The use of and obstacles to social learning in climate change adaptation initiatives in South Africa

By Shakespear Mudombi

This news article is an extract from the paper ‘The use of and obstacles to social learning in climate change adaptation initiatives in South Africa’, published in Jàmbá: Journal of Disaster Risk Studies 9(1), by Mudombi S, Fabricius C, Van Zyl-Bulitta V, and Patt A (2017).

Global environmental change will have major impacts on ecosystems and human livelihoods while challenging the adaptive capacity of individuals and communities. Many studies have highlighted the vulnerability of South Africa to climate change. This is worsened by the fact that the country is prone to limitations in water supply. Dealing with this challenge requires rapid anticipatory responses that empower and enable individuals, communities and decision makers to better adapt to the risks associated with climate change.

Adaptation is an important response as it enables the system to better cope and adjust so as to minimise the negative impacts while taking advantage of the likely opportunities. Challenges such as climate change are viewed as ‘messy problems’, which require the participation and cooperation of different stakeholders. When there is lack of consensus, it is difficult for stakeholders to work together for the successful implementation of programmes. Social learning has been proposed as an effective means to enhance responses to challenges such as climate change.
Social learning is an on-going adaptive process of knowledge generation, reflection and synthesis that can enhance people’s awareness about climate change and its impacts, with positive outcomes for their adaptive capacity. The objectives of this study were to assess the prevalence of factors promoting social learning in climate change adaptation initiatives in South Africa.

The first stage of the study involved conducting a literature review to identify factors that tend to promote social learning. The factors were split into two categories. Factors in the personal social learning category relate to the cognitive perceptions and abilities of individuals. These factors include willingness to share ideas, development of trust among stakeholders, participation by all stakeholders, capacity for conflict resolution, collective action towards project goals, continuous interaction and feedback, flexibility in planning and implementation, and willingness to share information. On the other hand, organisational social learning category relate to organisational characteristics and policies likely to create an environment that facilitates social learning. These factors include: empowerment of junior employees to experiment, existence of processes to translate feedback into changed practices, sufficient budget to regularly engage with stakeholders, continuous updating of project or planning processes, support for locally initiated projects, and development of local stakeholders’ capacity to engage with projects or interventions. The second stage of the study was data collection (through an online survey that was conducted in 2013), targeting decision makers in government and non-governmental organisations to get their perceptions on the presence of personal factors and organisational factors that promote social learning.

The findings provide some evidence of social learning in climate change adaptation projects in South Africa, with the majority of respondents indicating that personal social learning indicators were present. Mechanisms for improved conflict resolution were, however, less prevalent. The challenges associated with conflict resolution were believed to be exacerbated by lack of consultation by powerful stakeholders who usually take unilateral decisions. Organisational and governance-related barriers to implementation also presented significant challenges. Some of the main organisational barriers were short timeframes for implementing projects, political interference, shortcomings in governance systems and lack of knowledge and expertise in organisations. Inadequate funding was highlighted as a serious constraint. This was aggravated by funding requirements and guidelines that tend to be rigid, coupled with delays in budget and resource allocation. This situation calls for flexibility in project budgets and timeframes.

Efforts to promote social learning should be focused at both the organisational level as well as the individual level. There is a need for organisations to promote social learning by ensuring that their organisational environment and governance structures are conducive for their employees and the communities they work in, to embrace social learning. It was revealed that in some cases, social learning approaches tend to be adopted by a few individuals rather than it being embraced by the entire organisation. While acknowledging that social learning is not a panacea to the climate change challenge, it is critical to stress that it is one of the essential ingredients in seeking to find long lasting solutions to the challenge through enhancing the adaptive capacity of communities.

A better understanding of the challenge and improved collaboration between individuals, organisations and communities are critical. Of significance is the need to incorporate different but complementary forms of knowledge i.e. both indigenous and modern. This will help contribute to the overall success of climate change adaptation initiatives. Optimal sustainable win-win solutions can result when stakeholders come together to collaborate on solutions with better understanding of the challenges and are equipped with appropriate technical skills.

This study was undertaken in 2013 as part of the Southern African Young Scientists Summer Program hosted by the University of the Free State, with support from the National Research Foundation (NRF), the Department of Science and Technology (DST), and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). During the time of this study, Shakespear was working with the NRF SARCHi Research Professor, Mammo Muchie at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation (IERI) at Tshwane University of Technology. The support received from all these institutions is highly appreciated.