Climate Change and Development: Return of the Technocracy?

A few weeks ago I attended an experience-sharing event for the Strategic Climate Institutions Program, a five-year initiative that aims to build the capacity of the Ethiopia government to implement its Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy.

One thing that struck me was the diversity of projects receiving grant funds through this program, ranging from urban rail projects to designing energy efficient cook stoves and improving the management of national parks. Prior to the emergence of the climate change and development agenda these projects would have been categorized quite differently (and perhaps more meaningfully) as urban transport, poverty reduction, or natural resource management projects respectively, and funded through separate thematic programs.

I couldn’t help but wonder that the only thing linking many of these projects together was the fact they had been funded via the same program under the broad umbrella of building climate change institutional capacity. As such, I found it difficult to see what common lessons could be drawn from such a disparate group of projects, apart from general financial and technical issues related to this specific funding program.

However, what I found most striking was the implication that the categorization of these projects as climate change initiatives represents a shift towards a more technical-scientific approach in development. Which raises a number of important considerations regarding the risks and challenges associated with the climate change and development agenda for countries like Ethiopia.

Based on my observations from this event and my experiences in Ethiopia I have identified three potential issues that could arise from the new focus on climate change in developing countries.

1. Climate change objectives taking precedence over development objectives

The projects being funded through the Strategic Climate Institutions Program are aimed at enhancing the capacity and technical knowledge of government agencies in Ethiopia to deliver its Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy. This includes activities such as building new institutional arrangement to manage climate finance, producing climate-related data and information, and integrating climate resilience into development planning mechanisms.

While many of these activities also contribute towards development objectives (i.e. poverty reduction), these are given less priority than the climate change related objectives. Moreover, there is an implicit assumption that climate change and development objectives are compatible without the need for any major trade-offs between the two.

Consequently, I believe there is a risk that the development objectives could become subordinated to climate change objectives unless both are given equal priority.

2. Diluting  the capacity and resources of government agencies

Climate change initiatives require a much higher level of sophistication in project design to effectively integrated climate change and development issues in a coherent and scientifically robust manner. The fund managers for the Strategic Climate Institutions Programme noted that one the key challenges they faced was the lack capacity of Ethiopian government agencies to develop sound project proposals without significant technical support.

Informal discussions I had with grant recipients also revealed that there was an enormous gap between existing capacity of local government agencies and the technical knowledge and data requirements of the new Climate Resilient Green Economy policy implementation mechanisms. I also noticed that some of the guidelines being produced to support these new mechanisms are highly technical documents that give insufficient consideration for the existing planning processes of local government agencies.

This means that significant resources and effort must be dedicated to building the capacity of local government agencies to undertake these new climate change policy implementation mechanisms in Ethiopia. Which is likely to dilute the resources of local government agencies, particularly if insufficient advice and support is provided on how the new mechanism should be integrated within their existing operational practices.

As a result, it is not hard to imagine that many local government agencies will face difficulty adopting these new processes, and moreover, that such efforts may also inhibit them from fulfilling their other statutory responsibilities unrelated to climate change.

3. Re-framing development issues at technical problems

The implementation of the Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy in Ethiopia necessitates the application of climate science to different types of development issues. This type of science-based approach runs the risk of re-framing development issues as ‘technical problems’ that require ‘technical solutions’ to fix them.

If history is any example then this is likely to result in climate science and technical knowledge taking precedence over other types of knowledge, and decision-making becoming heavily influence by ‘hard’ scientific data rather than equally important social and political considerations.

The experience of the Famine Early Warning System Network provides a concrete example of this situation, as often scientific climate information has a much greater influence on the decision of governments to initiate food assistance programs than other factors.

In addition, the overall implementation model of the Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy arguably represents a return to the top-down, technocratic approaches that were predominant in the development sector from the 1960s to the 1980s. Where goals and targets are set at a national level based on technical-scientific analyses, which are then filtered down to the local level.

This approach essentially transfers power into the hands of supposedly objective technical experts, while at the same time making it more difficult for other actors, such as communities and local governments, to engage in decision-making and strategic planning processes that directly affect them.

Is there a alternative way forward?

It’s a tough question to answer. There is no doubt that Ethiopia must seek to buffer itself against the impacts of climate change and take advantage of opportunities to establish a sustainable green economy. The decision of the Ethiopia Government to develop such an ambitious climate change strategy is also very commendable.

I believe what is currently missing is a in-depth understanding of the existing capacity and operational dynamics of government agencies in Ethiopia. As well as a full recognition of the enormity of change required within the public sector to effectively implement the Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy. As stated in a study by the Overseas Development Institute:

Implementing the Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy will require a major transformation of the institutional architecture of the government administration (both horizontally and vertically) and the scale of this transformation should not be under-estimated. Considerable public investment is now required to strengthen the capacity of the various government ministries and agencies charged with the responsibility for implementing climate change programmes at all levels of government.

To date the approach to building the capacity of government agencies seems to be focused on establishing completely new institutional structures and processes which carries the risks I have detailed above.

I believe that a more effective and sustainable method would be to adopt an ‘asset-based approach’ towards building the capacity of local institutions on climate change.

Such an approach would start with developing a more nuanced understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of government agencies, and then begin integrating new systems and processes incrementally. As opposed to overlaying completely new institutional architecture over the top of existing government systems and processes and expecting it to be seamlessly adopted by government agencies, which are generally highly resistant to change.

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