Climate discourses as barriers to rights-based adaptive social protection: How historical politics shape Ethiopia’s climate-smart safety net

A rights-based approach to ‘adaptive social protection’ holds promise as a policy measure to address structural dimensions of vulnerability to climate change such as inequality and marginalisation, yet it has been failing to gain traction against production and growth-oriented interventions. Through the lens of Ethiopia’s flagship Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), we trace the role of climate discourses in impeding progress towards socially transformative outcomes, despite the importance of social protection for building resilience. We argue that intertwining narratives of moral leadership and green growth associated with Ethiopia’s national climate strategy shape how the PSNP is rendered ‘climate-smart’. These narratives, however, are embedded within politics that have historically underpinned the country’s drive for modernisation and growth-oriented policies, particularly in dealing with food insecurity. Like pre-existing narratives on development and the environment, they rationalise the presence of a strong central State and its control over natural resources and rural livelihoods. The PSNP is thus conditioned to favour technocratic, productivist approaches to adapting to climate change that may help reproduce, rather than challenge the entrenched politics at the root of vulnerability. Ultimately, this case study demonstrates how climate discourses risk diluting core rights-based dimensions of social protection, contradicting efforts to address the structural dimensions of vulnerability to climate change.