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Analysis: Coping with climate change

26 January 2012

JOHANNESBURG, 25 January 2012 (IRIN) - In the past five years, “resilience” (the ability to absorb shocks and recover) has become quite a buzzword in the aid community. Discussions on adapting to a changing climate are increasingly peppered with the “need to build resilience” of people, infrastructure and governments in the face of shocks such as soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, severe storms and flooding.

In a review of its humanitarian operations (HERR), the UK government was among the first donors to place resilience at the centre of its “approach both to longer-term development and to emergency response” and announced its intention to scale-up work on resilience.

Aid experts and NGOs provide various reasons for the growing popularity and emergence of resilience as a concept. Some are sceptical. But they all agree it is a positive approach that will bring the worlds of development and humanitarian aid closer.

What does resilience mean in the aid world?

Some call it just another addition to the growing aid jargon. But mostly people call it a new approach, a “lens”, which has given new meaning to “sustainable development”.

Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and co-ordinating lead author of the summary of the special report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change (SREX) produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2011 explains it thus: Under the conventional sustainable development approach, if a road had to be constructed in a rural area, benefits - such as the impact on the lives of the communities living alongside, creation of job opportunities from the maintenance of the road and development of markets for the farming community - would have been taken into consideration.

This is what Peter Walker, a leading aid expert, calls the “linear” approach. The old development models “made projections into the future from recent trends and assumed that, all other things being equal, life would get better”.

But with a resilience lens on, the government or aid agency responsible for the road will consider the possibility of external shocks or unexpected developments that might affect the road and people’s lives. “What if the area becomes prone to floods or if there is an earthquake, what if food prices increase because the contractors are better off than the local population? [These] would be some of the factors that the project would now consider,” explains Van Aalst.

The SREX defines resilience as “the ability of a system and its component parts to anticipate, absorb, accommodate, or recover from the effects of a hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner, including through ensuring the preservation, restoration, or improvement of its essential basic structures and functions”.

A much simpler definition is offered by Simon Levine, a member of the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance (ACCRA), a consortium of NGOs and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), where he is a research fellow: “It is the ability [of people, systems] to maintain their well-being.”

Paul Cook, Tearfund’s director of policy, says the climate change community in its efforts to integrate “resilience to climate change across all development sectors”, is seeking a definition of resilience or “strengthened development" that is broad and “ensures communities and ecosystems have the capacity to adapt to uncertain change”.


As we come to understand the complexity of systems more and as we have evidence that we control only a small part of how these systems evolve

Tom Mitchell, head of climate change at ODI and also an SREX co-ordinating lead author, agrees, suggesting that “the HERR’s decision to foreground resilience has helped to generate new conversations between those working on risks to development, meaning new connections are being made between conflict, disaster, financial and climate risk management that were not happening to anywhere near the same extent before the HERR came out. This can only be a good thing.”

Why the focus on resilience now?

Brian Walker, one of the world’s first resilience scientists, says the increasing realization that people are unable to control factors, such as earthquakes, or influence certain situations, such as long-running conflicts, or halt man-made climate change have forced them to consider this approach.

“The world leaders and the global institutions we have at present are simply unable to slow down the changes in greenhouse gases, growing antibiotic resistance, ocean acidification, loss of forests, etc,” he wrote in an email to IRIN.

The development and humanitarian community of the 1970s and 1980s were optimistic, believing that given enough time and money for innovation, all the problems in the world could be fixed, says Peter Walker, who heads the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University. But that optimism has been ebbing in the past few years, fuelled by unresolved conflicts such as in Afghanistan.

“As we come to understand the complexity of systems more and as we have evidence that we control only a small part of how these systems evolve, planners’ goals shift from ‘forcing’ systems along a path they determine, to seeking ways to nudge systems into states that will withstand shock.”

But others like Tom Bigg, a development policy expert at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), see the reason for the shift as partly political and to do with basic rights. He thinks the resilience approach is about looking for solutions within (a person, system or a country) that make it more empowering than the previous development approach where “people were passive victims for whom change was determined externally”.

Richard Klein, a scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), who is leading the work on adaptation for the IPCC’s next assessment, says the increasing use of the word resilience “has to do with the positive connotation it has. ‘Enhancing resilience' sounds better as a policy objective than 'reducing vulnerability', although by and large they would involve the same activities.”

Where does the concept fit into an aid system?

The resilience theory developed in 1973 by Buzz Holling, an ecologist, exists in all disciplines – economists look at how markets reorganize themselves after shocks, political scientists consider how fragile countries recover after war and so on. The study of resilience is a multi-disciplinary science.

It is difficult to trap resilience in a silo of its own, says ODI’s Levine. Its usefulness lies in the fact that it has built bridges between the worlds of development, relief and disaster risk reduction – as the goal of all these sectors is to produce individuals, communities, countries or any system able to withstand shocks, he said.

Its application differs.

Some view it as similar to the participatory, consultative approach - where existing communities’ capacity and expectations to cope and recover are taken into account when planning disaster risk reduction programmes. NGOs such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent have been working with this approach for the last few years.


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The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has developed projects that enhance resilience to disasters. For instance, in the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) that covers 7.8 million people in Ethiopia by providing regular and predictable cash and food transfers, DFID has introduced a new risk financing mechanism. This allows the programme to expand in times of shock such as a particularly long dry season, for longer periods or to cover more people.

In the past five years there have been increased efforts to integrate adaptation and disaster risk reduction as both "aim to reduce the impacts of shocks by anticipating risks and addressing vulnerabilities". IPCC’s SREX was an attempt to do that. Then there have also been efforts to integrate the two into development planning and practice, says Van Aalst. “Resilience is often used as a convenient umbrella concept that captures some of this integration.”

Funding issues

There is no separate funding for resilience. But a specific project within a single sector like the risk financing mechanism in Ethiopia’s PSNP could possibly find openings. DFID has started looking at it from a disaster resilience and conflict perspective. According to Tearfund’s Cook, “It will obviously be challenging to try to channel money for building up resilience across the whole range of sectors in a coherent way but, for us, it would seem counterproductive to establish stand-alone resilience initiatives,” he added. After all it is a concept that looks at things in totality.

Partners in Resilience is a five-year project run in five countries which integrates risk-reduction, adaptation and environmental protection using resilience as an umbrella, bringing NGOs such as the Netherlands Red Cross, Care, Wetlands International, CORDAID and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre together. But the project raised the money by aligning its objectives with that of the Netherlands Development Aid – in this case it was poverty alleviation, civil society building and so on.

The problems

Van Aalst raises two concerns. The real problem around implementation concerns capacity and scale. “It is easy to run pilot projects and try to influence change but initiatives like these need to be scaled-up to make a difference. And if you want to scale-up you need capacity and you need to keep the objectives simple and not confuse people on the ground with yet another term." He suggested being realistic about the kind of outcomes sought from a project.

The other problem was the word might hide the underlying causes of vulnerability, particularly inequalities, he said. "The causes of vulnerability are often closely related to development decisions that create vulnerability." For instance, the creation of urban slums in areas exposed to environmental risks such as river banks.

Ultimately, as Klein points out, "I don't believe in the possibility of rationally calculating the optimal level of preparedness/adaptation/resilience of society. There is no such thing as zero risk; the level of risk a society is exposed to is a social and political decision."