TMG Think Tank for Sustainability
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Strengthening international solidarity for climate resilience

Advancing rights-based approaches for food systems transformation and climate resilience

by Wangu Mwangi | 2021-11-05

Strengthening international solidarity for climate resilience

After a two-year hiatus and coming on the heels of “code red” warnings contained in the 6th IPCC Assessment Report, as well as UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report and other recent studies, it is hard to overstate the urgency of the 2021 UN Climate Conference in Glasgow.

As he outlined key objectives for the talks, COP 26 President Alok Sharma not only called for more ambitious national targets and transforming international finance flows to “keep 1.5 alive,” but underscored the importance of scaling up climate adaptation efforts, “particularly for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.”

Paying greater attention to climate adaptation affirms that those who contribute least to emissions are disproportionately affected by the impacts. This recognition underpins the work of TMG and its partners exploring agroecology, ecosystem-based adaptation, and other nature-based solutions (NbS) that strengthen the resilience of vulnerable communities. In light of controversies surrounding the increased adoption of the NbS concept by diverse actors, this body of work recognises that NbS must be implemented in a way that complements, rather than undermines, various human rights.

In the lead up to UN Food Systems Summit and the Glasgow Climate Conference, TMG and the Robert Bosch Stiftung co-organised two events on the theme, Land-Food-Climate: An African-European Dialogue on Climate Resilience. The discussions explored how international partnerships can foster inclusive governance of landscapes as “spaces” where transformative solutions at different scales can be linked up.  


Unpacking the challenges 

A focus on rights not only helps to direct attention to those who need it most, but also provides an entry point for managing the inevitable trade-offs among competing priorities. Introducing the event series, Gerrit Hansen, Programme Director, Climate Change, Robert Bosch Stiftung observed that the right to food is enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and can hence serve as both a safeguard as well as reference point for creating climate-resilient landscapes that work for people. Moreover, as underscored by TMG’s Managing Director, Alexander Müller, ensuring a just climate transition also requires that Europe reduces its environmental footprint to allow African countries more space to adapt.  

Reflecting on what this means for the continent, Fatima Denton, Director of the UN University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa identified speed, scale and management as key imperatives, but cautioned that the “direction of travel” is currently not being defined from an African perspective. Noting that policy and financing have so far focused on energy systems, she stressed that the battle will only be won if greater attention is paid to agriculture and land-based economic sectors. However, Million Belay, General Coordinator, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, criticised regional agricultural policy for placing too much emphasis on productivity and technology, and urged refocusing efforts towards promoting agroecology and the right to food. 

Many speakers touched on how Covid-19 has further exacerbated the gender impacts of the climate crisis, Muthoni Wanyeki, African Regional Director, Open Society Foundation, highlighted the exclusion of women working in the informal sector. She suggested that applying a rights lens and learning from women’s coping mechanisms can offer new insights for mitigating risks.  

The many challenges enumerated in the discussions all pointed to the critical role of inclusive governance processes at sub-national, national, and higher levels. Lindiwe Sibanda, Director, African Research Universities Alliance Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems, stressed that the right to food must also encompass access to nutritious and affordable dietary resources and be linked to renewable energy access to limit food loss and waste.

As lead of the Green Innovation Centres project at BMZ, which works in 14 African countries and India as part of Germany’s special initiative “One World – No Hunger, Sebastian Lesch expressed optimism that we can eradicate hunger and poverty while staying within planetary boundaries. But he cautioned that this will only happen if programmes are implemented as part of an overarching policy framework to transform our unsustainable agri-food systems, noting this is one of the goals of Germany’s upcoming G7 Presidency. 

Bridging the implementation gap 

The second event in the series focused on “the how” questions by exploring entry points for scaling up rights-based approaches and bridging the governance gap at the national and sub-national levels in Africa. Framing the discussions, Jes Weigelt, Head of Programmes at TMG, said limited capacities of national governments, coupled with the lack of enabling environments for locally-led action, creates a “missing middle.” He suggested that better integration of civil society organisations and other intermediary agencies in programme implementation offers one avenue for bridging this capacity gap. 

Reflecting on how this gap impacts on land rights, especially for women in indigenous communities and other marginalised groups, Faith Alubbe, Chief Executive Officer of the Kenya Land Alliance, stressed the importance of strengthening community organisations and civil society networks to champion the interests of excluded groups in policy development processes. Cheikh Mbow, Director of Future Africa at the University of Pretoria, reiterated the need for speed and scale, and noted that incremental changes will not deliver food systems transformation. He added that transformation requires leveraging multiple entry points, including energy, water, carbon sequestration, as well as local knowledge and entrepreneurship. 

Supporting calls for a rethink of current governance systems, Susan Chomba, World Resources Institute, called for research that offers more meaningful and innovative solutions for local challenges, pointing to mobile-phone-based financing solutions as an example. Youba Sokona, Vice-Chair, IPCC, called for the reframing of partnerships from a solidarity perspective, noting that this requires those holding power to practice “humble solidarity” with those whose voices are not being heard.  

Tapping the agency of the “vulnerable”  

“We are tired of being statistics” was the strong call made by representatives of community-based organisations. Nomonde Buthelezi and Sanelisiwe Nyaba, Food Agency Cape Town, called for inclusive and accessible dialogue formats to bring marginalised voices into decision making processes. Nyaba highlighted innovative ways that art is being used to mobilise and empower citizens to engage in policy discussions and envision more sustainable and inclusive futures.  

This call was picked up by Kumi Naidoo, veteran South African human rights activist and Founding Chair, Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity, in a wrap up reflection. Stressing that activism is at a crossroads, he suggested that one way to address governance gaps is to recognise that all people, even the most marginalised or vulnerable, have agency that can be harnessed and nurtured. Naidoo is part of an international initiative preparing to launch a Global Research and Action Network for a New Eco-Social Contract as a way of responding to pressing social and environmental challenges.   

A strong area of convergence across these discussions was the recognition that inequalities and disempowerment are root causes of food insecurity and vulnerability to climate change. Addressing these challenges in a systemic way requires climate-resilient landscapes. This in turn cannot be achieved without progressively realising the human rights of vulnerable and marginalised populations. Programmes and policies that embark on this transition can thus be described as being - or at least attempting to be - truly transformative. 

This overview partly draws on reports produced by the International Institute for Sustainable development. The full reports are available at:

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