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The relevance of ‘resilience’?

Briefing/policy papers

Written by Simon Levine, Lilianne Fan

‘Building resilience’ has been invoked as a new principle by the UN, donors and NGOs as a way of preventing unacceptable human fatalities and suffering, reducing the costs of emergency responses and developing the abilities to adapt to climate change.

‘The relevance of resilience?’ acknowledges the concept’s attraction: the moral duty to prevent the most vulnerable from suffering during crises and supporting what people can do for themselves.  However, it is sceptical about how much current thinking about resilience will help achieve this, and it raises concerns about the current ‘resilience optimism’.  The paper argues that current ways of portraying resilience are not useful as a guide in diagnosing  people’s vulnerability, and  are also too vague to help designing any policies or programmes for improving resilience, because they allow anything to be called ‘resilience building’.  Uninformed optimism on resilience, even where there is no reason to believe that that it is possible to  avoid crises and expensive humanitarian assistance, may be dangerous, in particular for the use of humanitarian funds.

The authors argue that what is required is a much bigger body of empirical studies from specific crises, helping us to understand exactly what did give some people more resilience, and helping us to understand what can realistically be achieved in the aftermath of such disasters. 

Key messages

  • The concept of resilience is at the centre of current debates in development, climate change adaptation and humanitarian aid. However, it is not clear what resilience is, or how it can or should be promoted during and after crises.
  • Although it seems self-evident that opportunities to build people’s resilience should be seized, a strong case would be needed to justify diverting humanitarian resources to that end.
  • Far more understanding is needed about what kind of support is most effective and how this can best be delivered.
Simon Levine, Adam Pain, Sarah Bailey and Lilianne Fan