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Why building national resilience means reimagining risk

Written by Rebecca Nadin

This week the Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP gave a speech outlining plans for a Call for Evidence for the UK’s National Resilience Strategy. The Call for Evidence emphasises the need to “improve our ability to both predict and adapt to identified and unexpected challenges”, and clearly acknowledges that “the UK’s resilience is closely entwined with the wider global context and not determined only by action within our national borders”.

While this is a welcome step and represents a shift in thinking, such statements need to be echoed and actioned across the whole of government. This is because emerging global threats – severe environmental degradation including climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, antibiotic resistance, economic and financial instability, transnational criminal and terrorism networks, cyber disinformation, disruptions and attacks, geopolitical volatility and conflict – have the potential to completely alter socio-economic, environmental and political systems throughout the world. They challenge efforts to reduce poverty, move to low-carbon economies, build peace and strengthen social inclusion.

The nature of today’s global threats

These global threats share key common characteristics. As we have witnessed with the Covid-19 pandemic, they are: interconnected; they cross borders; they are transitional, shifting socioeconomic, technological and environmental systems; they are transformational, with the potential to radically change societies and alter the status quo; and may occur simultaneously, in a single country or across many.

As the Rt Hon MP indicated, they are creating a 21st century risk landscape that is highly complex. However, this risk landscape is one where we are increasingly blind-sided, not only by the immediate impacts resulting from the threats themselves, but also by the cascading impacts as these threats intersect. And perhaps even more importantly, one in which our own responses to threats or efforts to promote resilience are also generating positive and negative feedback.

For example, previous ODI research looking at Niger and Myanmar assessed how multiple, simultaneous threats interact with policies and highlighted potential trade-offs in the context of Myanmar’s REDD+ policy, aimed at mitigating climate change by protecting the country’s forests.

It also explored the impact of divergent risk perceptions around security and illicit economies on international and national policy priorities in Niger. Both case studies pointed to the risk of exacerbating tensions through failure to account for socio-political inequalities in policies and programmes looking to tackle perceived threats and risks.

The danger of siloed approaches to risk management

Perhaps the greatest concern is that in the post-Covid-19 world, we will return to traditional siloed approaches of risk management, governance and resilience building.

We must avoid pursuing policies and programmes that only build resilience to one set of threats and risks, while ignoring the need to consider systemic risks and simultaneously build resilience to climate change, economic instability, conflict and cyber disinformation, amongst others.

Five recommendations for a UK National Resilience Strategy

Responding to this 21st century risk landscape calls for a paradigm shift away from siloed approaches to integrated humanitarian, climate and disaster risk reduction, security and development programming and policy.

It calls for an integrated approach that can better anticipate, learn from and build resilience to simultaneously occurring shocks and emerging risks, while seizing opportunities from existing and new innovations. Any future UK National Resilience Strategy needs to move towards building systems resilience by:

  • Accounting for multiple occurring threats and the complex risks they create.
  • Considering new innovations and opportunities, or novel application of existing solutions and how these could be applied in diverse contexts.
  • Stress testing programing and policies to disruptions to understand how interventions can withstand a range of shocks, to learn from these shocks, to work out how to adapt solutions and approaches quickly.
  • Being cognisant of the risk preferences (where each stakeholder, from policy-makers, to company CEOs or the general public, will have variable perceptions about the severity of potential risks and may ignore or discount risks when benefits are perceived to be greater to their decision context) and priorities of policy-makers and citizens that ultimately drive decision-making and implementation of resilience approaches.
  • Avoiding negative feedback loops by understanding the trade-offs of our policy and development programming response measures, while enhancing and upscaling positive loops.

We need to become much more cognisant of the true nature and characteristics of the 21st century risk landscape. As our research shows, we also need to make our rational starting point an innate acknowledgment that no matter how well targeted our actions and interventions are, they will have multiple intended and unintended consequences. Only then can we start to find the courage to ask the right questions instead of the easy ones: Do I really understand the short- and long-term implications of my risk management decisions? How can I adapt to the evolving risk landscape? What do we need to change about standard approaches that are consistently failing? Do we have a 21st century mindset?

Towards a risk-informed approach

Addressing complex risks requires policy and legislative coherence within local, regional and global frameworks. However, policy, programming and financing architecture for risk management is deeply fragmented. As is allocation of resources and the political accountability at the national level, which often lies with sectoral ministries. Let’s hope that any future UK National Resilience Strategy addresses this fragmentation and builds a coherent framework through which we perceive, understand and tolerate risk. ODI’s Risk-Informed Development (RID) approach puts forward a risk-based framework and suggests key steps that can be adopted to move beyond threat identification and towards truly resilient policymaking.

If carefully managed, financed and operationalised, the UK National Resilience Strategy could be a catalyst for the birth of a 21st century risk management mindset. This is one that embraces systems thinking, and enables us to consider how multiple threats interact and how we can build resilience by ensuring our risk mitigation policies and programmes do not lead to unintended, cascading consequences.

Climate change has so far not had this effect but maybe Covid-19 can.