Resilience: What it means and what it doesn’tJune 26th, 2012 | by Gawain Kripke
“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”
- Attributed to Mark Twain
The advent of climate change has given a tragic new meaning to Twain’s joke. When he said it, nobody could do anything about the weather, or so he thought. Now we know that we’ve been changing the weather for many decades.
Which brings me to the topic of resilience. Resilience is in vogue at the moment as a conceptual frame for the development community. There are lots of new initiatives and new projects designed to improve resilience—mostly in the context of the recent and ongoing food crises in the Horn of Africa and the Sahelian region.
Now, this is focus on resilience should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s an easy word to use and the art of communication is bending words to mean what you want. A lot of existing programs and initiatives are being slotted under “building resilience” just because it’s a useful marketing strategy and seems more forward-looking.
But a focus on resilience, if taken seriously, reflects a pretty serious shift in paradigm, I would argue.
Here are two definitions of resilience:
1. The ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy.
2. The property of a material that enables it to resume its original shape or position after being bent, stretched, or compressed; elasticity.
These are important qualities and valuable characteristics. I’m certain that there are things that people can do to improve their resilience and that understanding and promoting resilience is a very important goal.
But if we are going to pursue this goal, it’s useful to understand what it is not. Here are some things that I think resilience is not:
- Income. While income and wealth almost certainly contribute to improved resilience, they are not the same thing. Poor people and communities can be resilient—in fact we know they can be.
- Strength. Just because an organism is strong, does not make it resilient. In nature, there all sorts of niches and strategies, and being strong is only one of them. In fact, being weak but resilient is a viable survival strategy.
- Power. Here, I mean political power. Political power means the ability to command resources—which contributes to the resilience of those who hold power. But there’s no reason to think that very disenfranchised groups or very isolated communities can’t be very resilient. In the definition above, the ability to restore oneself can be in “ability” or in “property”. “Ability” can be thought of as power. But “property” in this usage is more like an attribute; something inherent to itself and not reliant on external resources.
Growth. When I imagine something resilient, I think of this:
A tree growing on a rough, rocky mountain face. The tree withstands extreme conditions and survives. But surviving is not the same as thriving. In better conditions, the same tree might be 10 times bigger, healthier, more productive.
So. Resilience has a lot to do with surviving shocks, being flexible, and returning to an original state. In some ways, that might seem like a pretty low ambition. Shouldn’t we be setting the bar a lot higher than that? After all, more than 500 million people pulled themselves out of poverty in the last 30 years in China alone.
Well, yes and no. Standing still actually sounds pretty good if you’re in the middle of landslide. Or a famine. Or a war.
One of the critical questions we have to ask is; do we think the future is the same as the past? If so, we can build on what worked in the past. If not, we need to try to understand new trends and adjust.
Without being paranoid or panicked, I think our world is changing and systems of all kinds are becoming more fragile and more volatile. Certainly this is true with the weather—due to the slow-onset, but steady changes brought by climate change. But it seems there may be more fragility and volatility in other systems as well, like food markets, financial systems, and possibly governance.
If that’s true, then a focus on resilience makes a lot of sense. It shouldn’t mean an abandonment of other goals. But improving the ability to survive and restore ourselves from shocks could be a critical investment that keeps us moving in the right direction. And planning on a benign future could contribute to disaster. As Twain said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
Afternote on “resilience” versus “resiliency”: Apparently, there is no difference in the word meanings and they are both correct. Globally, use of “resilience” is more common, including in the US. However, Americans use “resiliency” more than other countries do. Here’s their comparative usage in the US.