Above the noise: Taking resilience from buzzword to real-world impact

People cope with floodwaters in the aftermath of Typhoon Ketsana in 2009 in Laguna, Philippines. Photo by: Chris Quintana / IRRI / CC BY-NC-SA

Resilience has recently rocketed to the top of the list of development buzzwords. But is it just a buzzword that will fade away like many others? Are we simply repackaging an old concept (sustainability, anyone?). How do we make resilience more than a word?

The answer, I suggest, is to put substance behind the concept and see how we can apply strategies in one arena, for example, disaster resilience, to other areas such as household finances, climate change and personal health to name a few. Otherwise, “resilience” will meet the same fate as so many development ideas that came along and briefly lit up our seemingly endless search for magic solutions to poverty.

I believe resilience is more than a buzzword, and actually a new concept — and the timing of its emergence should be no surprise at a time when donors are rethinking the use of their resources, with an eye toward longer and, yes, less expensive solutions to the largest development problems. Although it’s probably only one of many valid ways to approach the concept, I find it useful to refer to resilience as the combination of four — almost inevitably overlapping — strategies: behaviors, networks, policies, and products (one could make the convincing argument that knowledge should be added to the framework). Here are some ways to think about it:

  • Behaviors refer to all actions that individuals, households or communities can take to limit their exposure to risk, or to limit the impact of adverse events when that risk is realized. This includes using preventative medicine, engaging in a better diet, practicing safe sex, stopping smoking, et cetera.

  • Networks relate to the formal or informal expressions of social relations between households and groups, often aggregated under the term of “structural social capital,” and the elements of physical infrastructure that facilitate these relations. In the context of resilience, networks include mutual support arrangements and collective action agreements that individuals and households can call upon to prepare against negative events or to mitigate the effect of crises and shocks — as well as the physical or virtual communication channels that accelerate these arrangements such as roads and the Internet.

  • Policies refer to actions taken by national, regional or local governments to protect families against shocks and help them recover quickly when these shocks cannot be avoided such as social safety nets, early warning systems, clean air regulation, food labeling and immunization campaigns.

  • Products include a wide variety of goods and services that can help prevent crises or contribute to post-shock recovery, or both. Examples include drought-resistant seeds and fertilizer, health insurance policies, savings accounts, condoms and other contraceptives, bed nets and anti-mosquito chemicals.

Taken individually, these strategies rarely provide the levels of resilience necessary to deal with the variety and severity of risks faced on a daily basis by low-income families or vulnerable communities. Behavior-based strategies and networks generally fail when shocks are catastrophic (medical emergency) or affect all households in a community (drought). Products that build on pre-existing networks and social constructs — such as anti-mosquito chemicals that work best if every household in a community agrees to have his or her house sprayed — are more likely to succeed than tools that ignore local social dimensions. Similarly, products can best be sustainable when they operate within a supportive policy and regulatory environment such as microhealth insurance. In our cursory cataloging of resilience projects at Abt Associates, we quickly noticed that programs — domestic or international — that built on larger numbers of strategies appeared to be more successful at strengthening overall resilience.

Because behaviors, networks, policies and products can best bolster resilience when activated in concert, I also venture that the successful resilience-building program cannot rely solely on the actions of the public sector or those of the private sector. While the public sector is, by definition, at the origin of policies that enhance resilience, it is less ideally placed than the private sector to provide affordable and reliable products such as contraceptives or financial services. In addition, the closeness of political horizons in most countries is such that politicians generally lack the incentives to focus on long-term solutions — politicians tend to make decisions from crisis to crisis, while households are left to live from crisis to crisis. The most durable networks are often those that arise organically from the actions of private actors rather than those of governments.

What does this mean for the global development community?

First, the very broad use of the concept of resilience in current reports and articles (and in several recent requests for proposals) is not necessarily conducive to focused field implementations. While there may be other approaches to the concept than those described here, we need to narrow the meaning and the applications of resilience. By trying to encompass everything, we may end up encompassing nothing.

Second, investing in a combination of the four strategies listed above is likely to be more productive than focusing an equal amount of support on just one of the strategies. Given the mix of the personal, social, commercial and political dimensions that underlie these strategies, the opportunity and the challenge facing development partners will revolve around their ability to meaningfully support two or more strategies at a time.

Finally, to the extent that public-private partnerships are key to implementing these strategies, donors and their partners will find an additional reason to work closely with governments and the private sector to support commitments to increasing the resilience of communities and households in their countries. Providing health insurance to the poor, protecting rural populations against malaria, reducing pollution, or discouraging obesity among low-income families does not necessarily rank high among the political agendas of public servants in developing countries. If development organizations can identify ways to turn these issues into profitable opportunities for the private sector, they will not only reduce pressures on overextended fiscal systems but they will also make resilience building an attractive and sustainable business.

This last point means that resilience building should ideally result from another oft-cited concept in development: public-private partnerships. So from one buzzword to another? Maybe. But in between lies a vast space to improve lives in an increasingly fragile and risky world.

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About the author

  • Thierry van Bastelaer

    Thierry van Bastelaer is principal associate and economist at Abt Associates. He serves as co-director of Abt’s Risk and Resilience Methods Center, as health finance advisor on the Strengthening Health Outcomes through the Private Sector project, and as chair of Abt’s Health Finance and Economics Technical Working Group. van Bastelaer is also adjunct professor at American University, teaching two microfinance courses. Prior to joining Abt, van Bastelaer was senior director of Livelihoods Innovations at the Save the Children Federation.