Jonathan Ensor


Jonathan was a Policy Researcher at Practical Action.

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Posts by Jonathan

  • Disasters, climate change and development: what do we need to do differently?

    September 30th, 2011

    What is the missing link in disasters? According to Terry Cannon, in a session I attended today it is the attention to social and cultural issues that mediate preparedness and perceptions of risk. Terry highlighted the need to think more broadly about the challenges of addressing disaster risk, discussing the need to bridge institutional and local knowledge systems, and bring in knowledge from other disciplines – a theme taken up by his co-presenter, Katie Harris.

    Where Terry focussed in on the mismatch between NGO/policy priorities and those of local people (for whom, empirical evidence demonstrates, disasters are seldom the most pressing concern), Katie explored the role of emotions in disaster preparedness. Bringing insight from psychological research, Katie discussed how an appreciation of emotions can help explain why preparedness campaigns repeatedly fail, revealing refusal to prepare as a rational act when understood from the perspective of those at risk – for whom ontological security demands a rejection of risk narratives that would challenge the perception of the home as a safe place, of nature as a benign force, and in the ability of society to provide protection.
    The insider/outsider tension that Terry and Katie highlight was taken up in the title of the next presentation, by Terry Gibson from the Global Network for Disaster Reduction. ‘It’s all one’ captures the views of local people, for whom disasters and development don’t exist in separate silos. As discussant, I suggested that this is a stark challenge to NGOs – what are we doing? Whose priorities are we following? Why is there a mismatch between ‘our’ priorities and ‘theirs’? One response was to be found in Terry Gibson’s focus on social learning and negotiation processes to enable the co-definition, between development actors and local people, of the priorities for development action.
    Terry Gibson’s presentation highlighted how the View’s from the Frontline Project, in which NGOs and CSOs undertake a comprehensive assessment of progress in disaster preparedness as a counterweight to government reporting on progress on the Hyogo Framework for Action. This work initially had huge success in opening up political space at the international level for attention to action at the local level. However, no sooner had this space been opened, GNDR realised that it’s language had been co-opted as a fig-leaf over a process that was as heavily top-down as ever. Part of the answer being explored is to adopt an approach that explicitly attends to power through a focus on politics, negotiation and contestation, working from the social learning literature that highlights the need for ‘double loop learning’ – changing not only actions (single loop) but also the assumptions on which these actions are based. Strong resonances, here, with the need to change mindset in disaster preparedness and start to understand why people behave as they do, rather than just assuming that our expert knowledge of mitigation measures is enough.
    Thomas Tanner took the discussion on to consider tools for integrating climate change adaptation and disaster reduction into development. Sifting the preponderance of tools into three categories for analysis – process guidance, data and information provision, and knowledge sharing – Thom focused in on the first category and suggested that a significant benefit of these was to build awareness of climate issues at an individual level within the organisations that have developed tools. While highlighting the need for centralised, nationally owned climate information and disaster profile information, he also critiqued tools for bringing ‘the end of politics’ through a focus on techo-managerial fixes, and echoed Wilby’s suggestion that robust decision making would be more valuable than an endless search for climate information that only becomes more uncertain the more one tries to put it into action.
    Thom’s call for a common approach to M&E was taken up by Paula Silva Villanueva, who presented an innovative approach that moves on from a preoccupation with indicators to an iterative, learning process that is specifically designed to support organisations in reflecting on their policies and programmes and to incorporate resilience as a framing for their work. The ‘ADAPT’ framework does this by encouraging: Adaptive learning and management that enable flexible planning; Dynamic monitoring that acknowledges changing hazard profiles and uncertainty; being Active in understanding social, cultural and personal issues, including the diverse interests of the actors that touch and are touched by interventions; are Participatory to promote self-reliance and problem solving; and Thorough, in looking across scales and at the underlying causes of vulnerability.
    Edwin Elegado, from Plan International in the Philippines, explored much of this in practice in the context of a climate hotspot that is ranked third in the World Risk Index. By applying the Climate Smart Disaster Risk Management (CSDRM) approach, on which Paula’s work is based, Edwin compared the work of actors at three scales – the national Climate Change Commission, an alliance of seven cities in a common watershed, and an island town – finding that each had made substantial progress in the three CSDRM pillars: dealing with risks and uncertainty, building adaptive capacity, and addressing the underlying causes of poverty. Reflecting a common and important theme throughout the meeting, Edwin and Paula both highlighted that integration ultimately means dealing with the complex realities of local change, demanding political will, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and the participation of the people at risk.
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  • Challenging the mono-cult 4: audio clips from Rome

    July 25th, 2011

    Earlier ‘Challenging the mono-cult’ posts are available (part 1, part 2 and part 3)

    The following audio clips were recorded during the 13th meeting of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Toby – in the first clip below – is the editor of the excellent (and short!) publication ‘Biodiversity for food and agriculture’. Highly recommended.


    Toby Hodgkin – Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research

    Climate Change and Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. (Interview by Patrick Mulvany)

    “We need to recognise the importance of an ecosystem approach at farm, community and landscape scales and to increase opportunities for exchanges of GRFA [genetic resources for food and agriculture] between communities in different regions, backed up by release of materials from gene banks, in order to support their adaptation to climate change.”



    Liz Matos, Director, Angolan National Plant Genetic Resources Centre

    African engagement in the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. (Interview by Patrick Mulvany)

    “Although there may be increased recognition of the importance of small farmers for conserving GRFA [genetic resources for food and agriculture], there has been almost no increase in benefits to them – all the more important at this time of increasing climate variability.”



    Statement to the Commission by Neth Dano – etcGroup

    Neth is describing the challenges in the engagement of the Commission with other international bodies and instruments (21 July)



    Statement to the Commission by Patrick Mulvany – Practical Action

    Patrick is describing Practical Action’s engagement with the Commission and calling for it to be more inclusive of the social movements of biodiversity-enhancing food providers in its work (21 July)


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  • Challenging the mono-cult 3: an aside on technology

    July 25th, 2011

    Earlier ‘Challenging the mono-cult’ posts are available (part 1 and part 2)

    Having talked about the fundamental necessity of a transformation towards biodiverse, ecological approaches in food systems, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on the key role of science and technology. Technologies that build on local agricultural biodiversity to sustain fertile and productive environments are routinely ignored by policy makers in favour of agro-chemical inputs and biotechnologies that deliver short term increases in yields. It’s no coincidence that these technologies remain owned and controlled by the corporations that supply them, requiring the poor to pay while simultaneously undermining their knowledge and skills in maintaining the health and productivity of their agricultural ecosystems.

    As the ground breaking report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) points out, the ecosystem impacts – loss of soil fertility, soil erosion and breakdown in agroecological functions – have resulted in poor crop yields, land abandonment, deforestation and ever-increasing movement into marginal land, including steep hillsides. The answer, however, is not to step away from technology, but to re-orientate research towards the ecosystem functions that support food production and ameliorate environmental impacts, and to support the local adoption and adaptation of techniques that enable sustainable food provision in a specific environmental context. This means participation of the poorest in setting the agenda of scientific research and the development of technologies, as well as ensuring that the results maximise local control over all the resources of food production. All this is set down in the Food Sovereignty framework – an alternative to the current globalised and industrialised food system, developed by small-scale food producers from across the world.

    This is a complex, multifaceted problem with one overarching challenge – it involves facing down the power and influence of the gigantically wealthy multinational corporations who seek profit from each step of the food chain. Their presence is felt in the international negotiations that govern our food systems, including the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture from where I am writing this (follow this link for a view of us in situ!)

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  • Challenging the mono-cult 2: intervening at CGRFA 13

    Rome, Italy, Rome
    July 21st, 2011

    This is my second post from Rome… part 1 can be found here (opens a new tab).

    Many communities worldwide engage in sustainable practices that produce nutritious foods. They use their knowledge of the full range of the diversity in their agricultural systems – including the genetic diversity of their locally adapted farmers’ seeds, livestock breeds and fish stocks – rather than externally sourced inputs. Borne in part out of the need to remain productive in challenging environments, characteristics of these systems are in many cases the same as those necessary to cope with the onset of climate change. The ability to withstand shocks and stresses is becoming increasingly important as climate change alters seasonal temperature and rainfall patterns, disease and pest profiles and brings more frequent extreme weather events including droughts and floods. The resilience of agricultural systems to these changes is enhanced through diverse practices that reduce risks, enrich natural resources and build synergies between different farm species and activities. The fundamental necessity of biodiverse agriculture in meeting the challenges of climate change has been well established in research institutes as well as in the fields, pastures and waters of small-scale food providers worldwide, as summarised in this link.

    This understanding is also reflected in the documents prepared by the FAO in the run up to 13th Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA 13). The Working Document on Climate Change and Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, for example, summarises the essential role of genetic resources in meeting the challenge of climate change. But for a really engaging read that also explains the key issues, I’d heartily recommend the FAO publication ‘Biodiversity for food and agriculture’. It’s short, and it’s available online. (Incidentally, we have an audio recording of an interview with one of the editors of this document, which I’ll link to in a subsequent post).

    Having said that the background documents relating to climate change are strong, we still felt it necessary to intervene during the negotiations. We had three main points to make. First, that we supported the Commission’s role in analysing the links between climate change and genetic resources. The Commission has the necessary expertise – as evidenced by the background documents – and as such they should be relied on for advice on this topic throughout the UN system. Also, it’s always important to register our support for their work (where appropriate!)

    Second, we needed to draw attention to one aspect that had been overlooked in the background documents – the interactions between genetic resources and so called ‘response measures’. In other words, how do the ways in which we attempt to mitigate climate change effect genetic resources? There are many – far too many – proposals out there that could have a shocking impact on diversity, from restricting availability of much needed patent-protected climate-ready genes to large scale, monoculture biofuel production to geoengineering approaches to altering the oceans and clouds (these sound like they came from science fiction, and if they did they should certainly remain there). See the excellent analysis of the ETC Group for more on this, if you can stomach it.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we spoke of the need for the voices of small-scale food producers to be heard at the negotiations:

    ‘With regard to this issue, as well as the others on your packed agenda, we … urge the Commission to ensure that the views of the guardians and developers of genetic resources for food and agriculture, the small-scale food providers themselves, are included in your deliberations.’

    This is a critically important issue and we made it in reference to several discussions during the week. In particular, the Commission’s ‘Multi-Year Programme of Work’ – describing what they’re going to do up to 2017 – includes the preparation of a new and important report on the State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture. This benchmark document needs to include the voices of small-scale food providers if it is to avoid becoming narrowly technical, stuck in the silos of academic disciplines that do not reflect the on-the-ground realities. For example, the Commission divides its work into plant resources, livestock resources, aquatic resources and so on. Yet those producing food understand that livestock cannot survive without diverse plants to feed on and, for example, across Asia rice farmers’ paddies also contain hundreds of different fish species. And so the list goes on. Those living with genetic resources manage them by understanding and nurturing many complex interactions between plant, animal and aquatic resources. Bringing this experience, knowledge and perspective to the State of the World report – and, indeed, all of the substantive deliberations of the Commission – is essential. After all, as we keep saying, it is these communities that are at the forefront of conserving, utilising and developing genetic resources for food and agriculture.

    The full text of all of our interventions can be found on this link.

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  • Challenging the mono-cult

    Rome, Italy, Rome
    July 20th, 2011

    This week the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (that is, the FAO) is hosting a meeting that deals with an issue of fundamental importance to all of us. This event is taking place in the FAO’s offices in Rome, and goes under the unpromising title of the ‘Thirteenth Regular Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture’ (or CGRFA 13 for short). Don’t be fooled. As the FAO put it, this means ‘Crops, farm animals, aquatic organisms, forest trees, micro-organisms and invertebrates – thousands of species and their genetic variability make up the web of biodiversity in ecosystems that the world’s food production depends on.’

    At Practical Action, we’ve worked on these issues for more than 20 years, partnering with organisations of smallholder and peasant farmers, pastoralists, artisanal fisherfolk, forest dwellers, indigenous peoples and other small-scale food providers. Over countless generations, these communities have developed the diversity of genetic resources that feeds the world. Yet this whole system of food production – the basis of the world’s food supply – is under threat. For example, more than 90 per cent of crop varieties have been lost from farmers’ fields in the past century and animal breeds are disappearing at the rate of 5 per cent per year. Today’s globalised, industrialised agriculture relies on large scale production, driving agricultural science and policy towards a focus on fewer and fewer breeds and species. This has led to the neglect of – and rapid decline of – locally adapted farmers’ seeds, livestock breeds and fish stocks which are further threatened by the rapid loss of natural habitats (again, principally driven by the search for new land in which to grow monocultures of ‘food’ crops such as soy). In the process, livelihoods are lost, food producers become impoverished and hungry, and the world loses the genetic resources that we now recognise are vital for the sustainable production of food. More detail on how the industrialised food system undermines the lives and livelihoodsof the majority – and the alternative – can be found in these links.

    As more than 170 States meet this week to discuss how genetic resources can be conserved and sustainably used, our role is to improve accountability by observing and reporting on the deliberations, and to intervene where necessary in order to remind the delegates that it is small-scale food providers that are at the frontline in the battle against the decline in genetic diversity. I’ll let you know how we get on.

    (Oh, and thanks to Primal Seeds for the ‘mono-cult’ idea).

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