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The Challenge Fund

Women in dry season gardening displaying their harvest under the ELCAP (Credit: Jeoffery Buta/ Oxfam)

At a glance

Improving programming and implementation by addressing climate change impacts, natural resource management and governance issues in six countries.


The Challenge Fund (CF) has supported Oxfam's work in six countries over three years (2012-2015) in designing and testing innovative solutions to common, yet increasingly complex, challenges such as climate change and natural resource management. Oxfam teams in Armenia, Ghana, Niger, the Philippines, Tajikistan and Zimbabwe specifically focused on three issues: sustainable natural resource management in areas of considerable natural resource scarcity; adaptation to climate change impacts; and how to scale up our work to influence relevant stakeholders and decision makers.

Having completed the implementation of all projects, we share some of the insights and lessons learnt through the challenge fund, including successes and challenges we encountered and reflections on our collaboration with ACCRA.

Successes and challenges


ICTs (Information and communications technologies) have proven instrumental in amplifying the dissemination of weather and climate information which farmers need in order to make informed decisions for agricultural planning. Feedback surveys from the Philippines and Zimbabwe show that when information is brought closer to people through mobile phones, they can use it to prepare for the future, therefore improving their livelihoods and resilience

Harnessing diverse expertise from technical bodies at national level, local government and communities (i.e indigenous knowledge) significantly improved the quality and effectiveness of the services provided to adapt agricultural methods and sustainably manage natural resources. Agro-met experts from Zimbabwe played a key role in supporting understanding and use of climate information by end-users through advisory messages.

Working hand in hand with national and local governments and other agencies provides opportunities for cross learning and stimulate ownership of good practices. In Ghana, District Assemblies co-delivered participatory Vulnerability and Risk Assessments (VRA) in all project districts, which are being used to develop disaster risk plans for the districts. VRAs were also implemented in Armenia, with the findings linking to implementation and policy successes.

Grounding advocacy agendas in evidence based on research and local realities has contributed to policy improvements for resilience and agricultural risk reduction. In Armenia, the new draft Strategy for Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development has integrated climate change considerations and promotes insurances to protect farmers.

Conducting pilot projects can lead to change at scale while minimising costs for delivery. With good practice and lessons learnt on how change can happen emerging from the Challenge Fund projects, the ground has been laid for advocacy to scale up the projects. This is what's happening in Zimbabwe, who is engaging with the Oxfam leadership team to scale up the work done under the fund using ACCRA's tools and methodologies


The programme teams - and, more importantly, the communities we work with - faced various challenges that are widespread in development projects, but with the added difficulties of managing the devastating effects of sudden shocks and climate change. Water scarcity, ongoing soil depletion in rural communities, increasing uncertainty of weather patterns were among the main drivers of vulnerability in the projects implemented under the fund, in addition to governance related issues described below.

The communities involved in the fund work also faced challenges when it came to governmental and educational support: access to credits and to local and international markets was limited; most farmers possessed old agricultural machinery and equipment and also lacked critical knowledge in new agricultural practices, cooperative and farming management as well as marketing (which would otherwise potentially enable them to be players in the market).

Some of these challenges were born out of historical and social-economical factors, but also because of the government's insufficient capacity to strategise, plan and coordinate appropriately, as was the case in Armenia. The Oxfam programme team there had to navigate within challenging circumstances to develop agriculture-based livelihood plans with small scale farmers that look at market access, but also  address natural resource scarcity and climate change impacts. Oxfam's work has contributed to making this holistic approach to smallholder farmer livelihood a top priority for the government and other key actors in Armenia.

Other challenges encountered were internal to our programming. In Ghana, for example, we realised that using evidence generated exclusively at the local level and from a limited number of sites (exclusively in Northern savannah agro-ecological zone in Ghana) was insufficient to effectively advocate and influence at national level. Assessing what evidence we need at project design stage both for creating impact at local level and for influencing at higher levels was a key lesson learned for the team.

Key learning

  • Conducting participatory capacity and vulnerability assessments and planning processes, such as through the Vulnerability & Risk Assessment (VRA) and the Participatory Capacity and Vulnerability Analysis (PCVA) methodologies, is crucial to resilience building efforts in rural communities and at the social-ecological landscape level. Incorporating local knowledge in these processes strengthens the design, planning, implementation and ownership of communities.
  • Resilience building requires a robust understanding of the natural resource base upon which people's livelihoods depend. The prominent role that sustainable management of natural resources has on food production and security has to be acknowledged. The limitations and opportunities that these may present in the context of structural, gender and governance issues, need to be part of the design and implementation of projects and programmes.
  • Furthermore, resilience building strategies need to combine activities and initiatives at different levels of governance. They also need to make these activities and initiatives compatible and mutually-reinforcing, so they can contribute to a common objective rather than competing or working against one another.
  • For agriculture-based communities and economies, developing a common, multi-perspective understanding of who and what is at risk from climate change impacts can be conducive to the creation of pro-poor agricultural policies that, in turn, can be steered to attract private sector and donor involvement.
  • Agricultural cooperatives that explicitly seek to develop the social, as well as the economic, aspects of communities can be effective vehicles for poor households to gain access to knowledge about sustainable agricultural practices, financial resources and markets. Strictly profit oriented cooperatives, on the other hand, may result in marginalisation, increased inequality within poor communities and enhance hardships.
  • Cross-partner-community and cross-country exchange visits are useful ways to promote learning and sharing of new practices and technologies with regards to climate change adaptation and resilient development.

Lessons learned in selected countries


  • CCA and agricultural resilience are key emerging issues in Armenia, with agricultural risk reduction being a top priority for the government. However, findings from participatory assessments conducted through the VRA tool showed lack of systematic approach to resilience building in resource scarce communities both by government authorities (emergency, extension services, provincial and local governments) and small-holder farmers themselves. Hence, systematic VRA type assessments and participatory planning processes are crucial in rural communities.
  • The Armenian government needs to attract and make more investments in the agriculture sector, especially in infrastructure and in improving and applying adaptive agricultural technologies. Government funding and subsidies, together with a systemised approach to climate change related risks would create a conducive environment for pro-poor agricultural policies that attract private sector involvement (e.g. insurance companies, MFIs/banks, processors), as well as international organizations/donors.
  • Agricultural cooperatives have the potential to contribute to the development of small-holder farmers' resilience through improved access to different agricultural services new knowledge and practices, as well as financial resources and markets.
  • Establishment and promotion of new climate adaptive rural agri-business infrastructures and applied new technologies such as greenhouses with drip irrigation, cold storages for fresh fruits/vegetables drying facilities, fruit and vegetables solar drying facility as well as agri-products processing units for smallholder farmers' produce preservation (i.e. for jam and compotes) are tremendously increasing their resilience and livelihood/income.


  • The combination of strategies, such as targeting the improvement of natural resource management together with creating women's savings groups and introducing financial literacy services, as well as supporting off-farm livelihood options (e.g. livestock rearing for women), has had positive effects in strengthening food and income security of rural households.
  • Promoting improved natural resource, crop, water, soil, land and small-ruminant management proved to be key factors in improving food production and food security. The same applies to new technologies such as improved seeds, shorter-cycle and drought tolerant varieties.
  • Understanding the local context and building on existing local knowledge strengthened the design, planning, implementation and ownership of communities.
  • Properly assessing the natural resource base upon which people's livelihoods depend (and considering this in the design of responses) is critical to sustainable climate change adaptation and resilience building.
  • Women's Economic Leadership in sustainable small-holder agriculture practices can be enhanced by using innovative approaches such as the Gender Model Family (i.e. changing gender and power relations at household and community level).

Learning event and collaboration with ACCRA

In December 2014 a learning event and stakeholder workshop was organised in Uganda, the seat of ACCRA's secretariat, where the fund teams could analyse the result of their three-year efforts and compare experiences with one another and with the ACCRA team. This exposure enriched the world views of participants and fostered discussion about what influences the success of projects and the impact they generate.

A broader perspective on sustainability and climate issues: Thanks to a panel discussion where the fund team interacted with government staff, local organisations and the private sector from Uganda, the participants were able to deepen their understanding of how influencing happens, how the private sector engages with civil society and how gender equality is also part of the climate change debate.

Providing an active space for learning exchange: ACCRA has accumulated significant learning and experience throughout nearly 6 years of operating in 3 African countries. Sharing this bank of knowledge with counterparts sparked discussion during the learning event and offered significant knowledge transfer opportunities across countries. Amongst other successful approaches, ACCRA's influencing model with government attracted interest, and some countries are now investigating how to use the programme's tools and methodologies for scaling up lessons from the fund.

Learning by seeing: The visit to ACCRA field sites in Western Uganda added value to the learning event. By seeing the type of activities in which communities and local authorities engage in to build resilience to disasters and climate change, the participants could critically evaluate the relevance of the interventions to their country context and discuss what they saw with the rest of the participants.