A Critical Reflection on Learning from Future Climate for Africa

Submitted by Beth Mackay | published 29th Jul 2020 | last updated 7th Sep 2020
Stakeholder engagement

Stakeholder engagement at AMMA2050 annual general meeting, Senegal, 2017. Photo by Nkulumo Zinyengere.

 

Introduction

Sub-Saharan Africa is highly vulnerable to weather and climate variability as well as future climate change. Therefore, in parallel to reducing climate related risks today, there is an urgent need to account for future climate risks in long-lived planning, policymaking and projects.

Large-scale investments and programming have been implemented to address climate risks and vulnerabilities in the region. The Future Climate For Africa (FCFA) programme represents one such large-scale initiative, emphasising a transdisciplinary approach to knowledge production and mobilisation through strengthened research and policy/decision-making capacity. From 2015-2019 this programme brought together more than 200 researchers from over 20 countries to improve our understanding of climate variability and change across Africa; develop new tools and methods for integrating climate information into decision-making; and contribute to policies, plans and investments that are resilient to medium- to long-term climate change. 

The goal of this publication* is to take stock of the lessons emerging from implementing this crossregional, use-oriented, and consortium-based research programme, in order to inform future investments into research on climate and development

*download the full publication from the right-hand column. A summary of key aspects of the publication is provided below.

Methodology

Reflections on the Future Climate for Africa programme focused on three interrelated themes: project team members’ collective learning, leadership and capacity development, and knowledge co-production and research uptake.

Insights on these themes were gathered through interviews and surveys with approximately 31% of the project team members of FCFA’s five research consortia, while ensuring a wide diversity in geographic location, gender, career stage, and roles within the consortia. A number of methodologies and analytical frameworks were used in analysing this data:

Multiple case study analysis: While individual case studies can be very helpful in understanding the conditions that lead to particular outcomes in a specific setting, the context-specificity of these cases can make it difficult to reliably draw out generalisable findings. Multiple case study analysis allows us to look across a body of cases, studied in a similar manner, to identify themes, trends or emerging issues that extend beyond individual contexts and present themselves more consistently within the findings. 

Contribution analysis: One of the key challenges faced by transdisciplinary and collaborative research initiatives is understanding what difference (if any) these collaborations have had on the initiative’s expected outcomes. Contribution analysis is an approach specifically designed for assessing these causal links in real-life programme settings. It can be used in conjunction with a programme’s Theory of Change to generate evidence around the contribution of specific activities or initiatives to observable outcomes.

Design factor framework: To study learning processes in FCFA, we also used Collins and Ison’s design factor framework for social learning. In their framework, Collins and Ison propose five factors that serve as “a minimum set of activities necessary for a social learning system for climate change adaptation to function”. Given our specific emphasis on deliberate and structured learning activities (as opposed to broader learning from experience), we wanted to be able to identify which factors were particularly important to participants in making learning experiences meaningful. 

Capabilities model for capacity development: To understand how leadership evolved in FCFA (rather than only looking at how it was assigned at the beginning of the programme), we used the “five capabilities model”, developed by Brinkerhoff and Morgan. They define capacity as the evolving combination of attributes, capabilities and relationships that enables an organisation or a network of organisations (a ‘system’) to exist, adapt, and perform. This study uses five core capabilities that contribute to system capacity performance, namely: 1. The capability to commit and engage. 2. The capability to carry out technical, service delivery, and logistical tasks. The capability to relate and attract external partnerships. 4. The capability to adapt and self-renew. 5. The capability to balance diversity and coherence. 

Knowledge brokering framework: Knowledge brokering is about “mak[ing] research and practice more accessible to each other” (Ward, House, & Hamer 2009, p. 268). Several scholars have proposed a continuum of knowledge brokering approaches, and we have used this framework to study climate information mobilisation activities. Studying the activities in this way gives us a means of distinguishing between the types of strategies that consortia have used to promote the uptake of this information into practice, and then assessing the alignment of specific strategies with audiences and outcomes. 

Learning review

Collective learning in FCFA

Facilitated learning processes play a critical role in strengthening capacity and collective action and improving understanding of the complexity and uncertainty of climate change. FCFA featured a wide range of learning processes at both consortium and programme scales. The learning processes that were deemed most impactful by participants were those that featured in-person engagement and ‘expert facilitation’. The most significant positive benefits reported by participants were on higher levels of trust and cohesion among team members, and improving the consortia’s collective understanding of the problems they were seeking to address. The survey also revealed that these learning processes offered significant cognitive and relational benefits, such as acquiring new transdisciplinary knowledge, and strengthening relationships with key stakeholders.

Leadership and capacity development

Ensuring that research is contextualised, tailored to stakeholder needs, communicated effectively and appropriately targeted, requires a geographically balanced consortium with a strong presence of local (or Southern in the case of FCFA) leadership. This leadership may be located in either individuals, or still more frequently, distributed within teams. However, a number of systemic barriers that prevent Southern partners from assuming positions of leadership have been identified. These contribute to inequities between South-North and in some cases South-South collaborations in terms of the distribution of resources, responsibilities, and partnership benefits. Issues around leadership are tightly woven with issues of capacity. As many of the initiatives focused on building the capacity of individuals over institutions and given the unstable research environment in Africa (especially for early career researchers) this could mean that capacity efforts have a short institutional legacy. Addressing these issues is critical to developing collective leadership and research capacity in the South. 

Knowledge co-production and research uptake

FCFA faced a significant challenge in attempting to improve uptake of long-term climate information amongst decision-makers where the demand for such information was limited. The issue is not necessarily access to climate information as a wealth of sources exist, but rather, tailoring information to decision-makers’ needs and building their capacity to interpret and apply that information. A number of novel engagement approaches were used by FCFA consortia to create dialogue around long-term climate information, while building the capacity of the decision-makers and academics alike. Many of these approaches target broad groups of audiences and need to be assessed in relation to the success of an output/product in meeting the needs of a targeted user. While it may still be too early to fully assess the impacts of knowledge mobilisation and knowledge brokering approaches within FCFA, an expanded focus on assessing and comparing their outcomes and impacts is critically needed.

Recommendations

Taken collectively, these three areas of review reveal some important insights and recommendations for improving the design, delivery and impact of climate and development research.

  • Building flexibility into programme design: Programme design has a significant impact on the way that the research is conducted, the research themes and who conducts the research. However funding calls often require the entire research process to be predefined, with little opportunity for emergent research opportunities. Designing mechanisms to support emerging research and practice at the outset of programmes is critical. 
  • Transforming research and knowledge mobilisation practice: Achieving greater research impact may require a shift in the way that research is currently practised. While it is clear that in-person engagement is impactful, it also bears the financial and emission-related implications of frequent in-person meetings of international teams. However, there are many benefits to the appropriate use of in-person engagements, especially within the lens of co-production. Shifting linear research and knowledge mobilisation practices towards the principles of co-production can be effective in establishing long-term engagement and can also guide future research initiatives. 
  • Investing in Southern leadership and capacity: This study highlights the need for programmes to entrust greater responsibility and accountability towards Southern partners, challenging traditional power dynamics and the typical definition of roles, such as Southern partners as network champions. Future programmes need to consider fostering a leadership model that is inclusive, equitable and focuses on distributed leadership, especially for South-South and South-North partnerships. 
  • Evaluating impacts: The real impacts of programmes seeking to build capacities and transform practice are often felt long after their conclusion, and it is important to ensure that Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) practices track changes in the longer term to better understand these impacts. Also important within multidimensional programmes like FCFA is developing an understanding of how competing programme requirements (such as research excellence vs capacity development) might affect overall programme outcomes.