Shared learning for understanding vulnerability

8 Mar 2016 - 10:30

By Ritwika Basu and Prathigna Poonacha

A 3-day long course on ‘Understanding Vulnerability: Concepts, Methods and Applications for Development Planning’ was held between 10th-12th December, 2015 by IIHS’s Urban Practitioners Programme (UPP) in association with the School of Environment and Sustainability. Funded by the CARIAA program, the course intended to bring together participants from various backgrounds and disciplines. Participant profiles ranged from students, state and local government authorities, urban planners, development practitioners, and corporate social responsibility representatives of corporations and private companies. Multiple objectives formed the basis for the course: sharing knowledge on vulnerability, engaging with a diverse audience, and building capacity among participants as well as facilitators through exchange of experiences and knowledge. The aim was to present a multidimensional framing of vulnerability, an understanding that has emerged from research during the first year of the project. The sessions included deconstructing concepts of vulnerability through different theoretical frameworks, methods and approaches to assess vulnerability, and the many purposes they serve – identification of what drives vulnerability, prioritisation of positive actions, and decision-making for development planning. For more insights into the contents of the course, read Whose assessment counts? The difficulty of measuring vulnerability.

Shared learning at the heart of the process

Dealing with complex developmental issues and aiming for ambitious goals such as enabling sustainable, less vulnerable, and equitable societies requires a constant and progressive understanding of drivers of the issue. It also requires improving and acquiring new skills and competencies. Strengthening collective engagement by bringing on board all concerned stakeholders, sharing knowledge and insights within the network is becoming crucial for the success of projects in the development space. In complex processes such as adaptation, interactions between various stakeholders and/knowledge diffusion among them is central for setting up innovative ways of management; co-management and other forms of hybrid management (more information here).

There is a lacuna in understanding adaptation to global changes, including climate change as a dynamic process and its wider implications for building resilience. In many parts of the world including India, adaptation discourse attempts to bridge the divide between scientific knowledge on past climate trends, future projections generated by climate models, and practical, local knowledge produced through vulnerability assessments. Tools such as vulnerability assessments drawing from multidisciplinary backgrounds have the potential to weave together theories of collaborative, shared and participatory learning in practice.

In recent years, the approach for identification, framing and diagnosis of issues in the realm of climate vulnerability studies have undergone major shifts. Progressively, research and practice are opening windows for collaborative engagement and pushing for the uptake of locally bred solutions coming from first hand experiences of concerned stakeholders. Such approaches quintessentially call for robust collaborative or shared models of learning leading to joint action for impact (e.g – communication strategies for climate change and social learning built into the large-scale ongoing climate projects running within CCAFS, CARIAA and IIED)

Cooperative and collaborative learning models

The course incorporated a mix of collaborative and cooperative learning models by drawing upon the experience and knowledge of the participants. These models of learning are driven by the guiding principles of working together and sharing knowledge; adhering to the school of constructivism, wherein construction and transformation of knowledge happens alongside the transformation of learners themselves1.

Over three days participants and facilitators engaged in several group and one-on-one discussions related to the various concepts of vulnerability, methods for conducting vulnerability assessments and operational challenges. These discussions, consciously borrowed notions from participants’ perspectives and further shaped them through knowledge supplemented by the facilitators. Participants were therefore encouraged to put forth and probe the existing ideas and conceptualisation of vulnerability, accumulated through their experiences and learnings. While this ensured a varied view of vulnerability arising from various disciplines and experiences and the necessity for conducting vulnerability assessments, it reiterated the complexity and difficulty in conducting such assessments.

Learning through doing

A key component of the course was a practical session that included field visits to two slums in the city.  From a learning perspective, this helped the participants contextualise their understanding of vulnerability to an actual situation. Activists and development professionals involved in rights-based work with the chosen slum communities were invited as resource persons to brief the participants on the history and issues faced by the community. Participants representing government agencies also shared their challenges and institutional arrangements. Through the learning process, participants became aware about the ways in which their own subjectivity and biases colour notions of vulnerability and well-being, and therefore the act of choosing and applying vulnerability assessments tools.

Participants as contributors and receivers of research

Many of the participants in the group could be regarded as stakeholders in the ongoing ASSAR research project that funded this course. By engaging with these participants, the facilitators (part of the research team) were able to draw insights on different aspects of research from their perspectives. For instance, through discussions on vulnerability with  representatives of the Karnataka Slum Development Board with regard to slum settlements in Bangalore, the researchers understood the dynamics at play from a top-down (government authority —> community) perspective. Discussions with professionals from the non-governmental sector added to the understanding of vulnerability from a third sector perspective. Such discussions also provided researchers with an opportunity to introduce ASSAR’s ongoing research with stakeholders with whom future engagements and collaborations are envisaged. Not only did it dove-tail with the idea of stakeholder-driven research that is a central aspect of the project, it also helped the stakeholders understand the approach and framing of research. With this background, it is hoped that such engagements will contribute to conducting research in a robust and holistic way and a willingness for the uptake of research findings, especially among stakeholders in positions of power and authority.

The preliminary work of the research project included identifying risks, impacts and vulnerabilities faced by humans and ecosystems due to climate change, in semi-arid India. In cities, climate change impacts are exacerbated by existing risks and vulnerabilities due to the differential socioeconomic condition of people, institutional structures and political regimes. The course was designed using this framing and drew from insights and learning from the diagnostic research conducted as part of the project. Many experiences and cases garnered from preliminary field work as well as expert interviews were used to illustrate concepts regarding the multidimensionality of vulnerability.

Building capacity among participants and facilitators

One of the primary objectives of the CARIAA program is to build capacity of young and early career researchers in the field of climate change. The course provided a good opportunity in this direction. It helped build capacity in the participants by providing them with theoretical and practical understanding of vulnerability and its assessment methods. Being able to present the multidimensionality of vulnerability (a fundamental framing in the project) to a diverse audience in a succinct manner was an enriching experience for the young researchers in the facilitating team. Peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and the interactive sessions between participants with diverse backgrounds and experiences and facilitators encouraged an environment of mutual learning and capacity building.


Shared learning is emerging as a powerful tool in dealing with complex developmental issues.

The environment of mutual learning created by the diversity of participants and facilitated by open and interactive method of conducting the course contributed to a rich and nuanced discussions around what vulnerability really means and how its various dimensions can be captured. The challenge was in convening the diversity of people (in terms of disciplines, domains, levels of experience, and professional backgrounds) to engage positively and learn from each other. Participants discussed merits and challenges of various assessment methods, building on their experiences and backgrounds and what it ultimately meant for development planning.  Gauging from the enthusiastic participation during the sessions and positive feedback at the end, this course turned out to be an innovative way to meet the multiple objectives that were set out at the start of the course.

1 Refer to the  book  Collaboration , learning and and Multi-level governance ‘ for further insights.