‘Autonomous Adaptation’ – Have We Logframed Ourselves into a Corner?

It’s full speed ahead on building capacity for resilience to climate change and other shocks like earthquakes and droughts and flooding. It’s the thing that everyone (ie: the development community and donors) wants to be good at, known for. Because of course. Of course no one in a country vulnerable to climate change, on the forefront of climate change like small island states (SIDS), could possibly build resilience on their own, or have a concept of what it means. Of course not, because they haven’t projectized it, aren’t carrying a logframe full of indicators of their success and targets for themself, their family, their community in their back pocket.

In an effort to appear less like they are coming to ‘save’ the most vulnerable, in recognition that the general population actually knows stuff – actually possesses skills and the capacity to reason and problem solve – there’s a new term out there in the academic world slowly infiltrating development discourse: autonomous adaptation. You can read a full article by Tim Forsyth and Natalie Evans here, but the concept boils down to this: it is a spontaneous acts to reduce risks posed by resource scarcity and climate change.

So, basically, adaptation. It’s ‘spontaneous’ because it wasn’t programmed into a wider development intervention that someone is getting paid to implement.

Ok, at this point I’m coming off as unbelievable critical and cynical. Why? Because reading some of the arguments surrounding the discussion on whether or not autonomous adaptation is a good thing or a bad thing (how could it be a bad thing, you ask? Wait, I’ll get there) I felt like I was living a subplot of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ or some kind of colonial handbook on ‘living with the natives.’

Critics of the idea of autonomous adaptation argue that it is ‘inefficient’ and might ‘reduce attention to necessary planned interventions.’ They want more evidence to demonstrate how it can connect with ‘planned’ adaptation to, effectively, demonstrate its worthiness.

Fortunately Forsyth and Evans presented the bigger picture, although they are weak when it comes to demonstrating what the theory of autonomous adaptation means in practice. They talk about how adaptation can be a ‘reflection of pre-existing societal practices’ which just a fancy way of saying ‘traditional knowledge.’ Autonomous adaptation implies that individuals or communities can undertake adaptation independently of outside intervention – principley because they are aware of the risks facing them and react accordingly.

For example, in countries or communities where there is little prospect of government help, such as in unplanned settlements in urban areas in Africa and Asia, or remote island communities in the Pacific, neighbours tend to get together to sort out problems based on what’s worked for them in the past, and the resources they have at their disposal. There is a good article here if you want to follow up.

In my experience, the most vulnerable are the most aware of their vulnerabilities, and have a sense of what to do when a crisis or ‘shock’ hits. There was a recent comment on a Facebook page that certainly resonates: “Resilience is acquired over time after being exposed to extreme situations and you are able to adapt and continue to live a normal life in a short period of time. That is exactly how Pacific islanders live their lives, especially after a severe event hits them, they will still be smiling and serenading the island way while they slowly replant their foods and rebuild their houses. I am proud to be a Pacific Islander.” (Noa Tokavou, Fiji).

Our challenge, as development practitioners, is, at times, not only to think outside the box but to see outside the box. We understand adaptation as something that is planned, based on assessments and deliberation of data. In development, we rely so heavily on what is planned that we often fail to account for anything that happens that is not. We’ve effectively logframed ourselves into a corner, and when something doesn’t fit precisely but is happening anyway, we are hell-bent to define it and name it.

We need to take more time to see outside of the box (or the logframe). Neither development interventions nor government reach everyone. Case in point is the fact that so much of what we do in terms of building resilience to climate change relies on data. Unsurprisingly, there are big gaps in data and scientific models, particularly for Central Africa, Central America, the Himalayas and the Pacific (with the exception of knowing the risk of sea level rise). Here are the most vulnerable places, with the most vulnerable people and they can’t just sit around and wait for scientists and development organizations to collect data, distill it and formalize an intervention to increase their resilience. They have to get on with it. As Dana Lepofsky of Simon Fraser University noted, traditional knowledge is ‘people data,’ and it fills gaps and is extremely important. When farmers and others with close ties to the land and sea witness climate changes, because of disruptions to ancestral farming, fishing or cultural practices, “they begin diversifying crops, doing all kinds of things to adjust and adapt… and it works.”

Thus, when Forsyth and Evans note that autonomous adaptation implies that individuals or communities can undertake adaptation independently of outside intervention, it’s because they can, they always have and, most importantly, ‘adaptation’ isn’t a concept that is owned by academics and the development community. It is a practice going back millennia, and is what has ensured the continued existence of the most vulnerable communities.

The appropriation of the concept of adaptation by the development community has resulted in our tendency to limit the definition of what that means. We look at it through a development lense, where everything needs to be planned and accounted for. Some things, like the processes of resilience and adaptation, are beyond our direct control and influence and things like traditional knowledge and practice don’t fit neatly into our theories and logframes. And so we come up with ways to harness it (new terminology!) and marginalize it (‘unplanned, uncoordinated, inefficient’) so that our traditional approaches to development (the planning, the logframe, the standards of ‘efficiency and effectiveness’) will take precedent.

It’s a bit demoralizing. Development interventions are only a small part of the larger picture of human existence and the complicated process of ‘living.’ When we fail to appreciate that which we didn’t create – traditional knowledge and practice – we are limiting ourselves. We should not expect that those communities and individuals who are ‘adapting autonomously’ should fit themselves to our box. We should be fitting ourselves to theirs, whether a box, a circle, a line or a simple progression from one day to the next. It is not about them making us look bad because they are acting outside of prescribed development practice (ie: the planned, efficient intervention), but about us learning from them, documenting and scaling up practices that work, and not belittling them as actions that distract from the work you are doing. Honestly, the most vulnerable probably don’t even know what you’re doing and care even less.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *