Social Transformation: Rethinking Resilience Building against the Climate Crisis
Transformation is inevitable in a society. However, implications of such social transformation is usually not considered in building resilience against climate change. Social transformation (i.e., persistent structural changes in society) can significantly influence how vulnerable households and communities respond to — and are impacted by — climate variabilities and change. This is particularly true of most rural communities in northern Ghana, which are hugely dependent on agrarian and natural resources. The households in such communities experience transformation in their socioeconomic and gender relations and through their livelihood pathways. This blog explores the broader context of social transformation, its many dimensions and the implications for inclusive resilience building against climate change. The insights are derived from a study on households’ perception of transformation over the last 10 years in selected communities of the Upper West Region of Ghana, conducted by the European Union-funded Resilience Against Climate Change: Social Transformation Research (REACH-STR) project.*
Putting social transformation in context
The households in the study perceived considerable transformations within their communities during the last 10 years. These included improvements in essential infrastructural resources and services (e.g., school buildings, teacher bungalows, community-based health planning and service (CHPS) compounds, police posts, telecommunication masts and networks, and boreholes) that have collectively enhanced the educational outcomes of children, access to health, agricultural production, mobility and transportation, electricity and telecommunication. Agricultural equipment (e.g., tractors); agricultural inputs, such as seedlings, weedicides, herbicides and fertilizers; and tricycles for carting produce, which were not readily available a decade ago, can now be accessed. While communities are geared to provide some of these critical resources, the state, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private sector have also been active in providing essential amenities and technologies (e.g., schools by government and boreholes by NGOs).
In the Upper West Region, technological and infrastructural developments have been commended as progressive. A female participant in a focus group discussion emphasized that, “Now with the upgrading of the telecommunication network, we can search for information on agricultural activities. More so, with mobile phones in this community, we can easily communicate among ourselves. Through it, we can do financial transactions, and at the same time, we can buy goods from our trading partners in Kumasi, Techiman and other places.”
It is important to note, however, that the improved availability to resources and services does not necessarily make them uniformly accessible across all social groups within the community. For instance, gaps in socioeconomic status, such as gender, level of education and migration outcomes, limit or increase who has access to agricultural finance, technologies and services, as well as the outcomes to be achieved.
Different dimensions of transformation: Agrarian changes and shifts in gender roles and norms
The study indicates that agrarian change is related to changes in expansion of farms, rainfall patterns, prolonged drought, persistent floods, rapid loss of trees and soil infertility. For example, household members explained that they experience low yields, even with increased fertilizer usage. This could be attributed to the depletion of soil nutrients due to overdependence on inorganic fertilizer, particularly in the context of an arid savanna agroecological zone. Another potential reason is increasing population and associated expansion of farmlands, leading to a reduction of fallow periods, and repeated cultivation of the same piece of land over time. These changes, farmers remark, “are related to climate change, and we are adapting to new farming practices to remain resilient.” A common household resilience-building strategy is the changing gendered crop farming patterns. For example, 10 years ago, women were the main cultivators of groundnuts, but in recent years, men have emerged as the major producers because of the increase in its economic value. While sorghum and millet production have declined significantly, maize, soya beans, cowpea and groundnut are increasingly being produced now.
Many farmers have also adapted to the climatic conditions by planting shorter-term crop varieties. Due to the destruction of farms by cattle, cassava production has declined in the community. This is because, even though farmers have moved further afield to cultivate other crops due to the cattle grazing problems, the planting material for cassava is too bulky and difficult to transport and, therefore, is less likely to be planted in distant plots. This has also resulted in a decline in the production of cassava, its processing and trading of gari (cassava grits), which are key income earners for women. Gari and cassava are also essential household necessities that support food security of the communities.
In the past, gender roles and norms defined women as farm hands, rather than farmers with ownership rights. However, social transformation in communities — ushered by changes in demographics (e.g., migrating men), technology (e.g., accessible information through usage of mobile phones), politics (e.g., increased participation in decision-making), economics (e.g., effective market linkages) and culture (e.g., gender sensitive norms) — have thrust women toward taking on the role of farmers, and in some cases, with land ownership. This has been further driven by increased community awareness on the importance of empowering women, and the need for equal opportunities for male and female farmers, facilitated by NGOs. Furthermore, the availability of tractor services in the communities has altered the nature of the labor market, because resourceful women now use such services rather than relying on the goodwill of their husbands and other male relatives. Less household labor is also required for some tasks, as weedicides and herbicides are available, thus easing up women’s labor on family farms for important reproductive tasks, such as childcare.
With women moving into the “farmer” role and gaining more access to lands and agricultural input and equipment, the gender roles and power relation dynamics are shifting to the benefit of all household members in these agricultural communities.
However, this empowerment drive notwithstanding, most domestic responsibilities still lie with women; cooking and fetching water are mostly carried out by women and girls. Men who engage in such care work do so subject to the availability of labor-saving technologies, and on sympathy grounds. Men and boys’ roles in care work are often limited to financial contribution and traditional care. For example, a man would send a sick relative to a traditional healer than to a medical facility. Again, male children are becoming increasingly involved in housework (e.g., renovating family homes and clearing surrounding weeds) but both men and boys have reduced their role in caring for domestic animals, delegating the task to women — an additional household burden for the latter.
Implications of social transformation on the building of effective climate resilience strategies
The key implications of building resilience in this context are:
- The changing climate context of the Upper West is also transforming persistently along at least five dimensions, that is, demographics, technology, politics, culture and economics. The outcome of the transformation also intersects with the impact of climate change and influences the plight of climate-vulnerable social groups. It is, therefore, critical for development partners, research for development (R4D) organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations, faith-based organizations and development planners to be mindful of the transformations, particularly the drivers, outcomes and what they mean for the planning and implementation of climate resilience projects.
- Social transformation analysis is currently not integrated in the strategies for climate action at both national and district governance levels. There is, therefore, the need for capacity strengthening in the framing, operationalization and institutionalization of social transformation analysis in climate-resilience-building activities at all levels.
- Funding for climate vulnerability and intersectionality research should be increased at the national and district levels to generate insights that support more gender-sensitive and inclusive planning and implementation of climate resilience programs.
The discussion so far has shown that building climate resilience means taking into consideration all the dimensions of social transformation, as well as the changing environmental context. The impacts of climate change in this highly agrarian context are exacerbated by the embedded, culturally assigned gender roles and norms. Some of the roles and norms are changing and, hence, business-as-usual approaches that operate on previous climate mitigation and adaptation designs are no longer beneficial to the rural households. Decision-makers should be supported with social transformation and gender-transformative approaches to get a better understanding of the complexities for effective formulation and implementation of inclusive, climate-resilient interventions.
*The goal of the REACH-STR project is to get a better understanding of how social transformation occurs and which transformative results are opportunities to build upon, as opposed to challenges to avoid. The project takes advantage of these opportunities to assist in the planning of interventions that can promote more beneficial social transformation processes, encourage positive cycles of change that strengthen resilience against climate change and establish future generations in more stable means of subsistence. The methodologies combine secondary dataset analysis with participatory strategies, including the use of survey instruments to provide significant, new knowledge that might help district-level development planning. Local, regional and national decision-makers are expected to gain a better knowledge of social transformation interventions that promote sustainable and inclusive rural development and climate change adaptation, and to implement this improved understanding in a variety of contexts. Building these additional layers of knowledge and capability is Northern Ghana’s best defense against future climate change effects.