Adrian Fenton, writing on the website of IIED (whose work I generally like), seems to be pushing the idea that community-based adaptation (that is, adaptation that builds upon/strengthens strategies employed at the local scale) and microfinance go hand-in-hand. I am not so sure this is a good idea – I feel like IIED has missed a fundamental point here – for most of the developing world, livelihoods are about avoiding and managing risks and challenges – and then capitalizing on any surplus that might come about after managing those risks.  As many have noted, this largely risk-averse approach to making a living hugely constrains opportunity because you cannot employ all of your resources in an effort to engage in markets/work off the farm/what have you – you have to effectively waste a bunch of them guarding against events that often don’t happen. One way in which this happens, which I lay out in my book and have discussed on this blog, is when people set up their livelihoods in a manner that allows them to temporarily deglobalize when markets turn against them.  This effectively requires holding back resources from market sale in case you have to rely on them directly.  For example, farmers who keep the deglobalization option open in their livelihoods hold back a portion of their labor from market engagement as they dedicate time to planting and raising food crops that might be used for subsistence purposes if the markets turn.

Given this fundamental characteristic of so many livelihoods that we see in the Global South, it seems to me that coupling adaptation (current community- and household-level livelihoods are, in effect, adaptation efforts that go on continuously) with microfinance applies the wrong medicine to the problem – people don’t need more capital, they need a way to free up the various resources they already have from the necessary conservativism of their current livelihoods strategies.  Adding loans, even small loans, to the current livelihoods mix simply increases risk without necessarily providing benefits that offset that risk.

Instead, it seems to me we ought to be shifting our focus toward microinsurance and away from microfinance – microinsurance provides the safety net that enables risk-taking at the household and community level, and therefore empowers people to use their existing resources in the manner they best see fit.  In short, it allows us to meet some of the financial requirements for adaptation without having to create new financial vehicles, and new forms of risk in already-stressed livelihoods.  This is a much more direct means of addressing the challenges to local livelihoods posed by climate change impacts and raising the capital needed to address future risks, rather than offering seed capital, hoping the business/effort works out with enough profit to pay back the loan and provide a large surplus that might then be employed to address climate change.

This strikes me as the adaptation and development version of Occam’s razor – when evaluating plans for future adaptation efforts, select the one that requires the fewest new institutions and steps to raise the capital/resources necessary to meet future challenges.