When a combination of crises struck Somalia in 2010, famine left millions in need of emergency assistance.
Drought, political instability, conflict, and food price spikes all contributed to what was described as a ”vision of hell.” Dead livestock dotted fields of cracked earth. Emaciated refugees walked for days to reach camps such as Dadaab as eastern Kenya. And desperate mothers faced a Sophie’s choice: To save healthy children, they let the weak ones starve.
Of those affected, 2.2 million were beyond immediate help. Acute insecurity — particularly the presence of Islamist extremists — sidelined humanitarian actors. More than 250,000 people died. However, the costs of the crisis were not equally borne, and despite the absence of humanitarian response, some families adapted or quickly recovered.
We wanted to know why.
The question gets to the heart of resilience. As a development approach, resilience is about building the capacity of a family or community to withstand shocks in a way that minimizes long-term developmental consequences. It’s a mouthful, but at its core, working to build resilience forces us to turn basic assumptions about aid programs on their head.
Rather than treating disasters like drought and conflict as “acts of God” outside our planning scope, crises should be central to our strategies and interventions. By increasing the capacities of communities to adapt and respond to crises — either natural or man-made — development programs can reduce vulnerability. And, perhaps, curtail the need for humanitarian aid in the future.
Or that’s the idea. Within the aid community, however, resilience has its detractors. Critics have dismissed resilience as just another buzzword. And the lack of evidence on what actually contributes to resilience, they argue, translates into fuzzy accountability.
Yet, that is less and less the case. While resilience’s proponents have at times leaned too far over the tips of their skis, a growing body of research supports a resilience approach, and informs how we should go about it.
Somalia provided an opportunity to build on that body of evidence. In 2012, Islamic militants withdrew from the drought-affected areas, allowing Mercy Corps, TANGO International and local partners to send a research team to uncover why some families were more resilient to the crisis than others. That knowledge would inform our thinking on how to support community resilience to future food shocks. The research team surveyed 1,185 households throughout southern Somalia; subsequent regression analysis highlighted vital contributors to resilience.
When famine strikes — what made some families bounce back?
Women’s participation matters. In the face of famine, women’s involvement in household decision-making was linked to greater dietary diversity and less distressful coping.
Traditionally, Somali women don’t take a big role outside the household, where men tend to run the show. But during the crisis, the men were often absent. In search of income or assistance, they relocated to towns, distant grazing lands, or IDP camps. Women who were more empowered had the confidence to negotiate with elites to gain access to essential services, like health clinics and markets. Their children tended to be healthier and better fed.
Our takeaway is echoed by other studies: Rather than simply seeing women as a vulnerable group, our work should unleash their ability to adapt and respond to crises.
Extended social networks underpin resilience. During the crisis, families with broader social and economic relationships — particularly those that crossed clan lines – enjoyed greater food security, and more quickly regained food security afterward. In a famine, who you know matters. If you can borrow a milk cow from a neighboring village less affected by the drought, you’re less likely to starve. Access to these kinds of “bridging” resources may also help you rebuild assets once the crisis stabilizes.
We know social networks are often necessary to survival. But as an aid community, we haven’t done the best job figuring out how to build that kind of capacity; oftentimes, our programs risk undermining it.
To build resilience, we should go beyond aid to strengthen the type of social connections communities rely on in times of crisis. We’ve seen this work before. Mercy Corps research in Ethiopia found that our peacebuilding programs built trust and encouraged cooperation between traditionally conflicting groups. This led to increased freedom of movement. During the 2011 drought, groups gave one another access to verdant pastureland, or to towns with critical services. This resulted in measurable improvements to community resilience.
Livelihood diversity is not enough. Contrary to expectations, having multiple household income sources was not strongly linked to greater food security resilience. Imagine a farmer with diverse agricultural income streams, such as mix of crops and livestock. He would have multiple income streams, but would still be ruined by severe drought.
To build resilience, we shouldn’t simply grow the number of income streams. Instead, we must promote independent income sources. Supporting off-farm incomes, for example, would reduce vulnerability to weather-related risks.
Building an evidence base to transform anecdote into strategy
In the fragile states like the Sahel and Horn of Africa, resilience-building strategies are vital.
This research is a valuable contribution to our knowledge — but it is only one study, and more work needs to be done. Testing our assumptions is not only the best response to critics of resilience. It also contributes to something far more important: helping our beneficiaries lead secure, productive lives.
Keith Proctor is a senior policy researcher at Mercy Corps. A current visiting fellow at Tufts University's Feinstein International Center, Proctor writes regularly on development issues and holds degrees from Stanford, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard Divinity School.