Forcing Africans to ‘adapt’ to poverty

By blaming climate change for Africa's problems, green groups have become apologists for inequality and underdevelopment.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published on Friday, seems likely to conclude that Africa is particularly vulnerable to global warming. Responses to climate change increasingly fall into two categories: the first urges cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions from the developed states; the second, dealing with the symptoms, urges greater support for Africa, the continent held to be most in need of external assistance.  Assistance programmes for Africa under the internationally agreed ‘adaptation agenda’ are seen as essential to prevent the impact of climate change from undermining African development.

This essay questions the views of African development implicit in the ‘adaptation agenda’ and suggests that its implementation will institutionalise African poverty and dependency. Those who suggest that this agenda is empowering are not only patronising African people but also seeking to exploit African poverty to reinforce climate change advocacy in the West itself.

The adaptation agenda

According to the UK Government’s latest White Paper on development, Making Governance Work for the Poor, ‘climate change poses the most serious long term threat to development and the Millennium Development Goals’.  The poverty agenda and the climate change agenda have come together in their shared focus on Africa. In the wake of international support for poverty reduction and debt relief, many international NGOs, international institutions and Western states have called for climate change to be seen as the central challenge facing African development. African poverty and poor governance are held to combine to increase Africa’s vulnerability, while the solution is held to lie with international programmes of assistance, funded and led by Western states, held to be chiefly responsible for global warming.

This agenda appears to be more pro-African than the interventionist agendas of the 1990s in which good governance and democracy promotion seemed to put Western states in the position of lecturing and hectoring African states. Building on the poverty reduction and debt-relief approaches of the early part of this decade, assistance to cope with climate change is billed as a way of empowering Africans and learning from them in an attempt to develop ‘shared approaches to shared problems’.

The ‘adaptation agenda’ highlights the increasingly interventionist demand for ‘grand strategies’ and new, more comprehensive, Western agendas to manage Africa. In the midst of the Make Poverty History campaign, which won the support of millions of people for debt-relief and poverty reduction strategies linked to the Development Millennium Goals, a group of major international NGOs already questioned the lack of strategic linking of the UK government’s chief themes - Africa and climate change.  The NGO Working Group on Climate Change and Development called for a new test for every international policy and aid project, ‘in which the key question will be, “Are you increasing or decreasing people’s vulnerability to the climate?”’ The threat of climate change in Africa was held to necessitate ‘a new flexibility and not a one-size-fits-all, neoliberal-driven approach to development’.

The ‘adaptation agenda’ brings together the concerns of poverty reduction and responses to climate change by understanding poverty, not in terms of income or in relation to social or economic development, but in terms of ‘vulnerability to climate change’. This position has been widely articulated by the international NGOs most actively concerned with the climate change agenda. Tony Juniper, executive director of Friends of the Earth, argues that ‘Policies to end poverty in Africa are conceived as if the threat of climatic disruption did not exist’.  Nicola Saltman, from the World Wide Fund for Nature, similarly feels that ‘All the aid we pour into Africa will be inconsequential if we don’t tackle climate change’.  This position is shared by the UK Department for International Development, whose chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir Gordon Conway, states that African poverty reduction strategies have not factored in the burdens of climate change on African capacities. He argues that there are three principles for adaptation:

  1. Adopt a gradual process of adaptation;
  2. Build on disaster preparedness;
  3. Develop resilience.

The focus of the adaptation agenda puts the emphasis on the lives and survival strategies of Africa’s poor. Professor Conway argues that, with this emphasis:

‘Africa is well prepared to deal with many of the impacts of climate change. Many poor Africans experience severe disasters on an annual or even more frequent basis. This has been true for decades. The challenge is whether we can build on this experience.’

The focus on the survival strategies of Africa’s poor is central to notions of strengthening African ‘resilience’ to climate change. This approach has been counterposed to development approaches that focus on questions of socio-economic development dependent on the application of higher levels of science and technology and the modernisation of agriculture. As the Working Group report states: ‘Recently the role of developing new technology has been strongly emphasised…There is a consensus among development groups, however, that a greater and more urgent challenge is strengthening communities from the bottom-up, and building on their own coping strategies to live with global warming.’  Despite the claims that ‘good adaptation also makes good development’, it would appear that the adaptation to climate change agenda is more like sustained disaster-relief management than a strategy for African development. 

Redefining poverty as ‘vulnerability to climate change’

The focus on ‘bottom-up’ strategies that can increase communities’ resilience to climate change fundamentally challenges traditional approaches to development.  Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation and lead author of the report Africa – Up in Smoke?, challenges the ‘top-down’ focus on poverty reduction of the G8 aid and debt-relief provisions arguing that resilience should be seen as the key problem:

‘Many places in Africa are overwhelmingly dependent on rain-fed agriculture and so they are vulnerable to even the early phases of climate change: any slight exaggeration of peaks and troughs of climate extremes hits them instantly.’

The adaptation agenda focuses on individuals’ vulnerability to climate change rather than looking at the possible responses from ‘top-down’. This may appear to be empowering and ‘community-focused’ but it misses the bigger picture. The ‘bottom-up’ approach, focusing on community resilience, suggests that large-scale development projects that seek to industrialise agricultural production are unnecessary. According to Simms:

‘[T]here has been a lot of emphasis on the commercialisation of agriculture. But people have not thought about whether the development of luxury horticulture from the west coast is going to enhance the resilience of people in the face of massive shifts in climate, when what you may really need is a massive amount of support to small-scale agriculture.’

In re-describing poverty as ‘vulnerability to climate change’, the result appears to be a rejection of aspirations to modernise agriculture. Instead, there is the opposite emphasis: the design of plans that reinforce the social and economic marginalisation of many African people. Rather than development being safeguarded by the modernisation and transformation of African society, underdevelopment is subsidised through the provision of social support for subsistence farming and nomadic pastoralism.

Once poverty is redefined as ‘vulnerability’ then the emphasis is on the survival strategies of the poorest and most marginalised, rather than the broader social and economic relations which force them into a marginalised existence. According to the NGO Working Group:

‘[T]he majority of the continent’s poorest and most undernourished people live in rural areas – especially smallholders, nomadic pastoralists, and women. The joint effort to eradicate poverty promised by African governments and donor governments must therefore deliver rural policies that involve and prioritise these vulnerable groups.’

The Working Group’s follow-up report, Africa – Up in Smoke 2, argues that the problem is not one of underdevelopment in Africa, instead, ‘it is primarily politics’ which explains, for example, the poverty of nomadic pastoralists. To this end, Oxfam and others have put pressure on the Kenyan government to do more to support nomadic groups, arguing that with the right government policies ‘pastoralism could still, despite climate change, be not only a viable way of life, but a profitable one too’. 

Aid agencies, like Oxfam and Practical Action are encouraging the provision of a safety net of external subsidy to pastoral groups, by buying animals (usually goats which would die in drought conditions) at a fair price, slaughtering them and returning the meat and hide to the sellers, which they can then sell on to buy provisions.  Other social safety nets include the provision of cash for work, direct cash relief, free veterinary services, seed distribution etc. 

Policies that make sense in a temporary emergency situation, where famine can be prevented through the provision of government relief, are now promoted as the way forward to increase the ‘resilience’ of the poor to climate change.  Pastoralism is seen as unproblematic in itself. The fact that pastoralists live a life of dependency on the weather and are consigned to poverty is seen as a problem of ‘climate vulnerability’ to be ameliorated by government sponsorship.

The reality is that Africa’s poverty has absolutely nothing to do with global warming. Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from underdevelopment that puts people’s lives and livelihoods at constant risk regardless of what happens to the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the next hundred years. People’s lives are at the mercy of the weather and the forces of nature more generally, because low levels of development prevent the application of existing levels of science and technology. Reliance on support for traditional coping strategies such as nomadic pastoralism or subsistence farming can only ensure that Africa’s poor remain poor and at the mercies of the climate (whether it changes or not).

Empowering Africa?

The NGO Working Group on Climate Change argues that community empowerment has to be at the centre of the adaptation agenda:

‘Identifying what communities are already doing to adapt is an important step towards discovering what people’s priorities are and sharing their experiences, obstacles and positive initiatives with other communities and development policy-makers. Giving a voice to people in this way can help to grow confidence, as can valuing their knowledge and placing it alongside science-based knowledge.’

African ‘voices’ are central to climate change advocacy as the science of climate change leaves many questions unanswered, particularly with regard to the impact of climate change in Africa.  Information, to support the urgency of action in this area, is often obtained from those in Africa, patronised as having a ‘deeper’ understanding than that which can be provided by ‘Western’ science. For example, the views of Sesophio, a Maasai pastoralist from Tanzania are given prominence in the Africa – Up in Smoke 2 report:

‘It is this development, like cars, that is bringing stress to the land, and plastics are being burnt and are filling in the air. We think there is a lot of connection between that and what is happening now with the droughts. If you bring oil and petrol and throw it onto the grass it doesn’t grow, so what are all these cars and new innovations doing to a bigger area? Every day diseases are increasing, diseases we haven’t seen before.’

Climate change advocates patronisingly argue that they are empowering people like Sesophio by ‘valuing’ his knowledge and giving him a ‘voice’. In fact, they are exploiting Sesophio’s lack of knowledge about climate change and the fears and concerns generated by his marginal existence.

Western advocates are more than happy to find their own views mirrored by African villagers. John Donnelly at the Boston Globe, found that in the remotest villages of Somalia, village elders knew the reasons for crop failure. Elders like seventy-year-old Habiba Hassan, who he interviewed trudging from a failed field of sorghum toward her village of Beniday, six miles away:

‘She said everyone in her village knew the reason for the drought. “It’s global warming”, she said, adding that villagers had learned much about the potential effects from climate change from radio programmes aired on BBC’s daily Somali service.’

Views gleaned from the BBC from hand-cranked radios are then recycled as ‘African voices’ and prominently profiled in NGO reports and the Western media.

The focus, on the ‘real lives’ of the poorest and most marginalised African communities, soon shifts from that of Western ‘empowerment’ and ‘learning’ to one of moral condemnation. The NGO Working Group suggests that the problems of African development lie with the survival strategies of the most marginalised in African society:

‘To survive the droughts, people have had to resort to practices that damage their dignity and security, their long-term livelihoods, and their environment, including large-scale charcoal production that intensifies deforestation, fighting over water and pastures, selling livestock and dropping out of school.’

The view of climate change, rather than underdevelopment, as responsible for poverty, results in an outlook that tends to blame local survival strategies, such as cutting down trees to make some money from selling charcoal. When these views are reflected back to Western advocates, the African poor reflect Western views that they are part of the problem:

‘In nearby Goobato, a village with no cars, no motorcycles, no bicycles, no generators, no televisions, no mobile phones, and dozens of $5 radios, Nour, the village elder, said increased temperatures bake the soil… Nour also said villagers share the blame: “We cut trees just to survive, but we are part of the problem.”’

The strategy of adaptation, tends to problematise African survival strategies because, by talking up isolated positive examples of adaptation under international aid, it inevitably problematises the real life choices and decisions which poor Africans have to make.


Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate fluctuations because of a lack of development. The lack of development means that 70 percent of the working population (90 percent of Africa’s poor) rely on agriculture for a living, the vast majority of them by subsistence farming.  It is no coincidence that the continent with the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions is also the most vulnerable to climate change. The lesson of Africa is that development provides a better way of dealing with climate uncertainties than does concern with the individual lifestyles and survival strategies of the poor.

The ‘adaptation agenda’ allows Western governments, international institutions and international NGOs to claim they are doing something positive to address the impact of global warming but the consequences for Africa could be disastrous. ‘Learning from the poor’, ‘empowering the poor’ and strategies to increase their ‘resilience’, end up patronising Africa’s poor and supporting an anti-development agenda that would consign Africa to a future of poverty - and climate dependency.

David Chandler is professor of international relations in the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. His latest book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building (buy this book from Amazon (UK)).

(1) The linking of these two agendas is also seen in the increasing popularity of carbon-offsetting schemes in which Western consumers can choose to pay a carbon penalty which is then used to fund charitable projects in the less developed world. See, for example, James Hopkirk, Carbon-offsetting: All credit to them, Independent, 4 January 2007

(2) See, for example, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which came into force 21 March 1994. See also the work of the UNFCC on adaptation.

(3) UK Department for International Development, Eliminating World Poverty: Making Governance work for the Poor (London: The Stationery Office, July 2006).

(4) NGO Working Group on Climate Change and Development comprises over twenty leading international NGOs, including ActionAid International, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Oxfam, RSPB, Tearfund, World Vision and WWF.

(5) A. Simms, Africa – Up in Smoke? The second report from the Working Group on Climate Change and Development (London: New Economics Foundation, June 2005), p.2

(6) M. McCarthy and C. Brown, Global warming in Africa: The hottest issue of all, Independent, 20 June 2005

(7) McCarthy and Brown, ‘Global warming in Africa’

(8) G. Conway, Climate Change and Development for Africa: The need to work together, speech by Professor Sir Gordon Conway KCMG FRS, Chief Scientific Adviser, Department for International Development, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, April, 2006

(9) G. Conway, ‘Climate Change and Development for Africa’

(10) A. Simms, Africa – Up in Smoke?, p.2

(11) A. Simms, Africa – Up in Smoke?, p.4

(12) This shift in development focus away from societal development towards individual coping strategies follows the work of Amartya Sen, which redefines development away from material indicators, such as income or GDP and instead focuses on the ‘individual capabilities’ of the most marginal members of society. See further, Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Knopf, 1999) and Sen, Inequality Reexamined (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

(13) McCarthy and Brown, ‘Global warming in Africa’

(14) McCarthy and Brown, ‘Global warming in Africa’

(15) Africa – Up in Smoke 2: The second report on Africa and global warming from the Working Group on Climate Change and Development (London: New Economics Foundation, October 2006), p.3

(16) Africa – Up in Smoke 2, p.10

(17) Africa – Up in Smoke 2, p.10

(18) Africa – Up in Smoke 2, p.10

(19) Famines are caused by a lack of purchasing power rather than a lack of food. See Sen’s ground-breaking work, for example, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981) and Jean Drèze and Sen (eds), The Political Economy of Hunger (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990)

(20) Africa – Up in Smoke 2, p.3

(21) The problems of climate monitoring capabilities, particularly in Africa, are highlighted in the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Report of the African Regional Workshop on Adaptation, September 2006, pp.4-5’

(22) Africa – Up in Smoke 2, p.10

(23) J. Donnelly, Drought imperils Horn of Africa, Boston Globe, 20 February 2006.

(24) See Habiba Hassan’s views prominently cited in Africa – Up in Smoke 2, p.9 and in Geoffrey Lean, African Apocalypse: The continent burning into a desert, Independent, 29 October 2006

(25) Africa – Up in Smoke 2, p.10

(26) Donnelly, ‘Drought imperils Horn of Africa’

(27) Africa – Up in Smoke 2, p.12

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