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May 21, 2013

Why building ‘resilience’ matters, and needs to confront injustice and inequality

May 21, 2013
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Debbie Hillier, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Policy Adviser (right), introduces ‘No Accident’, Oxfam’s new paper on resilience and inequalityDebbieHillier

Asking 50 Oxfam staff what they think of resilience will get 50 different responses. These will range all the way from the Sceptics (“just the latest buzzword, keep your head down and it’ll go away”), to the Deniers (“really nothing to do with me”) to the Pioneers (“it’s obvious, we’ve been doing this for years”).  But probably the biggest category would be the Unsure Interested – “well, I suspect it’s pretty important, but I’m really not clear what it means for me.”

Answering that last point is key, and at a recent Oxfam get together, a humanitarian colleague gave a wonderful example.  He spoke about a tropical storm which had devastated a rural area of Honduras; Oxfam humanitarian staff had responded quickly and effectively with water and sanitation, cash-for-work, and essential household items to help people get back on their feet. But when he visited the area, and talked to the community, he found that the problem was less about flooding, and more about agribusiness.

Local communities had been displaced by massive sugar and melon plantations, denuding the land of trees, diverting water sources and thus altering the local hydrology.  The companies had employed cheaper Guatemalan labourers from over the border, so people no longer had either land to farm or paid labour, leaving them without livelihoods and impoverished.

All the tropical storm did was to expose the deepening vulnerability of the community.  So while Oxfam’s humanitarian response helped the community to cope with the flood, it would leave them in no better position for when the next inevitable storm/flood came.

People in a waterside house raised on stilts in a slum in Manila. © Robin Hammond / Panos

People in a waterside house raised on stilts in a slum in Manila. © Robin Hammond / Panos

A programme with ‘resilience’ as the desired outcome would look at the underlying factors for people’s vulnerability.  Critically, it would look at power dynamics and inequality (the latter extremely high in Honduras: for index geeks, a Gini coefficient of 55).  These are too often left out of the resilience debate, which so far has focused more on technical measures.  Yet Oxfam’s new report, No Accident, shows that countries with higher income inequality have populations which are more vulnerable to climate change, natural hazards and conflict.

The link between inequality and vulnerability is no doubt complex and defies simple correlation or causation.  But using language like ‘risk being dumped on the poor’ opens up a new way of looking at vulnerability.  At the international level it’s easy to see – rich countries reap the economic rewards of pumping carbon into the atmosphere, but poor countries bear the highest burden.  So whilst the impact of climate change by 2100 is estimated to cause GDP losses of 12-23% in poor countries, in the richest countries, the impact will be a range of 0.1% loss to a benefit of 0.9% of GDP.

Biofuel production and excessive speculation on food commodities is another way of exporting risk.  Food price spikes cause misery and hunger for poor people yet agribusiness firm Cargill’s profits surged during the global food crisis of 2007-8 and the US drought of 2012.

And at national level, big business and local elites can manipulate markets and governments to privatise the profits and socialise the risks. Clearly big business is not always bad but it can be.  In Peru, water supplies are dwindling as glaciers melt, but much is siphoned off or contaminated by mining companies, leaving local communities short of clean water.

The current response – at national and international level – is not good enough.  Climate change is picking up speed, food and commodity markets are more volatile than ever, environmental degradation is increasing, and more and more people are exposed to risk – either through population growth or migration. Whilst global poverty is declining, inequality is not.

States have the legal and political responsibility to reduce the risks faced by poor people, and ensure that they are borne more evenly across society.Resilience fig 1And note that equality is NOT about everyone having the same resources and support.  Disadvantaged people require more services and support simply to give them equal life chances (see pic, right).

Clearly targeted support, plus social protection, health, education – which one might call key building blocks of resilience – cost money.  Brazil is bringing down its (still high) inequality through concerted efforts by the government, including major increases in the minimum wage, and social protection schemes including a universal pension and the Bolsa Familia.  This is possible in part because there’s enough money – the tax-to-GDP ratio is approaching 35% in Brazil, compared to only 9-10% for Bangladesh and Pakistan.  Increasing tax revenues through progressive taxation has a key role to play in redistributing risk.

In terms of the aid sector – at the risk of oversimplifying, humanitarians are good at risk, and development experts are good at power.  But what we need is both.  Development thinking has often been blind to the shocks, changes and uncertainties that poor people face, and naïve in assuming that development takes place in largely stable environments.  Long term programmes need to internalise shocks and hazards (instead of sticking them in the risks/assumptions column of a logframe and then ignoring them) and then scale up and down as appropriate.

The newly fashionable focus on resilience can help communities not only to cope but to thrive despite the shocks and stresses, but only if the current resilience dialogue and practice is broadened out to tackle inequality, redistribute risk and stop risk dumping.

And here’s Debbie doing the increasingly obligatory video exec sum for wasters 3m piece to camera


  1. I could not agree more with Debbie-her last few lines of warning about Resilence -discourse, deflecting the heart of the matter about Poverty-Vulnerability. Earlier decades the popular word about resilence was coping. The trend seems to produce a new word for a new decade helping promotion of “Experts”.I am not being cynical.
    In Zambia after the drought in 1992-the underlying question of food insecurity at household/Community was taken right at the time of relief period and indeed the advocacy succeeded in influencing policy in that the relief given at the time of drought was extended during the first croping season after the drought period.
    Want to know more-Please check this out:

  2. It is old news that resilience helps to unpack the way “vulnerability” is created by wrong decision taken by the wrong reasons and excluding those who will primarily suffer the consequences of this decision.

    What I don’t get is why you say that “if you ask 50 people, they will 50 answers” and then point to 4. By the way, they can be reduce to 3: “I don’t know, show me the evidence this is new”; “I don’t want to knowk, I am very comfortable in my little bubble and I don’t want to change” and, finally “hey, this is not new, it is just better”


  3. As an outsider who was once in and made the same comments on our Humanitarian work in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, I welcome this open discourse. I suspect though that it will go to the heart of reviewing the current Humanitarian goal of Oxfam GB. If you aim to be the best Humanitarian response agency, then you are hardly likely to look at the deeper issues.

  4. Confusion about what resilience means partly relates to the difference in definition between engineering resilience (ability to snap back) and ecological resilience (maintain essential functions all the while changing).

    The SiG Knowledge Hub provides useful and useable resources for analysis and reflection on resilience and social innovation grounded in complex adaptive systems science. SiG, the University of Waterloo Social Innovation Generation (SiG), is an academic-practitioner partnership based in Waterloo, Canada.

  5. Thank you for this great introduction.

    The only thing I would add is that it’s important to see that resilience is not just something that “we” as development workers come in and build. It is something cultivated already on the ground. My graduate research is looking at what hybrid formations are created to create resilience to flood risks in Tamil Nadu, India, and how effective that is.

    Granted, risk-dumping -is- external and I absolutely agree that it’s crucial to include in current dialogues.

  6. Great paper by Oxfam.

    Absolutely, resilience is about providing people with the tools, and the power, to make good decisions about how to deal with the risks they face both on a daily basis, seasonally, and beyond. It is about people and communities (and states and their institutions) making those decisions for themselves, not about us (as the development and humanitarian community) making those decisions for them. The OECD has just published the results of a survey on what resilience actually means for individuals, communities, and states and their instituations. It shows that risk should be dealt with at the apporpriate layer – we shouldn’t expect people to be able to deal with tsunamis by themselves, and equally we shouldn’t lobby governments to put in place measures (such as income smoothing) that remove risk from people – as this creates sub-optimal decision making (and people will take on too much risk as they know it has no consequences/cost for them). We found that the components of resilience for communities are (interestingly, many are intangible):
    • risk awareness
    • leadership and organisation
    • social capital: cultural cohesion and trust, common identity,
    participation, collective action
    • appropriate infrastructure and services
    • economic opportunities and livelihood diversity
    • natural resource management
    • conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms
    • connections with local authorities and external actors
    • equitable land usage systems
    • spare capacity: prepared, and with adequate
    response capacity and support systems
    Read more at:

  7. Whatever happened to Save the Children’s risk and resilience strategy of – i think – the 1990s?

  8. This is very helpful in pushing the discussion further and getting people to understand that emergency responses cannot be stand alone operations, because the situations they address are hugely a result of inadequacies in longer term development processes, even if they are triggered by a flood, an earthquake, a war etc. One point I would like to note though is that, for me resilience is a quality that is internal to an individual, a household, a community or a nation. So, while I agree with the strategy of investing in strengthening service delivery and encouraging commitment on the part of service providers, I think investing in the platforms (community structures and civil society organisations) through which the poor can exercise power is the key to achieving sustainable resilience as it addresses internal qualities of the individuals, households, communities and nations, enabling them to cause/drive the change they want to see around them.

    Invariably the actions of politicians (or people in power in any society) are driven more by the desire to control and remain in a position of power than by anything else. What differs are the dynamics of the interface between the politicians and the people they (purport to) survey. The ability of the poor (through these platforms) to engage and influence the dynamics of this interface is a critical internal quality that renders them less vulnerable. So yes while we respond to emergencies (appropriately to save lives) and in basic service delivery strengthening etc we should be alive to the fact that at the heart of all vulnerability is this element of inability to influence the terms of the relationship with those that hold power.

  9. Thanks Debbie for putting this out so clearly. While I agree with everything you discuss, in my opinion we shouldn’t blur the difference between equality and equity (I acknowledge that many don’t like getting drugged into definitions, acronyms etc). when you write “…And note that equality is NOT about everyone having the same resources and support…” and point to the facilitating picture, my own judgement is that actually EQUALITY is about exactly what you say it is not: Equal opportunity for everyone as shown in the first part of the image ( aka the American dream). EQUITY is the one that “…is NOT about everyone having the same resources and support…” but benefits accruing to each based on their need, and costs on the basis of ability to bear them. (Second part of the image).

    Risk is omnipresent and always lurking. For each occurance of shocks, someone loses and another gains. The injustice often is the societal default to privatise gains (to those with economic and political power) and to socialize costs (to those without this power). Focusing on the different components of resilience as listed by Scott above and seeing how we can use that to bring about changes is the complex reality of all well meaning agents.

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