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In locally-led adaptation, 'locality' and 'leadership' remain unclear

  • Published at 05:45 pm February 28th, 2021
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LLA approach and solutions


Locally led adaptation (LLA) is quickly becoming an adaptation ideal. Progressive adaptation efforts increasingly aim to move away from top-down planning. Last year, former Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki Moon launched the Locally Led Adaptation track for the Global Commission on Adaptation at the Gobeshona Conference in Dhaka. At this year’s virtual and global Gobeshona, it is clear how far-reaching the LLA approach has become.

However, there seem to be inconsistencies in the meaning of LLA for different organizations.

With LLA action as the theme of the 2021 Gobeshona Global Conference, presenters from around the world took advantage of the opportunity to highlight their organizations’ efforts in this area. It created a truly unique and much-needed space for emphasizing the importance of local actors in adaptation.

Presenters at Gobeshona seemed to agree that LLA involves a change from top-down planning that previously characterized adaptation work. That instead of planning taking place among non-local actors in international organizations and multilateral climate funds, it should take place among local actors, and that these local actors should lead adaptation. 

LLA was praised by representatives of funders such as the Adaptation Fund and the Green Climate Fund, international organizations and NGOs such as UNDP and BRAC, and by national-level researchers and project implementers. It was discussed in the contexts of countries in the Global South in Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Latin America, as well as in the Global North in Japan and Rhode Island (USA).  

So, what is local? What is leadership? 

For different types of organizations, locality and leadership mean different things. The Adaptation Fund and the Green Climate Fund have each launched initiatives to make funding more directly accessible to countries. In the past, this has been a challenge for countries that cannot meet the complicated requirements and to submit project proposals. Through “direct access” initiatives, countries would have increased “ownership” of projects and more say in how funds are spent, thereby increasing local leadership. 

For international organizations such as UNDP, local leadership comes from greater engagement with actors in vulnerable countries. These actors can be members of climate-vulnerable communities or other national actors with ideas about how adaptation should take place. UNDP has launched the “adaptation innovation marketplace” in an effort to capture and support these local ideas and turn them into projects. 


"At this year’s virtual and global Gobeshona, it is clear how far-reaching the LLA approach has become"


Bangladesh, there are also organizations working to increase vulnerable community members’ inputs in adaptation decision-making. BRAC aims to empower community members to become climate resilient on their own. The Tapestry project (implemented by several organizations) approaches LLA from an even more radical framing of local leadership. Their initiatives aim to engage with vulnerable community members’ ideas about marginality in order to co-create transformative adaptation interventions that bring long-term structural change.

What do these vastly different ideas about locality and leadership mean for LLA?

When LLA means country control over the allocation of funds for some organizations, and transformative structural change that considers local power relations for others, it is clear that there is a lack of consensus on this ideal approach to adaptation. LLA begins to lose its meaning altogether. 

In these LLA efforts, each organization seems to partially relinquish their control over adaptation to the set of actors that is one step more “local.” Local becomes a relative measure rather than something with concrete meaning. Leadership can then mean anything from contributing ideas to having substantive control over an adaptation intervention.

The presenters at the Gobeshona conference often made claims like, “Local solutions are often the best solutions,” and, “climate change is a global challenge that requires local solutions and innovations.” If we don’t know who is included in “local,” though, we don’t know who we should turn to for solutions. If “context matters,” and “we cannot apply a cookie-cutter approach,” then it seems that the people most impacted by climate change, who know their contexts, should have substantial influence in deciding how adaptation takes place.

Right now, contributions from local communities are mostly moderated by organizations that have their own interests and limitations. Depending on the organization planning the intervention, an LLA project may be collaboratively constructed with community members or may not include community members at all. Meanwhile, it is their futures that are at stake in adaptation efforts.


"When we talk about LLA, we must ask: where are vulnerable community members in this process? Are they the ones making decisions in leadership roles?"


According to the newly released “8 Principles for Locally Led Adaptation” from the Global Commission on Adaptation, the first component of LLA is “Devolving decision making to the lowest appropriate level.” Apart from the derogative tone of “devolving,” this principle also the “appropriate” level of decision-making up to interpretation. This can be used to justify keeping decision-making power away from local communities.

When we talk about LLA, we must ask: where are vulnerable community members in this process? Are they the ones making decisions in leadership roles? Or are they being used instrumentally in order to make interventions more effective or to extract innovative adaptation solutions? 

LLA is a huge improvement over top-down approaches to adaptation. That organizations at all levels are thinking about how to more evenly distribute decision-making power is a positive change. However, the conversations around LLA at the Gobeshona conference revealed that we need an explicit discussion about power and agency in adaptation. The meaning of LLA must be made more precise.

True bottom-up adaptation would mean that vulnerable community members are in charge. That they ask for what they need, and they receive it. We must not let LLA become another hollow buzzword in climate change work. Ambiguities in its meaning must be resolved now to match the urgency of the climate crisis.


Danielle Falzon is a PhD Candidate at Brown University (USA) and a Visiting Researcher at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Dhaka. Her work focuses on power and inequality in adaptation decision-making. She can be contacted at [email protected]


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