community-led participatory development is also contingent on the quality of the methodology. On the BRACED projects scientists, development practitioners and communication specialists have worked together to co-produce more sophisticated development programmes. Approaches seek to be ‘two-way’: building on the capacities and ideas already present within these communities and offering fresh perspectives and new ideas to the community.

CHALLENGE TWO: Improving the relevance and accessibility of climate information to make sure it’s actually used  

The farmers that I spoke to in Africa said that they often did not believe the available scientific climate information, and that it was not understandable or useful.

So how do we encourage the local use of climate information?

The BRACED projects have found that for useful, relevant and timely climate information to inform decision-making at the village level, climate information services need to become ‘user-led’. This requires climate scientists and communicators, such as journalists, to go to the communities and listen to their needs and adapt their services accordingly. Furthermore to assure that climate information is actionable, it must be accompanied by agricultural or livestock information and practical suggestions for action.

Furthermore trust in scientific climate information can be supported by integrating local and traditional understandings of the weather and the climate into the forecasts that are produced and by working on how probability and uncertainty are communicated.

These approaches and my work on BRACED have also led me to reflect on some wider lessons on how we can ‘do’ development:

i.          In the flurry to make programming ‘bottom-up’ we need to make sure we don’t forget the ‘top-down’

Whilst there is a positive change towards ‘bottom-up’ programming and working through local partners, there is still a lot of value in feeding down the institutional knowledge of large development organisations through training and capacity building, especially regarding gender sensitisation. Furthermore we must not shy away from developing participatory approaches that allow for new ideas to trickle down into the community and that challenge the status quo.

ii.          We must work across disciplines and scales to co-produce development programmes

Genuine partnerships between all the relevant stakeholders in academia, policy, business and local communities can be key to success. However despite it being almost standard practice by now, working across disciplines is more complex than is often thought.  All disciplines need not only to engage in transparent two-way communication but also need to take a critical look at how they define their role and identity within development.  It is these perceptions that shape consortium-driven work and partnerships.  Furthermore this reflexivity has the potential to lead to a rethink of our sectoral identities and responsibilities and to more innovative approaches to development.

Disclaimer: This blog does not represent the view of King’s College London, BRACED or any of the BRACED partners it represents solely the views of Sophie Rigg.