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

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


 Exploring the possible synergies between Climate Change Adaptation, Disaster Risk Reduction and Poverty Reduction.

Our RESILIENCE consortium [1], funded by EuropAidwas set up in 2010 to explore the potential for synergies between these concepts, to analyze the institutional disconnects that hinder these synergies, and finally to identify possible areas for policy development in European institutions. Comprising a non-governmental organization linked to a series of international networks (CARE Nederland), an academic institution (the Disaster Studies Center of Wageningen University) and an operational research and evaluation think tank (Groupe URD), the RESILIENCE consortium has been exploring the different facets of these issues, their possible integration and the institutional prerequisites to make integration work. Our research has shown that integrating Disaster Risk Reduction, Climate Change Adaptation and Poverty Reduction is far from obvious: though an attractive idea, there are also some drawbacks. When we started the RESILIENCE project in 2010, the idea of integrating the three fields was relatively new, and even today it is not yet part of the mainstream. Our three field studies in Indonesia, Bolivia and Ethiopia and the series of workshops we carried out in these three countries and in Brussels helped us to identify a number of lessons in relation to what works and what does not.

Diagnosis: why integration is needed

Compartmentalization is a state of mind: it allows us to see concepts in isolation from each other rather than in relation to each other (Kemp, 2004). This is typical of organizations structured like machine bureaucracies, which function on the basis of categories or ‘boxes’ (Mintzberg, 1983). Not only European and national agencies but also NGOs and large businesses can work in this way. This logic has been adopted by a host of organizations in order to access funds and organize their accountability system; it is a way of getting things funded and being accountable. As a result, it can easily incite project workers to look ‘upwards’ to please donors, rather than ‘downwards’, to optimize links with the realities on the ground. Of course people working in said ‘bureaucracies’ are not ignorant of the problems of compartmentalization. They themselves need to be increasingly resilient: donors and NGOs will need to adapt to a changing political climate (CCA); they themselves are faced with budget cuts (PR) due to declining popular and financial support; and they themselves need to prevent disastrous projects (DRR).

However, a conceptual change seems vital as, in practice, the reality on the ground is more integrated and holistic. At the operational level, adhering to separate domains can lead to counterproductive contradictions and duplication of efforts (Gero et al., 2011).

Thus, sending different teams to the field, each working separately either on DRR, on CCA or on PR projects, without linking with each other is a) very confusing for local communities who live in multi-risk environments and are simultaneously impacted by interrelated shocks, b) not very efficient for organizations who multiply efforts by working in the same area, towards the same goal, but with different conceptual backgrounds, approaches and sources of funding and c) masking some of the real issues. There is increasing evidence that climate change is taking place, but debates continue in some circles about its causes. Many believe in the hypothesis that climate change is responsible for the increased number of extreme climatic events, the growing vulnerability of many agro-ecosystems, the degraded resilience of many urban contexts and poverty while others still feel that there is not enough evidence to support this idea.

Moreover, the separation of DRR, CCA and PR projects during a response can seem artificial. A project like building a water tank or basin may be funded under each of the three headings – as Climate Change Adaptation (storage for future scarcity), as Disaster Risk Reduction (to counter effects of drought) and as Poverty Reduction (for tank-irrigated agricultural production). This example illustrates the discursive flexibility and fungibility of the three areas, which as policy fields are much more distinct.
The distinction is even less obvious if we stop looking upward, to what we think donors and policymakers want, and instead look at the intended beneficiaries of aid projects. A growing literature (e.g. Van Aalst 2006, O’Brien et al. 2004, Gero 2011) is starting to address the integration between climate change and disaster risk reduction, at policy and operational levels: community-based CCA and DRR and climate-smart DRR. Another trend in the literature is to link disaster relief and rehabilitation to development (LRRD) and climate change to development. As the practitioners from the fields of DRR, CCA and PR we interviewed between November 2011 and February 2012 told us, it is not enough to provide weather forecasts and to build cyclone shelters, livelihoods need to be taken into account. And clean drinking water needs to be available or the people will be too ill to organize themselves... to tackle hazards.

While we commend the conceptual breakthrough, based on our experiences in the field as part of the RESILIENCE project, we argue for a more radical desegregation of these domains. The aforementioned literature implicitly tends to assume that local people (have to) recognize and experience climate change and disasters the way aid workers do, or would like them to do. We encountered ‘climate awareness’ in Ethiopia but not in Indonesia, whereas in Bolivia people did not always experience floods as ‘disasters’, especially when they are frequent. Indeed the cosmology of local people may not differentiate between nature and culture, between internal and external sources of risk. Planned interventions may therefore not resonate with the intended beneficiaries. A local focus, talking to various local stakeholders, putting project beneficiaries at centre stage, also compels us to question taken-for-granted categories. While aid practitioners and donors routinely assign labels such as ‘vulnerability’, ‘disaster’, ‘climate change’, ‘resilience’, these concepts may have little local resonance, or take on a different meaning. It would therefore be essential to have these conversations before a project gets tendered and funded.

This is all the more relevant since, as noted in the workshop organized by CARE Nederland, Groupe URD and WUR Disaster Studies in Brussels in November 2011, it is vital to invest funds intended for crisis relief beforehand, before crises unfold, rather than needing to do the paperwork in the midst of an emergency. This requires ongoing dialogue with communities at risk and a willingness on the part of donors to take risks. Above all, it also calls into question the enduring disconnect between humanitarian and development donors, who will have to overcome considerable institutional hurdles, historical claims and ‘path dependencies’.