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

Resilience: a buzzword and a useful concept
Summary of the discussions

Key word: Point of view / Resilience /

The following text is a summary of around 6 hours of discussion from workshops. It contains the points of view of the participants who chose the discussion topics via the Open Space method.

 Concept and definitions

Due to the many debates and questions which surround the concept of resilience and its usefulness for development and humanitarian programmes, we should first of all clarify where it comes from and what it means.

In relation to humanitarian action, this concept emerged in 2005 during the Kobé conference (and the Hyogo Framework for Action), then became firmly established in 2010 with the evaluation of British aid (DFID HRR report), and is now omnipresent.

However, in the fields of psychology and ecology, resilience is a much older concept. In psychology, the concept is very closely linked to the concept of trauma as it is related to a single question: why do certain people experience trauma and others not when faced with the same experience? Probably because experiences take place within people who go through an ordeal, and not the event itself. A distinction can therefore be made between two factors which contribute to resilience:

  • The previous condition (the immune system, the level of peace, the capacity and support systems which existed before the event).
  • Adaptation strategies, the way that individuals or families manage traumatising experiences (certain strategies being effective and others self-destructive).

Why has this concept suddenly become so important for humanitarian action? Is it because of its ability to reinforce the capacity of individuals and households to resist shocks, the capacity of institutions to anticipate and prepare for crisis management, promote community self-management or combine multidimensional knowledge systems and promote a learning culture? Is it because of its ability to create links between the different parts of the international aid system in a coherent way? Is it because it can be a new source of funding for aid programmes?

There are numerous semantic debates about the definition of resilience, and academics will probably be debating this subject for a long time. But, at a practical level, certain elements are relatively well defined, such as the capacity to anticipate, prepare, manage, recover after natural disasters, and bounce back, or even “move forward”. Methodological tools have also been developed and make it possible to agree on an operational translation of the concept . Indeed, it is important to analyse vulnerability and the types of risks to which people are resilient, with a contextual approach.

Analysing situations through the lens of resilience changes our perception: it leads to a significant, and even vital, paradigm shift, by not considering populations as vulnerable poeple who need aid but as a group of individuals, households and communities with coping strategies. The fact remains that the aid system still often focuses on the vulnerabilities and needs of communities, and develops extremely sophisticated (and expensive) mechanisms to record and analyse these. Very little effort has been made to analyse the capacities and way that individuals can be supported before and during crises. The concept of resilience obliges us to concentrate on these capacities and the environment that can favour them. This allows the negative connotations of the notion of vulnerability to be transformed into a more positive and dignified approach. Ideally, resilience could also contribute to making the humanitarian system obsolete: if dramatic events take place, communities and local institutions will be able to cope with the shocks themselves.