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Making LLA workable for the urban poor and cities

  • Published at 12:02 pm March 26th, 2021

Bridging  the gap between adaptation and development

The First Gobeshona Global Conference held in January 2021, led by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), marks the beginning of a ten-year journey to bring together local voices, women and youth living in vulnerable communities to participate more deliberately in taking the LLA agenda forward.  The concept of LLA refers to a set of actions planned, designed and led by a set of local actors, researchers, practitioners and policymakers under one platform, to measure and track initiatives and collaborations, and to address direct and indirect impacts of climate change. This article firstly seeks to examine some myths around the concept of LLA and aspires to bridge the gap between LLA and development. Secondly, it aims to ensure that LLA stays workable to the poorest of the poor, especially women.

My early lessons in resilience and adaptation came from “Mahila Milan”, an organization of women pavement dwellers in Mumbai. These migrant women and their families, the poorest of the poor in the city, lived in makeshift homes on the street and faced regular demolitions. My university education did not prepare me with the knowledge or skills needed to support these women, and we both had to learn by walking the path together. Every demolition created havoc in their lives and livelihoods. Their migration from rural to urban poverty forced them to adapt to human-made and natural disasters. They realized the power of their collective resilience by supporting women in similar situations in Mumbai and other cities. Here are some major lessons from Mahila Milans experiences, which enabled hundreds of women leaders in cities across Africa and Asia to become more resilient but there is a lot more work needed: 

  1. The greater the risks and vulnerabilities faced, human and natural, the greater the survival skills and the capacity to adapt. 
  2. Women are natural organizers; they are very motivated to better the future for their children; hence the best change agents. 
  3. Organizing within and among communities locally, strengthens collective capability to engage with other local actors. 
  4. Organizing around land or geography makes it easier to break down the enormity of the problem and find solutions workable for women, their communities and the city. 
  5. Money and Information is power. Collecting savings, information and people builds the collective capability to engage with local authorities and other local actors. 
  6. By designing and implementing pilot projects, organized communities are able to “do and show” and prove that they have capacity to implement and deliver projects on time.

To examine some myths and confusion around what determines “locally led adaptation” the following points are important to have clarity on: 

LLA is only about community “engagement” and community “participation” 

This comes from a development paradigm influenced by the state’s non-engagement with local voices from poorer communities. However, while engagement with vulnerable groups is necessary, it is not a sufficient ingredient for bringing deeper change. Within LLA, there is the aspiration for a set of local actors to work together and redefine the present dysfunctional relationships between vulnerable communities, especially women and local authority.  The process of finding solutions that are workable for women opens up the space for women to influence their agenda. Devolving decision-making to the lowest level means going beyond traditional leadership patterns, building the capability of women and young people to become influential local actors, capable of participating in designing solutions and implementing projects that influence their climate-related and overall development needs. The LLA process hence has the scope to create a safe learning environment  for vulnerable communities, especially women to participate and lead along with other local actors.


"The process of finding solutions that are workable for women opens up the space for women to influence their agenda"

LLA is about “strengthening” and “building capacity” of the local authority in decision-making processes 

Local government-led is not conclusive of a democratic and inclusive process. While local government has authority, it does not have the capability of working with non-state actors like very poor communities, especially women and youth.  In addition, engagement with local NGOs is often confrontational or project-driven. Local bids continue to come from the official list of contractors in spite of a poor track record. In the cities of Mumbai and Pune, Mahila Milan (women together) was able to change the procurement rules so as to bid for contracts for the construction of community toilets. This gave greater agency to women to build their voice and identity and lead. LLA makes the case for a new set of actors like local universities who are important knowledge brokers and other professionals and private entities who are locally respected and can be allies to vulnerable groups, influencing their participation in local action. 

LLA is all about creating “Impact” on the ecosystem and climate change 

For LLA to be transformative, it has to be defined within the “vulnerability”  framework and address existing relationships that do not work for the poorest of the poor. One of the major impacts of the Covid 19 pandemic has been on the livelihoods of informal workers who form the bulk of 50-60% of the cities population in the global south. By treating LLA as merely wanting to create “Impact” misses out on acknowledging the tug of power relationships between the different actors who are not on the same level playing field. Top-down planning often fails to capture the reality on the ground and the very reason for the inability for vulnerable communities and cities to adapt. Development work done correctly includes adaptation. Development work gone wrong increases climate risks and vulnerability; for example, large and small infrastructure projects like building walls, dykes etc. can create more “maladaptation”.

"A singular focus on external finance without considering and investing in building capacity and quality of the local organizations to manage and mobilize domestic resources will not produce the necessary long term adaptation response"

More “finances” will lead to better LLA

Finances are essential. The history of development efforts demonstrates that without adequate and sustained levels of investment (in all forms) development simply does not occur. While finance is a necessary condition it is far from sufficient. External financing can be maximized when it has the capacity to engage with robust internal/ local financial systems (formal and informal). Financial resources on their own are of little help in the absence of strong local institutions, good governance, sensible policies and the capacity to generate and utilize knowledge. A singular focus on external finance without considering and investing in building capacity and quality of the local organizations to manage and mobilize domestic resources will not produce the necessary long term adaptation response.  The question we must ask is, are the current structures and mechanisms to provide LLA finance appropriate to the local needs in countries?

There is a growing request among funders and practitioners to understand the link between locally-led adaptation, development and vulnerability.  While there is a rush to take action on LLA, we risk the fear of approaching it with different conceptual frameworks. This has the consequence that it can mean anything or nothing.  With growing resources going into adaptation, different actors are trying to obtain a stake for their organizations, and donor agencies' interpretation of LLA is different from that of  NGOs or of community organizations.  Given the pressure to act quickly, projects can be executed with unclear objectives which can further increase risks and exposure to vulnerability.  It is therefore important to ask the right questions, most importantly:  LLA by whom? for whom?  The idea is to open up the space to explore the conceptual framework of LLA through the lens of the different actors, especially the poorest of the poor and women. 

Looking at adaptation only from the perspective of measuring “Impact” to climate change is very limiting and does not address the long term inequalities which have created climate vulnerability in the first place. The “vulnerability” approach is more holistic and acknowledges other processes that affect local adaptation, such as food security, unequal wealth distribution, gender discrimination, etc, which are historically development issues. 

Celine d’Cruz started her career working with migrant women and their families living on the streets of Mumbai, through her NGO, SPARC. She is a founder member of Slum Dwellers International(SDI) and supported urban poor federations in cities of Africa and Asia. In 2003, Celine was chosen for the Yale World Fellows Program. Thereafter, she was seconded to Cities Alliance at the World Bank. Presently, Celine is a visiting researcher at ICCCAD and works on the Climate Bridge Fund and a fellow with the Global Center on adaptation.

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