Fri 16 Jul 2010
One of the most interesting and distressing trends in recent development thought has been the convergence of adaptation to global change (I use global change as a catch-all which includes environmental and economic change) and development. Development agencies increasingly take on the idea of adaptation as a key component of their missions – which they should, if they intend to build projects with enduring value. However, it is one thing to incorporate the idea of adaptation into development programming. It is entirely another to collapse the two into the same mission.
Simply put, development and adaptation have two different goals. In general, development is about improving the conditions of life for the global poor in some form or other. Adaptation implicitly suggests an effort to maintain what exists without letting it get worse . . . which sounds great until you think about the conditions of life in places like rural sub-Saharan Africa, where things are often very bad right now. A colleague of mine at USAID, in the context of a conversation about disaster relief and development, said it best: the mandate of disaster relief is to put things back to the way they were before the disaster. In a place like Haiti, that isn’t much of a mandate.
All of this becomes pretty self-evident after a moment of thought. Why, then, do we see the collapse of these two efforts into a single program in the world of development practice? For example, what does it mean when food security projects and programs start to define themselves in terms of adaptation? It seems to me that the goal shifts for these programs – from improvement to the maintenance of existing situations. If a development agency was there in the first place, the existing situation is likely unacceptable. To me, this means that this subtle shift in mission is also unacceptable.
Why am I going on about this? I am about to take up a job as the Climate Change Adaptation Coordinator for USAID’s Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. In this job, I will have to negotiate this very convergence at the program level. How we work out this convergence over the next few years will have tremendous implications for development efforts for decades to come – and therefore huge implications for billions of people around the world. And I don’t pretend to have all the answers . . . but I will think out loud in this space as we go.