Can Conflict-Sensitive Gender Analysis Close the Door on Backdraft?

By Edward Carr



A new contribution in a continuing series examining “backdraft“—the unintended consequences of climate change responses—and how its effects might be anticipated and minimized to avoid conflict and promote peace.


Effective climate action demands urgent transformational change. It is also increasingly clear that responses to climate change—whether focused on curbing emissions or adapting to climate impacts—can profoundly influence and change how people live. It touches upon many aspects of their everyday life, including their livelihoods, where they live, and their roles in the community. These changes also can have substantial effects on the socio-ecological systems in which people live— bringing unintended tensions and drivers of conflict that are referred to broadly as backdraft.


The complexity of these systems makes any analysis of their conflict potential difficult. But giving our attention to the gender and identity implications of climate projects offers a means of identifying and addressing the potential for conflict—both locally and more broadly.


The conflicts which emerge at the intersection of climate change impacts, gender and other identity roles often become apparent at the household and community level, extending even to things like control over household decisions. Such conflicts, which we might call “micro-backdrafts,” are significant for those who experience them directly. Yet they have roots in complex systems that extend beyond the household, and their impacts can aggravate larger societal stresses at different levels and in different geographies.


Using a brief case study, I illustrate how gender analysis can facilitate a more nuanced understanding of how climate change interventions create conflict pathways by challenging local understandings of identity— both in the context of climate and other stressors. It also shows that such information is actionable, making it possible to mitigate both local-level and wider conflict potentials of climate change projects.


Grain, Rain, and Gender-based Conflict

Several years ago I was part of a USAID-funded adaptation project in West Africa. Among a set of proposed interventions, this project planned to provide women with weather and climate information, along with agricultural advice, to boost their production of rain-fed staple grains. This intervention appeared to be a straightforward opportunity to increase food availability in a region stressed by increasingly variable precipitation.


However, this proposal did not consider a key element of local culture: rain-fed staple grain cultivation is often viewed as a man’s responsibility in this part of the world. In many communities a man’s worth is heavily determined by his ability to cultivate enough to feed his family for the entire year. Furthermore, research I had conducted with colleagues at the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab at Clark University also revealed that community members who did not fulfill their expected roles could be viewed as a threat—not only to the material well-being of their families, but also to the larger social order.


In a situation seen in contexts beyond this project, this sense of threat was particularly acute in households that had trouble meeting their material needs. Men’s authority was most precarious in these households. Such threats were managed within communities through the use of an escalating set of sanctions to discipline those who did not live up to expectations. These included verbal confrontations, physical violence (including domestic violence), and even expulsion from the community.


Thus, the proposed intervention asked women to step into roles designated for men and make their own significant contribution to rain-fed staple cultivation. In the stressed households that would benefit most from improved production, this was likely to trigger conflicts between husbands and wives that could escalate to violence. To avoid this potential household-level micro-backdraft, the leaders of the project dropped this component, and instead focused their intervention on identifying and reducing socioeconomic barriers preventing the adoption of adaptive practices.


Regional Ripples

Had the original intervention been implemented as planned, the effects might have extended well beyond the household and community level. Such household-level conflicts would have occurred in an already-existing context of contested changes to the social organization of agrarian livelihoods in Sudanian and Sahelian West Africa.


In many parts of this region, agricultural production is organized around concessions—groups of households in an extended family headed by the most senior man. This man makes agricultural decisions for all fields farmed collectively by the concession. Indirectly, his decisions shape those of each household in the group, extending even to their own household farm plots. Junior men do not want to be seen disagreeing with or contradicting the ideas of a senior man who controls access to assets and land.


Yet over the last two decades, researchers in this region have noticed junior men and their households breaking away from concessions and farming independently. This new trend presents a challenge to existing social hierarchies and institutions, such as land tenure, and creates social stress at a societal level. Wherever this dynamic is taking place, the added stress of women taking on new roles and responsibilities could have become an additional flashpoint for conflict.


Untangling the conflict potential in this situation reveals multiple challenges. Even if younger men did not feel threatened by their wives’ activities, for instance, those threatened by households choosing independent production over concession might use “nonconforming” women to argue for the reduced capability, fitness, and status of the younger men in these households. Such claims would have implications for access to land and other assets, creating potentially existential threats for independent households. These threats—however uncertain—also possess higher-level conflict implications that extend beyond individual households.


Clarifying the Stakes

This case of potential backdraft associated with a well-intentioned intervention illustrates how climate change solutions often challenge, if not change, existing social orders from the household to the community. Rigorous, nuanced gender analysis focuses on the identification of the social differences relevant to the issue can provide essential context—and reveal how the systemic processes of social differences take shape and their impact on likely outcomes.


Such analysis, as applied in the case above, demonstrated that boosting women’s rainfed agricultural production was not only about increasing incomes or food availability. It also had an impact on local understandings of men’s authority and identity. The implications not only risked exacerbating existing tensions between husbands and wives within households, but also had the potential to inflame stresses between junior and senior men across concessions and communities.


Yet conflict sensitive climate change action does not mean “conflict avoidant” change. Even the most effective indigenous/local adaptation to changes in the climate will challenge the authority and privileges of those who benefit under existing hierarchies and social orders. In such situations, conflict is likely.


Therefore, the mere presence of conflict should not be conflated with maladaptation. The question is whether this conflict is productive and generative of new, more sustainable, and more just orders. Nuanced gender analysis can help identify which conflicts are productive and generative of positive change, and suggest ways in which they might facilitate the sorts of transformation needed to address the sources and impacts of climate change in a durable, equitable manner.


For example, in the same part of West Africa, my lab found evidence of women who were planting “men’s” crops without experiencing consequences. These women came from wealthier, more secure households, and their transgressions were not perceived to be immediate threats to either material well-being or men’s status. This suggests that we can empower women to participate in forward-looking and climate-smart agricultural initiatives and minimize the risk of conflict if we also focus on improving the current food and income security of their households. Creating such an environment for women to take on new activities can also catalyze changes in norms that can lead to transformations in gender roles and agricultural practice.


Projecting the conflict potential of particular interventions in complex socio-ecological systems is extremely difficult. But approaching climate action through the lens of gender and identity is an important way of learning about such conflicts, and offers tools to mitigate conflict potential and identify their transformative possibilities. We will need more of this level of nuance to navigate the tensions that emerge across projects and levels as transformation becomes a central theme of climate action.


Edward R. Carr is Professor and Director of International Development, Community and Environment at Clark University, where he also directs the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab (HURDL).

Sources: Wilson Center; USAID; Applied Geography; Global Environmental Change; Economic Development and Cultural Change; World Development

Image credit: In Mauritania, women take initiative in agriculture as part of a project to address food insecurity, conflict, and climate change in the region. Courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Development Programme.


This post first appeared on New Security Beat.

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