Ecosystems and poverty: The ESPA approach

By Sam Mwangi, ESPA Regional Evidence Advisor – Africa, working from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), United Nations Avenue, Gigiri, Nairobi
December 7, 2015

As our economies have grown and diversified, so has the use of materials and resources. Most of these materials are extracted from nature, hence their continued availability is based on consumption trends as well as the rate of regeneration or replacement.

A deeper analysis of economic growth shows that the journey has not been all inclusive, and many people in our societies have been left behind. These people, otherwise generically referred to as the ‘poor’, include many members of the society largely dependent on the ecosystem, the youth, and in many instances, women. Increasingly, there is global recognition that this situation is untenable, unjust and requires remedy. In an increasingly globalised economy, the challenge for policy-makers is to streamline actions to ensure a more sustainable management of resources, in ways that deliver optimal good for all members of the society, including the poor and vulnerable. In the lead up to the COP 21 in Paris, civil society organisations have declared that inequality is a “key driver of the climate crisis” and “blocks agreements and pathways that could lead to sustainability,” strongly suggesting that a negotiated future is possible if both rich and poor nations address key issues that drive inequality.

The Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme (ESPA) speaks directly to these issues, especially in seeking to understand the linkages between ecosystems and poverty. ESPA is a unique initiative, which seeks to invest public money in research that can help in finding novel routes out of poverty by investigating the complex relationships between ecosystems, ecosystem products and services and livelihoods. Acknowledging that many  ecosystems are poorly understood, face competing demands (especially from agriculture, fisheries or mining) and are progressively becoming degraded, ESPA believes that the wellbeing of poor rural communities is inextricably tied to sustainable management which can only be informed by good science. This science is at the core of ESPA research.

Dealing with the twin complexities of ecosystems and multidimensional poverty demands going beyond the common theories in place on how all major asset types interact. Although some of the interactions can be constructed using tools that scientists have in place, a few years of ESPA research have demonstrated the need for a systems-level understanding relating to process, multiple knowledge systems and an insight into next-generation issues that emerge when dynamics change during implementation.

One perceived challenge in conceiving and developing these projects is how diverse research teams can bridge their varied expertise. In order to do this, natural scientists need to work hand-in-hand with social scientists, often addressing different components of the research. The integration of different methodologies, conceptual frameworks and analytical tools creates for resourcefulness and innovation. This is one of the key unique features of ESPA research.

Understanding the nature and scale of impact in ESPA projects is another issue that has steadily gained in importance. A discussion on impact may be shoehorned into a research paradigm, but for ESPA it is a critical component in the development of the project. The results from ESPA projects are designed to serve as evidence informing strategy and decision making on ecosystem management and livelihoods. It is envisaged that sound research – asking the right questions; addressing the right audience; investing in the right approaches and methodologies – produces important, practical and applicable tools for analysing, understanding and/or facilitating effective, efficient and equitable management of ecosystems. A considered set of nested impact-thinking is imperative.

To achieve this goal, ESPA recognises the need for robust partnerships with the many stakeholders on the ecology-poverty continuum in addition to its funding partners (DFID, NERC and ESRC). As the recently appointed Regional Evidence Advisor for Africa, my work will involve supporting ESPA projects in the region to achieve impact, as well as identifying synergies and building partnerships with diverse projects and bodies/institutions in the Africa region. In Africa, one such valued partnership of note is the World Agroforestry Centre, ICRAF (, which besides playing a hosting role, also offers numerous opportunities for partnering in research. ICRAF is a global organisation with a strong research focus in agroforestry, landscapes, soils, environmental services and climate and provides a valuable launchpad for developing partnerships in the region and beyond. ESPA hopes that through creating synergies with ICRAF and similar organisations, the task of enhancing livelihoods through well managed and multi-functional ecosystems will be much easier, efficient and effective.

Since the emerging economies in the regions where ESPA research is funded rely heavily on ecosystem products and services, it is of global importance to ensure these resources are sustainably used for both current and future generations. Further, aspects of equity, social justice and robust institutions (that should deliver across the spectrum from primary users of ecosystem services to international financing and policy) should be put in place, acknowledging that traditional approaches have not worked well and there is a greater need for innovation, investment, experiments and management of risk. For ESPA and its impact partners, these issues not only define current and future visioning, but are also essential in addressing the key questions central to human wellbeing going forward.


Featyred image courtesy of UN Photo/Kay Muldoon