Resilience and Development: Mobilizing for transformation

Reflections on Resilience 2014 conference from development practitioner turned resilience scholar

The entire SES Link crew was in Montpellier last week for the #Resilience 2014 conference. Resilience and Development: Mobilising for transformation lived up to its name. There was a strong focus on development and a lot of practitioners for a more academic conference.

I would like to offer a few reflections on the emergence of resilience on the world stage from a development practitioner turned resilience scholar perspective: From 2009-2012 I was working with a development organisation in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. During that time, I observed a 360 turn-around from sustainability focused programmes to resilience based programmes. Outcomes of result-based management frameworks became ”enhancing resilient livelihoods” or ”improving resilience of disaster prone communities.” Jean-Marc Chatainger said in the opening plenary that it’s now impossible to find a development document without term resilience.The outcomes changed, but at the time, the entire development infrastructure didn’t. Activities to achieve said outcomes stayed the same, monitoring and evaluation systems didn’t change, and resilience as a concept to many practitioners I was working with seemed to remain obscure. Resilience of what? To what? Intuitive questions for many local communities and farmers, often the ‘subjects’ of development interventions, still seem difficult for many development organisations to internalise in their own practice.

Resilience 2014 hosted a good deal of healthy debate whether or not the surge of resilience in the development community is an exciting opportunity, or whether it’s something to be afraid of, as Luca Alinovi from FAO said.  I’ll explore this interface through 3 key provocations that were brought up at the conference.

  1. Resilience is NOT inherently a good thing:

Many definitions of resilience were used by different people and groups at the conference. This brings me back to the frustration of special issue I was involved with in 2012 where the introduction to the special issue states:“Yet, it is not quite clear what resilience means, beyond the simple assumption that it is good to be resilient” (Davoudi et al.2012).  That is a wrong assumption often made by the development/planning community; it is not necessarily good to be resilient, and at the conference a broad consensus around that finally seemed to emerge, thanks to the opening plenary by Brain Walker who said:  “We need to know where resilience needs to break down, and where it needs to be built up.” It seems we need to work on conceptual clarity of many of these terms, general vs specific resilience and transformation . In a workshop on resilience assessment that I attended before the conference, practitioners from Australia were describing their frustration with municipalities enthusiastically adopting resilience as a way to maintain the status quo, when actually the system should transform. Resilience is not an inherently positive thing. Undesirable states of extreme poverty for example, can be extremely resilient (i.e. a poverty trap). A development intervention to alleviate poverty then, should not be working necessarily to enhance resilience, but rather to break it down. The tricky part is, to know which aspect to ‘break down’ and which to ‘build up.’ If we could adopt this view in development practice, we would be on the road to something quite exciting.

  1. Marriage of disaster risk reduction and development: Opportunity for short termism and development to come to terms with each other

Some practitioners expressed their fear that resilience was taking a few steps back from sustainability as a framing because it promotes the idea of short-termism: the ability to respond to shock. But on the other hand, it has played an active role in marrying the disaster risk reduction and development communities. In drought stricken areas like the Sahel, or conflict zones likes Afghanistan, a resilience approach which can simultaneously focus on specific resilience in response to shock while building long term resilience is key to development.

  1. Systemic change in development is needed: Resilience can help achieve that

Luca Alinovi stated in a plenary that resilience could be a game changer in the operational mechanisms of development. If we continue to use resilience as a desirable outcome, rather than a process, then we need to understand what attributes contribute to resilience, and which need to break down. We need to avoid top down interventions that attempt to engineer systems to desirable stable states. It could be problematic that resilience is being used as a catch all phrase to encapsulate all things good. This runs the high risk of resilience losing its meaning as it continues to be used in an ’inappropriate’ way, since it won’t fundamentally change the system. I think there is a lot of exciting work to be done on empowering methods to identify attributes of resilience and transformation that are contextually appropriate, where yet unimagined trajectories are given the power to emerge.  Summary of an interesting session on scenarios at the conference here.

We need to understand that things might get worse before they get better. Things might need to break down before they get built up. This means that we need to be comfortable in living with uncertainty. Something I think most of us find quite challenging. So yes, resilience may be a game changer for development practice, but a lot of ground work needs to be done, by scientists and practitioners alike.