Migration is not a priority adaptation concern in most low-income countries according to new analysis from the Migrating Out of Poverty Consortium at Sussex University. The majority of National Adaptation Programmes of Action, prepared by Least Developed Countries (LDCs) give scant attention to the issue. Where they do, it is seen as a negative consequence of climate change, sometimes a barrier to successful adaptation. Given the relative infancy of the ‘migration as adaptation’ debate and the technocratic bias of the NAPA process this is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, with NAPAs forming the first wave of adaptation in countries, we have to hope that the distance between late and too late is still generous.

The NAPA process supports LDCs, under the auspices of the UNFCCC, to identify urgent adaptation needs and projects to address them. According to the report, NAPAs typically view migration as a negative impact. Of the 45 NAPAs reviewed, 13 refer to rural exodus, 9 to transhumance (pastoralist migration between the same two locations) and 14 to the need for new policies to address resettlement and displacement. The majority conclude that policy interventions should seek to reduce the need for movement. Typically, NAPAs deal with internal not international migration and reference to migration is highest among plans from African nations. NAPAs from Asian LDC’s including Bangladesh and Nepal are conspicuously silent on the issue.

The risk is that we are woefully unprepared for any increase in movement as people seek new ways to respond to deteriorating conditions. Planning effectively for climate change requires acceptance of the need for increased not decreased mobility. Interventions aimed at reducing movement are not simply a waste of time and resources (they usually fail) but they risk locking people into ever worsening conditions. The question should be what conditions are required for migration to maximise returns for marginal and poor communities not what projects can we implement to make sure people stay put.

The predominant view among the NAPAs is that migration is evidence of a failure to cope. On the contrary, it is usually a testimony of capability. Of course, migration is not risk free. Nor the only adaptation option but it is part of not counter to the resilience building process. Take three examples: A welsh farmer who spent his summer months at a hafod so livestock could graze, a rural family who invest earnings sent back by their son in food security and education, an international student in the UK who returns home and applies learning from her PHD. My intention is not to oversimplify but rather to point out that migration can be strategy rather than an impact and that we have successfully used it for centuries, from the welsh valleys to the African Sahel, to reduce our vulnerability to environmental stress and change.

Though evidently not all migration is adaption, acceptance that it has role to play should free up space and resources for proper consideration of the conditions under which it can serve as beneficial adaptation strategy.

NAPAs will help frame broader programmes of work on adaptation in LDCs. They are not all-inclusive strategies but rather highlight areas where adaptation funding is urgent. As implementation begins, we must hope that the process serves to raise awareness across government and brings to light new learning and synergies with existing programmes of work. The development of NAPAs took place largely in isolation. With that in mind, it is not too late to inject a more balanced discussion on the role of migration in the adaptation and development process. That discussion needs to happen in LDCs but also here in the UK. There will be good practice to document and lessons to learn. Let’s hope learning informs a better understanding of the factors which enable and constrain autonomous adaptation and of the conditions which enable migration to maximise returns for poor and marginalised communities.

Migrating Out of Poverty’s full report can be downloaded online here.

Blog author: Hannah Smith. All views expressed are the authors own

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