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Categories: Policy & influence, News, Locally led adaptation

5 December 2023

Blog: Can locally led adaptation lead to transformative adaptation?

Locally Led Adaptation (LLA) is being widely recognised as an effective, efficient, and equitable approach of delivering adaptation action. This approach to adaptation is about ensuring that local people have individual and collective agency over defining, prioritising, designing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating adaptation actions. This is why over 110 entities (including several national governments) have formally committed to this agenda by pledging to implement the Principles for Locally Led Adaptation

However, there remain some questions on whether LLA is a comprehensive approach that can lead to transformative adaptation (TA). TA is emerging in scientific and sustainable development debates as both a necessity and an opportunity but remains a complex concept. It involves moving away from “business as usual” to creating fundamental systemic changes that lead to new states and interactions within socio-ecological systems. One way to bring TA to life is by scaling adaptation solutions that create system change. Many are questioning whether LLA can deliver transformational change. 

These were key issues that were elicited in a lively debate hosted by CARE and IIED at the Adaptation Futures 2023 where two debaters each argued that LLA can deliver TA and two debaters argued that LLA cannot lead to TA. Three distinct sets of points and counterpoints were tabled.

First, those arguing that LLA cannot deliver TA underlined that adaptation is cross and multi-scale and actions to reduce risk and enhance adaptive capacity of vulnerable groups need to be nested across different strata of governance. They argued that even though adaptation activities and their benefits might be local, they are often enabled by actions that take place at the subnational and national levels (e.g., mobilise finance or create an enabling policy environment at the national level to implement action at the local level).

Therefore, they felt that an undue, singular focus on merely the local level within LLA detracted from the development of comprehensive adaptation solutions. In contrast, those arguing that LLA can deliver TA pointed out that this was a misreading of the core-tents of LLA, integral to which is the principle of ‘integrated subsidiarity.’  This recognises that it is not possible to resolve all adaptation challenges at the local level and that effective solutions for overcoming risk are implemented across all levels, through vertically connected governance systems with co-governance arrangements giving far greater agency to local actors where possible, and that “locally led” adaptation is not the same as “local” adaptation.

Second, those arguing that LLA does not lead to TA stated that while LLA presents an aspiration and vision of change, there were major operational impediments for putting this into practice. A key component of this were challenges around the capacity and capabilities of local actors and organisations. They pointed out that LLA expects those at the local level to ‘lead’ on adaptation decision-making however local government and non-government actors in at-risk geographies often lack the technical (e.g., analytics and decision-making tools) and operational (e.g., managing, and channelling finance at scale) capabilities needed to execute this charge.

Those arguing that LLA leads to TA pointed out that the LLA charter was mindful of this challenge which is precisely why the fourth LLA principle underlined the importance of “…improving local institutions’ capabilities to ensure they can understand climate risks and uncertainties, generate solutions and facilitate and manage adaptation initiatives.”  In this way, enhancing the capacity of local actors and organisations was core to the LLA agenda.

Third, an interesting strain of debate centred on how LLA places the onus of action on local actors and institutions, making it easier to shift the responsibility for adaptation action onto the shoulders of vulnerable communities that have contributed the least to causing the climate crisis. In this way, those arguing that LLA cannot lead to TA suggested that LLA is a neo-liberal agenda that legitimised the retraction of leadership from international institutions and national and subnational governments while at the same time expecting local communities, individuals, and organisations to manage the complex adaptation initiatives. And LLA was argued to protect the status quo underpinning the root causes of vulnerability precisely because it is framed, set up by and endorsed by the very institutions that underpin these root causes: the colonial and capitalist structures that drive inequality and poverty. 

This was countered by those that believed that LLA can deliver TA who pointed out that far from permitting a withdrawal of entities at higher scales, the LLA agenda forced them to commit to supporting local actors to lead on adaptation decision-making. Specifically, the LLA principles commit these entities to ensuring that they are giving local institutions and communities more direct access to finance and power to define, prioritise, design, implement and evaluate adaptation actions (principle 1); supporting long-term development of local governance processes, capacity and institutions by providing patient and predictable funding (principle 3); and  ensuring that these entities have the skills and abilities needed for adaptation decision-making (principle 4).

The debate started with 60% of the audience agreeing that LLA carries the potential to deliver transformational change. In a poll conducted at the end of the debate this had shifted to 90% agreeing with this motion!

By Aditya Bahadur (IIED), Moushumi Chaudhury (CARE USA), Ayesha Dinshaw (Climate Justice Resilience Fund), Saliha Dobardzic (Adaptation Fund), Anand Patwardhan (University of Maryland), and Tom Tanner (SOAS, University of London)

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