Developed countries’ aid programs in Africa often center on responding to the challenges created by climate change, such as desertification, coastal erosion, flooding, and myriad other problems affecting food supply, availability of water, and livelihoods of the impoverished. Through the use of National Adaptation Programs of Action, developed according to guidelines agreed upon internationally, donor nations have found a way to harmonize giving with recipient nations’ development goals and to address populations and regions most vulnerable to climate change in that country.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change spearheaded the effort to recognize climate change as a major problem for least developed countries in order to organize foreign aid around related development efforts. In 2001, the 7th Conference of the Parties passed a decision identifying least developed countries as those who both will bear a disproportionate burden of the costs of climate change as well as those who do not have the appropriate capacity to develop or implement a plan to mitigate these costs and their impact on populations. The 7th Conference saw fit to call for “a country-driven approach that allows developing country Parties to pursue the specific activities most appropriate to their unique national circumstances,” rather than being obligated to adhere to the development programs created by foreign donor governments.

The conference went on to set up a work program with methodologies, guidelines, and funding for planning climate change adaptation programs, as well as the Least Developed Countries Expert Group to guide NAPA preparation. Thus, NAPAs were born. While not a policy in and of itself, activities recommended by a NAPA are usually codified into national development plans or foreign aid projects.

NAPAs primarily plan projects to be undertaken immediately, projects the UNFCCC describes as those “whose further delay could increase vulnerability, or lead to increased costs at a later stage.” Really, however, if one thinks about, basically all activities related to climate change adaptation need to be undertaken immediately to avert increased costs at a later stage, so NAPAs take it a step further in order to hone national funding and foreign aid in on priority projects.

After speaking with national stakeholders, assessing vulnerability to climate change, and looking at existing development plans implemented at the national level, the NAPA identifies priority activities. Criteria for priority activities consist of how much the activity addresses losses of the poor due to climate change, the activity’s poverty reduction potential, its cost effectiveness, and how well it fits in with both national and multilateral plans and agreements.

Currently, 45 countries have NAPAs. Most of these countries are in Africa, with a few Middle Eastern and Southern Asian nations, as well as Haiti, also submitting NAPAs to the UNFCCC. There are 43 NAPA projects ongoing in these countries, executed by local agencies like departments of environment or environmental agencies and underwritten and coordinated by multilateral agencies like the United Nations Environment Program, United Nations Development Program, African Development Bank, and the World Bank, among others.

One of the problems with foreign aid has always been its tendency to ignore local contexts and priorities in development planning, and NAPAs attempt to rectify this by bringing in national stakeholders during the planning process as well as calling for implementation of recommended activities through local government agencies. Given how young the programs are, however, it may be sometime before we discover whether this increased cooperation will actually result in more effective and better targeted climate change adaptation programs.