Addis Ababa — Funeral societies may make their money from the business of bereavement, but in Ethiopia they are also important social networks that use kinship and trust to cushion communities from the worst effects of disasters.
Ethiopian burial and mutual aid societies known as "iddirs" are a form of what researchers call social capital - the bonds, customs and trust that connect people in a society.
Local organisations and informal networks are a source of resilience that help poor, vulnerable people withstand economic, environmental and political shocks, according to new research from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
People can draw on social capital in confronting many different kinds of stresses, including climate-linked disasters, but it remains a relatively unexplored resource, IFPRI says.
"We call the bonds that tie people together social capital because they can be used as assets to help people get higher social returns - in terms of community support - in the future, enabling them to cooperate in addressing a crisis," Ruth Meinzen-Dick, a senior research fellow at IFPRI, told Thomson Reuters Foundation at a recent conference in Ethiopia on building resilience for food and nutritional security.
A research paper by Meinzen-Dick and IFPRI research analyst Quinn Bernier, which was presented at the conference, highlights the role of social capital in making it easier for individuals, households and communities to share and manage risk.
"In Ethiopia, iddirs comprise strong social ties that have been expanded beyond just dealing with funerals to also provide health insurance," Meinzen-Dick said.
"Health shocks are one of the biggest forms of loss that push people into poverty, and with the iddirs, people know each other and cooperate in areas (like health insurance) where the formal sector or government are reluctant to go."
Iddirs operate on the basis that if one person dies, the rest of the group pay for that person's funeral. In some places, a funeral can bankrupt a family, which makes funeral societies an important way of helping people shoulder the financial burden.
The model has also been applied in Ethiopia's pastoral communities. Through family-based and other alliances for managing rangeland and water resources, herders who have grazing allow those without to feed livestock on their land.
Similar associations have provided basic protection and support in many other parts of the world.
"U.S. immigrant groups (a long time back) formed these kinds of funeral societies, and some have evolved into big life insurance societies today," Meinzen-Dick said.
"If we talk about government programmes coming into the community, and we assume it is a blank slate where the government has to provide, we are missing what is already going on in that community, and are even destroying existing social capital," she added.
IFPRI's research shows that poor countries and communities - especially vulnerable groups such as women and children - are subject to multiple stresses, including food price rises, financial crisis, droughts, floods, disease and conflicts that disrupt food security.
The study of how individuals, bigger groups and states prepare for and recover from shocks has given rise to the concept of resilience, which indicates the means by which people cope with a crisis and, ideally, emerge from it in a better situation.
Another example of social capital at work is migrant networks in the Philippines, where community bonds help local people deal with economic and other shocks.
A 2012 survey of Bukidnon, a province in the Northern Mindanao region, showed that all households had at least one person they could rely on in an emergency.
Study authors found that 75 percent of the households surveyed could access a network to ease economic losses. Others reported networks for obtaining price information, assistance with family problems, household chores, taking care of family members, and even technology adoption.
Other examples of resilience-building social capital cited by Meinzen-Dick included Pakistan's national rural livelihoods programme, which helps community groups participate in developing village infrastructure to improve their productivity, such as building roads.
Members, particularly women, are provided with agricultural credit so they can purchase inputs to boost their yields and market their produce more effectively.
In India, the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a trade union and federation of more than a million members who earn a living through their own labour or small businesses, offers services like healthcare, legal aid, credit and insurance.
And in Nepal, FECOFUN, a federation of community forest user groups, partners with the government and advocates for policies that support members' livelihoods. It also provides grants and training to help them manage their resources better.
A FOOD-SECURE FUTURE
More than 800 development experts at the IFPRI conference in Addis Ababa discussed how to include resilience in a new global development agenda - now being crafted - by strengthening policies, investments and institutions to achieve food and nutritional security.
Ahead of the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals next year, negotiations on a new set of post-2015 development targets are heating up. IFPRI Director General Shenggen Fan said they must take resilience seriously if hunger and under-nutrition are to be tackled definitively.
"A resilience approach has the potential to improve livelihoods and support economic growth and transformation while mitigating future shocks," said Fan. "In fact, it can help us tackle issues that run across the entire agriculture, food, nutrition and environmental system."
Practical examples include Ethiopia's PRIME programme for pastoralist areas, run by aid agencies and backed by the U.S. government.
It integrates nutrition, early warning systems and skills transfer, linking herders to markets while building their ability to adapt to environmental change. They might choose to diversify into keeping livestock that are less susceptible to drought, for example.
In Tanzania, World Vision has brought smallholder farming, natural resource management and social safety nets together under its "Secure the Future" programme. This takes a long-term approach that aims to equip people to cope with economic and climate-related shocks.
Busani Bafana is a journalist based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, who covers climate change and agriculture issues.