7 November 2012

Africa: Resilient Wellbeing - Climate Change, Migration, Urbanization

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It is a frequent complaint - and justified - that no-one gets enough time to think these days. We decided to schedule an exploratory day to see what could and should be researched further on these topics. So - to have a day to think, with a small group, proved to be a great idea.

What came out of it? We don't fully know yet. It is a famous Zen Buddhist maxim that in the mind of the expert there is only one solution, but in the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities. You can use this motto to dignify laziness, failure to commit, lack of precision in analysis, but I don't think we are doing that.

It is good to start with a fundamental question - does it make sense to put these issues together? Or are the individual problem areas already so complex that they defy sensible or politically-practical response?

First - you have to start somewhere. We brought together a home team of some IDS specialists with colleagues from:

the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition - Richard Friend from their Asia region, which is specializing on urban resilience,

the International Institute for Environment and Development - urban specialist David Satterthwaite), and

the University of Sussex - Priya Deshingkar who has been involved in a major British government study on migration and global environmental change (pdf)

Some points I gleaned from the day are:

The overwhelming difficulty of really getting on top of any one "corner of the triangle" - climate change, migration or urbanization;

The importance of ensuring that ODA and climate funding is well targeted in the post-MDG world - it would be a huge wasted opportunity if the climate funding mechanisms went through the painful education of "learning from mistakes" which has characterized much of development funding history - we should know better by now;

That a polarized "urban is more important / no, it's not" debate would be a great waste of time. Neither the extremely poor in rural areas, nor those in cities are well served by the policies in most countries. Even a cursory review of post-financial crisis and climate change literature indicates the urgent need for solutions tailored to specific contexts - and suggest that many of these contexts will be even more challenging in the future.

That looking at urbanization and migration as complex processes, not just as "one-off" individual decisions brings a much deeper understanding.

For me, there is fertile ground to be explored in the overlap between resilience and wellbeing. The 'systems-thinking' of resilience is well adapted to provide a space in which all relevant factors can be introduced. But if the resilience sought is the resilience of 'the system' isn't there a danger that the vulnerable, poor, marginalized and excluded can be sacrificed in 'triage' when things get critical? (see the recent IDS working paper on whether resilience is a 'new utopia' or 'new tyranny'). The antidote could well be bottom-up understandings of wellbeing - actually finding out from ordinary people - migrants arriving in cities, for example, what would make their lives better.

My working hypothesis is that the creative area is the intersection between the "big drivers' and systems and the 'stories from below'. It is there that we discover that the subnational level is vital, that initiatives by slum dwellers are a vital component to urban priorities and governance.

The world often writes the agenda - the "storm warning" from the Caribbean and New York tells us through the cost in people's lives that neither poor countries like Haiti, nor a rich city like New York can pretend that we have cracked the issues of urban reliance in a time or more frequent and extreme weather events. I am convinced that there is agenda in there - but like cooking, it is not just about listing the ingredients, it's how to put them together and cooking until it's ready.

PS - During the lunch break, I checked my mail box. There - as promised - was the attractive and engaging Rockefeller Foundation book on the 'Century of the City'.

The day after our seminar, I worked through much of it in a quick preliminary reading. In it, David Satterthwaite says: "The international funding system is superbly disconnected from the sources of innovations. The World Bank does not fund them. Neither do the bilateral agencies. Almost all the big donors have moved away from supporting local engagement".

Now it has to be said that the book was published in 2008, so I await contradiction from donors who feel that critique was unfair then, and is certainly unfair now because of their ground-breaking initiatives on ........ ( please complete with examples and post them here!)

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