Climate Adaptation in Bangladesh

Ph.D. Dissertation – The Business of Adaptation: Reproducing inequality in the face of climate crisis

Raised household plinths | Khulna, Bangladesh

The Business of Adaptation: Reproducing inequality in the face of climate crisis

Adapting societies to the impacts of climate change will be one of the most important undertakings of the coming decade. In Bangladesh, widely considered to be one of the countries that is most vulnerable to climate impacts, adaptation projects are already being implemented. In this post-colonial, Global South context, the organizations that plan, fund, and implement adaptation projects have substantial leeway in deciding what counts as adaptation and how it should be enacted. This may include interventions that range from distributing flood-resilient seeds to farmers, to constructing cyclone shelters, to educating schoolchildren about climate change. The results of what is (and is not) implemented as adaptation has critical implications for communities’ futures, and yet the assumptions, logics, and organizational dynamics that inform adaptation projects remain understudied.

My dissertation asks the question, how is adaptation being planned and implemented in Bangladesh and what are the implications for climate justice? Through an examination of power and inequality in four elements of adaptation projects – accessing funds, defining vulnerability, incorporating knowledge, and promoting sustainability – I argue that inequality is being reproduced through adaptation, such that those who cannot adapt on their own are further marginalized through adaptation efforts. To make this argument I draw upon eight months of fieldwork in Bangladesh, including 91 interviews with representatives from organizations contributing to adaptation efforts – bilateral donor agencies, multilateral climate funds, international development organizations and NGOs, local NGOs, research organizations, and government agencies – as well as field visits to five adaptation project sites, 36 interviews and focus groups with project beneficiaries, non-beneficiaries, and local implementers at those sites, and observations at project stakeholder meetings and national and international climate conferences.

I begin by introducing a novel and innovative concept to theorize the universe of actors involved in adaptation: the adaptation field. Drawing upon field theory in cultural and organizational sociology, I demonstrate that adaptation actors are best conceptualized as a field in order to understand these organizations’ approaches to adaptation. I elaborate six elements of the adaptation field that are examined across various strains of field theory: (1) field formation; (2) relationships to other fields; (3) field scale; (4) relationships and relative positioning between field actors; (5) rules of the field; and (6) change (versus stability) in the field. I explain that, in Bangladesh, the adaptation field is comprised of elite global actors such as donor agencies and international organizations, as well as marginalized local actors such as local NGOs and research organizations. Moreover, the field is highly dependent on the proximate development field, skewing adaptation projects toward development-as-usual approaches and limiting the transformative potential of adaptation interventions.

Chapter 3 – “The Business of Adaptation” – tackles the problem of funding distribution for adaptation projects. After realizing in my fieldwork that the language and logic of business abounds in adaptation work, I ask, why are these considerations informing climate adaptation and what are the effects? I argue that elite actors in the adaptation field view themselves as investors and aim to avoid corruption, increase value for money, and demand evidence for success, which together systematically prevents local organizations from accessing funds. In Chapter 4 – “Is Vulnerability the New Poverty?” – I ask, how is vulnerability operationalized by actors in the adaptation field? I argue that field actors characterize vulnerability according to a tripartite interaction between biophysical hazards, social barriers to resilience, and individual and communal deficits that reduce adaptive capacity. In doing so they make development a crucial step in adaptation, justifying the continued intervention of foreign actors in Bangladesh and limiting the possibilities for what adaptation can entail.

Chapter 5 – “Expertise, exclusivity, and romanticizing the ‘local’” – delves into the processes by which knowledge is incorporated into adaptation projects. I ask whose knowledge informs project planning and why? I argue that local knowledge is selectively and performatively incorporated into adaptation projects to give the impression of participatory engagement, while the expertise of global scientific experts and development practitioners determines how an adaptation project will take place. In Chapter 6 – “The Sustainable Project” – I ask, what do organizations prioritize in pursuing sustainable adaptation projects? I argue that the sustainability of projects over the long-term (with or without environmental sustainability) is a goal among adaptation field actors, yet sustainability is often made the responsibility of locals who are unable or uninterested to continue the projects on their own.

This dissertation makes an important contribution to the literature on climate adaptation, which has thus far neglected to empirically examine the consequences of organizational structures, norms, and assumptions in decision-making. I demonstrate that the characteristics of the adaptation field create and maintain inequalities in power between actors and marginalizes locals who have the most at stake in adaptation. In doing so I incorporate insights from organizational sociology, international relations, critical development scholarship, science and technology studies, and environmental sociology. I ultimately assert that a drastic restructuring of the adaptation field is urgently needed in order to make substantive positive changes in vulnerable communities and ecosystems, and to pursue climate justice.