Hail the Dawning of a new buzzword: Transformational Adaptation

It’s a well known fact that international development loves its’ buzzwords. Like a secret key unlocking a  heart shaped locket, buzzwords can be the not-so-secret code that releases that prized donor funding to a community start-up project, or the lingo that swings that 50 million grant from the World Bank. An elderly care home of greying, now less influential, buzzwords lie fondly drinking tea together in the back of the development world’s minds – sustainable development (maybe not so dead), disaster risk reduction, desperately awaiting a resurgence by hanging on the coat tails of a newer, sexier concept or phrase.

What’s that?! Over there! Emerging out of that ream of academic literature! Careering out of that IPCC II report! Oh. My. God. It’s … it’s …. …Transformational Adaptation! And it’s coming to a funding priority near you! buzzword In this and 2 future posts, we’ll investigate Transformational Adaptation in a bit more detail. Today, an overview – what does TA mean, and how is it being understood? Next time – asking if transformational adaptation has, as a recent article claimed, “lost its way“, and finally, exploring a different approach to resilience – anti-fragility, an idea developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

What is Transformational Adaptation?

Broadly, when you’re adapting to future changes, you can go down 2 routes. You can be incremental – in which you make changes within the system, place or style you’re already doing things. It might mean setting up an extra community or council committee to plan for coming changes, commissioning research for better planning, or incorporating new agricultural practices into current activities. It might even be something as simple as letting trees grow in the middle of your field where you use to have just one crop. All things that aim to keep the current lifestyle or approach to a livelihood pretty much the same, albeit with some changes. This approach is all about risk aversion rather than opportunism. It sometimes get reduced down to “coping” strategies – an uninspiring label at best.

The other, more radical route is transformational adaptation, which involves more significant change. It could be a change of location (i.e for a whole community, of its major source of income or living space), a fundamental change in the way the community manages itself, its assets and resources, or a change in the way a community makes income in the first place – switching from growing coffee to growing sugarcane, for example.

Some adaptation is less easy to place. In the Sahel, incremental changes like planting trees are so common that they have led to what is now being called “the re-greening of the Sahel” – a collection of incremental changes that have led to something transformational. In the same vein, can building a sea wall to prevent flooding really be called transformative? What if it’s a really really big sea wall?

Controversy at the IPCC

Like any savvy band emerging into popular consciousness, the best way to make a name for yourself is through controversy. When countries got together to agree the final wording of the IPCC II: Impacts, Vulnerability and Climate Change report, South American countries (the independent lefty ones like Venezuela and Bolivia), tried to have the word transformation removed altogether. They were afraid that support for “transformation” by rich countries really meant support for transforming economies and administrative approaches to be like those rich countries. In practice, they fear that funding from the World Bank and others is going to come with an aim for “transformations”, which are widely open to interpretation and smack a little of “we’ll give you funding if you “transform” in the way we say you should”. In the event, transformation in the report came with a caveat

“At the national level, transformation is considered most effective when it reflects a country’s own visions and approaches to achieving sustainable development in accordance with their national circumstances and priorities.”

Clearly, transformation got reclaimed as something that could only be set by countries themselves, not the international community and its many biases.

Approaching the Mainstream

The problem with buzzwords is the same faced by anything alternative that becomes wildly successful and adopted by the mainstream. Just like a successful musician or artist, they find themselves torn between their once true, radical and alternative roots, and the desire to see themselves promoted, favoured above all others, achieving the rare grace of real integrity and wild mainstream popularity.

But is adoption by the World Bank as an aim of its Climate Investment Funds a sign of unlimited success or unlimited sellout?

We’ll ask if transformational adaptation has lost its way next week.