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Climate change and resilience: campaigns Tom and development Geri discuss

Posted by John Magrath Programme Researcher

25th Mar 2015

Maximino Beringue is a tenant farmer in the Philippines, he had a two storey house but it was completely destroyed during Typhoon Haiyan. Credit: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam

Is it possible to reconcile the views of campaigners and development practitioners on the place of climate change within programming through the concept of 'resilience'? On Tuesday John Magrath introduced some tensions around climate change discussions in development NGOs. Here he presents an imaginary conversation part two.


You asked last time, how does work on climate change adaptation manifest itself in our programming? Does it? Well, we take a multi-risk approach. We know underlying vulnerabilities are exacerbated by climate extremes so we work with communities and institutions to increase understanding of how existing vulnerabilities interact with drivers of change, including climate. Then we work with them to build their capacities to respond to all sorts of shocks, including climate change. That's resilience. 

T: 'Does 'resilience' downgrade climate change to a sideline?'Tom: That's my problem. If so many other shocks like land grabbing or marginalisation are more prominent and immediate, and people are vulnerable for so many reasons, does 'resilience' become resilience to so many other shocks that it downgrades climate change to a sideline? If so, it becomes hard to extract from resilience programming anything meaningful that we can point to and cite about our response to climate change specifically.  

And I'd argue there are reasons why we should put climate change at the heart of our programming. It could be a spur to action. If communities perceive they are getting hit by unusual climate shocks more often, they want and need to be empowered to demand things of governments, like better early warning systems - as happened in Pakistan in 2010

Climate change knowledge has focused awareness on droughts, floods, hotter summers that used to be regarded - dismissed - as acts of 'Nature', somehow inevitable and unpredictable. Seeing trends in events makes planners look ahead, not just react, and see how all these things are linked, so we stop working in silos. 

Geri: True, but from a programming perspective it's hard and maybe risky if we don't really know how the climate is going to change in any particular place. What governments do might be maladaptive. 

Tom: I'd say your worries prove the point that climate change adaptation in programming isn't about rushing into building 'things' - like dykes or ditches - it's more about building capacities, knowledge and skills and networks so they can be responsive and flexible and act appropriately. 

Geri: Indeed. But from your point of view harder, I would imagine, to explain in terms of a story; dykes and ditches are more concrete - literally!

G: 'We should get better at observing and understanding how the climate system and ecosystems work'Tom: Much harder to explain! Give me a grain store any time….but I think we can incorporate climate change into resilience in ways that can be explained and understood. Experts like Saleemul Huq have argued that climate change adaptation programming isn't just development programming, it does need some new attributes. He highlights the need to be more science-oriented and for there to be a 'climate literacy' thrust

So I'd argue our resilience work should always include, for example, elements like monitoring of changing climate conditions and effects on people's lives; building up local weather forecasting capacities involving communities; and climate change knowledge and awareness. 

Geri: I agree. At the same time as understanding inequality and how it makes people vulnerable, we should get better at observing and understanding how the climate system and ecosystems work and are changing and better at looking at the future. There are some Oxfam resilience programmes really doing that now. But I can't guarantee they all are! Perhaps that's the challenge.  


That dialogue, imagined as it is, feels to me like a real conversation; exaggerated, indeed, but not false. The kind of conversation I feel has been going round and round in Oxfam (or maybe, just round and round in my head?). 

As humans we tend to gravitate to either pole of an issue, to feel that it has to be either/or. Climate change is important, or it isn't; forefront or backdrop? In fact, such apparently opposite statements are both 'true'; the relative importance depends on perspective. They are not contradictory but complementary. We should feel comfortable in being able to use both and all perspectives and move between them lightly. Perhaps resilience programming offers the most promising way to do this.

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  • Farmer Maximino Beringue house was destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan in December 2013. Credit: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam
  • Beatrice Quayee, aged 35, holds rice ready for transplanting in River Gee county, Liberia. Credit: Kieran Doherty
  • Ali Hassan and Mamtaz stand where floods destroyed their home and land in Sindh, Pakistan, 2011. Credit: Timothy Allen/Oxfam
  • A house submerged in floodwater in Pakistan 2011. Credit: Oxfam

Blog post written by John Magrath

Programme Researcher

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John Magrath