By Masroora Haque, MAGG Graduate (2017)

It is a known fact that climate change disproportionately affects the world’s poorest and it is the world’s poorest who are least responsible for its causes. It is also the world’s poorest who are most in need of affordable energy to light their homes, streets, schools and businesses. In 2014, $392 billion flowed from both the public and private sectors to reduce carbon emissions and build climate resilience across the world. How much of that finance reached the poorest communities and how well did that finance reflect their needs and priorities is a matter of question, debate and my research.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly how much international and national funding for climate related activities is reaching the world’s poorest. An investigation into climate finance reporting uncovers discrepancies in accounting, lack of standardization, absence of national and private sector data on climate spending. Preliminary research pegs it at about $1.5 billion between 2003 and 2016 from international climate funds. These funds reach poor communities through projects that aim to help them adapt to the negative impacts of climate change or provide them with energy. Examples of community based adaptation projects include providing farmers with flood tolerant rice seeds, constructing dykes and mitigation projects include decentralised solar mini-grids, providing improved cook stoves to households, etc.

Research conducted by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) shows that for there to be positive impact from these projects, local communities must be the central decision makers on how the climate finance is spent. IIED’s work builds on years of research showing the benefits of direct community involvement in climate change projects in the Global South. The organization’s work includes decentralised climate financing, assisting national institutions that receive accreditation to global funds, generating evidence for leveraging public and private finance for slum dwellers, and making the case for decentralised energy access.

Poor communities, despite their vulnerabilities and limited resources, are catalysts for sustainable actions to tackle climate change. Activities that incorporate community knowledge, support collective action, respond directly to the needs of the poor and seek to empower are all contribute to the sustainability of climate actions. How then do development practitioners, policymakers and project managers, and donors go about understanding the priorities of the poor and ensuring their participation in climate action in their communities?

Drawing on extensive literature on community participation, I have identified three central tenets to ensure active community participation in climate change projects that aim to build resilience of the poor. These include:

  1. Ensuring the right type and degree of participation – Most development projects require that local communities are engaged in some form or another, but ensuring the right type and degree of participation is key to ensuring meaningful engagement. My research draws on the work of Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation who classifies three degrees of participation – non-participation, tokenism and citizenship power. Project managers need to ensure that the poor hold the power and authority to wield influence over decision-making, are partners in the projects being undertaken and are able to manage the projects/programs their communities.
  2. Identifying the underlying interests of community members and related stakeholders for participation – Participation, according to Sarah White’s article Depoliticising development: The uses and abuses of participation, participation is a means and an end. When high-level decision makers such as project managers, donors and policymakers and local stakeholders such as local government, NGOs and the poor themselves are united in their interest of engaging the poor for their empowerment, climate projects have a higher chance of bringing about transformative benefits.
  3. Employing the right practices and methods to engage the poor. According to Mark S Reed’s extensive observations on community engagement in the environmental sector include:
    1. Building trust with communities, learning together and addressing issues of equity
    2. Including the poor in the projects from the very beginning
    3. Identifying the various groups of stakeholders and engaging them equally
    4. The perspective of multiple groups need to be considered when deciding the goals of the participation
    5. Participatory methods need to be appropriate for the type of decisions stakeholders are engaged
    6. Highly skilled facilitation to deal with participatory process where there are competing interests and potential conflict
    7. Combining local knowledge and scientific knowledge to arrive at solutions

To understand how well climate projects reflect the needs and priorities of the poor, we must first ask what were the methods used to understand their needs and priorities. By employing this framework, we can begin to get a clearer, more holistic picture of what the poor want and how we can help them achieve it.