24 January 2018

Africa: How Can We Measure Resilience? Mobile Phones - and the Right Questions - Can Help

opinion

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Phone surveys and efforts to ask people what they think makes them resilient may change some old ideas

People and communities around the world are struggling to deal with the impacts of climate extremes and disasters. At the same time, international finance for supporting people's resilience to shocks and stresses is limited.

That means understanding how to effectively build resilience is crucial - but to do that we first need to be able to track and measure resilience - something that is often fiendishly difficult.

For example, we might consider a resilient household to be one that can take precautions after receiving early warning of an imminent flood; bounce back quickly from a recent drought; or adapt to increasingly frequent heatwaves. But deciding what factors contribute and are most important to a household's resilience is a matter fierce debate. Dozens (if not hundreds) of different resilience frameworks exist, each with a unique mix of indicators and ideas.

To make matters worse, collecting information on resilience is hard work. Face-to-face household surveys are expensive, time consuming to run and can take months to set up. This is where the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED)'s Rapid Response Research (RRR) is making a difference.

RRR is a survey effort that collects information on resilience and post-disaster recovery, currently focusing on the east of Myanmar (in the township of Hpa-An). The initiative is trying two new methods that have the potential to drastically change the way that we collect resilience information.

The first is the use of mobile phones to gather information from households affected by disasters.

With a rise in mobile phone usage across the developing world, contacting people and collecting data has never been quicker, cheaper or more secure. As part of the RRR effort, 1300 mobile phones and solar chargers were given to households across eight villages in Hpa-An. A call centre based in Yangon then administers short surveys by phone once a month, with households receiving a small financial reward - in the form of airtime credit - for every survey they complete. If households are busy, they're simply asked for a preferred time to be called back.

This means that not only can we can collect data at roughly a third of the cost of traditional surveys, but it can also be collected when people are on the move. This is necessary in a place like Myanmar where people are increasingly mobile - often seeking temporary work in cities and abroad. Crucially, it means that we have an easier (and less intrusive) way of contacting people after disasters, when gaining access to communities can be slow and high risk. This could be especially useful in instances where people have relocated after a disaster, which would not be possible through normal survey methods.

So far, these methods have allowed the RRR survey to retain 96 percent of the original survey respondents after four separate rounds of surveying. That's a number that has far exceeded expectations!

The second innovation trials new ways of judging subjective measures of resilience. Resilience has traditionally been measured via objective means - where resilience 'experts' come together and decide on a list of indicators that they think make people resilient. This typically includes things that we can see and observe such as household income, education, access to social safety nets, etc.

While methods like these are no doubt useful, they struggle to capture many of the intangible aspects of resilience, such as social networks. Subjective tools, like the ones the RRR effort is trialling, take a very different approach. They start from the position that people have valuable knowledge about what they think makes them resilient.

What have we found so far? Subjective views of resilience are strongly associated with education, poverty, number of household occupants and so on. While traditional assessments reflect many of these, a number of interesting differences exist with objective assessments of resilience.

For example, female-headed households in Hpa-An think of themselves as better able to deal with disasters compared to households headed by men. This flies in the face of many objective surveys that tend to find male-headed households more resilient.

Could it be that female-headed households are able to leverage better social support networks, or tend to have more diverse sources of livelihood pursuits? Could it instead be that there is a psychological difference in how women and men rate themselves? These are questions that the RRR will delve into in the months ahead.

The RRR effort continues to collect large swathes of data. To make this information accessible to all we've launched the Resilience Dashboard. This site allows anyone to look in real time at the relationships and trends for themselves.

We hope to learn from those making use of the site to see what potential this new technology and method has, as well as what new ideas it can spark. Above all, we want RRR to generate enthusiasm about innovating and experimenting with different ways of collecting resilience information to help further our understanding of the drivers of resilience.

Only then will we be able to answer the important question: How do we best prioritise limited resources for supporting resilience?

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