Are REDD+ donors learning quickly and deeply enough to make a difference?

Shaping revolutionary change in the global system driving deforestation
A truck laden with fruit drives down a highway
REDD Tripa Project: A truck loaded with palm fruit is seen on the road in Nagan Raya, Aceh Province, Indonesia. CIFOR/Dita Alangkara

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To address urgent, complex and intertwined problems like climate change, deforestation and global inequality policymakers need to learn from various attempts to transform these “super wicked” challenges – and to put that learning into practice, fast.

In the case of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions caused by Deforestation and forest Degradation) deep learning is needed because climate action must be substantially transformative in nature to be effective and due to substantial trade-offs, including conflicts between competing objectives.

Researchers decided to take a new approach, investigating the perspective of donors from the Global North to complement studies focused on program beneficiaries in the Global South, said Heike Schroeder, a researcher at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

She is the lead author of a new study in Global Environmental Change that assesses the types and extent of learning about REDD+, the U.N.-backed initiative to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and enhance carbon stocks – by major donor countries Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom.

“I think that was something that we didn’t understand yet: how learning actually takes place and influences decisions among those financing REDD+,” said co-author and University of Helsinki researcher Maria Brockhaus, who is also collaborating with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) on the wider analysis of politics in forests and climate change.  

REDD+ has gone through a number of iterations since its inception 15 years ago. At that time, it was conceived as a relatively simple concept: wealthy nations – most of which have already benefiting from environmental degradation in their own countries and beyond – would pay people in developing countries not to fell or degrade their forests, in order to mitigate carbon emissions and address climate change.

But it quickly became apparent that “it was more difficult to actually affect change on the ground than initially thought,” said Schroeder. Donors realized that to make REDD+ appealing and worthwhile, they needed to work carefully with local communities, civil society and institutions at all levels – on issues ranging from governance, resource management, co-benefits and external deforestation drivers, to displacement, marginalization and identity loss.

“Donors learned that it’s not just about reducing deforestation and increasing the carbon stock, but it’s really about addressing all the various social and political problems first and foremost,” said Schroeder. “That’s resulted in ongoing reorientation toward working a lot more with the non-state sector, not just giving money to governments, but supporting grassroots local communities and indigenous alliances.”

In the midst of this change, the authors of the paper were curious about how donors are going about working out how to best invest their money – and what kinds of learning is involved.

They spoke with 18 experts from the three donor countries, most of whom were from the ministries and implementing agencies concerned with REDD+. Using a conceptual framework that included three levels of learning: cognitive/technical, social/political and structural/institutional, and four modes of learning: study, observation, experience and interaction, they also considered where learning sat on three scales: individual to institutional; generalist to specialist and incremental to transformative.

Lastly, they tried to assess the “depth” of learning: “That is, is it just about superficial, incremental shifts, or are we really changing the way we understand things, and jointly developing critical ideas?” Schroeder said.

The analysis showed that different kinds of learning were prevalent in the three countries. In Norway, which has the most funding of any donor country earmarked for REDD+, the strongest contributions were at the social/political and structural/institutional levels.

Germany brought a long history of working on forest issues in a number of countries; its contribution to the body of learning was largely operational and technical.

The UK also had “a very pragmatic, analytical approach to REDD+,” said Schroeder: “it really made a good contribution to those technical and socio-political levels of learning, with some quite big-picture-oriented answers and also engages innovatively with the private sector”.

The researchers also found that the three donor countries were well-connected with each other and learned a lot through their interactions. “These countries all knew what the others were doing, so they were comfortable not reinventing the wheel, but sharing change expertise through the partnership they formed,” she said.

But a number of interviewees were critical of current learning practices, Schroeder added.

People reported that many “higher-level politicians just do what they want, and they don’t really learn, the learning that’s happening at lower levels often seems to be lost at higher levels of politics.”

Brockhaus pointed out that the fact the term “donors” is still used in relation to REDD+ suggests that learning and change has not yet been as profound as it should have been.

“If you use language like ‘donor’, you’ll also have the language of being a receiver, and this idea of charity,” she said. “But the whole idea of REDD+ was that the global community needs these trees to stay standing, and that halting deforestation would not work as a development aid project but requires transformations of the larger political, economic and governance system.”

When REDD+ was first conceived, she said many of her colleagues – especially those from sub-Saharan Africa – had high hopes about its ability to change power relationships and “getting out of this ‘development aid’ project approach,” but that shift appears not to have taken place, she said.

The paper ends with a plea for much deeper learning to take place.

“We may come to a point where we accept that the system will have to drastically change,” write the authors.

“But we may need to go further to employ novel modes of learning to facilitate such a transition. These might include learning through engaging with emotions such as grief, self-reflection, active listening, mindfulness, de-conditioning, deep enquiry into why we consume and eat the way we do, transpersonal experiences and immersion into nature.”

“Learning for revolutionary change in the global system that continues to drive deforestation requires serious engagement with our own failures in the Global North,” said Brockhaus. “So rather than celebrating the few successes that we see with REDD+, even more reflection is needed to actually tackle all the things that still don’t work.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Thu Thuy Pham at
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