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Finally, things have got interesting!

Written by Simon Levine


For months we’ve had a terribly worthy and earnest consensus about resilience. Differences of opinion, but all prefaced by saying ‘we all’ really agree about what we should be doing, we just have different frameworks for defining it. The ‘we all’ grew – resilience brought together humanitarians and development agencies, then climate change experts, then social protection advocates, and so on… But now we finally have a disagreement about principle, made much more fun because each side has used ‘principled’ as an insult, as if lacking them were a badge of honour in a pragmatic world.

Three MSF authors have blamed ‘resilience’ for undermining humanitarian action, because those who should worry about saving lives have instead been co-opted into a donors’ agenda of propping up states (aka stabilisation) and doing things on the cheap looking for value for money. Paul Harvey of Humanitarian Outcomes can’t see anything wrong when humanitarian agencies, working in crises that go on for decades, think longer term or about the ‘systems’ they work in (and more importantly, the ‘systems’ the people they work for live in). MSF countered that states are active parties in conflicts: if you work with them, you can’t deliver aid where and for whom it’s most needed. And they said that where there are pressing and life-threatening problems, it is wrong to worry about the long term.

Name-calling aside, both sides are to be congratulated for getting the debate onto something much more serious than, for example, formulae for quantifying resilience-capacity-building. And without wanting to spoil the fun of disagreement, there is much truth in both sides.

Development is about choices a society makes on how to create and share out resources – so it’s always inherently political. So is resilience – I've said before that if a resilience framework doesn’t have ‘power’ all over it, then its only place is in the bin. Humanitarianism, on the other hand, advances the case for impartial action, either on principle (because some fundamental human needs should be met whoever you are) or on grounds of pragmatism (because only by staying away from politics will everyone let you get on with the job). The problem comes when we add a third proposition, the long-accepted accusation that a major failing of the international aid system is that humanitarian action is too often undertaken in a void, without a link to development. (This argument is often called ‘LRRD’ ). Paul has no problem with this – MSF, like everyone else, must deal with state political systems, he says. The MSF blog, though, calls foul on the LRRD argument – “humanitarian and development aid are deliberately in contradiction”, it says, because humanitarianism is only about people and must never be linked to ‘systems’.

The only answer to this is - ‘why?’. Both sides overstate their cases. Though the formal legal obligation to get a government’s permission to work is usually respected, it is good to remind Paul that there are many conflicts where we need some agencies to act independently of state institutions. On the other hand, this is not an argument against humanitarian action having any links to states and systems, or against having one eye (but yes, not two) on the longer term. MSF is right to say that a (political) resilience framework can’t be the basis for planning your humanitarian response, and right, I think, to criticise some of the resilience discussions which are encouraging this. However, that is a long way from arguing that humanitarian action and development action need to be kept at arm’s length. It’s for development actors to ensure that everyone can cope with the difficulties that life throws their way, but where crises are frequent or long-lasting, they must think and plan together with those engaged in relief. Development shouldn’t happen without understanding who falls into crisis, and emergency and development strategies shouldn’t undermine each other.

Paul’s assertion that others in the international humanitarian system find a resilience framework useful may be correct, but he should join MSF in warning those others how far to use those frameworks themselves – emergency response should not be based on resilience strategies. The flag of resilience belongs to those concerned with longer-term development to rally support for thinking (more) about crises: it is not a call for those providing emergency relief to stop work and start holding workshops. The MSF blog was right to criticise those who argued that you build people’s resilience by making them pay for treatment they can’t afford (just as I used to fume against those who argued that you would undermine the ‘sustainability’ of a IDP camp in Northern Uganda if the IDPs weren’t made to ‘feel ownership’ of their de facto prison by paying to repair the water pumps). These examples show a dangerously ideological use of sustainability or resilience, but every cause has its crazy zealots and no flag provides immunity against wrong-headed thinking. In short, MSF’s example highlights the danger of bad programmes – not necessarily of resilience programmes. MSF will surely agree that the silliness was not in trying to combine long term and short term thinking – it was in failing to combine the two, and using only a long term perspective where both were needed.

I think it is equally unhelpful to argue, as both MSF and Paul do, in binary terms of either engaging with people (i.e. being humanitarian) or with states (ie doing development or resilience). Why is resilience equated with state building? And why is a long term perspective necessarily about working with states rather than people? You can (and should) also support resilience by working with people directly, with markets, with trade unions, with traditional authorities and many others. Many problems with international development aid lie in deep rooted state-centric paradigms. But that’s a story for another day.