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Putting resilience thinking into practice: lessons from World Vision

Written by Emily Wilkinson


In 2011, more than 13 million people in the horn of Africa saw the worst droughts in 25 years and were left without food, water and emergency healthcare. Hundreds of thousands of people fled from Somalia to escape the drought and conflict, with parts of the country afflicted by famine. Two years on, it is not clear whether these communities are any more resilient to droughts, other climate extremes or conflict than they were in 2011.

Building resilience is about helping communities live with uncertainty. It means that investments to help communities deal with external shocks – whether before or after the event – are durable.

By July 2013, the UK public had donated £79 million to the DEC East Africa Appeal, helping 2.3 million people to survive the crisis and begin to rebuild their lives. But questions need to be asked about whether humanitarian and development initiatives are helping people withstand such shocks, and whether aid agencies are changing the way they work to better deal with the increasing frequency and intensity of these events?

Resilience thinking, underlined by Lord Ashdown’s Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) and laid out in the approach paper Defining Disaster Resilience by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), has been taken up enthusiastically and adapted by USAID, the EU, UNDP, the World Bank and UN OCHA, and has become part of development strategies around the globe. DFID, in particular, is trying to join up work on climate-change adaptation, disaster-risk reduction and long-term development, to avoid duplication and save money, but also to promote more enduring development outcomes.

One international NGO that is trying to integrate resilience thinking into development practice is World Vision, and its offices worldwide are developing principles and methods to do just that.

This is not about creating something new to feed the latest development fetish, but about learning from the lessons of more than 60 years of programming experience. World Vision is embracing and trying to understand the complex nature of risk and how social and environmental processes, such as urbanisation, rising food prices, climate variability and the increasing intensity and frequency of climate extremes, compound people’s vulnerability.

The two pillars of this approach are recognition of complex interactions and a dynamic and flexible approach to project design, implementation and evaluation.

Josh Folkema (World Vision Canada), Maggie Ibrahim (World Vision United Kingdom) and myself have discussed the approach being used to operationalise resilience thinking in the working paper World Vision’s Resilience Programming: Adding Value to Development. We describe how World Vision has learned from past programming and changed the way it defines development problems, designs programmes and works across sectors and contexts. The aim is to work with different groups of stakeholders, while trying to embrace the uncertainty and the complexity that surrounds development practice. This includes conducting vulnerability and capacity assessments that take governance issues into account, as well climate-change impacts. It means bringing scenario planning into design processes, making logical frameworks more flexible and focused on outcomes, rather than activities and outputs, and allowing for adaptive management and different potential pathways for implementation.

This focus on outcomes is linked to World Vision’s view that building resilience can empower poor, vulnerable people and improve their entitlements to land and other assets. Many of the interventions outlined in the working paper are designed to be enabling, in that they do more than just provide households with physical or financial assets – they enhance people’s ability to manage evolving risks and address the root causes of vulnerability. Examples include promoting secure land tenure and providing spaces for dialogue with local stakeholders who control access to resources.

Five key policy recommendations emerge from this review of resilience programming.

1.       Recognise that risk reduction requires a dynamic and flexible approach to project design, implementation and evaluation.

2.       Vulnerability and capacity assessments that have a wide variety of stakeholders need to be funded as part of any development initiative, to promote a shared understanding of different risks and their potential impact on livelihoods and projects.

3.       Adaptive management systems are needed that have a focus on outcomes rather than activities, and these require the use of logistical frameworks

4.       Monitoring and evaluation of resilience programmes should be focused on processes and understanding pathways for empowerment, as opposed to a narrow focus on the costs and benefits of specific risk-reduction interventions.

5.       Conflict sensitivity approaches are needed as part of all development initiatives, as development and risk reduction are not power-neutral technical exercises but processes of empowerment.

In short, development practitioners might need to radically alter the way they operate in order to deal with changing risks and empower communities. Only by doing so can they help to ensure that droughts like those seen two years ago in the Horn of Africa, or worse, do not lead to future humanitarian crises.