Sunday, 25 June 2017

Thoughts on two new papers from vulnerability and adaptation research

I read two very interesting papers from adaptation and vulnerability research last week.

In Operationalizing longitudinal approaches to climate change vulnerability assessment, Fawcett et al. (2017) make a case for longitudinal methodological approaches when studying vulnerability and adaptation. The lack of attention paid to temporality has been a long-held peeve of mine (it's gotten so bad that in team meetings, colleagues crack jokes about it). Fawcett et al. use three illustrative cases from Arctic communities to highlight how longitudinal approaches, two in particular — cohort studies (following a group of individuals over time) and trend studies (repeated data collected at a community level to reveal patterns of change) — can strengthen the methodological toolbox of vulnerability research.

I particularly liked how they tease out the benefits of using a longitudinal approach. It helps
  1. build a more nuanced understanding of adaptation processes and 'causal chains' of vulnerability (something Jesse Ribot has written a lot about, see his work from 1995, 2010, and 2014), 
  2. construct a more robust portrayal of what has worked and hasn't, and why, which is crucial for anyone interesting in strengthening, investing in, and implementing adaptation, and 
  3. diagnose maladaptive behaviour by looking into past pathways. This last approach is similar to what colleagues and I have taken in a recent project where we use cases from rural and urban India to argue that tracing historical trajectories of development and adaptation actions can help understand how development choices can narrow adaptation option spaces, often leading to potential maladaptation.
Coming back to Fawcett et al. (2017), I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and wholly support their key argument of expanding vulnerability research to involve more longitudinal approaches that begin to capture temporality. While the authors discuss the challenges in doing such research (notably, potential attrition of respondents from original cohorts, the need for sustained funding), I have two questions probing the practice of longitudinal vulnerability assessment approaches:
  1. The political economy of vulnerability assessments: Currently, many NGOs, donors, and governments conduct VAs. How do the authors imagine such actors to undertake longitudinal studies given the budgets, project cycle-time frames, and capacity constraints they work under? This is especially true in government departments in India (we did a review of 120 VAs in India found 35% use static, indicator-based approaches). Moreover, in many cases, governments undertake VAs under tight deadlines (for e.g. assessments after a disaster event to inform humanitarian action). The underlying question is how can we build processes and demand for longitudinal vulnerability assessment approaches that feed into shorter-term cycles but also contribute to the larger narratives of vulnerability? 
  2. The place of researchers: Researchers are a possible 'actor group' that don't face all the challenges noted above, or at least not to a similar extent. However, researchers are increasingly being squeezed into shorter project cycles, insecure employment arrangements, tighter funding structures, and greater calls for impact — all of which, may not necessarily be conducive to longitudinal research  design which needs 1) sustained financial backing, 2) strong, clear and continual leadership, 3) an underlying recognition of the importance of such work, 4) acceptance of delayed gratification.


In Adaptive capacity: exploring the research frontier, Mortreux and Barnett (2017) discuss the emphasis that adaptation research has on quantified assessments of adaptive capacity (predominantly through Sustainable Livelihoods Framework-based (SLF) approaches) without an equal emphasis on how and to what extent adaptive capacity translates in adaptation outcomes. They highlight valuable gaps in adaptation research, most notably, the lack of focus on the process of adaptive capacity (a potential to adapt) being translated into an adaptation outcome (with concrete implications for peoples' vulnerability). The paper reviews emerging literature on risk perception and adaptation decision-making, cognitive barriers to adaptive behaviour, and place attachment, to discuss how these gaps can be addressed.

To add to their review of literature from disaster risk management and behavioural sciences, I wanted to highlight a few empirical studies exploring the drivers of adaptation behaviour and adaptation outcomes:
  1. Burnham and Ma (2017) examine farmer adaptation decisions in Loess Plateau, China and find that self efficacy, i.e. one's perception of one's own efficacy to adapt, shapes adaptation behaviour and outcomes significantly. They crucially highlight that in addition to household assets and entitlements, state-society dependencies may reduce farmer perceived self-efficacy.  
  2. Drawing on data examining household and intra-household risk perceptions and decisions in rainfed farming families in north-west India, I have argued that different households perceive risk differently and this shapes the adaptation pathways they take. Moreover, I found that adaptation outcomes (measured through environmental, social and economic lenses) change over time based on changing household assets but also changing social structures, policy regimes, and cultural beliefs.
  3. In a completely different context, Evans et al. (2016) examine social limits to adaptation int he Great Barrier Reef region.They argue that social limits affect adaptation outcomes by dissuading people to take up adaptive action in the first place! Also interactions between psycho-social (or what I call socio-cognitive) and structural factors can adaptation ineffective. 
Conceptually, it's exciting times for adaptation research. Practically, I feel that while there is a growing body of work around understanding the need for longitudinal vulnerability assessments and factoring in socio-cognitive barriers to adaptation, it hasn't begun to filter into mainstream adaptation implementation and negligibly in policy circles (especially in India, the context I am most familiar with). 

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Urban Livelihoods: Learning by Doing

If I were to choose one word to define my research, it would not be climate change or adaptation, it would actually be livelihoods. Livelihoods. How people earn a living; a process, a strategy that goes much beyond a 'job' or income source', a negotiation that people and families make to live, and meet their physical needs and, if you're lucky, aspirations as well.
"Livelihoods are understood not only in terms of income earning but a much wider range of activities, such as gaining and retaining access to resources and opportunities, dealing with risk, negotiating social relationships within the household and managing social networks and institutions within communities and the city." Beall and Kanji (1999:1) 
Until a few years ago, I was working exclusively on rural livelihoods. How households deal with climatic risks (among other things) and what livelihood pathways they take. The rural development literature has had a relatively long engagement with the idea of livelihoods: from here comes the now-common lexicon of sustainable livelihoods and five livelihood capitals (Scoones, 1998; 2009), livelihood diversification and risk spreading (Ellis, 1998), and multiple discussions on methods to study livelihoods (Murray, 2001; McLean, 2015).
"A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (including both material and social resources) and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base." Carney (1998:4).
More recently, when I began examining livelihoods spanning the rural-peri-urban-urban continuum, the literature has seemed less developed. Urban livelihoods differ from rural livelihoods in their nature, range of opportunities and earning possibilities, as well as entry criteria. Constructs common in rural research such as 'community', 'common pool resources', 'village leaders and elites', take on different meanings and forms in the urban. The slum leader may double up as labour contractor and (illegal) water provider. Lines of gender, caste and class remain but they take on different forms and confer different agency in the urban. Even defining a household becomes tricky (Beall and Kanji, 1999). Interrogating all of this from a livelihoods approach requires a lexicon that moves away from agriculture and allied sectors towards spaces such as factory floors and street vending, domestic work and call centres. That moves away from discussions around landholding sizes and livelihood portfolios towards encounters of choices and aspirations with globalisation and sharp class differences.  

And so, over the past year, I have been documenting urban livelihoods across India using the the hashtag #UrbanLivelihoods. So far I've covered Delhi, Lucknow, Bangalore, and Mathura to create a photo repository of the diverse activities people undertake in our messy, hard-to-define, and ever-changing urban spaces. It is a tentative foray into the range of livelihoods one encounters in the urban. And so I have captured the fodder sellers of Vrindavan who are part of a tourism industry that feeds on the 'holy cow'. The agarbatti rollers in Bangalore's pete area. The singhara seller in Lucknow, and the Nepali house maid in Delhi.

See all of them here.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Envisioning with empathy: Reflections on the Transformative Scenario Planning Methodology

Last month, my team organised and participated in a training workshop on a methodology called Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP). Aimed at envisioning and co-creating futures in situations that are seemingly stuck, cannot be resolved by one/few actors, and are complex and conflict-ridden, the TSP has been used across the globe from post-apartheid South Africa to democratic futures across Latin America. In India, we are exploring whether we can use this methodology to construct transformative scenarios for Bangalore's water future. 

Building Lego models to go with our scenarios. Photo by Tanvi Deshpande
About: Transformative scenarios aren’t about predicting the future, they’re about creating it. While most scenario planning methodologies focus on adaptation, transformative scenarios seek to not only understand or adapt to the future but also to shape it. The structured yet creative process helps diverse actors to see the different futures that are possible and discover what they can and must do. Constructing transformative scenarios may lead to working together over time in social labs.
How They Work: Transformative scenarios offer a way for diverse stakeholders together to unblock situations that are polarized or stuck. The facilitated process combines imagination and rigour. It is useful when a diverse set of people face a complex challenge that is vital to them but that they have not been willing or able to work on together, perhaps because they disagree on the very nature of the problem. Transformative scenarios enable them to construct shared understandings, stronger relationships, and clearer intentions, thereby creating the potential for action that will shape a better future. From the Reos Partners Website 
 Rachenahalli Lake in Bangalore. Read more at the TNOC blog. Photo by Sumetee P Gajjar
Bangalore's water situation has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Bangalore's lakes are polluted and frothing. The city has a thriving water mafia which has exploited groundwater within and beyond city boundaries. Real estate developers routinely build upon and along lake beds, disrupting local hydrology. Beyond the water issues, Bangalore is facing serious challenges: its population has doubled over the past decade; services from transportation to electricity supply, are severely stressed; and its under-staffed government bodies face recurring issues of fragmentation and redundancy (many departments with overlapping functions, poor policy convergence). Inequality in the city mirrors Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze's apt comment on India of "islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa" (An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, p.9). 

In such a situation of complex, almost-overwhelming issues that promise to only become more acute in the future, Bangalore's Water Future is a candidate ripe for the TSP. For me, the workshop, and the journey it took us on, was an invigorating experience. 
“...change or action happens when the pain is felt throughout the system.” Colleen, Reos Partners, Day 1 
Colleen from Reos Partners taking us through the driving forces exercise. Photo by Tanvi Deshpande
Takeaways from the process
  • The TSP made us recognise and almost personalise the 'pain in the system' and use it to understand that if solutions are to work, they must be co-created and co-envisioned
  • But realising that solutions must be co-created isn't enough. Several exercises like paired walks and the Cynics and Believers exercise, helped break down preconceived assumptions and embedded hostilities we might have towards certain stakeholders ("the government doesn't do anything"; "environmental activists would prefer that we stop all development"). Speaking to one another in an open manner, in the safe space the TSP process created, helped build trust and allow for honest conversations. 
  • Since the TSP follows a systems thinking approach based on principles of interdependence and holism, it resonated with me (and my work on livelihoods across rural-urban continua).
  • I was happy to that the TSP strongly argues that having conversations and undertaking personal journeys towards transformative change are not 'fluff'. It follows a rigorous process of creating stories of the future: the stories/scenarios are considered 'valid' only if they are plausible, challenging, relevant, and clear.
  • Actively differentiates between adaptation and transformation.
  • The interactive nature of the workshop (we had Lego and hexagonal post-its!) really challenged some participants (government officials, I'm looking at you!) but everyone came aboard pretty soon which was heartening. 
looking towards the future along with others is, in itself, a big step.” Participant, Day 2

Pictures from the TSP workshop. Photos by Tanvi Deshpande.

Further reading
  1. Video: Webinar by Adam Kahane on the TSP [Link]
  2. Audio/visual: Adaptation pathways, an alternative scenario planning exercise [Link]
  3. Reading: Systems thinking and climate change adaptation [Link]

Saturday, 16 April 2016

What's the difference between adaptation and development?

How do we differentiate between adaptation and development? Are development projects being re-branded to show that they are meeting climate change goals in a bid to attract funds? Or is adaptation just the latest fad; nothing more than development with a climate change hat on?

Drip irrigation is ubiquitous in water-scarce Kolar. Photo by Chandni Singh
A working paper I recently wrote tries to unravel this issue and demonstrates that demarcating what is adaptation and what development is not all that simple. From a review of 69 projects in three semi-arid states of India, we find that initiatives that takes into account existing vulnerabilities (due to social differences, and different capacities and capabilities) and prepare for climatic risks can be termed as adaptive. Projects that are not flexible or forward-thinking and are ignorant of current and potential climatic risks, are neither adaptive nor 'good' development. From the abstract:
We find that while there is a significant reorientation of development action in India to mainstream adaptation goals, there remain issues around who takes on which role (and has the competency to do so) as well as how critical aspects of adaptation (flexibility, forward-thinking, and learning) are being considered in adaptation-development projects currently.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Book Review | The Adivasi Will Not Dance

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar's "The Adivasi Will Not Dance" does not have the most poetic prose but it is raw and honest. This short story collection brings to readers stories from India's fecund yet ravaged lands — the resource-rich Adivasi-inhabited Jharkhand. Ten stories, refreshingly focussed on women protagonists (though that may not have been deliberate), portray how the curse and blessing of bountiful natural resources intersect with historical trajectories of marginalisation to present-day exploitation and apathy.

While the ten short stories that make up the collection are not even in their content, for me, two stories stood out. In "Getting Even", Hansda presumably draws on his own experiences as a medical officer in the Jharkhand Government to portray how 'sahiyas' (Accredited Social Health Activists commonly known as ASHAs) are key to delivering babies in this land where services seldom work.
"The sahiyas knew no rest. Each one would bring a pregnant woman from her village to the Sadar Hospital in a Mamata Vahan. She would then return for another. More beneficiaries meant more money -  both from the government, as an honorarium; and from the beneficiaries' families, as baksheesh. They are terribly shrewd, terribly sharp-tongued, terribly hardworking women, these sahiyas, all of whom run entire households on the money they make off others' pregnancies." Pg 44
His imagery, described in a clipped, matter-of-fact way is telling: he skillfully captures the acceptance and apathy that goes with being at the intersection of being a tribal and poor.
"There was a little girl with them - perhaps three or four years old, in a  frock, her hair tied on the top of her head like a fountain with a rubberband - who was playing with an empty carton of Kojak Selinge syringes." Pg 45
The story deals with so much at once—bullying and sexual assault in a highly unequal society, caste-based identity and how it is experienced in cruel, demeaning ways, the futility of justice delayed, and crucially, how the upper caste poor often find themselves doubly isolated neither shielded by their caste, nor by cushioned by money.

In "The Adivasi Will Not Dance", Hansda is at his best. He weaves the political and personal to construct an image of Jharkhand's coal fields, rapacious private players, an angry, disadvantaged, yet hustling adivasi population, and conniving apathetic political class. In the story, an adivasi troupe is invited to dance at a cultural event for the President of India. Hansda is bitter when he says
"For every benefit, in job, in education, in whatever, the Diku are quick to call Jharkhand their own-let the Adivasi go to hell. But when it comes to displaying Jharkhandi culture, the onus of singing and dancing is upon the Adivasi alone." Pg 179
And then in one act of defiance, the Adivasi dancing troupe's leader refuses to dance for the President. The tables are suddenly turned. Generations of fear, loathing, shame, and atrocity are distilled into the story's climax and the adivasi troupe leader's refusal to dance. But there is no gratification in the act; we realise the troupe leader is narrating the story from jail and Hansda deftly reminds us that in Jharkhand, the Adivasi never wins. 

Friday, 12 February 2016

Teaching (and learning about) vulnerability

In December, I helped organise an exciting 3-day course on vulnerability and the concepts and methods used to assess it. The course was attended by 30 participants from various disciplines and from sectors as varied as government officials, PhD researchers, NGO and private sector professionals. We used a mix of classroom teaching, games, field visits and guest lectures and focussed on co-learning, especially since the participants themselves were in positions that required them to conduct vulnerability assessments to plan for development projects.

What emerged from the course? 
  1. There is still a lot of confusion about what vulnerability means and the language used by researchers (adaptation, resilience, development pathways) is at odds with practitioner experiences (climate change being one of the many stressors people experience) and the 'vulnerable' themselves (slum dwellers are more concerned and motivated to act on issues of land tenure and possible eviction which are embedded in larger political and development processes than mull over climatic risks). 
  2. Who assesses vulnerability shapes what is assessed. For our field visits, some teams took the standard approach of Vulnerability = f (Exposure, Sensitivity, Adaptive Capacity) while a group of young researchers took a more rights-based approach where they charted the trajectory of a slum's formation and relocation as the context for multi-dimensional vulnerability. 
  3. Quick, quantitative vulnerability assessments tend to mask deeper drivers of vulnerability and thus for any assessment to be meaningful and truly representative, a mix of snapshot assessments and qualitative discussions (development trajectories, historical timelines) is necessary. 


A longer post on the course is here.

Friday, 11 December 2015

My Year of Conferences

2015 has been the year of the conference for me. From the CBA (Community-based Adaptation) Conference in Nairobi (April), Scaling Up Good Adaptation Practices in Delhi (August) to the Development and Climate Days in Paris (December), a 2-day side event to the Conference of Parties, adaptation has been a binding thread. What have I taken away from all my conversations?
  • Adaptation and development are inextricably linked. However, we (as researchers and practitioners), are yet to develop a vocabulary to clearly demarcate the two and in the mean time, many development initiatives are peddled as adaptation. While 'good' development definitely helps adaptation, in the face of unprecedented change, it may not be sufficient to facilitate adaptation.
  • While people recognise that vulnerability is temporal (especially in agriculture-based livelihoods that are directly affected by seasonality), few studies focus on it. Short-term and long-term dynamics in local vulnerability are understudied and poorly captured in common survey-based methods. 
  • Social differentiation is the new sustainable development: Everyone is talking about it and is broad and generic enough to be applicable to various issues.
  • Many people talk of combining traditional and science-based knowledge systems to conserve natural resources, understand risk perception, and motivate adaptive action. However, I haven't heard as much on how we can do it. How do we actually draw on two very different and often conflicting ways of thinking, understanding and processing risk to work together to inform decision-making?  
  • It is encouraging to hear a lot of people talk of the utility of research. With adaptation research having direct implications on action, I am always all ears for discussions on our responsibilities towards decision-makers and practitioners. At all the conferences I attended, issues of ethics, implications, and uptake of adaptation research were at the heart of our discussions. 
  • And finally, adaptation to climate change may require us to move out of our comfort zones. I am not sure we are ready. The Taste the Change session at the DC Days challenged us to eat insects (high protein, low carbon footprint). Not everyone did.
Here's to another year of learning!
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