Resilience: Locally Owned or Locally Grown?

In a recent article, I highlighted an issue that I feel needs more discussion and examination. I was writing about development jargon and the topic of resilience came up. In the article, I noted that I had recently learned that the concept of resilience was understood differently at the community level in a country which my husband had just returned from. In Vanuatu, communities viewed resilience as something built on local knowledge and historical practice, whereas the ‘resilience’ that was being pushed by development partners was heavily reliant on foreign practice and knowledge, which the communities felt would make them more dependent on foreign assistance in order to ‘be resilient’ to issues such as climate change in the long term. It was a very interesting issue that prompted me to begin investigating further into definitions and understanding of resilience, and the difference between those that need it and those that promote it.

While reading further into the issue, I happened upon another article that really struck a chord with me – a development practitioner who has worked in 10 different countries and been involved in regional programmes giving me insight into so many more across Europe, Asia and the Pacific. The article focused on international intervention in Solomon islands, and while it didn’t highlight resilience, when I read the following line it was a little bit like a lightening strike: ‘Most Solomon Islands politicians and senior civil servants opted for the Melanesian strategy of studied indifference to the RAMSI (regional assistance mission) reform programme, allowing this to continue unimpeded, but with minimal local buy-in. Silence was not consent.’ This says so much about so much, and not just in Solomon Islands or other Melanesian countries. Indifference is not consent, it just reduces the hassle that national and local politicians and civil servants have to endure when it comes to defining ‘ownership’ and just getting the assistance they actually need, even if it means a whole host of other donor-driven add-ons.

Which brings us back to definitions of resilience and the problem the people of Vanuatu are facing. I started searching around for definitions of resilience, and more specifically community resilience. Unsurprisingly, there are varying definitions of (community) resilience. Which may be why there was no common definition in the Paris Agreement on climate change, despite the fact that the term appears nine times in what is a very short document. UNDP views resilience as the process of ‘integrating issues of climate, disaster risk and energy at country level, focussing on building resilience, ensuring development remains risk informed and sustainable.’ Admittedly, less of a definition and more a mission statement, with an interesting focus on the national level considering resilience really takes place at the community level. Oxfam defines it as ‘the ability of women, men and children to realize their rights and improve their well-being despite shocks, stresses and uncertainty.’ Well noted, but rather vague when we want to look at process. Further, who defines rights? International definitions based on the rights of the individual, or the much more common and practiced rights of the community or group at the local level? Then there was RAND (rounding out the international organization, NGO and private sector research organization triumvirate of development): ‘Resilience means mitigating and withstanding the stress of manmade and natural disasters, recovering in a way that restores normal functioning, [and] applying lessons learned from past responses to better withstand future incidents.’ This was by far the most detailed and specific of the definitions, and went on to qualify that community resilience ‘is a measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand and recover from adverse situations.’ This is excellent, if only we could ascertain who determines what is ‘normal’, whose ‘lessons’ and who ‘measures’. It is the heart of the problem that the people of Vanuatu highlighted.

I was feeling a bit defeated, until I happened upon an op-ed in the Guardian which was highlighting locally relevant innovations as more important than any externally-led assistance programme in adapting to climate change in Peru. The thrust of the argument was that while local solutions may come from ‘non-experts’ through trial and error (ie: blending local practice with scientific knowledge), they are more sustainable because they don’t necessarily force drastic changes or increased dependence on foreign assistance. The organization profiled in the article, Practical Action, pointed out that their support to help communities in Peru find local solutions to food shortages increased resilience in the long term, whereas other external actions focussing on food imports and relocation in the short term would decrease resilience in the long term.

Effectively, externally (donor) driven resilience programmes often aim for perfect (or as close to it as they can get) over ‘good enough’, or simply ‘what works here’. It highlights the different perceptions of resilience between the international community and actual communities. Vanuatu and Peru couldn’t be further apart geographically but the communities seemed to value locally-based solutions over increased dependence on foreign assistance to increase resilience based on someone else’s definition and practice.

And then I hit gold. I found what I was REALLY looking for. IFRC provided a definition of community resilience that was based on an actual survey of communities. They defined the process as well as the measurement. It is the process of “putting local people, who are able to act within their sphere of influence, in the centre of the process.” And then we can ‘measure’ resilience based on the following characteristics: a community that is knowledgeable and healthy; organized; connected; has infrastructure and services; has economic opportunities; and can manage its natural assets. What stood out the most was that IFRC referred to resilience as a process, based on feedback from communities. It is not a means to an end, or an end itself. It is perpetually on-going. Which makes sense as the climate changes and we’ll never really be ‘finished’ adapting to it.

This is strikingly different from the view taken by the international community. For example, Oxfam refers to resilience as an outcome – a time-bound change – based on activities undertaken. In the results-based world of development, this is to be expected. But it points to external/donor-driven perceptions of resilience because I can safely assume that communities don’t talk about results and outcomes in the same way that development professionals do.

It would be fairly easy for the development community to begin measuring community resilience against the criteria given to IFRC by communities themselves, and plan interventions as such. This is not the issue. What does need more discussion and understanding is how to increase emphasis on locally-relevant solutions and decrease the dependence of communities on external assistance to be resilient in the long term, given that resilience is not a finite process. Further, it would respond to the existential conundrum of ‘silent but not consenting’ around ‘ownership’ of development programmes. It is perhaps an issue to be taken up for COP22, to capitalize in the recognition of the role local governments and communities in climate adaptation in the Paris Agreement. In theory, that is practical. In practice… better to put communities in the driver’s seat. But in our top-down world of decision making, the big question then would be ‘how?’

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