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Humanitarian Aid on the move #11, special issue: Resilience

Resilience across mandates
Presentation by Robert Glasser

What is the connection between poverty reduction, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation? Over the years development organisations have evolved from thinking and working in various “silos”: infrastructure, HIV-AIDS, education, etc., to a more holistic approach that considers the needs of communities and opportunities to scale-up our impacts from local to national or even regional levels. How can apprehending action from a resilience perspective contribute to improving the quality of aid?

Is resilience a buzzword, or is it a meaningful term? What does it mean operationally? One of the challenges raised by resilience is to try to fit it into our way of looking at things: there are poor, marginalised communities that we are trying to help become less poor and marginalised. Aid organisations, as well as governments, only have a limited amount of money to apply to development challenges. How do we spend the money? There are different ways of looking at the priorities: disaster risk reduction should be the priority, as after all, it is more efficient to focus on reducing the risk than it is to simply respond to emergencies. Climate change adaptation is also a priority because we are clearly heading into dangerous climate change and if we don’t help poor communities to adapt, it is going to overwhelm everything we are trying to do. And then, of course humanitarian response is also a priority, because populations need urgent support to recover from disasters. And longer-term poverty reduction is also important, as poverty increases vulnerability to disasters, including those exacerbated by climate change.

How do we integrate these concepts? We can take the example of “Environment”, which first was highlighted as a stand-alone issue by aid agencies and then ultimately “mainstreamed” into the overall aid programme. A starting point should be an analysis of poverty and vulnerability, including vulnerability to disasters and climate change, within a particular country, province or community. The question is: what does a focus on “resilience” contribute to this analysis of poverty and vulnerability in particular contexts? Does a focus on resilience add anything to the increasingly comprehensive analyses that agencies are currently undertaking (which include a focus on vulnerability to disasters, climate change and short and long-term priorities for poverty reduction)? Does it suggest a different methodology? Does it provide different tools to help improve the quality of this analysis? “Resilience” remains a vague concept unless we can answer these questions.

We also need to keep in mind the many different players and country contexts. There are aid agencies, foreign direct investment from the private sector, and contexts ranging from countries with thriving civil societies and functioning governments, to failed states in conflict. There are also countries that regularly experience humanitarian disasters, Bangladesh for instance, which are therefore more open to discussing (and allocating resources to) DRR and others that rarely experience major humanitarian disasters and are therefore less receptive.

Even with analytical ambiguity around the concept of resilience, it does suggest two important opportunities. First, it creates an opportunity for agencies such as CARE, governments and others to take a critical look at the way we organise ourselves for humanitarian, DRR, climate change and longer-term poverty-fighting work. There are clearly silos within organisations in these areas and opportunities for improved efficiency and a focus on “resilience” makes having this discussion easier and more likely. Similarly, clearly donors are very interested in the concept of resilience, so there are possible opportunities for funding to consider as well—although, given that financial constraints on national budgets can limit the provision of new funding, other parts of aid budgets could simply be re-assigned to resilience.

Fundamentally, though, the key challenge is to clarify how a focus on resilience improves the current best practice in analysing where and how to invest scarce funds to address the numerous challenges facing poor communities.

Text based on the presentation by Robert Glasser
Secretary General, CARE International