Why we needed to shift from community-based to locally-led adaptation
“I hear a lot of news about billions of dollars being funded to Bangladesh but I do not see any reflection here in my village. So where does that money go?” asked Abdur Rahman, a 65 years old tea seller from South-Southkhali, Sharonkhola, Bagerhat.
Such queries force us to rethink the entire process of development. Abdur Rahman’s village was hit by the cyclone Sidr in 2007, the aftermath of the disaster followed a wave of development projects in the community. Hundreds of development projects with huge funding surged in Southkhali village. However, even after 13 years of that event, this area is still struggling with poor housing, lack of safe drinking water. Lack of work means people have to depend on relief. So, what did those hundreds of projects produce?
Historically, development activities in south Asia are always donor driven and it was assumed that the North knows the best and are happy to provide that knowledge to the South, to the vulnerable. With the changing climate, this top-down process was transferred to the adaptation activities and implementing actions to make the South climate-resilient.
However, with heavy criticism for lack of local involvement in the planning process and zero sustainability at the project end, Community Based Adaptation (CBA) came to the debate and thought of to be a perfect solution for the local-level adaptation process.
This has indeed provided a few positive changes. Local people have started getting involved in the process. But it was again defined by the implementing agencies how local people will get involved. In most cases of CBA initiatives, implementers have their own agendas, articulate that into community assessment, and keep the local involvement until identifying the issues.
Therefore, the potential solutions are still top-down, dependent only on expert knowledge and without any consideration of the local context. In many cases, it only benefits the same group, having the same individual in multiple NGO benefiting groups and many others out of any groups.
However, one of the main issues with the CBA is to perceive the community as a homogenous group and coming up with a single solution for all.
“While most of the people in this village will tell you to build an embankment and rest they can manage, I do not want an embankment since it will not benefit me at all. My house is on the bank of the river and the new embankment will be built further inside keeping me out to be eroded in the river. So tell me how would that save me?” said Amina Begum of Majher Char, Pirojpur.
Similarly, in Dalbanga South, Barguna, an embankment was built keeping more than hundred houses on the outer side and having no further planning for those households from the implementers. Most of those households do not have any more land inside and will end up living on the embankment making it weak to sustain.
CBA initiatives are receiving limited success because of its normative framing (Westoby et al 2019) as the geographical scale at which adaptation “takes place” has less focus on people, and it is problematic to be just “based” at the community because the community is not a homogenous group. They have argued that there is a need to shift the entry point for support from community-based to locally-led adaptation because initiatives that are locally-led will have local context, local culture, local dynamics, local knowledge and aspiration. The major shift will be from “based” to “led”, where local people will have the driver’s seat and have the ownership of it.
An example of a locally-led initiative from the coastal belt of Bangladesh, a region that is increasingly facing salinity intrusion in both land and water, saw it helping local people to adapt to the salinity problem.
The Kultoli village in Munshiganj union, Shyamnagar would normally have rice harvest once a year due to high salinity in the dry season, suffering from a lack of work opportunities. Many development projects that have been implemented in this region to provide livelihood support including skills training, better seed supply, micro-credit loans, and alternative farming tools and techniques, only contributed to a few individual success stories and failed to change the broader scenario.
In several needs assessment sessions conducted by NGOs, local people strongly insisted upon the need to re-excavate the canals that once provided fresh water. Nevertheless, all the development processes followed their predefined agendas.
Two years ago, with support from a local organization, villagers started re-excavating the dead canals using their own resources. Subsequently, local NGOs facilitated the excavation process and helped protect the canal from land grabbers to ensure access to the whole community. This canal has brought about a substantial change in the area, providing support to almost everyone in one way or another. People are now able to harvest thrice a year, which has created work opportunities for all, both directly and indirectly.
What started with a locally-led initiative, now allows this sub-district to have two kilometers long freshwater canal, which also serves as a public resource that local people can avail for fisheries and agricultural purposes. A local solution that did not require a lot of funding and could have been done long ago has made several communities adaptive to the issue of salinity. Such locally-led initiatives need further funding support to be promoted.
Istiakh Ahmed is working at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development as a Programme Coordinator for the livelihood resilience Programme.