Strengthening climate resilience in developing countries: what are the priorities?

By Takayoshi Kato, OECD Development Co-operation Directorate and Nicolina Lamhauge, OECD Environment Directorate

Over the last 12 months, the Philippines has had to fight two rising tides threatening the population of its archipelago: the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the consequences of devastating weather events including several typhoons and tropical storms. Not only did Typhoon Goni lead to the evacuation of almost 1 million people from their homes last October, the country has also had to grapple with a string of less extreme, slow-onset changes, such as rising sea-levels, putting houses, schools, shops and infrastructure at risk. The Philippines is not an isolated case: all over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has all but exposed the fragility of societies to systemic shocks, reminding us of the imperative of investing more resolutely in resilience building mechanisms and enablers.

The impact of climate change on developing countries is a case in point: by altering and intensifying risk patterns, it has been compounding other stressors such as poverty, inequality and discrimination, and threatening the ability of those countries to achieve their sustainable development objectives. Responding to this increasingly pressing need for climate action is a difficult task for administrations already struggling with other environmental challenges, on top of social and economic ones. International co-operation partners can provide critical support to partner countries. However, for finance and technical co-operation to be effective, and not complicate the task of the policymakers they mean to help, those partners must target and manage their support in a smart way, drawing from experience around the globe. As the OECD releases its updated guidance to making development pathways more climate resilient, three priorities emerge from our research and consultation process.

Let local actors take the driving seat

Risks associated with climate change are highly context-specific. Countries must therefore own and drive their domestic efforts. Indeed, experience, as well as evaluation of development assistance and climate finance, are increasingly showing the effectiveness of action driven by national or local stakeholders. One example is the Africa Adaptation Initiative, established by the African Union, which promotes national and local stakeholder-driven action to strengthen climate data and information, policies, institutions and financing.

By contrast, lack of country and local ownership can result in unintended or even adverse outcomes. Analysis by the OECD and UNDP shows persisting challenges in development co-operation management: alignment to developing countries’ priorities remains limited, and has even been declining over the past few years. The analysis observed similar trends in the use of country-owned results frameworks, as well as in-country planning and budget preparation systems.

Leave no one behind

Poorer segments of society are often the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The same is true for those marginalised or discriminated in terms of gender, race, age, (dis)ability, or other socio-demographic or geographic factors. Against this background, climate resilience initiatives must take into account three important considerations: First, ensure that progress on climate resilience for one group or country does not compromise that of another. Second, target the needs of the most vulnerable. Finally, share the benefits of climate resilience action equitably across local communities.

Engaging all stakeholders is crucial to building inclusive resilience, but it can be time- and resource-intensive. Some of them may also shy away from joining in policy dialogue when, for instance, participation entails a considerable time commitment. Others might feel that their voices were not properly heard in past discussions, leaving them discouraged to join again. Non-state actors, such as civil society organisations (CSOs) and the private sector can help tackle those challenges. For instance, CSOs are often better able than central governments to reach people in remote areas, and those most exposed to poverty, inequality and climate risks. Business associations help local small businesses access the technical support and information they need to strengthen their climate resilience.  

Start by promoting the sustainable use of the natural environment

The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of a healthy environment to support human well-being and the economy, and reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases. Climate change is increasingly contributing to an unprecedented loss of biodiversity, with other human interferences such as land-use change and the increase of economic activities also being prominent drivers. Approaches to strengthening climate resilience must therefore align with regulatory measures to protect the environment and restore, manage and conserve ecosystems. In fact, both developing and developed countries are increasingly applying nature-based solutions to manage climate resilience: forest conservation initiatives in Chile reduce landslides and avalanches while enhancing carbon sequestration; wetland restoration in Nepal can help secure water supplies; and improved mangrove management in El Salvador restores water flows and reduces downstream flooding. In their quest for effective policies to enhance climate resilience, policymakers in developing countries and their cooperation partners therefore have a rich portfolio of experiences to draw from.

Even if we managed to limit the global average temperature increase to the Paris Agreement goal, one major lesson from the past few years for the Philippines –and for the rest of the world– is the need to step up investment substantially in the resilience of people and ecosystems to the impacts of climate change. The response to the COVID-19 crisis should not overshadow this priority. As they set to contribute to the emerging global resilience agenda, the challenge for development co-operation providers is to adapt their support in a way that helps developing countries address the wide array of systemic risks threatening their people and ecosystems, in an integrated manner, and based on their development priorities.