Private adaptation in semi-arid lands: a tailored approach to ‘leave no one behind’

This paper argues for a shift in semi-arid policy landscapes, that refocuses on leveraging existing adaptive capacities of private actors to respond to environmental shocks and weather extremes.
Multiple Authors
Discussion group with women farmers in Wendu Bosseabe Senegal


With developing countries under pressure to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) ahead of COP26 in November 2020, national governments have an important window of time to rethink the ways in which they have approached development and adaptation to date, to clearly articulate their priorities, and to request the necessary international support.

Semi-arid lands in developing countries are home to approximately one billion people and they occupy over 15% of the earth’s land surface. They are also climate change ‘hotspots’ where climate change will affect poor populations disproportionately.

This paper argues that a radical shift is needed in semi-arid policy landscapes, that refocuses on leveraging existing adaptive capacities of private actors – women, farmers, businesses and cooperatives – to cope with and respond to prevailing environmental shocks and weather extremes. This requires providing enabling business environments that are tailored to the diverse and specific needs of the full range of private sector actors in semi-arid regions.

The paper identifies opportunities to support such reorientation of policy in semi-arid lands and to unlock broader resilience in semi-arid regions through the private sector. Action now is crucial if we are to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development pledge to ‘leave no one behind.’

*Download the full article from the right hand column. The key messages from the article are provided below. See the full text for much more detail.


This perspectives article draws on the results of five years of stakeholder-driven research conducted through the Pathways for Resilience in Semi-arid Economies (PRISE) programme in the semi-arid lands of seven developing countries across West and East Africa, and South and Central Asia, as well as on broader engagement with literatures on climate change adaptation and development policy and practice in semi-arid lands.

Key findings

Semi-arid lands are characterized by existing adaptive capacities and flexibility within the strategies that households and businesses adopt in the context of climatic and environmental variability, to manage their exposure to risk and maximize their own welfare. For example, this research has shown that semi-arid land businesses are not only highly aware of the current climate risks they face, but also, in some cases, are taking steps to prepare for future climate change.

However, national governments in developing countries have almost invariably failed to capitalize on the knowledge, institutions, skills and practices which underpin these existing adaptive capacities. In many cases, the traditional institutions and livelihoods that have evolved to not only cope with, but also often to harness opportunities from, the climatic and environmental variability of semi-arid lands, have been actively undermined and destabilized by these policies.

Widespread missed opportunities for climate resilient economic development in semi-arid lands have also been underpinned by failure to recognize the full range of economic actors and their economic potential within semi-arid lands. At national levels, the dominant framing of semi-arid land economies has been one of low productivity, vulnerability and unsustainable livelihoods.

Semi-arid land economies make major contributions to national livelihoods and present significant additional opportunities for the development of national economies. For example, agricultural producers and pastoralists, are linked to large, and sometimes highly competitive, value chains spread across formal and informal sectors, incorporating a range of different sized businesses within and outside of semi-arid lands and exporting to domestic and international markets.

Cotton weaving at a textile factory in Faisalabad, Pakistan. The textile sector in Pakistan, for example, based on cotton produced in the country’s semi-arid lands, is the largest industrial sector and accounts for around 40% of the country’s industrial labour force. Image by Sebastian Gollnow/SDPI

The economic role and potential of the households, producers, and businesses – and their activities – in semi-arid lands have traditionally not been well recognized. This is mainly because economic actors operate largely at the level of agricultural producers and micro and small enterprises in the informal (unregistered) sector, and businesses, households and producers are often not clearly defined, static units, as producers, businesses and households often engage in and move in and out of a range of different livelihood activities.

Where investments and policies have been made to support the private sector in semi-arid lands, a failure to recognize and account for the full range of private sector actors within their design has also compromised opportunities to capitalize on the autonomous adaptation potential of semi-arid land populations. Indeed, semi-arid land populations face very real structural and resource constraints which limit adaptive capacity. Existing adaptation strategies and behaviours employed to cope with immediate shocks and stresses in semi-arid landsare accordingly not all sustainable and will not all be sufficient to buffer against current or future shocks and stresses. Current responses also do not necessarily take future climate risk into account.

This research found that the ability of private sector actors to adapt effectively and sustainably to climate risk is strongly influenced by the external business-enabling environment, signalling a strong role for public policy to support them. Private sector adaptation policies have tended to focus primarily on the needs of larger and formal businesses, with less consideration given to smaller businesses, operating in the informal sector, which dominate the enterprise landscapes in semi-arid lands. The specific needs of women as economic actors and women-led enterprises have similarly often been overlooked, while they are understood to make relatively higher contributions to family and social welfare, by more efficiently allocating returns from micro, small and medium enterprises and other employment opportunities to the most critical household assets. Research also suggest that female entrepreneurs may be more likely to engage in sustainable adaptation than men.


Drawing on emerging strategies and novel mechanisms for supporting private adaptation that are showing signs of success within semi-arid lands, below are key principles that should be embedded within efforts to support development and adaptation within semi-arid lands:

  1. Elevate the role of semi-arid lands and their inhabitants as key priority areas for appropriate investment and support within national and international development agendas.
  2. Reorient semi-arid land policy landscapes to focus on the public provision of enabling environments for private sector adaptation and climate resilient development.
  3. Tailor support for businesses to grow and adapt to climate change to the diverse and specific needs of the private sector in semi-arid lands.
  4. Unlock broader resilience by building on productive sectors and driving innovation along value chains.
  5. Reorient government policies to value and support human and livestock mobility.
  6. Invest in inclusive bottom-up adaptation planning.


Ready to get involved?