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Resisting the mantra of resilience

A mother and child wait to be seen at the Outpatients Department, AMISOM base in Mogadishu, Somalia
A mother and child wait to be seen at the Outpatients Department, AMISOM base in Mogadishu, Somalia (Kate Holt/IRIN)

Ten years ago, resilience was little spoken of within the aid community; now the word is everywhere. Donors are demanding it, NGOs are mainstreaming it, and publications are promoting it. Policy makers - from climatologists to social theorists - see in resilience a more holistic and lasting solution to the world’s problems.

But academics at two of Britain’s leading development institutions, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), are taking a cooler look at the concept and challenging the notion that resilience is always the most appropriate approach to aid.

One issue that concerns them is the shifting nature of the word itself. Christophe Béné, a research fellow at IDS working on vulnerability and poverty reduction, said at a recent IDS seminar that the meaning has rapidly evolved and expanded. “Initially,” he said, “resilience was simply about the capacity for recovery and bouncing back. And now, with time passing, we have got more and more people saying resilience is about learning and adapting. Recently now, we have got anticipating and preventing.”

He feels that looking at the world through the lens of resilience can push policy makers in the wrong direction. “Resilience is a very technical, neutral, apolitical term. It was initially designed to characterize systems, and it doesn’t address power, equity or agency… Also, strengthening resilience is not free - you can have some winners and some losers.”

Forsaking poverty alleviation

Resilience alone is an insufficient approach to development, according to Béné. A community or family can increase resilience to financial shocks by sacrificing the interests of some of its members. For example, he said, a businessman could reduce his costs by moving his family to a poorer house in a worse area. Or families might marry off young daughters or take their children out of school, moves that could boost short-term resilience while resulting in long-term vulnerability.

Additionally, in some circumstances, the poor can be very resilient because of their subsistence knowledge. The wartime collapse of public services in West Africa in the 1990s initially had less impact on the poor - who had never had electricity, were already dependent on well water, and had no need of automobile fuel. Those in the countryside were better able to survive a lack of rice because they knew how to make use of wild food sources. Yet this kind of resilience does not improve quality of life.

“The question,” said Béné, “becomes ‘do you want to strengthen the resilience of a community or improve its well-being’? It’s not necessarily the same thing.”

''When we are talking about the Horn of Africa or the Sahel, we all know what resilience means. It’s about not having to do repeated humanitarian interventions. It’s about bringing the humanitarian and development sides much closer, and making people much less vulnerable''

With limited aid budgets available, he says, too much emphasis on resilience may take resources away from poverty alleviation.

Power dynamics

Also at issue is whether the focus on resilience leads development specialists to emphasize the effects of shocks while neglecting their causes, which often lie in unequal power dynamics. Terry Cannon, also of the IDS, says this very omission may make the concept attractive to donors and institutions that would rather avoid sensitive subjects like inequity.

Cannon argues that policies should be devised in terms of vulnerability. “Vulnerability enables a focus on causation,” he explained. “If you talk about vulnerability, you have to talk about ‘why is someone vulnerable?’… And good vulnerability analysis is predictive; it’s something you can do before people are hit by a hazard, by a shock.”

The enthusiastic adoption of resilience by donors has resulted in the demand that most or all proposals demonstrate resilience-building. One speaker at the IDS meeting scathingly described existing projects being simply re-packaged - ‘now with added resilience’.

Mark Davies, who heads IDS’s Centre for Social Protection, says the UK Department for International Development (DFID) has very specific reasons for pushing resilience: “DFID has done this because it matches their agenda about value for money, so they see this as a better investment… It’s about the growth agenda, about the graduation agenda [moving countries out of poverty]. They are rushing into this for specific reasons - it ticks all their boxes. You can think that’s good or bad, depending on the way you see it.”

A useful buzzword

DFID officials do not deny their agenda is partly driven by the need to get value for money. But they say it is also a reaction to the fact that shocks are increasing, with the world undergoing stress from resource scarcity and urban migration. Political momentum is growing around resilience, they say, because it is a way to minimize human distress and protect development gains. Resilience is seen as the way to get advance investment that will give countries the ability to withstand the shocks when they occur.

The British government is now overhauling its development aid to ‘embed’ the idea of resilience in all its country programmes by 2015. The first eight countries to come under the spotlight - Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nepal, Sudan and Uganda - should have completed the process by March 2013.

The aid agencies being asked to show ‘added resilience’ have mixed feelings. “Clearly it’s a buzzword,” said Oxfam humanitarian advisor Debbie Hillier. “But it is not just a buzzword. There’s a lot that’s useful behind it.”

View on the ground

Hillier told IRIN that debates about definitions were largely irrelevant on the ground. “When we are talking about the Horn of Africa or the Sahel, we all know what resilience means. It’s about not having to do repeated humanitarian interventions. It’s about bringing the humanitarian and development sides much closer, and making people much less vulnerable.”

What resilience is not about, for her organization, is making people accept their lot. “Most poor people have an incredible drive to get out of poverty, but they keep getting knocked back by shocks. We have to act on the root causes of their vulnerability, and not just make people better able to bear their effects. If our work doesn’t do that, it’s not useful. That’s what real resilience is about.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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