Bridging national strategy on sustainable development of water-energy-food systems to local scale needs in Malawi

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Sch of Geography & Environmental Sci


Progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires addressing many interlinked challenges related to water, energy and food systems. There are inevitable trade-offs in addressing the SDGs and climate change mitigation and adaptation targets, but also synergies if policy is well designed in a cross-sectoral manner. However, nations typically do not have the tools to identify and implement interventions, including evaluating the trade-offs and synergies, and monitor their effectiveness.

Furthermore, land use decisions on water-energy-food (WEF) policy need to take into account sub-national and local scale needs and priorities, both human and environmental. Despite being the intended targets of policy, rural people with limited resources and education are often marginalized in decision making and therefore do not benefit when trade-offs in policy implementation are made to take account of the variety of actors. This project focuses on enhancing equity of rural people's key participatory roles in shaping and making policy work in order to bridge the gap between national scale priorities/strategies and gender-sensitive local scale needs, including environmental sustainability. Our focus will be on Malawi, which is high on the DAC list, has low population density and is largely rural. It also varies culturally and environmentally, which allows us to examine gaps around a range of policies and subsistence strategies.

Bridging the scales is vital because homogenous policy formulation and implementation at the national or even sub-national scale is problematic for communities because rural people are not homogenous, with fundamentally varying kinds of and access to resources. These systems need to account for landscape diversity and gendered differences in their uptake and impacts, and therefore policies need to be tailored or disaggregated to ensure that they are relevant and are successful without unintended consequences. Many things that happen in the "hidden middle" that bridge the national and local scales are often ignored in policy and implementation. The hidden middle includes local to sub-national organizations; informal and formal supply chains that connect smallholders to domestic markets; kin, political, religious and other social networks. These meso-scale actors play essential roles in filling policy gaps, making up for shortcomings in infrastructure and connecting rural communities to a more diverse set of livelihood opportunities.

We have identified gaps in the functioning of cross-scale interactions that affect Malawi's aggregate water-energy-food security, and its distributional access and benefits. By understanding the nature of these gaps, our objective is to identify solutions/policies that increase local livelihood opportunities and their sustainability. This will be done by better understanding:
- how rural farmers of all genders and their local environments are connected to policy processes via the complex hierarchy of institutional arrangements
- how rural farmers are connected via social and other networks, and how this helps to sustain livelihoods and increase resilience to change/shocks
- how biophysical heterogeneity intersects with human activity, national policy and its effectiveness.
- how competing interests, for example among and between rural farmers and commercial agriculture, give rise to trade-offs in benefits from policies
- how policy is implemented on the ground at the local scale as a function of these local scale connections and heterogeneities, and how the effectiveness of policy is monitored

Ultimately this will lead to deeper understanding of cross-scale interactions, while also allowing for the development of tools for better WEF policies that take into account local priorities and needs. Our aim is thus to understand how to disaggregate policy to better fit the local diversity of contexts and interests of various actors.

Planned Impact

The project will deliver impact through a programme of partnership and network building, capacity development, and targeted research to inform policy in sustainable water-energy-food security, with a focus on the challenges of bridging the gap between national policy and equitable local outcomes. Our overall approach to maximize the impact and visibility of the proposed work is to engage with stakeholders early on in the project and carry out a series of targeted outreach activities which will solicit feedback from local and national institutions. It will engage with stakeholders, including national and regional bodies (national/international NGOs, provincial/national government, and businesses and regional organizations), sub-national to local level governmental and advocacy individuals and organizations. The project will target research to the most vulnerable ultimate beneficiaries living under the poverty line. It will also assess the governance and institutional support required to understand, downscale and integrate complex relationships into adaptation, planning and policy development.

Potential beneficiaries in Malawi, the UK and internationally, include our immediate project partners (U. Southampton, U. Leeds, U. Manchester, U. Malawi/LEAD, Kulima, FANRPAN) and our other partners via the contributing GROW projects, as well as a range of stakeholders from the local to the national and international levels (e.g. Waternet, CISANET). Specific benefits to these partners include:
- Providing the tools to frame the complexity of cross-scale and cross-sectoral interactions of policy on community level outcomes.
- Providing training in co-development of conceptual frameworks and strategic research priorities for solving water-energy-food (WEF) related SDGs.
- Providing research evidence for shaping policy regarding WEF interventions and equitable outcomes for rural communities.

A Strategic Advisory Board (SAB) will be convened to support engagement with key stakeholders, development of strategic priorities, critical assessment of project outcomes, and monitoring. All members will be beneficiaries of the project research outcomes as they are either directly involved in research or influence research strategy and policy. We will also capitalize on existing relationships with regional networks and intergovernmental organizations across water, energy, agro-ecological and agricultural sectors with remits that match many of the SDGs.

Project research outputs will be disseminated through a set of activities, which showcase planned project developments and new partnerships and opportunities to further develop and transfer knowledge created, and for stakeholders to provide feedback and context. These include: an internet presence that links to the three GROW projects and other contributing projects; promotion at university events in the four partner universities, engagement with Malawi TV and radio on environmental issues of national interest. This will draw from the considerable outreach activities of the GROW projects.

We expect to contribute to the scientific literature primarily on WEF nexus issues and how the problem of bridging the gap between national policy and community benefits can be conceptualized and tools developed. We will strengthen understanding of cross-scale interactions across the WEF sectors. We plan to publish open access peer-reviewed publications in high-profile and interdisciplinary journals following our previous track record and present our work at domestic and international conferences reaching a large number and broad cross-section of the development, policy and WEF academic communities. We will monitor dissemination of the project outputs, quantifying the depth (number of levels of organization represented) and breadth (number of individuals) of dissemination and uptake.


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