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Local participation: The missing link for climate resilience and conflict resolution?

Local participation: The missing link for climate resilience and conflict resolution?
People sell cattle at Ngaremara Livestock Sale Yard in Isiolo County, Kenya. This facility was refurbished by the Ngaremara Ward Planning Committee through a drought resilience grant. Photo: Patrick Meinhardt / Mercy Corps
Nelson Ochieng Owange, Ryan Sheely and Kamran Hakiman

Ahead of the 2022 Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, SIPRI is pleased to share guest blog posts from partner organizations.

The Horn of Africa is in the midst of a deepening and potentially catastrophic drought, one of the predicted impacts of climate change. This unfolding crisis has combined with pre-existing conflicts, the Covid‑19 pandemic, and the recent crisis in Ukraine to sharply intensify humanitarian need, with more than 13 million people in the region experiencing extreme hunger. In addition to the substantial harms to lives and livelihoods, the drought itself is fuelling cycles of violent conflict and climate vulnerability.

Researchers and policymakers have argued that effective, accountable and legitimate governance systems are vital for breaking the link between climate change and conflict, due to their ability to effectively mediate competition over scarce resources. However, there is little evidence regarding how to effectively scale-up local governance interventions alongside broader efforts in supporting conflict-sensitive climate change adaptation. To help fill these gaps in evidence and practical knowledge, Saferworld and Mercy Corps are organizing a virtual roundtable on Enhancing Conflict-Sensitivity and Good Governance in Climate Change Adaptation: Lessons from East Africa at the 2022 Stockholm Forum.

As part of this roundtable, Mercy Corps will be sharing experiences with a local-level participatory planning and development intervention called Ward Development Planning (WDP). In consortium with ACDI VOCA, Mercy Corps is implementing the WDP in five counties recognized as arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) in northern Kenya as part of a broader USAID-funded programme. Early evaluations have suggested that the WDP model—as a participatory institution—has meaningfully increased the local capacity of communities to participate in resilience-oriented development planning and address conflict. The programme has been recognized by local county governments as a model for replication, with at least two counties in advanced stages of considering legislation which would enshrine the WDP process in law.

In this post, we provide a preview of key findings from a forthcoming report on the WDP intervention, based on research from Kenya’s Isiolo, Garissa and Turkana counties. We examine how the WDP model provided locally legitimate and democratic governance in the midst of a climate crisis. These characteristics allowed the novel institutions to help prevent and address climate change-driven conflict and, in the long-term, contribute to more effective resilience planning. We conclude by briefly discussing why participatory interventions sometimes fail to achieve their potential in practice and how funders and implementers should navigate design and deployment when bringing participatory projects to scale.

How do participatory processes build local legitimacy needed for resolving and preventing climate-related conflicts?

Research clearly demonstrates the importance of local institutional legitimacy in addressing intergroup conflict, which the WDP intervention builds in two ways. During selection, Mercy Corps convened community members in geographically distributed, participatory meetings to identify development priorities for their ward and to select members of ward planning committees (WPCs). Participatory processes for selecting local representatives provide a richer institutional interface with the wider community, relative to solely voting. During inclusive public selection meetings, deliberation allowed community members to make value-based cases for why a candidate should be a member of a WPC, followed by a public selection process (consensus-seeking consultation or queue voting).

Beyond one-time selection, the ongoing embeddedness of WPC members provided an additional, informal accountability route. This embeddedness stems from the hyper-local nature of the WPC, whose members continued to live in their village communities while serving, thus remaining enmeshed in day-to-day social patterns. This contrasts with community perception of county representatives who were perceived as living in the faraway county capital and only responsive or accountable during the campaign season.

Both these factors—deliberative selection and embeddedness—allowed committees to credibly claim an ongoing community mandate for representing the community in both development planning and in addressing inter-communal violence.

Across all the counties Mercy Corps studied, WPCs were mobilized alongside community-level institutions to resolve conflicts. The most common cause of conflicts was inter-ethnic disputes related to grazing rights or cattle rustling, issues which have intensified due to the pressure on water, pasture and other natural resources stemming from the current drought. In these cases, the WPC worked closely with existing community institutions to help stop the cycles of violence and ensure punishment was meted out fairly within their own ethnic group. In one case, a WPC helped formalize land use bylaws regarding the use of rangeland and punishment for cattle theft, allowing the community to better articulate and enforce agreed-upon behaviour within their own community and better coordinate with others.

How do participatory processes help governments and donors incorporate local information into climate adaptation planning?

Government agencies and international development funders often lack information about where to target public infrastructure most efficiently. This includes investments designed to manage or mitigate the impacts of climate change. For instance, during the current drought, there is an urgent need for information about where is best to place new boreholes or piping. While seemingly simple, the question often interacts with complex factors such as migratory patterns and existing assignments of strategic grazing reserves. Weighing different community needs—especially when all needs are severe—is difficult both technically and ethically.

Very often, government and NGO investments result in white elephants, which are inefficient, redundant or actively harmful. Nearly every ward interviewed had pre-WPC stories of ‘white elephant’ investments by governments and NGOs, in which they provided redundant or inefficient public goods. WPCs solved this problem by acting as a central information hub and providing a single ward development plan document which both listed and ranked community priorities related to resilience and climate change. This central document, based on highly textured local information, was novel within the governance space in each county and provided a unique opportunity to integrate community-identified needs into NGO and government plans.

Can any participatory institution help to strengthen conflict resolution capacities and climate resilience?

Our research suggests that being participatory in name alone is not sufficient for providing meaningful legitimacy or local information. Carefully matching intervention design to the institutional context and the quality of implementation are the crucial elements which allow participatory interventions to fulfil this function, extending beyond superficial form.

ASAL areas in northern Kenya are no stranger to participatory institutions. Indeed, public consultation in county-level budget planning is mandated in Kenya’s 2010 constitution. However, these interventions were typically viewed as relatively superficial and ‘thin’ by government staff and community members. The primary participatory interface was often only a half-day of meetings, and the space lacked adequate structure, meaning a handful of voices could dominate the conversation. In contrast, the WDP model was seen as being an intensive, inclusive, and adaptively implemented process, which invested time and effort into building the participatory institution through well-attended and deliberative selection processes and then carefully supported the selected committee to make sound, evidence-based decisions, incorporating both a conflict-sensitive approach and an explicit focus on contingency planning.

Realizing the potential of participatory interventions: contextualized design and adaptive implementation

Our research suggests that local participatory institutions can be powerful partners to governments and NGOs in addressing climate change-precipitated conflict in the short term and directing public investment for increasing climate resilience in the long term. While representing a powerful opportunity, realizing this potential requires being more attention be paid to the quality of the participation rather than quickly ‘scaling’ participatory institutions which exist in form, but fail in function. Besides requiring resources, our research suggests that NGOs and funders must give adequate attention to contextualizing the participatory interventions rather than rapidly scaling identical models between contexts, and implementation requires a high degree of adaptive management, devolving agency and discretion to local implementers as they navigate local challenges and opportunities. During our Stockholm Forum Panel, we’ll explore these lessons further and look forward to learning about other examples of innovative approaches to linking good governance, conflict sensitivity and climate resilience, from elsewhere in East Africa and globally.


The Mercy Corps and Saferworld virtual session ‘Enhancing conflict-sensitivity and good governance in climate change adaptation: Lessons from East Africa’ takes place on Wednesday 25 May at 14:00 CEST.

You can register for the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development here


Kamran Hakiman

Kamran Hakiman is an independent researcher working with Mercy Corps, with a long-time focus on local and participatory governance interventions in low- and middle-income countries attempting democratization. He holds an MPP from Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government.

Nelson Ochieng Owange

Nelson Ochieng Owange is the Chief of Party for a five-year USAID-funded Livestock Market Systems (LMS) programme implemented in Kenya. He has extensive experience with addressing the cause–effect relationships associated with climate change among marginalized ‘last mile’ remote communities in the arid and semi-arid areas in the Horn of Africa.

Ryan Sheely

Ryan Sheely is the Director of Research-Governance and Conflict at Mercy Corps. Prior to joining Mercy Corps, he spent 10 years on the faculty at Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Yale University