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  • Ella Lundström, NIRAS

Why Climate Change Interventions Often Fail to Meet their Sustainability Goals

Updated: Feb 13

How we work to mitigate individual project design failures by taking a beneficiary’s perspective and going beyond market access

MSD Hub editor's note (Michael Field, Senior Systems Specialist, Vikāra Institute):

The blog provides essential insights into aligning climate change and conservation outcomes with wider systemic change objectives. In MSD, similar lessons have emerged, including the risks of an overly narrow bounding of a problem (or system) that often ignores the importance of the interconnectedness of so many issues, whether economic, climate change, inequality, etc. Another important lesson that cuts across climate and MSD, in general, is that durable change only happens when it results from an internal change process that is perceived as beneficial from the perspective of the local system actors. While the blog focuses more on how to catalyze an initial behavior change, MSD increasingly suggests that real systemic change, including the substantial shifts needed to respond to climate change risks effectively, requires some thinking/planning around how change happens over time using system lenses that complement behavior change models.


Having worked with development cooperation over five decades, we have in recent years, noted a trend pattern of shorter projects with focused designs. To be frank, many of these projects are increasingly subject to the risk of “failure by design”, and particularly certain short-term climate change projects perhaps more so than others. But why is this and, as consultants, how do we take action to mitigate these design flaws? Below, we argue that cross-sectoral project design is often needed, yet seldom successfully practiced, to motivate actors of change embrace sustainable practices. We also reflect on the importance of innovative reassessment and collaboration to successfully overcome project design flaws, with examples from some of our actions in Zambia.

With agendas such as the Paris Agreement and COP26, climate adaptation, mitigation and resilience are receiving increased funding from a variety of sources. How this funding is actually used is then determined based on a project design team’s interpretation, and ultimately handed over to the implementer. Alongside climate change interventions, other related sector interventions in e.g. energy, entrepreneurship and water, are often supported in parallel. These projects also reflect regional and local donor divisions, steered through annual or, in the best scenario, monthly donor and stakeholder meetings to divide technical intervention areas and physical location between stakeholders.

While one reason for narrow project design might be time and budget limitations, another can be self-selection bias. For example, climate change funds that are allocated to a technical team (perhaps a water or conservation team) tend to be designed into water/conservation projects. Hence, self-selection bias will make a project design team see the needs for additional resources within their area of specialisation. As a result, the selected project design teams also tend to be less cross-sectoral than needed, possibly with a gender or social inclusion expert added to the group but seldom with a human behaviour or market system expert as part of the team.

So, let’s review the risks with technical bias from a sustainability perspective (or perhaps the limited perspective of an agribusiness economist). From an MSD approach, you may already see where I am going with this?

Back to basics: a human/beneficiary perspective is needed in all technical projects where people are expected to implement change

We can all agree that successful development consulting, requires changes in human behaviour. Hence, in order to be effective, our projects need to provide tools and incentives that create the motivation to change. Whereas many climate change projects do indeed provide the tools for change. Too many projects are designed with a Western focus, having forgotten the lens of the beneficiary.

So how do we create success beyond project implementation when the project design has not considered the right motivating factors?

Economists and behaviour scientists tend to favour Maslow’s hierarchy pyramid of needs to explain motivation and human behaviour. By using another well-known behaviour model ‒ the theory of planned behaviour ‒ we can simply discuss a few approaches that increase adoption and improve sustainability beyond project implementation. According to Ajzen’s theory, the intention to change is dependent on three core factors: i) the farmer’s attitude towards change (the expected benefit of changing); ii) the subjective norm (cultural and social beliefs and norms); and, iii) the perceived behavioural control (a person's perception of the ease or difficulty of performing the behaviour of interest).

Figure 1 Theory of Planned behaviour. Adapted from Ajzen 1991

For example, to decrease deforestation, we need to give people - in their opinion – a more lucrative option to earn their livelihoods. Likewise, to encourage farmers to decrease water consumption, we need to provide tools and knowledge as well as incentives that they find attractive. More than once in the 21st century, I have heard project implementation teams complaining of low adoption levels among beneficiaries while reflecting on proof that “the farmers indeed have understand the importance of saving water”. They have completely neglected to ask the farmers simple questions such as “What would make you change your behaviour?” “What would make this project relevant to you?”

Often times, the answer would be “more money” or “better living standards” (often obtained by secure income). The market system approach should play a crucial role for most climate change projects in order to motivate actors to modify their behaviour and support change that stems from internal and external motivation.

Applying lessons learnt to rural development projects in Zambia

With ten ongoing projects across Zambia today, NIRAS has been able to successfully mitigate some of the individual project failures by establishing real collaboration and synergies between projects. As a result, we have increased both our outreach per project (increased number of beneficiaries reached per project) and been able to provide additional technical support to staff-constrained projects. One such example is how we have successfully linked three distinct projects on dairy extension, , water resource management, and agribusiness and trade. Beneficiaries of the water resource management and agribusiness and trade projects were able to access the same social media platforms (WhatsApp groups and Facebook) and receive parts of the same extension advice provided to the beneficiaries of the dairy extension services project. Likewise, collaboration has meant that the heavily extension-supported dairy farmers received news and grants from the agribusiness and trade project.

Our work has revealed certain adoption-related success factors that I would like to share with you (and please note that they are all human behaviour based);

To increase the belief in success:

  • Ensure successful demonstration sites (which needs careful planning and implementation). Projects are time limited and memories are long, so we often only get one chance so do it right the first time(!)

  • Select new technology/crops that are attractive – or make sure to make it really attractive (by providing a market). The sweet potato is a good example of a crop that was successfully introduced for diversification. In Zambia, we are currently preparing for similar success for climate-smart crops such as sorghum and millet.

To increase social acceptance and drive:

  • Select the right forerunners, with the followers in mind. We need to understand cultural behaviour. Will the neighbours actually copy the less well-off (a widow with no farmland) or do we need to re-think and go for a natural leader in the community. The same works for buyers. In Zambia, we go beyond market access and, in addition to the lead farmer approach, also engage social media profiles and restaurants to raise consumer interest and demand for products.

  • products.

To increase the behaviour control:

  • Make technical solutions easy to replicate. Select solutions with affordable and accessible inputs. Projects with poor adoption rates often fail when the technology used is considered too expensive or too high-tech for the farmers to buy or maintain. Whereas solar powered irrigation systems had been used in an earlier project phase, NIRAS revised the use of technology from solar-powered irrigation systems to a much simpler and more affordable bucket irrigation system as in picture.

  • And possibly the most important of all lessons: no matter the project profile, be careful to select the most adequate direct beneficiaries for success. Oftentimes, the better-off community members actually have the resources to take risks and make investments, whereas the poorest in the community may gain more risk-weighted benefits from sustainable employment at the neighbour’s farm than from the handover of a cow.


Ella Lundström, Niras

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