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Extended - Structural power, gender and climate change - Part 3: Dr. Nitya Rao and Daniel Morchain

Host: Hello and thank you for joining the Climate Change Talks podcast series. This is part three of our discussion on structural power, gender and climate change. In the context of the many socioeconomic and environmental changes and progress across the globe, challenging established power relations and fostering transformational approaches for socially inclusive resilience has been key for enhancing livelihood of the most vulnerable communities of the Global South. Yet, shifting power relations and social norms to effectively respond to the local impact of global changes is not an easy feat.

Today, with Dr. Nitya Rao, professor of Gender and Development at the University of East Anglia, and with Daniel Morchain, Senior Adviser in Resilience & Climate Change Adaptation for Oxfam Great Britain, we will discuss the link between social, climatic, environmental, and economic challenges in water-stressed environments like the semi-arid regions, with particular focus on gender dynamics within an ever-changing context.

Thank you for being here, Nitya and Daniel.

Dr. Rao: Thank you.

Mr. Morchain: Thank you for the invite.

Host: On some of our previous podcasts, we explored some interesting insight from your CARIAA colleagues, Dr. Amina Maharjan from the HI-AWARE consortium, and from Dr. Ken De Souza from DFID. Both of you have worked within another one of CARIAA’s consortium, Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions, or ASSAR. Could you describe for the audience ASSAR and some of the novel insight coming out of the research?

Dr. Rao: There was a whole lot of things that came out from ASSAR research, which was very complex. It was across multiple countries, it was across seven different countries: six in Africa and India, and two or three sites in India. All very diverse. They were all semi-arid contexts, but culturally very diverse. And you asked specifically to focus on gender relations, so of course the local context and the occupation and employment patterns and the climatic patterns all together influence how gender is shaped in any particular context: how roles are divided, how property is controlled, how decisions are made, and so on.

I think we actually started out, being such a large consortium, with a fairly open mind, rather than having some stereotypes in our head. I think one of the novel insights for us—because actually, that paid off in terms of really identifying what are the key divisions or what are the key markers of difference in different communities. Gender for instance, typically seen as male and female, may be a marker in some communities. But in a lot of our African societies that we studied, it was actually generation, so between the old and the young, including men and women. It was not just about men and women.

It was around ethnicity. Some of the research we did in East Africa for instance, among pastoralist groups, ethnicity became very important because with pasture and drought, or with the drought and pasture and water scarcity, a lot of conflict was going on and the conflict was presented in terms of ethnic conflict. Because this is also sparking a political and a social process, that when there are scarce resources and there’s competition for scarce resources, then there are some ways in which these tensions get reflected. It could be gendered, it could be generational, it could be ethnicity.

I think that was very interesting, that when we are analyzing gender or difference across particular contexts, but we need to keep in mind that the differences don’t always operate in the same way. And therefore, what we call is an intersectional analysis, that being open to what are the intersecting differences which are key in a particular context. I think that was quite novel. And following that approach then led to other novel insights in terms of which are the most elected groups, who are the marginal groups.

For instance, for me, it was very interesting that one of the issues that came out from our Kenya research, that it was actually the type of marriage, or the marital status, or the type of marital household which was the key marker. Is it a polygamous household? Is it a monogamous household? Is it a separated woman or a separated man? Is it a widowed person? Is it multigenerational, where the grandparents are looking after the grandchildren? And that became a key marker in terms of both access to resources, how they experienced vulnerability, and actually in terms of their adaptive capacities. I think for me, that was quite a novel insight.

The second, I think, novel insight—and maybe I’ll stop with two—is that of course we all know that climate works along with non-climatic factors. When people experience vulnerability, climate often intensifies other kinds of vulnerabilities which they are confronting. And one thing that came out very stark, I think, in our research across the semi-arid regions which were very environmentally stressed and affected by drought and water scarcity across the sites, not just in the pastoral communities, was the breakdown or the lack—inadequate social provisioning, or state provisioning, or social protection. I think that it really made us realize that even though we talk about people’s entrepreneurship and markets and so on, but when the world is unequal and when people are very vulnerable, then you need strong support structures. And states really need to be accountable and need to be present, not just accountable but also present.

In Kenya, this was one thing. We found that people really complained that the state was not present. They were doing some small kind of welfare things, giving some bundles of fodder or whatever it is—totally inadequate in terms of what people needed or what people required. And it may sound a bit old-fashioned, but actually, I think it was quite an important insight that the world is not yet an equal enough place where everybody can manage and compete without any kind of social support, and more so women who are amongst the most marginal.

And this we found already, the groups in our Kenya study and Ethiopia study were the younger women who were separated or were abandoned by their husbands. Even amongst women, this was the group that was really the most vulnerable and without any kind of support. And here, I’m not just talking about varied support for climate resilience—things like childcare services. Because without childcare services, they can’t actually go out and earn an income. I think that was again a very important insight that when we’re thinking about solutions, we also need to think a little bit in a more open-minded way across different contexts. I’ll stop with that.

Mr. Morchain: We spent a good amount of time thinking about what effective adaptation means. And I thought it was really important that that discussion brought us into areas of, for example, discussing wellbeing, discussing aspirations, discussing mental health, things that you would not normally, in the most traditional ways of understanding adaptation or the initial ways of understanding what climate change adaptation should be about, that didn’t figure as a key criterion. But more and more, it’s become clearer that adapting to climate change is not just around addressing a biophysical hazard, but it is also about the wellbeing of people, their capacity to be part of the solution, their capacity to speak up their voice and so on.

The issue of agency, of course, that is more known, more discussed. But the issue, if we go one further layer deeper into aspirations, wellbeing, mental health, that I felt was quite novel and we started to go there. That was one.

And then, another one was around the way of doing research a little bit differently. Particularly for, let’s say, researchers who were more in the natural science arena. The research process, the idea around exchanging opinion, learning from stakeholders and letting that be part of the definition of the research question, of the way that you then analyze the problem and having that in a participatory, conversational way with stakeholders who are not the traditional expert, I thought that was also a really nice thing that we explored in ASSAR. Really nice and really necessary.

Host: Building on that, because a lot of the issues that you described in your work are liked to, let’s say, social justice but also power relations. How do those power inequalities and this imbalance of power actually influence the resilience of the people you work with?

Mr. Morchain: Well, I think it’s fundamental. The link couldn’t be more direct, because resilience really is about rights, it’s about equality, it’s about agency, being able to speak up and exercise your rights, having those rights in the first hand. It goes like Nitya was saying around her work in India, the activists and the land rights. It’s a very complex thing, it’s never as simple as it looks. But resilience, I feel… Power relations can strain the potential of resilience, because they are blocking the discussion to move ahead, they’re blocking any progress. They’re saying resilience, for example, in a very traditional and old-school way, it’s about climate risk, it’s about the biophysical hazards, it’s about the earthquakes for example as well, but the discussion doesn’t move on to say resilience and building resilience is also about changing decision-making processes, understanding the governance structures—how they are and how they are failing to deliver justice.

If you don’t move the conversation to that side, then the whole conversation around what resilience is stays on the technical side of things. It stays on the very technocratic approach to what you are going to produce. And that also means that those who traditionally have now been providing solutions for climate change and environmental degradation issues remain those who continue to provide those solutions, and those solutions remain to be expert solutions, technocratic solutions, engineering, infrastructure, this kind of thing.

Therefore, moving the discussing to say, “No, when we talk about resilience, we have to talk about agency, about rights, and that requires challenging the power structures as they are,” then if we do that, then we’re moving to really the next level conversation where we talk about climate justice as… where we talk about social justice being an element of climate justice. And I think that’s definitely where we need to go and where I think the conversation is going, though not as fast as we would like.

Dr. Rao: I think if I can pick up on this, on power relations as really being central. I think just to give some examples, what we did find very much from our work is that when we were using this kind of a bottom-up approach, the people who we were talking to, whether it was the county government or national government, they’re still talking categories.

For instance, we had a meeting with the council of governors in Kenya and they have a special group working on arid and semi-arid regions. Twenty-two counties actually are part of that, so it’s quite a big chunk in Kenya. And so, they have one kind of subgroup, which is called women and youth. For them, all women were women, and then youth were basically young men. But when we were in the field—just to give how the power relations work—the young women we spoke to, they really objected. They said, “All this youth participation, but there’s kind of one youth representative in decision-making bodies, it’s always a male. There’s never a woman who gets a youth seat.”

And I think this, kind of, we confirmed when we were talking to the council of governors. And then, I asked them the question that youth is both all young people, which is men and women. And then, they kind of laughed. Because it’s kind of—women is there as a category, and then youth is there as a category. And these are clearly power relations, which the people on the ground pointed out. The young woman very clearly said, “We don’t have any voice anywhere, neither in the category of women because that’s the older women who will represent, neither in the category of youth because it’s the men who represent.”

I think unless—and they had aspirations. And as I was saying, later they are the ones often stuck with young children and really struggling with no support and nowhere that their voice can be heard. And this is about power relations. Some power relations are overt, are visible. And other power relations are more hidden. And that kind of really blocks, as Daniel said, the ability to access resources, to build resilience, to adapt to any kind of sustainable or any kind of equitable way.

Host: But then, how you can challenge that and also, coming back on you working across those cultural differences, how you can have—I don’t want to say a one solution fit all, but how you can have those approaches that actually challenge the social norms and power imbalances?

Dr. Rao: I think the first thing is what Daniel already spoke about, about the ability to give different people voice, and voice and agency, just listening to them, bringing their voices, at least hearing what they have to say, and then talking about it when we have spaces or opportunities. We’re trying to influence in some way, but there is a gap here or there is something that needs to be done there.

I think there are lots of power dynamics internally, across communities, between the state and the community, at the household level. This is kind of into nested levels of power. It’s not easy to tackle, but once you start opening up one black box, actually all these other things start opening up, it can be a bit overwhelming. But I think it’s also therefore much… sort of a process, that at least, putting it on the table. I always believed that rather than hiding all these power relations, the first step is really—and that was Freire actually—is to start articulating, to start speaking about it. Change will take longer, but I think all of Freire’s philosophy of critical consciousness was really to start articulating, to start speaking about hidden injustices, put them on the table. They may not go over immediately, but that’s really the first step in bringing change.

Mr. Morchain: When you talk about the issue of changing the social norms and the practice and the way that also people in institutions in power are behaving, I also wanted to give an example from a recent work in ASSAR which is around the initiative that the government of Botswana took to accept and actually encourage the way that we had started to work with them and with stakeholders, at the subdistrict level, on doing development and adaptation planning in a more representative and inclusive way.

We started with this effort, as I mentioned, at a subnational level. And pretty soon, they caught the interest because they saw the benefit of that, they saw the benefit that they could get out of this additional information that they received, the knowledge, the stories, the voices they were hearing that had not been heard in the way that they were conducting this planning; and actually how that could, well, from one side, bring to light new realities that were not captured under the light that was thrown based on however detailed they could look into the planning process, however, let’s say, at the local level they could understand what was happening. This allowed a higher understanding to come out.

And that was beneficial, because also they could understand not only how people are being impacted, but also how people are coping and how contribution working with them can also shift the whole reality from something that is continually an emergency response to something that moves away from that into some steps towards development. It’s easier said than done of course, but they stepped into that space and they came back to us, the University of Botswana, the main partner in the country, and Oxfam, and they said, “Listen, we would like for you to train us on that approach but nationally.” And that’s what we did, and now they are promoting this more participatory adaptation and development planning bottom-up across the districts of the countries.

Host: How does seeing all this power shift is influencing you as a person? I’m curious about that, maybe you can just give us a bit… How can you feel as a person when you go there and see… You open those black boxes. What do you feel afterwards?

Dr. Rao: I think sometimes it’s quite emotional. Because it’s real people. They’re not just research subjects. And it’s real people. And I think the reality is that within the project periods, we work with them for a couple of years and then, we don’t know when they’re going there next. Now, ASSAR is over. You think about them a lot, you think about their images and their stories. Will they actually be able to change their lives or what happens to their lives? We don’t have any real control or way of knowing.

I think for me, personally, one way has been actually to bring some of these insights into the teaching and the work that I do at the university, working with students and in the teaching. But really, if they can become sensitive in whatever they do in life to some of these issues, I think that’s quite a big return.

Host: What about you, Daniel?

Mr. Morchain: I mean, in terms of my experience with the way I’ve engaged personally with this work, for me it’s been—it has taken me to increase my awareness of what I do and the action that I take or not take, and how that also has an impact on environment, but also on people. Things like the way you treat people on a daily basis, in the street, anywhere. This kind of thing, it’s actually so important. And how important it is also when you have a nice conversation with someone, or when someone holds the elevator for you downstairs for the building, or something like. These small things, I think, really add up to so much in our lives. From the small things to taking decisions on what to eat, what kind of consumption patterns to have. A lot of that, I’ve been much more aware. I know that traveling is also a big one and that’s one that I haven’t been able to cap, because for work, it’s…


Mr. Morchain: But that’s one thing. And the other thing I’ve really discovered is really how weak I think that I am. From a point of view of meeting so many people in different parts of the world and seeing how they have had to deal with situations and, in a way, how incredibly strong some people are. I remember a lady was telling me about her experience when typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines and how she was in her house, with her family, and it was just like an incredible storm, rain, rain, rain. The water kept on going up, it was up to the level of their thighs. And she was just there, kind of crying, kind of praying, and that was it. And then, the night ended. Finally, when the water was up to, I don’t know, above the waist, OK, it stopped, the next day started. And I said, “Well, what do you do?” And she said, “Well, the next day, we just started to put things back in order and back to work as much as much as possible.”

And I just—for something that is one-thousandth of that, I would crumble. I realized how really also, I guess, the privileged position that I’m in, in being able to not have to deal with these really heavy things that happened, that millions and billions of people around the world have to do.

Host: Now, going forward, where do you think are the gaps of what should we do?

Mr. Morchain: One of the things that I think we should do is not yet move on to the next big thing. It really terrifies me, scares me the fact that so quickly, there’s a branch of research, a branch of thinking that is just thinking way too far ahead, “OK, what do we do?” Geoengineering solutions, these kinds of things. Ignoring the possibility that we still have to actually take action and improve our lives today and the environmental where we live if we just change some of the behaviours that we have. What scares me is that we don’t want to explore those more difficult things.

For example, also around choices, around food choices, particularly in the Global North. Why don’t we go stronger on that? Because that has such an incredible impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Why don’t we take a radical action there—because it affects our lifestyles, that’s why we don’t do it—why don’t we take a radical action there and use that as an easier pathway to climate change adaptation and [inaudible] development, poverty eradication and so on, rather than thinking, “No, well, we have to do our solutions that are extraterrestrial, that are out there, that are about soil radiation management and all of that.” And we don’t know the risks about it, we don’t know the costs about it, but even more so, that means we’re just allowing the system as it is today, the powers that are to remain in power and none of that to change.

When we say, “What’s next and what are the gaps?” I say, “Let’s remember that a lot of the times, the solutions that we have are not too crazy out there.” They are closer to what we think. It is a lot about understanding these things that we’ve been talking about around valuing people, valuing views, hearing, listening more. Often, the solution is that we just don’t want to hear it. Because sometimes we don’t hear it, sometimes we don’t want to hear it because if we hear it, that means we have to change quite a bit and we don’t want to change. We always think about the change elsewhere. I think this is very common even from a development sector. And that makes us so similar to the fossil fuel companies: we don’t want to change, we don’t want the transformation that we’re saying everywhere has to happen.

Host: But we don’t do it also.

Mr. Morchain: Exactly. Let’s start with the simple stuff.

Dr. Rao: I totally agree with that. And I think something also that Daniel has alluded to is sort of understanding the trade-offs. I think we don’t do enough of that, so we’re looking for the solutions but every solution, there’ll be some winners and some losers, because society is like that, society is quite differentiated and not everybody is at the same starting point. The same solution is going to affect different people differently. And I think we tend to ignore the trade-offs. Something we see as good, it might look good, but it might be good for some people. We need to recognize that it can’t be good for—or it may be not good for everybody. I think we don’t understand trade-offs enough.

I think the other thing we don’t understand enough is the shorter term versus the longer term, the time trade-offs as well. Apart from the trade-offs in terms of social groups, and winners and losers, there’s also a time trade-off. A lot of people do something in the short-term which doesn’t look so good, but for the long-term hopefully gain, or vice versa. I think for a lot of the poor, the choices that they’re making are sort of survival choices. I think we need more—before we move on, we still have not understood this fully and how people are coping, how people are finding solutions.

Host: Well, I was just wondering—because when you talk about trade-off in development, isn’t it implied that the trade-off has to come from the Global South? When there’s winners and losers and trade-offs, it’s kind of implied that the trade-off comes from the Global South and not really the developed countries. What do you think about that?

Mr. Morchain: I think, to understand that, the whole funding structure of where the money is going and what is it funding, it gives you good hints. At the same time—and by that, I mean that we are focused a lot on income-generation projects, on livelihoods projects, on emergency response. Nothing so much that really goes into structural reform of systems and so on. At the same time, I know that even least developed countries are becoming more interested in being part of, let’s say, not just the adaptation fight against climate but also the mitigation side, so reducing their own emissions.

In Bangladesh, for example, their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is like 0.3 percent or something like that, but they want to be part of the solution in terms of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that come from agriculture. And it becomes really complex, because of course agriculture, food security, a country like Bangladesh, who would be daring to touch that? But within Bangladeshi institutions, they want to do something about it, change the way that agriculture is working, find better ways to grow rice without generating so many emissions, because they also—I think, moving forward, it’s a great idea. And in addition, they want to show that leadership. It’s not just waiting for the Global North to take those decisions and allocate funding. It’s a way of saying, “We also have our power. We are going to generate the change from within as well.”

And for me, that is not only a very smart thing to do, a brave thing to do, but also a way to say, “We are in control of our own destiny.” And not least, a way to, in a way, shame the countries that fail to do so and that have one thousand times more impact than they do in the world when it comes to generating emissions.

Dr. Rao: I think—yes. Just to add to that, I think this question really opens up that even now, it’s not only power relations as you said correctly, that we’ve been too focused on developing countries and social groups, and there’s a landlord or there’s a rich boss and then a poor boss. It’s quite comfortable. But I think climate change, particularly in the negotiations and so on, really have brought on the global stage, because it’s a global problem, the global power inequalities, that has become kind of exposed to some extend.

But the point that Daniel made earlier, that the whole North-South inequality in terms of consumption patterns in terms of the number of cars, in terms of whatever, travel… I think it has put—I don’t know what the solution is, but at least I think it has added that one more layer normally that we have been—within the development space, normally we talk at a more local level of communities and who’s the rich person, and the moneylender or the landlord is the baddie or the elites, the local elites and the poor, or the local politicians, or the federal government system.

Normally within the development space, I think we have confined ourselves to within countries’ borders, but I think the climate change is one area which really opens up the link to the global level. All issues can’t be addressed within the country. The country can try and do what it can.

Host: To end, I want to ask you words of wisdom.


Mr. Morchain: Even more?

Dr. Rao: Even more words of wisdom.

Host: Even more words of wisdom. But just, yes, is there something you would like to say? Well, you have said a lot.


Host: But just finally, in summary, what should we take from all of this?

Mr. Morchain: “We” meaning? Humanity or…?

Host: Meaning our audience, or maybe meaning people like IDRC, organizations like IDRC, meaning… everyone who is interested in the discussion, everyone who has seen, who has experienced some of the power inequalities. What should they take on going forward, if we can say? Yes.

Dr. Rao: I think at the global level, yes, there is an agenda which [inaudible] things, there’s DGs and so on, which is looking at social, economic, environmental, altogether, and that’s great. I think one of the key things which we’ve spoken about is justice, that there needs to be some kind of sense of equity and justice. But I think the other thing for me which is very important which we need to take on board is some kind of ethics in our personal life and in public life. It’s not just about the formal consent, but it’s about of course the research and so on—you do insist on research ethics and confidentiality and do no harm.

But I mean, ethics in a slightly broader sense of value systems and our own principles in the way we lead our life, and what we tell others something, we should also be willing to do, not have doublespeak. Because that’s something in development we find that often we are preaching to poor people of how they should live and what they should do, but we don’t do that. I think for me, ethics mean that. Ethics means avoiding doublespeak: living what you want others to live.

Mr. Morchain: Yes, I’m with Nitya a hundred percent on the issue of ethics and justice. That’s very important. And when you say also, Lowine, about thinking about IDRC and next steps, and I think I already feel like IDRC’s way ahead of the curve in all of these conversations and the projects that it’s funding. I think that’s great.

And I think now, in my opinion, comes the time for where an institution called the Global Commission on Adaptation is becoming more and more influential, the way I understand it—and I must say that I’m no expert on this field, I’m just being exposed to this and hearing more and more about it. What I understand is that this institution that is going to become very influential—as others are and remain, like the Green Climate Fund, that [inaudible]—the involvement of IDRC within the Global Commission on Adaptation I think will be an opportunity, and perhaps even a little bit of a test, I don’t know, to see how much the organization is willing to push against the idea that we keep funding kind of the same areas at a global level, we keep funding the same types of projects.

We often shy away from doing the more messy stuff, the fluffy stuff, the thing that affects the power structures. I think in our experience, in my experience from CARIAA, you can see that IDRC is already doing that. I think now, being part of the Global Commission on Adaptation, it would be really interesting to see how that works and where that place goes, because again from the little that I know on it, I have a fear that this might be a very strong push towards more traditional, continuing in a more traditional type of infrastructure investment, technical investment on adaptation.

And that’s what keeps me a little bit worried in general, when I see that the direction of climate change adaptation and the money that is behind it mostly goes on that, and the bit that goes on decisions that we’re talking about—ethics, aspirations, wellbeing—it’s a little bit of a side tip that is given. For me, that’s a big question, thinking of what’s going to happen in the next five years or so.

Host: Well, thank you very much. Thanks a lot for providing us with your wisdom. That was quite a really insightful conversation. And we hope that we can continue to be part of the conversation going forward. Thank you very much.

Mr. Morchain: Thank you.

Dr. Rao: Thank you. Thank you.