Q&A: Why resilience is key to improved delivery of aid

An ARC-D focus group discussion in Niger. Photo by: GOAL

The idea of building resilience can act as a guide in helping the aid sector avoid repeating past mistakes, according to Bernard McCaul, deputy director of program design and innovation at humanitarian agency GOAL.

Established in 1977, GOAL is an Irish-based international humanitarian and development agency, committed to working with communities to achieve sustainable and innovative early response in crises, and lasting solutions to poverty and vulnerability.

“It's an emerging realization in the sector that maybe a lot of the work that international aid has done in the earlier years didn't necessarily contribute to long-term outcomes, possibly reduced resilience, and risked doing harm to local systems and the role of local actors,” McCaul said.

Today, as the number of disasters continues to increase, aid agencies must work with national risk management systems to enable communities to prepare for and reduce the risk of disasters and their impacts.

Describing resilience-building as fundamental, McCaul said it is essential when responding to a crisis to go beyond addressing the short-term needs and look to provide longer-term solutions. “There's a significant shift that is happening across the global humanitarian community to not just respond to immediate needs, but to do that in a way that contributes to disaster resilience,” he said.

Speaking to Devex, McCaul discussed how important resilience-building is, the importance of innovation within resilience-building, and GOAL’s approach to this.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

As a humanitarian response agency, how important do you think disaster risk reduction and the preparedness element is?

GOAL has a long history in responding to major crises around the world … And we know from the coalface how critically important it is to take measures to reduce the impact of a crisis. It's something we've spent a lot of time working on in order to understand how best to achieve that. A key step for us is working with permanent actors in the different contexts where we're operating to build their capacities and work in partnership, providing surge capacity and assisting them to be prepared for major crises such as supporting the operation of early warning and response systems. GOAL’s work building longer-term resilience to crises and disaster risk reduction and preparedness is a fundamental part of that.

In terms of activities, what kind of work does GOAL do in this area?

It's really been important to GOAL, as a practitioner, to take the good learning that exists in resilience, and the research that's been done, to put resilience into practice both in how we work and then the programs that we implement. GOAL has developed a number of innovations around putting resilience into practice.

One of those is a toolkit for measuring and analyzing resilience at community level, called the Analysis of Resilience in Communities to Disaster, or ARC-D toolkit. The ARC-D involves a structured consultation with communities on resilience to understand what the principal risk scenarios are that they’re exposed to, what their main vulnerabilities are, and what are the capacities of communities in the face of these risks through considering their characteristics of resilience.

Another key innovation that GOAL has developed is the  Resilience for Social Systems, or R4S, Approach Guidance Manual, which looks at building resilience of socioeconomic systems. The ARC-D toolkit is very useful to get a snapshot of the status of resilience at community level, and an important part of the analysis of the results is to understand the critical socio economic systems — such as financial services or health systems — which are critical to community  resilience. The R4S Approach can then be applied to prioritize systems for intervention and do a much deeper dive into analyzing selected systems, to understand how they are functioning and how inclusive they are, and how resilient these systems are in the face of shocks and stresses based on systems mapping, analysis, and considering determinant factors of system resilience including redundancy, governance, diversity, connectivity, participation and learning.

A key application of these innovations has been in targeting resilience building in informal urban settlements, which is a major global challenge. A lot of urban risk is centered in informal urban settlements and GOAL has been applying resilience innovations to come up with effective strategies for addressing urban risk. GOAL has done a lot of work in Latin America looking at urban resilience and identifying the key risk scenarios that urban communities are exposed to and the principal socioeconomic systems that vulnerable urban families depend on to be resilient.

“It's an emerging realization in the sector that maybe a lot of the work that international aid has done in the earlier years didn't necessarily contribute to long-term outcomes.”

— Bernard McCaul, deputy director of program design and innovation, GOAL

How important is an innovative mindset when you're rolling out some of these approaches and looking for different solutions?

It's really essential. GOAL really understands innovation is about solving problems. One of the principal roles of international agencies like GOAL is to innovate and look for solutions to old problems that leave vulnerable populations behind. Under the Sustainable Development Goals, the world has made progress in certain areas, but there's still significant areas where we're not making progress. One of those is in fragile contexts so that's a key area where agencies like GOAL have a significant role to play in identifying and developing solutions together with the permanent actors on the ground.

Innovation for us is very much about solving problems like that. How do you make health systems more inclusive and resilient in fragile contexts? How do you transform crisis to resilience in fragile contexts? GOAL has a very significant program, for example, in northwest Syria, where we’re providing aid to close to a million people every day.

That crisis has been ongoing for over nine years and we're very much working with actors on the ground to deliver aid, but also looking at how to innovate and develop longer-term solutions and critical learning. We’re working with Harvard University, the Rand Corporation, and the University of Oregon to analyze and complete research on what are the kind of key successes on how GOAL is engaging with the Syria Conflict response, particularly around how we are stabilizing critical systems such as the water supply system or market systems essential to food security, or operationalizing a rapid response mechanism …

An important role for NGOs is to foster and facilitate innovation and to communicate those innovations through platforms so that they can be further developed, applied, and adapted in other contexts, so that we can make progress on some of those really old and difficult problems that the world is facing.

Are there lessons you've learned in doing this that might be useful for other organizations?

Understanding systems and the roles of the local actors in systems is probably one of the most important lessons that GOAL is working through. I believe it will transform our sector and it will transform how we engage with local actors if we think more systematically about how to build resilience.

GOAL's Resilience Approach for Social Systems Approach. Via YouTube

Resilience during COVID-19

GOAL is partnering with IMA World Health, JSI, Pathfinder International, and other agencies on the flagship $200 million USAID MOMENTUM project to build resilient health in fragile countries including those affected by disasters caused by natural hazards. Learn more.

Do you have an overarching message or call to action around resilience you’d like to share with other humanitarian actors?

There's a significant challenge in the world around fragile and conflict affected contexts and how to engage and build resilience in these contexts. I know a lot of agencies are thinking this way, but I think that's going to be the biggest challenge that we all will face: how do we engage in fragile contexts in a way that will transform protracted crises to resilience and develop practical ways to achieve lasting impact for vulnerable populations.

Fundamentally, that’s about engaging effectively with permanent actors on the ground. We recognize that in many cases permanent actors are displaced and local systems are weak. That's all the more reason to engage and look at how to stabilize those systems, build the capacity of permanent actors, and pursue every opportunity to build longer term resilience.

Visit the resilientfutures.devex.com series for more coverage on the practical ways cities can build resilience and reduce disaster impact. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #ResilientCities.

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