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

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


 Towards resilience?

’Resilience’ is an interesting label to describe the integration of CCA, DRR and PR, as it starts from people’s own capabilities and potential. It is being hailed as a welcome positive antidote to the negative fixation on people’s ‘vulnerability’ which dominated the disaster sector in the 1990s and early 2000s and a certain view of people as passive victims.

The interviews, however, revealed resilience to be a controversial concept which might create more confusion than enlightenment. It seems to be going the way of “sustainable development” or “governance”, meaning all things to all people, and as a result, there is a risk that it will become an empty shell. While in ecology it is descriptive and rather Darwinian – adapt or perish - in development circles it has taken on a prescriptive, normative meaning, as a desirable quality (cf. Brand and Jax, 2010 for a typology of usage). A very practical finding from our workshops is that resilience does not translate very well into other languages: whether in Indonesia, Bolivia or Ethiopia. Moreover, you always need to ask what form of resilience (resilient to what?) and whose resilience we are talking about?. The resilience of the whole does not mean the resilience of its parts, and vice versa. Moreover, we cannot assume the ’parts’ to be closely coupled to the ‘whole’ The remote areas we visited in Indonesia and Bolivia have little or no links with the formal state and NGO support system, or to markets: when the radio is broken, that’s it. The formal money economy has little importance in the local subsistence economy. We therefore prefer to take a local focus.

In a descriptive sense, resilience is a sign of realism: even in welfare states, the burden of adapting and responding to risk always lies with the local people first (Kirschenbaum, 2004). Yet as a normative concept, resilience has conservative connotations (bouncing back rather than facilitating change; the assumption that people need to adapt rather than facilitating the adaptation of circumstances to people), while the ‘development trap’ has admittedly left certain beneficiaries dependent and opportunistic, leaving people to their own devices is not necessarily liberating for those who do not have a great degree of freedom of action when faced with risk.

A facilitating approach to ‘resilience’, helping people to help themselves (also cf. O’Brien, 2008) might do more justice to the concept, as it points at the role public- and private-sector actors can play in supporting these local capabilities.


There is a strong case to be made for conceptual and practical integration of DRR, CCA and PR – a development that seems long overdue in a compartmentalized aid community. However, though breaking through boundaries is appealing as a goal, it is very hard to achieve. Different types of organization have different integration needs, capabilities and logics, and the transaction costs of breaking with the past are considerable. While sensible and attractive as an idea, there is still scant empirical evidence of successful integration. Radical decompartmentalization carries transaction costs and implementation challenges. We should perhaps therefore refrain from pursuing an all-inclusive, integrated ‘nirvana’ and explore the merits of integration-lite.

Resilience is the flavour of the day, and represents a welcome positive outlook on human potential to cope with past, present and future adversity. It does not cover everything we need, but as we cannot ignore its current dominance, we will stick with it for want of something better and we will advocate a facilitating, programmatic approach. Let us keep in mind that resilience is the goal, not the means – and that integration is the means, not the goal.


Jeroen Warner (Wageningen University) and François Grünewald (Groupe URD)

With contributions from Nienke Bilo (Wageningen University), Jolien van der Steen and Wouter Bokdam (CARE Nederland), and Eve Schneider (Groupe URD)

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.


The 8th Autumn School, to be held 29-31 October 2012 at Groupe URD’s headquarters in Plaisians (Drôme Provençale, France), will address the resislience issue