Brussels — Resilience has well and truly entered the development mainstream as policymakers contend with drought in the Sahel, tropical storms in Haiti and famine - underpinned by conflict - in the Horn of Africa.
The EU last month set out a new approach designed to build resilience in communities to withstand the impact of crises and disasters – and save money in the long run at a time of growing pressure on aid budgets. The l'Alliance Globale pour l'Initiative Resilience Sahel (Agir-Sahel), launched in June, is one of Europe's flagship programmes to build resilience across the Sahel. With short- and long-term funding, Agir aims to improve access to food, support in-country early warning systems and promote regional co-operation.
Government officials from across the Sahel and representatives from the EU are expected to attend a meeting in Burkina Faso in December to officially launch Agir-Sahel and endorse a "resilience roadmap" to avoid or better cope with recurring crises.
Cees Wittebrood, director general for humanitarian aid and civil protection at the European commission, assured journalists in Brussels on Monday that the EU would put in place measures to avoid the roadmap becoming yet another document that is consigned to the archive as soon as it is published.
Resilience – the ability of individuals, communities and states to withstand shocks – is an increasingly important development goal at a time of recurring crises. The EU's development and humanitarian arms have committed themselves to working more closely to promote resilience, and the UK Department for International Development (DfID) has committed itself to building disaster resilience into all its country programmes by 2015.
DfID cites a study it funded which showed that over a 20-year period in Kenya, every $1 spent on disaster resilience resulted in $2.9 saved in the form of reduced humanitarian spend, avoided losses and development gains. Prevention not only saves lives but is cheaper than waiting for a full-blown emergency to hit.
But some development experts have warned against an uncritical embrace of resilience. A recent paper from the Institute of Development of Studies (IDS): Resilience: New Utopia or New Tyranny? sets out some cautionary markers. The paper acknowledges that resilience as a concept can be useful in that it encourages policymakers and practictioners to consider the big picture, taking in diverse factors such market volatility (eg food prices), biodiversity and environmental degradation.
Dr Christophe Béné, research fellow at IDS, and his co-authors, make the point that resilience is intuitive and attractive. Talking about "strengthening disaster-resilient communities" or "building climate-resilient infrastructure" sounds right, they note. As such, the concept allows policymakers and practitioners to get together around the same table and collaborate on strengthening resilience.
But Béné and his colleagues warn that resilience is not a panacea and has limitations. "The biggest potential danger is that it starts to become the new [ruling] paradigm imposed by policymakers and donors as a compulsory component of each and every project they fund or support. In that sense some would fear the emergence of a 'new tyranny', as it has been the case with the participatory approach."
They argue that resilience can be bad as well as good. For example, an authoritarian regime that keeps itself in power through repression and torture can be described as resilient. Admittedly, this is a crude illustration. Their more serious point is that resilience is not necessarily a pro-poor concept; households can be very poor and very resilient.
"The whole discourse about how it is important to build resilience as a tool for poverty alleviation is flawed: there is no direct and obvious way out of poverty through resilience. Ultimately, development should therefore remain about poverty alleviation and wellbeing, not about resilience building. In that context, redirecting part of the [decreasing] development effort and resources toward resilience may indirectly be detrimental from a poverty alleviation perspective."
Some would go even further and argue that poverty alleviation in itself is insufficient for development. Ha-Joon Chang, the Cambridge economist, argues that poverty reduction and meeting people's basic needs – the approach embodied in the millennium development goals – are just one aspect of the development story. What is missing is the importance of industrial policy and the building of institutions. Even in the UK, industrial policy is no longer a dirty phrase.
For Béné, any discussion of resilience should take into account agency, inequity and the power dynamics – winners and losers. It is another way of saying political contexts should not be ignored and the danger of using resilience as a concept is that it merely reinforces the status quo.
"In particular in the context of climate change adaptation there is a real danger of misuse, or abuse, of the term, as it seems to be increasingly co-opted to accommodate rather than challenge forms of development that are implicated in human-caused climate change and other global environmental problems. Let's continue business as usual, but make sure that communities are more resilient to the shocks created by our model of economic development."