Another good idea from ODI – regular ‘scans’ of hot topics like resilience

July 31, 2015 2 By Duncan Green

concept-resilienceThe aid and development business is full of tribes – separate ‘epistemic communities’ with their own jargon, shorthands and assumptions, which helps to hermetically isolate them from all the other communities. I try and surf across a few of them, but it’s hard – half the time I have only the vaguest idea what resilience, humanitarian, conflict or livelihoods people are talking about.

So I gave a little whoop of delight (sad, I know) when I saw a new ODI ‘Resilience Scan’ and a more recent quarterly update for 2015 Q1, which aim to keep the rest of us up to date with one of the fuzzwords du jour. Headline findings of the main scan include:

Attempts to understand how resilience concepts can be operationalised are proliferating

These include devising strategies to enhance resilience in diverse geographic contexts, including regions, countries, cities, communities and households. They examine the range of potential elements (e.g. rights, resources, planning) that can support resilience to varied disturbances (e.g. heatwaves, floods, food price shocks) to improve outcomes, as well as the range of appropriate governance arrangements to do so (e.g. decentralising water policy, or measures in places of good governance versus post conflict or fragile states). Overall, resilience has moved into the mainstream, especially through international cooperation programming and funding. While conceptually-based operational approaches are growing, so is the looser use of resilience as a generic concept to integrate different sectors and endeavours, or simply as a ‘find and replace’ for adaptation or disaster management.

Three key emerging themes recur throughout the scan.

  • Operational approaches to building resilience
  • Measuring resilience
  • Politics, power and resilience

tigger is resilientA huge effort is underway to measure, evaluate, test and gauge resilience across a range of disciplines

This ranges from efforts to provide qualitative resilience characteristics (e.g. good governance, rights, investment climate) to devising complex formulae for numerical values of resilience. There is a tension between creating measurement proxies that are more case-, and hazard-, specific and those that are cross-comparable. This measurement effort is likely to escalate in 2015 due to growing levels of resilience-centred projects and programmes, and due to the development of targets and indicators for the three big international policy processes on disasters, Sustainable Development Goals and climate change. These must be underpinned by more precise definition and relating the role of resilience in contributing to wider development objectives such as growth, citizen empowerment, good governance, poverty reduction or reduced inequality.

Research and practice on resilience thinking has taken a ‘political turn’

Many research papers argue that greater engagement with politics and power is vital to enhancing resilience. Some focus on the distributional consequences of resilience building actions, and on ensuring benefits for, and inclusion of, the poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Others outline the pitfalls of adopting a less politically-aware and more ‘technocratic’ approach to applying the resilience concept, enabling the term to be co-opted into particular narratives to further specific goals or benefit particular groups (e.g. more than one author discusses how displacement of communities on the pretext of adaptation and enhancing resilience can be used to transfer land to powerful actors).

Resilience is being approached as a more mobilising, less defensive concept

There is a discernible shift in writing, programming and funding mechanisms towards the ability to ‘sell’ resilience as firstly, embodying citizen mobilisation and engagement, secondly, strengthening wider capacities for tackling dynamic shocks and stresses, and thirdly, as an activity providing significant development co-benefits (echoing the ‘Resilience Dividend’ concept). At the same time, many note that the evidence base remains fairly weak, especially over longer timescales.

Operational approaches to resilience, especially complex and interdependency are still neededresilient tree

A key gap in operationalising resilience thinking is the limited attention to complexity, uncertainty and interdependencies as part of resilience building processes. Some of these complexities and uncertainties arise from the interdependencies between parts of the system, some from the politics inherent in all social systems, some arising from the individual and subjective decision-making logics that can propel or undermine the resilience of vulnerable individuals and wider communities/systems. One way to take this further might be to bring together different areas of resilience practice, such as those working in urban contexts and those examining food security. Enhanced interaction can lead these growing but potentially separate communities of practice to explore common challenges, opportunities and to learn from each other’s successes and failures.

Review of the 2014 Resilience Literature

Our examination of research articles on resilience published in 2014 reveals the breadth and depth of emerging resilience literature. Headlines from these fields include:

  • Climate change: These papers describe vulnerabilities of specific areas to climate change-induced disturbances, pathways of building resilience, the political economy of climate change-induced displacement and components of successful adaptation and resilience strategies.
  • Disasters: This literature examines strategies to enhance resilience to disasters, suggesting methods of measuring resilience, and critiques ‘resilience’ as a disaster management strategy due to its lack of engagement with politics and power.
  • resilient people sound really annoying

    resilient people sound really annoying

    Food security and agriculture: Papers in this domain outline ways of measuring resilience to food shocks and examine methods of promoting agricultural resilience.

  • Conflict: These articles explore how risks from environmental change and armed conflict combine to determine vulnerability and argue that the relationship between climate change and conflict has been analysed too simplistically to date.
  • Water: Here the focus is on the development of indicators for measuring resilience and on dynamics of water governance that enhance resilience.
  • Urbanisation: One group of authors emphasises the importance of considering issues of inclusion, rights and power when examining pathways of building urban resilience. A second group lays out the components and elements of urban resilience. A third group presents methods and modalities of building resilience.
  • Infrastructure and resilience: Key issues in this domain include post-disaster reconstruction, economic metrics of measuring infrastructure resilience and the value of resilience in the sustainable management of the built environment.
  • Economic resilience: Papers can be broadly divided into two categories – those covering measurement of resilience and those that emphasise the importance of engaging with politics and power for dealing with economic shocks.’

All this, plus recommended twitter handles and blogs (including specific posts), upcoming events and a more formal bibliography of new publications.

The quarterly update does what it says on the tin, highlighting the main contributions from experts, social media and new documents. Standouts include increased discussion in urban and security/conflict circles and more efforts to make the business case for resilience approaches.

I ran this past Debbie Hillier, our in house resilience wallah, who was v excited (not least at how much time this could save her), but also worried:

‘I do have a little niggle that ODI are now effectively writing the entire history/narrative on resilience. I wouldn’t want this to be the only story told, or ODI to be the final arbiter of what is or isn’t significant. It is notable, for example, that all bar one of the experts who have been consulted are white, and most are based in London, others in Thailand and one in India. This is quite a narrow perspective.

It would be good if this could become interactive, that people could propose papers/blogs that they felt had been missed. Of course, this could get messy, but I still think it would be a good check. The consumers would still have the neat ODI version, which is what most people would read, but then also an option to scan through other papers. And people inputting their own suggestions could open up options for ODI to look at, and potentially add quality to what ODI produce next time.’

Even without Debbie’s suggestions, the format is great and alarmingly original – kudos to the Rockefeller Foundation for funding it, and to a large ODI team and other resilience wonks for pulling it together.

Now can we have one on theories of change please? Any other useful candidates (please, not innovation or upscaling)?