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Humanitarian Aid on the move #10, special issue: Sahel

Resilience: buzz word or useful concept?
François Grünewald - Jeroen Warner

The currently fashionable term of ‘resilience’ is a positive antidote to the negative connotation of ‘vulnerability’ as it refers to the potential and capacities of each community. Nevertheless, the concept remains controversial. Everyone seems to have their own definition of ‘resilience’, and there is a risk that rather than bringing clarity, it will only bring confusion. Though improving the capacity of communities to resist shocks is a common objective of organizations working in different operational sectors, does this concept help them to work together and improve their coordination? Rather than considering climate change, natural disasters and poverty to be independent problems, combining and linking these three areas could, theoretically, contribute to meeting the challenges related to risk and change which have a direct impact on the lives and work of local communities. But to what extent can these three areas be combined? What are the risks and opportunities of doing so? Will this allow resilience to be strengthened? With each community seeming to have its own specific way of understanding what is behind our labels, what effect do these concepts have at the local level?

In the last few years, there has been a growing number of disasters, often the consequence of “extreme climatic events”, be it violent hurricanes, large scale floods or repeated devastating droughts. Climate change may well augment the magnitude of these events, increase their frequency and aggravate their impact. In many areas, the poorer the population, the more it is affected by these events: slum dwellers in the typhoon belt of Asia, destitute pastoral populations, migrants, etc. Similarly, large-scale destruction has been caused by tectonic phenomena affecting planned and unplanned densely populated urban settlements, where establishing codes of construction and norms has been the least of the concerns of the national and local authorities. In addition, many smaller events of all kinds pose considerable challenges that disrupt livelihoods, especially for those who have few resources and alternatives to fall back on.

In this context, integrating Disaster Risk Reduction, Climate Change Adaptation and Poverty Reduction initiatives under one umbrella seems a timely idea, in that it seeks to counter a fragmented, project-based approach. In principle, integrating these three areas could help to tackle the challenges of everyday risk and change which are affecting people’s lives and livelihoods in a more coordinated manner, rather than seeing them as separate problems.

A number of initiatives have currently emerged to put this idea into practice, such as Climate-Smart Disaster Risk Management (community.eldis.org/scr) and the integration of adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development (Southampton). IRC, the water and sanitation people at Delft, recently published a report entitled ‘Adaptation... to climate change and other sources of risk’ (Batchelor et al., 2011).

Not all of these approaches are equally successful. For example, the IPCC’s recent attempt to integrate climate change and disasters in their 2010 report, while commendable, was limited to an economic perspective. Yet, clearly something is going on: the growing literature on integration is bound to have an impact on the way aid is programmed and organizations are designed. Is this a good idea, and how far can it be taken?