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How to support resilience in 10 not-so-easy steps

Written by Simon Levine


Supporting resilience is one of the most important tasks that aid can undertake. But what started out as a bold statement of a simple truth – that development cannot continue to by-pass the vulnerable and ignore the risks they face every day – has been turned into an esoteric debate. The term has been theorised, given incomprehensible definitions and described in frameworks that we struggle to relate to the real world. Instead, why not try these ten practical steps to supporting resilience?

Step 1: Get the right people in the room

Although resilience has often sat with humanitarian professionals, it is about a longer-term approach to places often hit by crises, and so requires an understanding of longer-term change (‘development’). And because it deals with how people will cope with the future, you also need to understand how different changes will play out in people’s lives, which means talking to political scientists, economists, demographers, climate change experts and many more. In order to understand the lives of crisis-affected people from their own perspective, you’ll have to go beyond the usual lip service to participation or ‘community meetings’ and invest much more time and effort in conversations with the people you want to work with.

Step 2: Focus on the task

Many resilience discussions have tried to conceptual and define resilience. The real task is how best to understand people’s long-term vulnerability and then how to help make future suffering less likely and people better able to make life choices. Use whatever lenses you find useful (e.g. adaptive capacity, risk), but remember that frameworks exist to help you think, not to take over your thoughts.

Step 3: Ask the right questions

Humanitarians understandably usually talk about needs. But resilience isn’t about needs, and it cannot be understood through needs assessments. Resilience is not achieved by giving people what they lack today, but by making sure they can get what they lack for themselves tomorrow. You don’t need a set of new ‘resilience tools’ for this. Just look at the kinds of crisis and constraints which people are likely to face to figure out what has to be done, and the job will guide your choice of tools. Any tool that helps you understand how people fall into or cope with crises can be useful.

Step 4: Look at vulnerabilities and inequalities

Too often we approach vulnerability by putting people into categories (‘the women’, ‘the elderly’). But vulnerability isn’t about categories – it’s about examining why particular people are vulnerable, and what we as external actors can do to help. Think about the social and economic issues – and issues of politics and power. This is not a simple task: it involves probing further than we usually do into the causes of problems. 

For example, it doesn’t really help saying that ‘widows are vulnerable because they often lose their land to in-laws’, and it doesn’t help much more if you explain that this is because, in the local courts, even if the verdicts are in their favour, they are rarely enforced. We need to know why this is so order to do something about it.

Step 5: Think future

You need to make your plans with the future in mind because you’re helping people deal with their futures. We can’t predict the future, but we can prepare for what it could look like.

To make sure that your project itself is resilient against future shocks, it should be able to work in as many future scenarios as possible. Think about different and plausible future scenarios, in as much detail as you can. Talk to the experts you identified in step 1. Think about urbanisation, climate change, migration, globalisation, conflict, technological advances and demographic shifts. Don’t have conversations that talk generically about places, or communities. Understand how different people will be affected in different ways by these processes.

Step 6: Think about what can be done

Keep in mind that there isn’t such a thing as a ‘resilience project’ – there are interventions and policies based on good resilience analysis, which tells you what may help make people be a little more resilient in a given situation. While this analysis involved understanding and input from different sectors, the intervention itself does not need to be multi-sectoral, cross-cutting or attempt to solve everyone’s problems.  It can be rooted in just one discipline, or as many as necessary.

Step 7: Be realistic

You are not going to eliminate food insecurity, conflicts, vulnerability or inequalities, or even make people resilient to all the problems they will likely face in their life. Changing structural vulnerability will usually take time: seeking immediate and unrealistic outcomes may at best lead to disappointment, and at worst prompt aid agencies to give up on resilience and create yet another new and lofty concept equally loaded with unrealistic expectations.

Step 8: Try to think how it could all go wrong

Not all aid projects work out as planned, so try to understand how your project might fail. You’ve carried out a social, economic and political analysis of the problem – now do one for your solution. 

Assume that you will face the same problems the people you are working for have to deal with: you’re in a hostile institutional environment and things will get derailed. All aid projects will suffer attempts at manipulation at many levels – can yours withstand it? Unexpected things will arise. If you design flexibility in from the beginning, you have a much better chance of adapting to whatever the world throws at you. If you can see how your project may well fail but you can’t fix it, then return to step 6 and plan something else.

Step 9: Write it all down and sort out your monitoring

Once you’ve settled on a strong and viable plan, get it all on paper. The richer the description of the complex web of changes you hope to influence, the more you can learn when monitoring the project. The indicators for monitoring and evaluating your resilience project will be based on the documentation of the programme theory (i.e. how you thought change would happen) and analysis.

Step 10: Check back with the people in the room

Check back regularly with the experts you gathered in step 1.  The aid sector has talked about inter-agency collaboration and disseminating lessons learned for decades – now is the time to do it properly.

Aid organisations need to be open and unafraid to share mistakes, lessons and findings – not least because everyone who is trying to help people vulnerable to crisis is part of a wider resilience agenda. And that agenda must keep its roots well-nourished in evidence in order to avoid becoming withered by theory.