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While monsoon rains in Bangladesh intensify, Shahinur Begum no longer suffers months of struggle and unpredictability.
She now lives in a new community set up by NGO Practical Action, specifically designed to build resilience in a society that is continually distressed by pressures from a changing climate, ecosystem degradation and limited socio-economic opportunities. The purpose-built village lies above the level of the highest-recorded floods in the area.
“Getting a house here opened up my future,” Shahinur said, sitting outside her flood-proof home, which stands six feet off the ground, supported by sand bricks. “When the floods come, the cluster village is safe. Neighbouring households come to the village to take shelter.”
Flooding in Bangladesh last year displaced over half a million people and put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk. But early warning systems that have been set up in these vulnerable villages now send signals to let the community know in advance when flooding or water surges are coming, leaving ample time for villagers to reach safety in their elevated houses.
The interactions between climate change trends, ecosystem fragility, disease outbreaks and geopolitical instability have become so recurrent that protracted crises like severe flooding have become the new norm.
Globally, around 140 million people are expected to become climate migrants by 2050, and without a change in the development sector’s approach to these problems, a wide-scale humanitarian crisis is likely.
Ironically, those hit the hardest by extreme environmental changes are those who have done the least to cause it – the poorest. Proactive plans like building flood-resilient homes to safeguard against natural disasters will become increasingly important.
Despite this, aid agencies remain overwhelmingly concentrated on responding to disasters. For flooding - which is responsible for nearly half of all weather-related disasters - around 87 percent of aid is spent in response to crises that have already occurred. This does little to achieve systemic or structural change that could prevent such crises from happening all over again.
As Shahinur can testify, the time has come to shift the priority from “building back better” to creating systems that are “built to last” in the first place. In other words, it is time to move from repair to resilience.
CRISIS AS OPPORTUNITY
What we need now is a global strategy for action to enable communities to avoid disaster and transform positively through crises. Development practitioners need to intervene in such a way that will enable international agencies to make a timely exit, confident in the knowledge that communities and countries are equipped to design, manage and replicate their own success stories despite the uncertainties that lie ahead.
At the Global Resilience Partnership (GRP), it is our mission to deliver on this. We work to enable the private and public sectors to team up to build systemic solutions to old problems, providing tangible and long-lasting impact for communities.
Collaboration, systems thinking and blended financing are the cornerstones of this new approach. Funds for our projects originate from traditional donors, but also businesses that can introduce a culture of innovation.
The systems approach takes full advantage of the economic, environmental and social benefits of knowledge-sharing, to produce bold projects tailored to the issue at hand. Projects can then be explored, prototyped, scaled and implemented elsewhere.
We also work closely with local people on the ground. Community-led initiatives are the framework for many of our resilience projects in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and South and Southeast Asia, where protracted conflicts and crises are common, and disasters and hazards are occurring more frequently.
In Uganda, for example, local technology initiative TAHMO, which aims to power over 20,000 weather stations across Africa, is collaborating with phone provider Airtel to send early warnings, helping people prepare for extreme weather and enabling farmers to better protect their crops.
The free SMS weather alerts are expected to reach 1.75 million subscribers, creating a systemic impact. It is an entirely scalable project that can be replicated elsewhere in Africa.
We believe that this method of convening partners and introducing blended finance solutions will provide the critical mass to deliver beyond what most traditional agency programmes can achieve through current bilateral and multilateral mechanisms.
We also want to encourage development approaches that embrace the notions of risk and failure. This is the only way we can open the door for breakthrough innovations and move beyond business as usual.
If we fail smart, we can be open about what went wrong and develop future solutions that will lead us to pathways that work at scale. We must let go of rigid ideas and time-tested formulae – the challenges are ever-changing, and the solutions must also be adaptable.
Working with, and building the capacity of the most vulnerable communities in the world to withstand, adapt and thrive in the face of uncertainty will result in more than just positive development outcomes: it will create profound positive transformation.
We believe this new approach will allow us to do what the aid and development world has been moving towards for the past 40 years: ending poverty and enabling sustainable, equitable development that changes people’s lives for the better.
Dr. Nathanial Matthews is Program Director of the Global Resilience Partnership