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Is resilience just a new buzz word, as some critics claim? While the concept is still evolving, ActionAid believes the issue is becoming more important than ever, and is closely connected to human rights.
Communities face increasingly complex realities - and resilience thinking is becoming broader in response. Nowadays, resilience means being able to cope with a wide range of shocks and stresses such as climate change, disasters, natural resource degradation, epidemics, political oppression, violent conflict and economic crises.
Strengthening resilience therefore requires a rounded analysis of the challenge, together with an integrated approach that includes, but goes beyond conventional disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation approaches.
Fortunately, international policy frameworks are responding to the growing need to build resilience. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognise resilience as a key factor for ending poverty.
The 2015 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction has set clear targets to encourage countries to invest in preparedness and mitigation. And the Paris Agreement on Climate Change urges development assistance and climate finance programmes to incorporate climate-proofing and climate resilience measures.
These initiatives are a step in the right direction. But humanitarian and development actors must also ask themselves why crises - such as floods, droughts, Ebola and conflict - can have such devastating and long-lasting effects for particular people.
Doing so puts a spotlight on the different underlying causes to people’s vulnerability, and has profound implications for our approach. Linkages must be made to different areas of work – including livelihoods, education and empowerment - in the effort to prepare communities for an increasingly unpredictable future.
Vulnerability and inequality
To really build resilience, we must look at what makes people and communities vulnerable in the first place. ActionAid has identified three factors that tend to increase people’s vulnerability to shocks and stresses.
Firstly, we believe that social exclusion can be a major cause of creating vulnerability and undermining resilience. Discrimination and the denial of rights can often take place on the basis of people’s gender, class, ethnicity, religion, race, caste, age, sexual orientation or disability. Unfortunately, these patterns can also be reinforced by policies and laws, so that certain groups become ever-more marginalised.
For example, cultural or social norms that hold back women and girls mean that they are proven to be disproportionately affected by disasters, climate change and conflict, and are particularly at risk during crises when normal protection structures break down.
The second underlying problem can arise if access to basic services is limited. Education, healthcare, information, finance, early warning systems and evacuation, fair and stable markets, and entitlements such as social protection are all key to withstanding shocks and stresses. A lack of access to these services can hold people back from strengthening their resilience, and prevent them from developing additional skills such as saving lives or protecting their home.
Thirdly, having few assets (such as livestock or tools) or limited economic opportunities to adopt sustainable and diversified livelihoods keeps people in impoverished conditions and increases their vulnerability. When struggling to cope with poverty, it is very difficult to effectively prepare for and respond to disasters.
Likewise, people with limited access to natural resources such as land, forests, water and biodiversity will also find it tough to cope with shocks and stresses. Land grabs, dispossession and the overexploitation of natural resources further increase vulnerability, and are often a cause of conflict.
At ActionAid, we have seen over and over again how unequal and unjust power reinforces unjust governance and unfair social attitudes, creating inequality and driving these underlying causes of vulnerability. Family, patriarchal society, government authorities, laws and policies, traditional institutions, local elites, corporations, armed groups and international institutions can all be responsible for perpetrating inequality.
Transforming power relations
We believe that to be effective, resilience thinking should take power relations into account - for example between men and women, rich and poor, young and old. To strengthen resilience, we need to transform the unequal power structures that are keeping people vulnerable to shocks and stresses.
ActionAid’s resilience framework, therefore, uses the human rights-based approach (HRBA) to help design programmes that build the capacities of communities. Participatory approaches enable community members to discuss, analyse and address the factors that put them at risk, to understand their rights and become more empowered - and to challenge the balance of power.
Women’s rights and leadership are at the core of all our interventions, and we support women to become agents for transformation in their communities and beyond. In Malawi, for example, ActionAid collaborates with the Coalition of Women Farmers (COWFA), a coalition of around 50,000 women.
We work together to build women farmers’ capacity to strengthen their communities’ resilience to climate change, including by training women farmers to analyse local government policies and budget allocations for climate change, adaptation and disaster risk reduction.
As a result, local authorities have increased spending on resilience. They have also agreed to review their contingency plans and include adaptation approaches in their district development plans. Meanwhile, the national government’s new Disaster Risk Management Policy reflects key recommendations made by COWFA.
Other women who are leading efforts to strengthen their communities’ resilience are the women of Fayako in Senegal who have trained as para-vets, and Vietnamese women who have become key players in forest governance.
ActionAid’s resilience framework opens up many opportunities to work with women, children and poor and marginalised groups around the world, to analyse their vulnerabilities to different shocks and stresses and to take individual and collective action to address the direct and root causes. Through this approach, communities can ultimately shift the power dynamics that expose them to the effects of complex and growing challenges such as climate change.
This blog has been largely drawn from ActionAid's publication Through a Different Lens: ActionAid’s Resilience Framework, 2016, co-authored by Harjeet Singh, Jessica Faleiro and Jessica Hartog.