The rise of a concept

08/31/2018   Read time: 5 min

Resilience has become a buzzword in development affairs and a yardstick for funding decisions. In regard to security, climate change, natural disasters and terrorism, resilience is given an increasingly dominant role in crisis management. By Usche Merk.

“The costs of humanitarian crises are escalating. There is an urgent need to help people and communities wi thstand and recover from growing shocks and stressors – in other words, to help them build resilience.” These words from the current EU Action Plan for Resilience in Crisis-Prone Countries 2013- 2020 exemplify the trend. By 2010 at the latest, it was apparent that resilience had replaced vulnerability as the core concern of humani tarian aid and development cooperation. The focus is no longer on the weaknesses and needs of people and communities; it is now on their strengths and their capa city to cope with disasters and crises.

This shift has an emancipatory quality, in that it directs attention to people’s and communities’ endurance and potential for self-help, emphasising survival strategies, capacity for action, self-empowerment and support net works. Funding decisions increasingly depend on them. Critical NGOs have been calling for such an approach for a long time. The irony, however, is that with the spread of the resilience notion, local capacities in crisis regions have been “discovered” as resources for crisis and risk management. The focus has thus shifted away from the need to prevent crises. In the technocratic logic of resilience, floods, droughts, hurricanes, wars, expulsi on, displacement and poverty are merely perceived as “shocks” and “stressors”, not as root problems that need to be prevented or overcome. People’s desperate fight to survive in inhuman conditions has been redefined as “resilience”.

Crisis as normality

This trend may have serious consequences in a health crisis, as the international experts Stephanie Topp, Walter Flores, Veena Sriram and Kerry Scott have argued. Building resilience rarely seems to involve a direct exa mination of, and even less challenge to, the structural conditions that contribute to overarching health-system dysfunction. Among the underlying reasons of dysfuncti on, the authors list historical legacies, current trade and aid patterns, taxes and health insurance coverage. In their perspective, the rise of the resilience notion means that debate on longterm visions is being preplaced by shortterm action-oriented debate. As crisis is accepted to be the normal state of affairs, the resilience concept is superseding the sustainability concept. The latter was supposed to restore a global equilibrium, while the focus of the resilience discourse is on managing an unbalan ced world.

The Janus-faced quality of the resilience approach to disaster management is evident in the new “role” of indi viduals, communities and crisis regions in need of help. Crisis management is now largely their responsibility, with success depending on their resilience. This notion can become a trap, as a case study by Mara Bernadu si shows. The Italian researcher assessed resilience building in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. The result was, that, if local people are merely vulnerable, they fail to meet the requirements for resilience-strengthening support. If they are too resilient, however, they over-fulfil the requirements and risk being classed as not being in need. To receive aid, survivors had to consider careful ly how much resilience they should show, Bernadusi pointed out.

Monitoring tools and selection criteria

To find out how to make a community more resilient, specific measurement instruments have been designed. The European Union, for instance, uses a resilience mar ker. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has designed sophisticated tools that enable it to define the need for aid with increasing precision. Its “depth of poverty ” measurements shows how much poverty can be tolerated without eroding resilience. The “moderate to-severe hunger” indicator defines the point at which a person actually experiences hunger. The “global acute malnutrition” scale shows when malnutrition exceeds the customary level.

One implication of this trend is that the quest for ever-greater resilience has become obligatory. Resilien ce building has become an issue of monitoring as well as selection criterion for aid. The humanitarian principle that anyone in need must get support has thus been called into question. In humanitarian aid, the concept of resilience has thus triggered a paradigm shift. For good reason, critics had been discussing whether it made sense to separate humanitarian aid from development cooperation. The problem is that such arguments now serve to cast doubt on the entire system, as is exempli fied by the EU’s Action Plan for Resilience in Crisis Prone Countries. It redefines the extent of humanitarian needs and, accordingly, the entitlement to aid. The consequen ce is that a whole range of EU programmes that relate to risk management, disaster prevention, climate change adjustment, social protection and food security are now conflated under the cross-sectional principle of resili ence. As a result, budgets can be slashed. In practice the “cross-sectional principle of resilience” means that the responsibility for managing crises is shifted onto the shoulders of those who suffer the crises.

New scope for business

At the same time, humanitarian aid is increasingly being opened up to private enterprise. The private sector is generally wooed as a fourth pillar of development coope ration alongside government, civil society and acade mia. New scope for business has been found in disaster prevention. In 2015, 70 % to 80 % of new investment in “disaster risk reduction” was made by private sector en tities. International forums like the Global Disaster Relief Summit put private investors in touch with UN agencies, the World Bank, security consultants, financial service providers, philanthropic foundations, relief organisations and government agencies such as USAID. Everything is for sale – from vehicles and logistics products to com munications, security technology and pharmaceutical products. Disaster management has become a business model with “resilience dividends”. One NGO study shows in detail that reconstruction became a testing ground for the profitability of private investments after Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines in 2013. The promise of recon struction programmes was to “building back better”. In fact, however, matters deteriorated dramatically for many poor families, whereas whole new business oppor tunities arose for private companies in mining, farming and tourism.

The ascendancy of the concept of resilience represents a turning-point in humanitarian aid and development cooperation. It must be about more than merely boosting the “resilience” of people and communities who are mo bilising what they can – including crisis strategies, capa cities, networks and creativity – in desperate attempts to survive disaster. The local actors concerned need resources and support that empowers them to make those who cause crises to contribute to crisis manage ment. The resilience notion is not entirely wrong, but its proponents’ tendency to co-opt and exploit the efforts of the people who are affected by disaster is irritating. Independent social activists must resist abuse, critically monitor impacts and promote narratives that reject the logic of permanent crisis.

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