Resilience – equilibrium or justice?

08 February 2018

Climate change, crises cascading at electronic speed across the globe and an international order under question have created a sense that unpredictability rules. Anything can happen at any time. Crises and disasters that used to be seen as temporary phenomena - when humanitarian actors and instruments are deployed until the development machinery could resume its work – now determine the course of development: storms, floods, epidemics, market failure, armed conflicts and displacement can undermine or halt the progress of households, societies and states.

Faced by unpredictable crises, what should development strategies strive for in order to simultaneously fight poverty and reduce insecurity? To build up ‘resilience’ has become an increasingly common response and is now part of aid terminology. But the usefulness of the concept is unclear and the term itself is contentious.

Derived from the Latin resilire – to bounce or jump back – it has the everyday connotation of ability to recover from stress or shock. It was first used in material sciences where it is defined as the level of force that can be applied to a material before it breaks, unable to resume its original properties when the strain is lifted.

The concept gained its real breakthrough in ecology, describing the ability of an ecosystem to maintain its integrity and functions during and after external stress. The concept is descriptive: the higher the resilience, the more stress the ecosystem can endure. When stress becomes too high, the ecosystem reaches a tipping point and transforms into another state with new characteristics.

But, a problem arises when this neutral and value-less concept of resilience is used to describe human society and social systems, and regarded as something desirable. Whereas ecosystems seek to maintain their equilibrium, development action aims towards change and a reduction of vulnerability – not equilibrium and permanence.

Stress, as applied to human society and social systems, is influenced by human agency, power and conflict. Institutions, social relations and history determine who will suffer and who will endure. Abuse of power, injustice and inequality may be the very causes of vulnerability. But ‘resilience’, as it is used in natural science, has no room for justice.

Balata refugee camp in the West Bank

The concept of resilience becomes particularly problematic in societies where people live under oppression, being denied their rights. It cannot be a desirable state to reduce your expectations and aspirations in order to endure and survive, even if it could be considered ‘resilient’. When the concept is discussed with Palestinians on occupied territory and in refugee camps they refer to another concept – sumud ­– which is often translated as steadfastness. Sumud means living with dignity despite all adversity, to remain and replant the uprooted olive trees, cultivate the land and rebuild the demolished house. Dignity is not created in solitude – family, community and identity are part of sumud. The question is whether steadfastness can become an objective of aid.

The solution to these difficulties has become a wide range of definitions of ‘resilience’ among humanitarian and development actors. In order to make it relevant the concept has been expanded primarily by making the objective of resilience our own agency to achieve change and improvement. For example, Oxfam defines resilience as “women’s and men’s ability to realise their rights and increase their wellbeing despite shocks, stresses and uncertainty”. The utility of a concept that captures how societies respond to severe stress is so large that it is simply shaped to fit your particular needs. The result of the concept’s popularity is less stringency and precision defining ‘resilience’, potentially to the point of losing any meaningful content.

To ensure it remains useful resilience is often given an operational definition; to Oxfam a resilient society has a diversified economy, financial and material assets, social safety nets, and participation in governance. Then the different elements can be translated into concrete projects and programs with clear objectives. An internationally recognised use of resilience as an objective is found in Sweden’s regional strategy for the Syria crisis 2015. Here resilience is expressed as livelihood opportunities, access to social services and reduced gender-based violence for the Syrian population affected by conflict, both in Syria and its neighbouring countries.

But there is a risk in packaging resilience into projects and programs that are meant to fit the usual aid modalities. Working in contexts characterised by increasing uncertainty, with new and unexpected stress, requires a flexible and iterative approach, where new experiences are allowed to influence action towards continuous adaptation and modification. This kind of aid management is not yet the rule and has to face forms that may be too traditional and rigid.

There are already a number of international alliances, partnerships and coalitions for resilience – the concept is clearly here to stay. Despite its fuzziness and lack of precision – it has helped us understand that vulnerable communities must constantly handle stress and risk. Development is no longer linear, if it ever was.