Why climate change adaptation means there should be no conditionalities on aid

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A withered maize field in Ruware Park, a medium density residential area in Marondera, a town in Mashonaland East, Zimbabwe, located about 72 km east of Harare. Photo by Cynthia Kagonye courtesy of this article.
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Climate change is a universal developmental constraint that is creating widespread challenges through increased intensity of weather extremes such as heatwaves, droughts, shifts in rainfall patterns and intense storms.  But who is more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change? And how can countries best support people in times of climate crisis?

In Zimbabwe, the reality of climate change induced natural disasters demonstrates the need for climate proofing. Zimbabwe recently experienced climate change impacts such as tropical Cyclone Idai and successive droughts menacing food security.

Like the rest of Africa, Zimbabwe is constrained by poverty and the lack of technical and financial resources to respond to climate change. Harnessing foreign assistance, therefore, remains a key pillar for financing capacity building and adaptation to address climate change effects. However, the capacity of the government to directly harness international aid to meet adaptation measures is circumscribed.

The climate change issue therefore needs to be seen as a deeply political issue internationally. 

Fighting climate change

The launch of the Global Climate Fund (GCF) of 2010 and the Paris Agreement (PA) of 2015 which mandates the First World to provide financial aid to assist developing country’s with climate change mitigation and adaptation is a positive step towards building resilience in African countries like Zimbabwe. The agreement however remains a shell without sufficient enforceability, whereas it mandates developed countries to take the lead it does not necessarily bind them to assume the responsibility. This has created serious political problems and countries like Zimbabwe have been at the receiving end of this conundrum.  

For some donor countries, climate finance has become tied to improvements needed in governance, human rights, land tenure and electoral reforms as is often the case with the US and UK aid to Zimbabwe. Ironically, overall aid from the UK and US to Zimbabwe has gone up since 2000, when democratic governance has gotten worse. Therefore, in the wake of COP26 of the UN, these donor countries should however focus more on the “humanitarian need in Zimbabwe” and consider striking a balance between aid that goes directly to the Zimbabwean government and that which goes to NGO’s.

The politicisation of climate finance

The UK and USA have bluntly politicized their climate finance. Zimbabwe is among the top 20 countries that have received aid from the UK for the past 5 years. Despite diplomatic fall out, the UK continues to channel significant aid for social, and   humanitarian purposes. The UK’s Foreign Commonwealth Development Office’s project budget for the year 2020/2021 only is 153 million pounds, with 8.9% for Disaster relief and 7.42% for Environment. On its priority list is tackling climate change and building climate resilient technology in Zimbabwe. However, the UK does not channel its aid to the Government of Zimbabwe directly.

The FCDO country profile underscores that “No UK aid is channelled directly through the government of Zimbabwe. Programmes are delivered primarily through multilateral organizations (United Nations agencies and the World Bank) that are best able to deliver on a larger scale, as well as international non-governmental organizations and private sector contractors in specialist areas.” NGO’s like the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the Zimbabwe Regional Environment Organization (ZERO), Dialogue on Shelter and Policy and Advocacy for Climate Change have been the key recipients of this UK aid. This enervates our sovereignty and places our people at the mercy of donors.  

Unable to deliver?

The position taken by the FCDO clearly implies that the Zimbabwean government is unable to deliver on climate change. The question becomes why? Could it be because Zimbabwe it is led by a corrupt authoritarian regime, which resists political and economic reforms? If so, should the so-called democratic donor countries provide climate finance to authoritarian regimes? If yes, how and if not why? In 2012, just 2 years after the launch of the GCF, the UK pledged 88 million pounds per year until 2015 but the aid was tied to the expectations of a transition to democracy and economic recovery. The UK government noted that if the transition takes place, they will channel more aid to Zimbabwe.

The whole aid matrix between Zimbabwe and the UK clearly shows how bilateral aid was tied to demands for reform which should not be the case. If climate change adaptation is an emergency, aid channeled towards it should be immune to politically motivated conditionalities. Moreover, the demand for reforms must emanate from the citizenry not from abroad.

Zimbabwe receives USD 150 million in US aid funding annually to combat food insecurity and support climate resilience programs for over 2.1 million people but as is the case with the UK, the US does not channel climate finance directly to the Zimbabwean government. It does so through civil society and other international non-governmental organizations like NAP Global Network, World Vision, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

The value of delinquents

Although NGO’s ‘should neither be pathologized nor romanticized’ to use the words of Sara Dorman, it is imperative to note that these NGO’s have their own problems with transparency and accountability. NGO’s are not a silver bullet; there is little evidence that they are more efficient than the state although this depends on the state in question. In Zimbabwe, NGOs like World vision have been criticized for serving the interests of USAID than the people in the communities they serve. For example, Dam construction projects in Chimanimani and Chipinge were crafted in line with donor preferences in Birirano.

The greatest contributors to climate change are often the greatest delinquents when it comes to fixing the problem.

Anotida Chikumbu is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

David Anodiwashe Chikwaza is Reader and Scholar of International Development Studies (Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Building in Africa).

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