18 May 2014

Is "Resilience" a Mobilising Metaphor for 21st Century Development?

I just returned from Addis from the IFPRI 2020 Conference on Building Resilience for Food and Nutrition Security.

It was a rich and diverse conference with many excellent speakers--all wonderfully visioned and organised by Rajul Pandya Lorch and her team at IFPRI.

So, 150 presentations later, what did I learn about resilience?

1. A definitional consensus on resilience seems to be emerging around 3 dimensions: absorptive, adaptive and transformational.  The transformational component is the hardest to envisage and tends to get lost, but is, I think, the most important for not simply surviving but for thriving.  Transformation is about taking action that changes the likelihood of occurrence, exposure to and severity of stressors and shocks.  It might mean moving from an area, or new environmental infrastructure, or a peace settlement, or legislation that outlaws discrimination.

2. The technicians think resilience measurement is possible.  Given the uncertainties and dynamics that stimulate the need for resilience, data--quantitative and qualitative--have to be collected more frequently (the HKI surveillance systems in Bangladesh were held up as a good model).  Measurement is necessary but not sufficient for identifying the drivers.

3. Policy development is going to be a real challenge.  But even if resilience can be measured and the drivers can be identified, can programmes and policy actually do anything about it?  It is not obvious to me.  Some speakers talked about resilience in hushed awe--why could some people, communities and systems display it and others not?  Surely it is not all chance, but if it is the result of deliberate action, are the interactions of those actions so complex that the best we can do is make sure there are enough ingredients around and hope they come together in uplifting ways?

4.  Resilience has value added.  This is not always clear.  Risk, vulnerability, social protection, climate adaptation, poverty dynamics and livelihood diversity are all closely related topics and have all seen their hype curve rise and fall. At the moment at least, resilience seems to encapsulate all of them, perhaps not in a technical sense, but certainly in a heuristic, mental short cut kind of way. It offers the hope of solutions to those faced with increasing uncertainties.

5.  Resilience for whom?  Who is driving the agenda? Joachim von Braun suggested that the growing middle classes may be the ones pushing the agenda most strongly--they don't want their hard earned gains eroded by the irresponsible actions of others.  If this is right, then the resilience we get may not work for the poorest (see Chris Bene's paper on this point).

6.  Resilience is a "mobilising metaphor".  Different groups use it to advance different agendas.  Here the fuzziness of resilience may be a strength: a lot of important ideas can be smuggled in --knowingly or not--using reliance as a Trojan Horse.  At various stages in the conference it was used to make the case for breaking down barriers between the ideas of "developed" and "developing" countries and between development and relief, and also for working across disciplines, sectors, levels and stakeholders, focusing on the long term as well as the short, and paying much more attention to dynamics.  All good ideas and long overdue. Of course bad ideas may also get smuggled in.

Much of our current development thinking was developed in the last half of the 20th century--in a world very different from today.   Even if resilience has no unique conceptual contribution (and for me the jury is still out), it is clearly resonating with many different stakeholders.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of resilience will be to create the space for new ideas to flourish and help us move development, food security and nutrition more decisively from the 20th to the 21st century. Time will tell.

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