What can resilience do for us?

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How can we use resilience to do development and humanitarian work differently and in ways that truly make societies work for and with people living in poverty? Helen Jeans, Oxfam’s Resilience and Climate Change Adaptation Adviser, explains why Oxfam is hosting a symposium on resilience and invites you to join the event in Oxford from 27-28 June 2017.

Two girls in Jocotan, Guatemala. Climate change has had catastrophic affects on the livelihoods of coffee farmers in the region. Credit: Saul Martinez / Oxfam

Register for the Resilient Solutions symposium

 

There is nothing new about the unexpected in politics but is there a new willingness to collaborate and cooperate for the global good? Are we now acting from an intuition that we really cannot afford to lose ‘the skills of cooperation needed to make a complex society work’ as Richard Sennett has warned.

The concept of ‘resilience’, put simply, the capacity to manage change, entered mainstream development practice in the last five years – it is an idea that can help or hinder us
This month Oxfam will co-host a symposium event – Resilient Solutions: Strengthening collaboration in a time of change. We chose this theme before President Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and community, city, state and world leaders stood together to recommit to it.

Development and humanitarian actors from the public and private sectors and from civil society want to make complex societies work for people living in poverty. The concept of ‘resilience’, put simply, the capacity to manage change, entered mainstream development practice in the last five years – it is an idea that can help or hinder us.

Resilience is now integrated into development and humanitarian frameworks through the UN’s sustainable development goals and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. In the development and humanitarian sector resilience embraces a range of ideas from understanding and addressing risk through social safety nets, insurance and disaster risk reduction to building new forms of partnerships and institutions that are able to continuously learn and adapt to respond to new and emerging challenges and opportunities.

Challenges to the resilience approach

The new discipline of ‘measuring resilience’ shows that development and humanitarian programmes must proactively learn by doing… but such an adaptive approach doesn’t fit easily with the need for greater accountability
Resilience detractors rightly argue that a resilient woman or man can also be and often is, still poor. And worse than this, resilience sometimes implies that poor households and communities are solely responsible for coping with shocks which have been caused by other, far more powerful actors.

Others argue the concept is simply too vague and/or too contested to be of any practical use. Or that it is a distraction from dealing with core development challenges such as women’s empowerment, inequality, water scarcity or soil degradation.

And then there is the challenge of assessing whether an intervention has increased or decreased resilience! The new discipline of ‘measuring resilience’ shows that development and humanitarian programmes must proactively learn by doing to notice and address unintended consequences – but such an adaptive approach doesn’t fit easily with the need for greater accountability in development aid and practice.

How is resilience useful to us?

People who support the idea of resilience argue that it has made practitioners more aware of the impact of shocks and stresses resulting from climate change, conflict, natural disasters, disease and accidents on the lives of women and men and the development pathways of States. They hope this awareness will provide a conceptual link between development and humanitarian interventions.

if understood properly resilience will radically transform development and humanitarian practice so that it gives less to people but rather supports people’s inherent capacity
Resilience is improving our understanding of the ways women and men are vulnerable and how vulnerability is created through marginalisation, social norms, and the inequality of power and participation. And practitioners are drawing on ideas from resilience science such as social-ecological systems, system transformation, tipping points and panarchy (how change happens at different speeds at different levels of a system) to develop new theories of change and intervention strategies.

Resilience is seen as a useful boundary concept that supports the kind of innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration that is needed to address the complex challenge of doing development in fragile contexts.

I would argue that if understood properly resilience will radically transform development and humanitarian practice so that it gives less to people but rather supports people’s inherent capacity to shape and direct their own development.

Resilient Solutions symposium, Oxford, 27- 28 June 2017

Do you work on resilience issues in international development? If so I invite you to register to join with other practitioners and experts discussing the challenge of resilience in Oxford in just two weeks time.

Our event will be opened by Professor Rosalind Cornforth, director of the Walker Institute and a climate scientist whose passion for making climate science relevant to women and men living in poverty has made her a champion of collaboration starting with walking alongside people whose lives and livelihoods are impacted by climate change.

Day one

On day one we will briefly look at how the humanitarian system is transforming to meet new challenges and how urbanisation is using and challenging the idea of resilience. We will also learn about innovations in water and sanitation and social protection. Our main plenary will ask – how do we do development differently when we accept the reality of new norms like ‘drought’ in South Africa? We will draw on Oxfam South Africa’s recent study – A Harvest of Dysfunction – to unpack the complex layers of a real and current development and humanitarian challenge, and explore together – what resilience has to offer and what more we need to do.

Day two

On the morning of day two we will look at what it means to work collaboratively as researchers and practitioners. We are offering two learning labs, one on partnerships and another on research pathways to impact. Our main plenary will explore the role of governance in resilience by looking at a number of case studies that address governance in different ways. We will conclude the symposium by looking at the role of evidence in developing good practice – by considering recent evidence on the role of insurance in resilience and hearing about the latest developments in measuring resilience.

We will ask people to tweet about their insights using #ResOxford and blog on this site so that our discussions will ripple out across our networks of influence.

Our aim is to experience the fun of cooperation and to enjoy lively, thoughtful, and creative interactions that can lead to lasting collaborations.

Author
Helen Jeans

Helen Jeans

Helen Jeans is the Head of the Resilience and Climate Adaptation Unit of the Economic Justice Team of Oxfam GB. She is also co-lead of the Oxfam Resilience Knowledge Hub. Helen provides strategic direction to the Resilience and Climate Adaptation Unit and its global programmes and supports country programmes on resilience programming and climate change adaptation, with a particular focus on governance and learning. Helen has over 20 years experience in international development and has worked for development and environmental NGOs and donors and was a country director for five years in the Pacific Islands. She has degrees in Law and Human Ecology and worked as a lawyer before joining VSO - this started a new career in international development and she has never looked back.