By Hemant Ojha


A group of 20 experts, led by Siri Eriksen, have published a research article in World Development, sending a very strong message to the climate change adaptation donor community: That the business as usual approach to adaptation investment in many cases is adding to the vulnerability of communities in the developing world.

This paper is based on the review of 34 empirical studies from around the world and nearly 200 papers. Besides, a strong methodological basis of the paper is that it draws on the practical insights of the authors most of whom are well-known experts in the field of climate change, adaptation, and international development.

The paper shows how some interventions inadvertently “reinforce, redistribute or create new sources of vulnerability” in the very process of trying to reduce it.  When adaptation efforts inadvertently leads to increased vulnerability, this situation is known in the scholarly domains as ‘maladaptation’.

Maladaptive pathways

They identify various ways through which such international development funding leads to maladpatation.

First and foremost, the authors pinpoint the problem of designing and implementing projects based on shallow understanding of the vulnerability context. Vulnerability is highly contextual, and programs designed without deep engagement and analysis are likely to miss the target causes or forces of vulnerability, if not escalate them.

Second reason the authors attribute to maladaptation is that those most vulnerable to climate change are the ones who get the least opportunity to participate in the process of adaptation project planning and management. The authors write:

“An important lesson from past adaptation interventions is that within current adaptation cum development paradigms, inequitable terms of engagement with ‘vulnerable’ populations are reproduced and the multi-scalar processes driving vulnerability remain largely ignored”.

Further, authors identify a third important mechanism of donor support that contributes to unintentional vulnerability-enhancing outcomes. This mechanism is the tendency to  retrofit adaptation into existing development agendas, rather than undertake a more holistic adaptation planning.

In their fourth and final vehicle of vulnerability, the authors have spotlighted the lack of critical engagement between funding organisations, northern based experts, governments and local people and professionals to define what  ‘adaptation success’ means in specific contexts of project interventions. Generic definition of adaptation success that underpin the design of many adaptation projects is an important mechanism driving maladaptation, according to the paper.

Correcting the course

The authors also identify a few areas of emerging knowledge and wisdom that can help tackle this problem of maladaptation.

First, as the paper argues, it is crucial to shift the terms of engagement between adaptation practitioners and the local populations participating in adaptation interventions.

Second, vulnerability should not just be understood as ‘local’ but should  encompass global contexts and drivers that operate as multi-scaler dynamics.

The paper also suggests that organisations implementing adaptation programs should have more open and active learning systems, while being more open to engage with marginalised people.  Besides,  treating local community as a homogeneous group is problematic, as people vary not only in terms of their socio-economic standing but also in terms of their  knowledges, worldviews and interests with regard to framing adaptation actions. This requires a shift from the usual tendency to prioritise donor reporting to more self-reflective and self-critical practice and deep engagement with the community.

The paper concludes with a critical note that even the transformational thinking and design in adaptation can continue to create same maladaptive effects, if there is no reframing in the political assumptions and multi-scalar processes of adaptation governance. In other words, just trying to change the practice at local level is not enough; fundamental rethinking is needed to conceptualise and deliver international support in such a way that it helps, rather than hinder, adaptation of the vulnerable communities to multi-faceted risks rooted in both climate change and the exclusionary social and economic systems.

The paper does not support one specific approach to replace the current one but advocates for pluralism of ideas to bring insights from diverse angles and scales to deliberate solutions that tackle underlying political economy within which aid programs are designed and delivered.