Why the world needs more resilience-thinking to stem escalating crises

2016 may well prove to be a turning point in how humanitarian aid responds to crises. For one, the need is great. Forced migration from conflict is at its highest since the second world war; the number and scale of disasters triggered by natural hazards are increasing; and 2015 was the hottest year ever recorded.

The aid sector, largely unchanged in 75 years, is struggling to cope. The first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, convened in May to “rethink” aid, acknowledged a “woefully under-resourced humanitarian response” has to “do much more far better”.

At such a dramatic time, then, with burgeoning need and an aid system that is failing to cope, what meaning does “resilience” have?

Does a lack of agreed definition hamper efforts?

The word resilience is not new. It has been around (in English) since at least the early 17th century.

There are many competing definitions. One, from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, defines resilience as:

… the ability of individuals, communities, organisations or countries exposed to disasters and crises and underlying vulnerabilities to anticipate, reduce the impact of, cope with, and recover from the effects of shocks and stresses without compromising their long-term prospects.

This understanding gives as much attention to what happens before a disaster (such as an earthquake or flood) as it does to the immediate aftermath of relief and recovery. If prepared for beforehand, the impact of disasters can be reduced, or even prevented altogether.

Critics of resilience argue, among other things, that the lack of a commonly agreed definition is a weakness. After all, resilience can trace its roots to engineering, psychology and ecology.

However, this misses the point. The chief benefit of resilience lies in its “good enough” understanding by a broad church of actors, and not in the detail. People get it, and can act in resilient ways.

People have long enacted resilience measures:

  • Construction workers in the remote and highly seismic Himalayas built multistorey earthquake-resistant buildings that have stood for more than 800 years.
  • Algeria developed the science of base isolation – building structures on rollers so they could avoid shaking with the ground in an earthquake – more than 400 years ago.
  • In recent times, Bangladesh, where between 300,000 and 500,000 people were killed in Cyclone Bhola in 1970, reduced casualties through better preparedness to a little more than 3,000 in Cyclone Sidr in 2007, and 190 in Cyclone Aila in 2009. While the cyclone size varied, the reduced death count was widely attributed to improvements in disaster preparedness.