How to scale out community based adaptation? Exploring some ‘ingredients for success’


Reducing society’s risk in the face of climate extremes and disasters is a tough challenge – whether it’s increasing resilience to storms, floods, droughts or extreme temperatures. The good news is that many communities and development practitioners around the world are developing locally successful strategies for building resilience. This work is saving lives and securing livelihoods.

A persistent challenge is figuring out how these successful examples of community-based climate adaptation can be replicated elsewhere. It takes locally-tailored, locally-appropriate solutions to adapt to climate change, so how can you scale out such approaches, across diverse peoples and places?

The Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) is a multi-year programme to assist developing countries to design and deliver climate compatible development. It’s managed by an alliance of private sector and non-governmental organisations in the South and North (find out more about us).

We recognise that ingenuity and resourcefulness at local level can go a long way in dealing with climate extremes and disasters. We’ve spent the past year reflecting on and learning from CDKN’s own experiences in working with locally-based efforts to build climate resilience. As a result, we’ve identified several ways that organisations working at the national and international level – like us – can help these local efforts to thrive and expand. We’ve published the results in a recent paper, How to scale out community based adaptation? and we define scaling out’ as ‘more quality benefits to more people over a wider geographical area, more equitably, more quickly, and more lastingly’.

Our thinking goes as follows: if you’re going to take all the things that make community-based adaptation successful in one place, and take them up somewhere else, you have to focus on the core characteristics that make a community ‘adaptive’.

Common elements for success

Image credit: Neil Palmer, CIAT
Image credit: Neil Palmer, CIAT

As I mentioned earlier, one of the fundamentals of climate change adaptation is that it’s locally-specific and every locality is different. Every neighbourhood, city or district will have its own distinct geographic features and local politics and culture that affect its climate vulnerabilities. However, there are some universal elements that can make communities more adaptive to climate-related extremes and disasters. These should form the crux of efforts to scale-out community-based adaptation.

As identified by the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance (ACCRA) in its action research programme, these common elements include recognising that people’s material assets, access to knowledge and information, entitlements, innovative capacity and ability to make long-term decisions in a flexible way are all factors that interact to make communities more or less vulnerable . Interventions to strengthen communities’ climate resilience cannot successfully focus on one of these aspects in isolation of the others, but should look at them in the round.

What’s more, communities’ overall adaptive capacity is affected by power imbalances and flows of information – the more that information flows are ‘democratised’, the more adaptive the community will become.

Learning from success, learning from mistakes

Another cornerstone of successful community-based adaptation efforts is cooperation across sectors – among individuals and groups in the community, local government authorities, businesses and other organisations. Whether it’s a case of identifying new land use practices to buffer climate impacts or getting behind new local infrastructure development, this kind of cross-cutting working has proven time and again to be a successful approach that can be replicated elsewhere.

When we looked at other success factors for scaling-out community based adaptation, we spotted the rather obvious but critical point that learning must be well documented (not just the elements of success, but learning from mistakes). If the learning hasn’t been captured somehow, then it’s hard to pass it on – and of course, this can relate to individuals’ ‘institutional memories’ and face-to-face communication, but also to written and multimedia channels for exchanging knowledge.

The Bangladesh-based community of practice on climate adaptation provides a great example. In climate policy circles, Bangladesh is sometimes called the ‘adaptation capital of the world’ as it has spawned many pilot projects and a lively NGO sector that is innovating solutions and sharing them widely. The long term research programme ‘Action Research on CBA in Bangladesh’ (ARCAB) and associated Community-Based Adaptation Conference – now in its eighth year and happening now (watch the proceedings online) – illustrate the rich ferment of activity. These are also examples of networks and partnerships, which can play a pivotal role in scaling-out community based adaptation approaches.

A panoply of networks exists, nationally in many countries and internationally, for the exchange of experience. Stepping sideways into the urban arena, we see a profusion of networks here that encourage good practice in climate compatible development to leapfrog from one city to another: ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, ACCRN and the C40 initiative are just three prominent examples.

Costs and benefits

Finally, let’s talk about the money. One reason that community-based adaptation initiatives haven’t been scaled out more broadly is that the benefits of action, relative to the costs and in-kind resources invested, haven’t seemed to pay off. Or, at least, the benefits have been hard to quantify.

Here, private businesses can prove to be important allies. CDKN has documented where private businesses are scaling out adaptive practices – first trialled at the community level – by making them a matter of company policy. Private companies are also adept at identifying the economic case for action. In Zambia, the government’s Conservation Farming Unit and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) have pioneered community based agroforestry and conservation farming methods as a way to improve yields. Dunavant Zambia, the largest cotton ginning company in Zambia, recognised the potential of these programmes to retain long term soil fertility and high crop yields – which would be in its commercial interest, not just that of its farmers.

The company works with more than 100,000 smallholder farmers each year through a contract farming system. Dunavant Zambia partnered with Shared Value Africa, an NGO, to use the ‘Trees on Farms’ programme to support planting of ‘fertiliser trees’ to provide nutrients to crops and save on synthetic fertiliser costs. The programme, although still to reach all Dunavant’s contract farmers, is gradually scaling out, and providing local ecological and economic stability, in a growing number of Zambian communities.


To sum it up, we think the successful ingredients for scaling out community based adaptation are a mix of : strengthening the adaptive capacity of the target communities (and some common principles like improving information flows are widely successful strategies to do this, which will apply in just about all places), using networks and partnerships, documenting ‘lessons learned’ well and finding institutional channels and new sources of finance – often involving the private sector. But what do you think?

What opportunities and challenges do you see for scaling out community-based climate adaptation? What elements of climate adaptation do you think are successful in the community where you are working, and why? To what extent do you think the successful approaches you have used could be adopted in similar local contexts? How can NGOs, private businesses, donors and government agencies help scale out successful initiatives? Do get in touch as we’d love to hear from you.

The author would like to thank her colleagues Elizabeth Gogoi, Lindsey Jones, Lisa McNamara and Claudia Martinez, all of whom contributed substantially to the paper How to scale out community based adaptation? on which this blog is based.


About the author

MairiDuparAs Global Knowledge Management Coordinator for the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), Mairi Dupar aims to make information and analysis on climate compatible development more accessible to decision-makers in the global South. She manages CDKN’s publications and knowledge-sharing programme and writes for CDKN’s website, Her work involves commissioning articles, films and events for CDKN.

She currently leads a project to bring the findings of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report to decision-makers in Africa and Asia.

Twitter: @CDKNetwork @mairidupar

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One Response to “How to scale out community based adaptation? Exploring some ‘ingredients for success’”

Jennifer Lentfer

I applaud the desire and call to unleash ingenuity and resourcefulness at local levels. Knowledge and ideas are important, yes, but money is even more so at this point. What are the new funding mechanisms needed to address climate risk – arguably the most urgent global issue facing us right now – so that money can get to the people with the solutions? The ones having to adapt already, right now? What’s needed to incentivize the risk-taking needed on the part of donors of all sorts to get more money to the ground, quicker than ever before? Institutional and organizational platitudes often cited in development circles will not get us there. Strategies applied in the past will buckle. It’s time to be bold. It’s time to realize that scaling may ultimately be about giving the money, and then getting out of the way.

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