Visioning our future: can scenarios help in policy development under climate change?

Bringing people from diverse backgrounds together to discuss possible future scenarios can be an effective tool in developing policies for sustainable development and food security in the face of climate change, but the success of this approach depends on good facilitation, communication and capacity development.

A study by scientists associated with the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and published in the journal Regional Environmental Change assesses the effectiveness of the participatory development of regional multi-stakeholder scenarios in bridging boundaries between disciplines and linking knowledge with action.scenarios_CCAFS

“Representatives from farmers’ organizations, scientists, policymakers, civil society, government and the private sector all have important roles to play in formulating new policies for improved food systems as we enter an increasingly uncertain future,” says Joost Vervoort, CCAFS scenarios leader and an author of the study.

The study was initiated by CCAFS as part of work aimed at ensuring the knowledge generated by its partners (which include the World Agroforestry Centre) will lead to actions such as changes in policies, practices and technologies that improve food security in an environmentally sustainable manner.

“We tested the scenarios approach as a means of bringing diverse communities together in an environment that allows multiple perspectives to be aired and considered,” outlines Vervoort. “Scenarios enable policies to be jointly developed to consider a multitude of issues and trade-offs between food security, environments and livelihoods.”

Following a series of 3 scenario building workshops for East Africa (involving representatives from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), a questionnaire gave participants the opportunity to assess the credibility, salience and legitimacy of the exercise and whether it built capacity to improve decision making in achieving food security.

The majority of participants surveyed believed scenarios are a useful decision- and policy-making tool. Good facilitation was seen as key to the success of the process. It ensured positive interaction between all those involved and generated an understanding and appreciation of the value of using a scenarios approach.

Many thought scenario development could be greatly improved with the participation of a more inclusive and diverse group of participants, by translating and communicating results through a variety of channels (such as radio programs, videos and maps) and by adding more quantitative information.

During the course of the workshops, a range of scenarios were developed by participants which took into account desired outcomes such as: food affordability, distribution and nutritional value for food security; water quality, soil quality, forest cover and biodiversity; and financial wealth, social capital, health and knowledge and skills for livelihoods.

“Scenarios are not predictions, projections or forecasts,” explains Vervoort. “They are different ‘what-if’ accounts of the future, told in words, numbers, images, maps and/or interactive learning tools. They are a powerful planning tool that helps partners acknowledge future uncertainty and explore the dynamics of widely different but plausible future worlds. Scenarios help rethinking and reorganizing current institutions to create more robust policies and strategies.

Of particular interest to another author of the study, Patti Kristjanson, who leads the ‘linking knowledge with action’ research at CCAFS, is the ability of scenarios to span the divide between science and non-science disciplines and sectors.

“Boundary work seeks to link those involved in generating knowledge (including but certainly not limited to scientists) with practitioners and policymakers who take actions based on this knowledge.”

By incorporating boundary work into the scenario exercise it was hoped that capacity would be built among non-scientists so that they would be better able to translate research into effective policies. Equally, scientists were expected to benefit from a better understanding of the policy process and policy audience’s knowledge needs so that they would improve their communication with decision and policy makers.

Seventy-nine per cent of respondents reported having learned new skills, such as how to identify drivers of change and how to develop storylines.

For boundary work to be effective, it must be viewed as credible (is the information contributed valid, accurate, tested and viewed as true and up-to-date), salient ( is the technical information provided to decision makers relevant, needed and in a form that is understandable and useable) and legitimate (is the process fair, inclusive and unbiased).

Half of the respondents in the study thought that although certain stakeholder groups were missing, those who attended were experts in their fields, and there was sufficient knowledge and adequate discussion on East African issues to make the scenarios credible.

With regard to salience, 71 per cent of respondents stated that scenarios would be a useful policy-making tool because they generate contrasting yet plausible situations and options that decision makers like to see.

In terms of legitimacy, 93 per cent thought the process of scenario development was fair and unbiased and allowed for open participation and discussion on issues related to climate change.

In the next phase of the scenarios work, the CCAFS program is collaborating with the teams behind the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) IMPACT model  – designed to examine alternative futures for global food supply, demand, trade, prices, and food security – and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis’ (IIASA) Globiom, designed to provide policy advice on global issues concerning land use competition between the major land-based production sectors. This will provide the quantification desired by some participants. CCAFS is also incorporating  the valuable lessons learned from the East African participants as they go on to develop participatory, multi-stakeholder scenarios in West Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Latin America.

Download the full article:

Chaudhury M, Vervoort J, Kristjanson P, Ericksen P, Ainslie A. 2013. Participatory scenarios as a tool to link science and policy on food security under climate change in East Africa. Regional Environmental Change 13 (2): 389-398.

Read more about CCAFS work on scenarios'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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