The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Thoughts on resilience as an organizing focus

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One of the most important is to define resilience in a way that’s useful—which is to say that excludes some things as NOT resilience.


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For the last few weeks, whenever I could get a quiet moment, I’ve been trying to read and think about resilience. It seems like the whole development and humanitarian sector is rapturous about resilience. And already, there’s a bit of backlash.

A lot of smart people are taking up the theme, and I think we should. As a frame for thinking about policy and programming, I think there’s a lot of utility in it.  One of the primary innovations of a focus on resilience is that it presumes an unstable and adverse external environment. This is a big advantage because, actually, reality presents a lot of unstable and adverse situations for poor people. My colleague Gina points out that presuming a stable environment is a big weakness of other frameworks, for example the sustainable livelihoods approach, which is one of the most important tools in development practice.

But if resilience has advantages, there must also be some disadvantages and cautions.

One of the most important is to define resilience in a way that’s useful—which is to say that excludes some things as NOT resilience. This is a big problem in the field right now, where it feels like some people are simply redrafting existing plans to include resilience as a goal or an outcome. In that case, maybe we were building resilience all along? If building resilience is something, then it can’t be everything. If it’s everything, then it’s actually not a thing.

So—a lot of my thinking lately has been to try to create a useful, exclusionary definition of resilience that has operational and policy value. To do this, I’ve been trying to disentangle some issues around resilience.  Here goes:


1.Resilience of what? What are we concerned with? The individual, the household, the village, the community, the region, the country, a financial system, a supply-chain, a farming system, an institution? It matters. If you prioritize one, you are probably undermining others. This isn’t absolutely true: building resilience of some component units can contribute to the resilience of larger units. But the opposite can be true also. So which one is important? How do we select? As a rights-based organization, I have to think that Oxfam would prioritize the resilience of individuals. Or maybe households. Possibly villages. But I’m not totally sure.


2. Resilience is an attribute not a form of support. I think resilience is a characteristic of the individual (or household or community, see item #1 above). Resilience might be improved through outside intervention; building assets, reducing risk exposure, preparing response. But outside intervention during or after a shock is not resilience—it’s assistance. Providing a robust safety net for people when they experience shocks is a good and important thing to do. But it is not building the resilience of beneficiaries and is a different species altogether than resilience-building. On the other hand, you might argue that a robust safety net program builds the resilience of a country to shocks. But not the beneficiaries, unless there’s a program of DRR or asset building that is part of the assistance.


3. Is resilience multi-dimensional or not? Can one build resilience against a variety of shocks at once? It seems to me that it’s best not to presume that resilience to one form of shock—let’s say a drought—implies resilience to another—say an earthquake or economic crisis. One might try to address them together, but the intervention probably needs to have distinctive strategies for each. Or no? Some forms of resilience assets—like having a significant cash reserve or a diversified household livelihood—seem to help build resilience across many potential hazards. When we think about resilience, should we organize around the individual’s (or other unit, see #1 above) resilience to various potential shocks? Or should we organize ourselves around each possible hazard and think about how to improve resilience each in turn; to drought, to earthquakes, to currency inflation, etc.?  Intuitively, we probably want to do the former, but it might not be an effective way to organize action and allocate resources.


4. Shocks v. stresses. Does resilience address both shocks and stress? A shock is an idiosyncratic event. A stress in a longer-term condition. Some materials can absorb stresses better than shocks; quantum of energy, applied in an instant, will break an iron rod. The same amount of energy applied over an hour has no effect. But maybe I’m making a distinction without a difference? Personally, I think resilience is about response to shocks. Using climate change as an example, long-term trends like rising sea levels and hotter temperatures would create a stress and require adaptation. But shorter-term events like hurricanes and droughts are shocks that test resilience.  They’re clearly related in their genesis, but different in their impacts and response strategy? Or am I wrong?


5. Resilience v. resourcefulness? In usage, these terms can seem interchangeable. “The Somali pastoralists are very resourceful; they find water even in the midst of a drought.” Ironically, we often use the word “resourceful” to describe people without resources. You wouldn’t call a rich family resourceful—because, indeed, they are full of resources. But you call a poor family resourceful when they send their kids to college by hook or by crook, i.e. DESPITE a lack of resources. Observers wonder at the “resourcefulness” of others largely because they don’t understand the real access and control over resources that they have. So seeing someone as “resourceful” probably reflect the ignorance of the observer more than the actual characteristics of the observed. Is there something similar in resilience? Do we understand an individual/household/community as resilient only because we are so ignorant of its assets and strategies that we don’t understand how shocks are accommodated?


6. Resilience is a floor. I think resilience is—and should be—a pretty sad goal. That is, if a definition of resilience is rigorous, it should set a baseline of survival; a floor, but not a ceiling. Resilience is the capacity to resist, withstand, and recover from shocks. That doesn’t mean becoming happy, healthy, or rich. Just getting through it and back to normal. Really, that’s aiming pretty low. And our hopes and aspirations for one another are a lot higher than that. But if we are honest, even resilience is often beyond our reach. Much of the energy behind the new fad of resilience is coming from the humanitarian response community. They are recognizing that the mismatch between the response capacity and the need for assistance is growing wider. Motivated as much by frustration as by a positive vision, they are saying we need a new paradigm. We can’t keep responding to droughts in the same way; we have to build up the resilience of communities to withstand them. My humanitarian colleague points out that part of the frustration is that the livelihoods and development programmers have ignored shocks and resilience, so the humanitarians end up having to pick up the pieces.


More thoughts soon.

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  1. Pingback: From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green » Blog Archive » Deconstructing resilience; savage v fragile; China’s flashmob breastfeeders; Africans in the Diaspora; I’m a (Welsh) prof; Why Tories love aid; hierarchies of misery: links I l

  2.'Kenton Lobe

    This is a helpful, and necessary conversation. It is helpful to look at how development is claiming that language of resilience, and from which quarters it is cobbling together its definition(s). The roots of the resilience discourse can be traced back to psychology, ecology and disaster fields. Where we begin matters and helps to answer the questions posed in the article. Personally, I think that if we miss the notion of linked social-ecological systems articulated out of the Resilience Alliance folks, then we have really missed the possibility for how resilience might inform earlier discourse around sustainability and development.

  3.'P Baker

    Kenton is absolutely correct. Resilience Alliance is the go-to organisation; they have done some fantastic work on resilience – read anything by Brian Walker for clarity of thought and expression. Above all resilience is about systems. Systems thinking is an absolutely essential part of resilience.

  4.'Cynthia Neudoerffer

    1. Not just resilience of what – but resilience to what. What shock or stress are we discussing. Asking that question helps to clarify the fact that resilience in one dimension does not (necessarily) translate into resilience in another – and in fact resilience to one shock or stress may, in fact, weaken resilience in another dimension. Also resilience at what scale is also very important to understand – resilience of a household may contribute or may diminish the resilience of the community in which the household is embedded (and other cross-scale interactions need to be considered as well).

    2. Resilience as used by the Resilience Alliance can be both a system property AND a system process – e.g. a process of resilience building (a dynamic process of adaptation) can *also* build the resilience (system property) of a social-ecological system. However, resilience as a process vs. resilience as a property is often not well distinguished and needs to be better clarified.

    3. Multi-dimensional – but not necessarily in terms of the shock – in fact – one builds the resilience of multi-dimensions of a social-ecological system – not just to a shock – but with respect to the vulnerability of the system – where vulnerability is comprised of not just exposure to a shock or stress – but sensitivity and adaptive capacity.

    Shock or stress? It would seem that some of the definitions being proposed for resilience are based on simplistic ideas of “bounce back” – this definition has been greatly explored by the Resilience Alliance – bounce back resilience is ‘engineering resilience’ or the resilience associated with simple, engineering systems. For ecological systems and, more appropriately complex social-ecological systems the Resilience Alliance describes much more robust definitions of resilience – e.g. (among others) the ability to absorb change, self-organize, and innovate, experiment and learn. With this type of more robust definition, resilience is multi-dimensional – but in a different way than you question.

    Also good to read Carl Folke and Fikret Berkes.

  5. Pingback: Part I: Resiliency: what is it? And is it the new solution for long-term development? | CCIC-CCCI

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