Resilience: beyond definitions

May 9, 2013
Joel Kinahan
Community vulnerability analysis involving the villagers of Thaung Tan village, Myanmar

Resilience, like many other core concepts and buzzwords used by the humanitarian community, is something that feels, or should feel, commonsensical. But as anyone who works on resilience will tell you, defining or explaining what resilience means is a task almost as Herculean as building resilience itself.

If we drill down to bare basics, resilience is rather simple – the ability of people to absorb shocks and challenges to their livelihoods, prospects and quality of living. These could be chronic such as periodic droughts, storm cycles and economic downturns, or unpredictable such as tsunamis and industrial accidents. Different communities have different vulnerabilities and resilience is their ability to survive, adapt and overcome these.

Yet if you were to read through the literature and policy on resilience you would quickly lose sight of its meaning amongst the many new (and not so new) – and often contradictory – abstract theories and models. You would find little consensus on what resilience means and even less on how to achieve it.

For instance, a building back better (BBB) approach that emphasises a combination of zoning laws and better constructed buildings could undercut the flexibility that is advocated by some livelihood approaches to resilience. Disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, BBB and even some humanitarian based strategies fall under the ‘conceptual space’ of resilience, with each representing a range of practices and their own internal debates on what resilience is and what is necessary to achieve it.

Some approaches will be very specific – such as building better physical infrastructure to support seed banks in rural areas and others more general, like pushing for stronger social safety nets, better education or reducing inequality and poverty. ‘Resilience’ will always carry a range of different meanings, as it is a cross-cutting concept that draws together different sectors.

We have to recognise that issues now discussed under the banner of resilience have been part of our thinking for decades, as highlighted in the recently published Disasters virtual issue. Humanitarian food security interventions that consider the long term consequences of aid and carefully choose strategies that meet immediate needs without damaging future prospects, is one example among many. Vulnerability, supporting livelihoods and building capacity are concepts that have been around for years but are now also considered key aspects of resilience. It has been suggested that we think of resilience as a process, not a thing or an end in itself. But would a resilience process look like and how do we know if we are hindering or helping it?

Important questions remain over who owns the concept and where ’traditional’ humanitarian action fits within the resilience agenda. But the vagueness of the concept is not the biggest problem. Programmers and policy makers must be concrete and precise in describing how an intervention supports and builds the resilience of a community and what they mean by resilience in that context. We need to ask what our intended recipients are already doing, what they need and what our role is in supporting them. Without fleshing out what resilience means for recipients in each context, ‘resilience’ risks becoming an empty label, just another box-ticking exercise. Even worse, without specific evidence that an intervention or programme builds resilience, we risk using resilience in a way that obscures the work we do and prevents the careful analysis that is needed to ensure we are helping instead of harming our recipients’ future.


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