Resilience has become popular in foreign aid, but it is far from easy. Previous posts on this blog have discussed challenges of applying the ideas – which emerged from numerous places including ecological sciences – to development and humanitarian aid (see here and here).

New Scientist editorial piece on the aftermath of hurricane Sandy highlights the fact that the challenges are not unique to our sector. It usefully outlines what I call ‘resilience risks’ – shortcomings which may arise from narrow or simplistic applications of resilience concepts. This post shares the three key resilience risks – which I hope may prove relevant for aid practitioners, researchers and policy makers working on these  issues.

Resilience risk 1: Resilience is analysed in highly linear ways

A key critique made in the NS piece was that the potential risks from Sandy were thought about, anticipated and planned for in a linear and simplistic fashion:

Danger of fire? Equip fire departments. Possible electricity failure? Turn off transformers and give hospitals generators. Risk of floods? Build barriers. But in New York City all three risks hit at once, and then some. Houses burned because firefighters couldn’t get to them or operate equipment. Electricity substations exploded as record floods hit. Two hospitals were evacuated as backup generators failed.”

This analysis resonates with a previous post on this blog focusing on complexity and disasters – to quote directly:

Consider the following three ingredients: a mega-city in a poor, Pacific rim nation; seasonal monsoon rains; a huge garbage dump. Mix these ingredients in the following way: move impoverished people to the dump, where they build shanty towns and scavenge for a living in the mountain of garbage; saturate the dump with changing monsoon rain patterns; collapse the weakened slopes of garbage and send debris flows to inundate the shanty towns. That particular disaster, which took place outside of Manila in July 2000… was not inherent in any of the three ingredients of that tragedy; it emerged from their interaction’

Taken to extremes, the linear approach diminishes the potential relevance of resilience efforts. Work by the Stockholm Resilience Centre shows that narrow approaches to resilience can actually heighten rather than reduce vulnerability.

Despite the widely discussed notion that resilience should be a ‘unifying concept’ to bring together different disciplines and approaches, the reality is that the old silos may simply be too rigid to enable such cross-fertilisation.

Resilience risk 2: Resilience is only thought about after crises

The editorial also drew comparisons which will no doubt be familiar to regular readers of this blog:

…the lesson of Sandy is the same as the lesson of the Eurozone crisis and other recent events such as the Egyptian revolution: complex systems play by their own rules. You can’t manage them in a linear way. We live in a web of systems: if one falls, it takes others with it… as climate change bites, there will be more and bigger storms, and other mega-events such as crop failure, political instability and financial crises. The knock-on effects will accumulate. All complex networks are susceptible to collapse. How many body blows can ours take before it can no longer stand back up? (emphasis added)

While this suggests that there is more need for anticipation in our resilience work, and more continuous and ‘joined-up’ resilience thinking, the reality is that we only tend to think of resilience when it is too late. This is what I have elsewhere called the ‘catastrophe-first school of lesson learning’.

Moreover, even when we do try, anticipation is often limited by the too-common tendency to fight the last war. The reality is that the crises of the future are likely to be very different to those we experienced in the past.

Resilience risk 3: Resilience is seen as ‘the money saving option’

Finally, the piece shared some sobering thoughts for initiatives that push hard in the ‘resilience equals value for money’ direction.

[networked] systems can be made more resilient [but] to do so will be expensive. Money-saving efficiency would have to be sacrificed for more redundancy… Resilience may be expensive, but as Sandy showed… we need a lot more of it. [emphasis added]

Clearly, the value for money approach is not going to go away any time soon. But in pushing resilience forward, we have to be careful not to oversell it, raise unrealistic expectations, and thereby diminish its actual contribution. The key I think is not to take too limited a view: what is needed is less of a bean-counting approach, and more of a long-term perspective of the value of resilience.


The overall lesson for those of us working on resilience in development and humanitarian aid may be that we need to find ways of moving away from an overly reductionist approach. Multi-dimensional analytical frameworks (such as the disaster resilience model I developed for DFID in 2011) are an important starting point. But these need to feed into policy and practice, and this is much harder – as suggested by a recent thoughtful (and at times delightfully grumpy) ODI think piece.

My sense is that, to date, efforts which attempt to take a more ‘systemic’ approach to resilience are a bit thin on the ground in foreign aid. As a result, I would argue that we are currently leaving our efforts wide open to all three of the ‘resilience risks’ raised here.

Do others agree, and if so, what might be done? Or am I over-stating the potential impact of these risks on resilience efforts in development and humanitarian work? I’d be interested to know what readers think.

Join the conversation! 11 Comments

  1. In order to cultivate support for new approaches, some indications of their value would help. What evidence of success (relative to ‘old’ approaches to reslience) have multi-dimensional analytical frameworks shown?

  2. Thanks for indicating the sources. You are proposing changes to the way in which resilience is thought about and applied to aid and humanitarian situations. But what is wrong with applying instead an approach with an emphasis on 1) recognizing *complexity* and 2) simple preparedness for known and knowable risks? The advantages of resilience-based thinking may be clear for analyzing ecosystems and managing human impacts on the environment — since internal stability of the ecosystem is the desired outcome, at least in the eyes of many ecologists. But at least to me the advantages offered by a resilience based approach to complex humanitarian or development situations, where change is not only desired but inevitable, still seem less clear. None of the examples in the cited sources comes up to the level of a well-presented case study demonstrating persuasive improvements from a resilience-based approach, and precisely how and why this would differ from other approaches. Some of the comments in the HPG paper seem pretty spot-on…

  3. I identified a 4th risk on twitter, so I guess I should explain the “risk of instrumentalising resilience rather than adopting it as new frame.” Much of the time ‘resilience’ seems to be viewed as instrumental, i.e. an approach that will successfully lead us to a desired outcome, rather than as fundamental, i.e. something that is inherently valuable and which frames our other activities.

    I would suggest that our institutions have still not shifted their perceptions on this; this change may be coming slowly, although I see little evidence for this. I suggest that this is one reason why the use of ‘resilience’ in the sector is still confused, and why much ‘resilience thinking’ is in fact just dressing up pre-existing social and economic goals in new resilience clothes.

    The NS piece ends with the line “Resilience may be expensive, but as Sandy showed this week, we need a lot more of it.” Resilience may or may not be expensive, but this underlines the commodification of resilience (that you suggest in point 3) that suggest that resilience is something that can be bought. It isn’t, and believing that it is seems to be a path guaranteeing failure.

  4. Is it really true ‘resilience’ can’t be bought? .. That certainly seems true in the context of complex ecosystems, for which ecologists (amongst others) may have preferred states that are the delicate product of billions of years of evolution. … However, when the concept is mapped onto the social/development sphere, it seems entirely possible that more money, combined with targeted, evidence-based policy, really can make a society or community more ‘resilient’ to shocks (e.g. be they natural or man-made, economic or biophysical) … rather, the question, to my mind, is not whether ‘resilience’ is a useful concept, but (as alluded to, I believe, in the post) whether resilience can even be reliably improved at all without a (probably more costly and time-intensive) multi-disciplinary, complex-systems approach, as opposed to highly-targeted, single-minded, perhaps counterproductively myopic approaches (which nonetheless presumably appear cheaper up front).

    … Another issue that may be worthy of more attention is the question of what, exactly, one is trying to make ‘resilient’ .. some social systems may be ethically or pragmatically undesirable (at least for some actors) … eg feudalism, slavery, the permanent relative underdevelopment of the periphery, etc., … and to the degree ‘resilience’ bolsters extant systems, specifically, perhaps we should be worried, first and foremost, with the degree to which ‘resilience’ may often be serving (as alluded to above) as an instrumental tool (and here i’d add explicitly) for perpetuating a status quo that benefits those who already sit at the top of a sub-ideal system (e.g. corrupt officials, Northern debtors, super-elites, MNCs, etc.) … Or did I misunderstand the gist of the post?

    • lopez, in response to your question, “is it really true resilience can’t be bought”, you yourself bring out the key response when you ask whether it can be *reliably* improved upon. Surely it can be bought, but how often and to what degree will expenditures be reliably successful? This is what I was getting at when I requested examples of successful investment in multi-dimensional analytical frameworks.

      And in regard to your second point: indeed, it would be very undesirable to strengthen the resilience of exploitative or predatory systems and social orders.

    • No, it really is true that you can’t buy resilience. Money can definitely help with specific resilience strategies – but this is mainly what I’m referring to when I talk about instrumental resilience. Fundamental resilience requires a shift in frames, attitudes and behaviours, and I don’t think that these are things that you can buy. You’re right, of course, that fundamental resilience can’t be achieved without a much more wide-spectrum approach than instrumental resilience strategies generally offer – and that will (usually) cost more…

  5. I think there is a wider essence here, that applies to many systems today. We live in a complex emergent reality but seek solutions by analysing just the parts. If the first step is always to reduce and breakdown the problem, we often end up ‘fixing’ a different, non existent (in the real world) system altogether.

    Risk gets evaluated against parts of the system, then resilience is not established for the more complex interconnected whole.

    Often you hear “That could not have been foreseen” which maybe truth in a linear world, but a mathematical shortfall in a complex one. We may need to rethink our approaches and tools if we are to see that Outlier coming.

  6. Thanks for this very interesting spate of responses. A couple of reflections:

    – Paul: I think you are in general right that resilience shouldn’t be commodified. However, it is the nature of the commodification that matters most. For example, ‘commodification’ could be seen as underpinning both ex ante arguments for change (e.g. the Stern review of climate change) and ex post arguments (e.g. the cost of enhanced levees in Katrina compared to the cost of the storm). These are evidence-based and solid enough – which is not to say that investing in the levees would have made Katrina any worse (cf linear responses). What is more dangerous is that there are those who are arguing for resilience because it is cheaper, more cost-effective, than response, without any real evidence for this.

    – On a separate note, isn’t insurance a good example of buying resilience? If a farmer can pay a small premiuim on seeds and guarantee crop yields regardless of the factors that might affect her productivity, isn’t that an example of buying resilience?

    – Lopez, Eric: there is a growing movement which argues that we should stop thinking about ecosystems and human systems as separate – instead we should be focusing on “coupled social-ecological systems”. The late Lin Ostrom’s work on this is especially useful:

    Of course the real test of this stuff is the evidence that emerges from the effects of this new wave of initiatives. At the moment, such evidence is clear when resilience is not present (c.f. all disasters around the world) but the positive stories are much harder to come by. How do you measure the value of the disaster that didn’t strike?

  7. Hi Ben

    Please help me catch up…

    How is “resilience” different from “sustainability”?

    A cynical friend of mine has suggested that there is an element of conceptual re-branding going on here (i.e. “old wine in new bottles” type of stuff)

    regards, rick

    • Hi Rick,

      They are intertwined issues, which look at very similar properties of a system but from different vantage points.

      Sustainability in development was about establishing a balance in our economic and social activities, such that future generations can meet their future needs.

      Resilience is about more about helping current (and, by implication) future generations ride out the shocks and stresses of what is increasingly accepted to be an imbalanced world.

      There are those who suggest that resilience is a bit of a cop-out, that resilience is to sustainability as climate change adaptation is to climate change mitigation.

      Others suggest that sustainability was always unrealistic. To paraphrase one thinker, resilience is about learning to ride the waves, instead of trying to boil the ocean.



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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.