Resilience is all about "small victories" on the ground

by Zoe Tabary | zoetabary | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 19 January 2017 12:17 GMT

Women talk through the accounting book of their self-help group in Mag Yi Cho village, Myanmar, Nov. 17, 2016. TRF/Zoe Tabary

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How do you help people overcome climate and other stresses? Ask them and work with what they know

What do free movement of livestock across Africa’s Sahel region, drought-tolerant seeds in Niger, and climate-smart technologies in Nepal have in common? They all help local communities cope with worsening weather and climate extremes.

"Resilience" - generally understood as people’s ability to anticipate, adapt to and absorb shocks - features in global policy agendas like the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Sustainable Development Goals.

But local efforts can be just as - if not more - effective than top-level visions and targets, experts told a London event hosted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) for the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme.

“People have been experiencing challenges like climate extremes for a long time,” said Melq Gomes da Silva, BRACED coordinator in South Sudan, where 4.6 million people are in need of humanitarian aid.

“So they’ve already come up with ways to adapt, such as swapping crops in times of drought or, more drastically, leaving their homes,” he said. “In places like South Sudan, resilience isn’t about big ambitious programmes – it’s the small victories.”

Helen Young, a research director at Tufts University, said extreme rainfall variability was “the norm” in places like Chad and Sudan, “so people there plan according to that unpredictability”.

“Instead of hoping for rain that might not come, they’ll instead maximise their productivity for when there is rain – we could learn a lot from these local practices,” she said.

Resilience programmes should take a long-term approach if they are to achieve lasting change, in contrast to humanitarian assistance “which tends to think in the short term”, she added.

John Twigg, principal research fellow at ODI, argued that resilience efforts are most effective when they help communities make their own decisions by facilitating their access to information and resources.


Experts at the discussion acknowledged that operating in unstable countries with poor governance significantly slows efforts to build resilience.

“Conflict is a perennial challenge in Chad and Sudan,” said Young.

To make things worse, 2016 was particularly bad from a weather perspective in Chad, said Isaac Gahungu, BRACED coordinator for Concern Worldwide in the Central African nation.

“Prolonged drought has led not only to more deforestation but also higher levels of malnutrition,” he added.

Yet despite tough living conditions, there is a big demand for training among communities, the panel noted. “Locals in Chad want to help, but they just don’t know how,” said Gahungu.

To help fill this gap, aid agencies need to put extra people on the ground, rather than generating more research, argued one audience member.


Experts agreed that resilience and development programmes should strive for greater involvement of those they are meant to benefit.

People actually receiving support rarely get a say in setting the indicators that measure whether that support is working, for example.

“Those designing resilience programmes should ask communities from the outset what they think the programme’s impact will be,” Young said. “For a livestock project, that might be ‘I expect to have x times more milk for my children’.”

Resilience work should also take into account structural inequalities that can affect women in particular, such as a high proportion of female-headed households or low land ownership among women, experts said.


More broadly, the public sector should not shy away from partnering with business to build resilience, panelists said.

“We have a lot to learn from the private sector in terms of taking more risk but getting higher rewards,” said David Howlett, senior policy adviser at the Global Resilience Partnership.

“The challenge from a donor’s perspective is that it’s tricky to measure resilience, and yet we need to demonstrate better value for money with these programmes,” he added.

Young noted that when it comes to humanitarian action, there is a wealth of expertise, but described resilience as “a relatively new area”.

Given its newness, ODI’s Twigg warned against the temptation for development agencies to “depoliticise the debate”.

“We often talk about resilience as if it were value-neutral – it isn’t. There will be winners and there will be losers,” he said.

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