Recyling bins

How to build a climate-resilient NGO in 2022

We can all help build climate resilience.

We tend to concentrate on mitigation, such as lowering our carbon footprint, but we should also consider what adaptive actions can make our organisation, the communities we work with, and our environment more resilient to the changes ahead.

Adaptation means “changing processes, practices, and structures to minimise potential damage or to maximise benefits associated with climate change” (see UNFCCC). Adapting to climate change requires us to be aware of the effects of the current changes and those that will occur. Similarly, making something, or someone, climate-resilient means thinking about how climate change affects us and taking steps to prevent or reduce the impact.

There are many ways to incorporate resilience-building into non-climate focused development work and how we run our organisations.

Building the resilience of local partners

Undertake climate resilience assessments of your programmes as a routine part of their design. In Nepal, for example, local infrastructure including latrines and footbridges are being built to withstand flash flooding much more severe than we observe now, as we expect the situation to worsen in the future.

Engineers are asked, “How strong will it need to be in 10 years?” In a less obvious example, an anti-gender-based violence programme in Sudan included clean cooking fuel market stimulation because they found women are more exposed during their ever-longer walks to source firewood – a situation exacerbated by desertification as the environment changes.

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Understand some of the emerging environmental risks and add them to your risk assessments and baseline surveys. In an entrepreneurship project in Thailand, both floods and drought were identified as key risks to the success of the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) so they included coaching on supply-chain flexibility, contract negotiation, loan management, market analysis and other ways for the business-holders to adapt in case of business interruption.

Think about how your proposed solutions could help a community to adapt to a different future or whether it locks them into a risky environment. Listening to your local partners and communities is essential here as there may be new and unusual issues emerging which your organisation is not aware of, or has not considered, which may impact your work. Some examples include:

  • the mental health impacts of sleepless nights from overly hot homes
  • more areas for jellyfish to reproduce rather than of edible fish
  • shifts in growing locations for certain crops
  • or a greater risk of water- and insect-borne diseases

Building the resilience of our NGOs

The Covid-19 crisis meant a few of our NGO clients were unable to change the direction of their projects or fundraising, and some struggled to manage when their staff could not travel or convene in an office. Climate change will bring more extreme weather events, business continuity problems, and shifting needs from the ground, which we will need to respond to.

As climate change intensifies, rigid structures, controls, and inflexibility in our operations will exacerbate risks and problems. Yet, we can structure and manage our work to be more adaptive and maintain good management processes that ensure compliance and performance remain excellent.

Agility and digitalisation are key

We can create and disband teams quickly using agile management structures. Digital systems can store, share and process the information we need to undertake and oversee key procedures and decisions without them having to pass through a managers’ hands, avoiding dependency on any one key individual. More fluid strategic planning can enable faster course correction rather than infrequent set-in-stone plans, which go out of date quickly.

Good knowledge management and learning processes can provide feedback on what works and what doesn’t. They can help design new initiatives to test, for which cultural assessment and change management may be needed to ensure you have an organisational culture that embraces trial and error.

Don’t go there…

In our previous article, we advocated for travelling less to reduce our carbon footprint. Now we go further to suggest ways that not travelling to fieldwork can make your organisation and partners more adaptive too. Consider what would happen if you didn’t travel to the field at all. Through Covid-19, organisations have been able to continue delivering projects through local teams and remote oversight.

Delegating delivery to local teams not only reduces your travel and therefore carbon footprint but can make the project, your whole NGO and the local partners much more adaptive and resilient to future change.

True delegation to local staff teams means ensuring they can deliver without you – you don’t need to be there, and your HQ role will change to facilitator, convener, technical advisory, fundraiser or learning hub. Local organisations are closer to communities, can be more specialist to the issues in that location, and can often hire and deploy people quicker than through an HQ. They may want support to ensure they have the capacity to deliver, remain compliant, and build their own resilience through independent fundraising and networking so they can keep operating in those communities in the future.

Work on the learning and sharing processes that connect your organisations so you can understand what is happening on the ground and what works. Give them more management help, budget and autonomy, and support through digital and management oversight mechanisms.

…go local.

We are currently working on implementing localisation policies in Nepal, where there is legal motivation to do this properly, and in southern Africa, where a burgeoning decolonisation movement is beginning to change the reality of development aid. Not only will development activity on the ground improve, but also build better relationships between donors and head offices and the people they serve. Programmes and advocacy will inevitably change because of climate change and so the work we do must respond to what people need and want.

It is therefore time to embrace localisation in a real way, for many reasons, not least as a driver to adapt to climate change but to also help build resilience in the way we work and for the people we serve.