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Resilience is not a sector. Yes, I know the development practitioner in us would like to box it up neatly, so we can program it. Yes, I know the researcher in us wants to know exactly which components of it will transfer easily to another context. And of course, I know that it sure would be nice if resilience wasn’t so “process heavy” and could be a little shinier and brighter - maybe a little more marketable by the fundraising folks who need to write about it.
I’ve heard it all. But I am asking you to stick with it - as a strategic approach that we should all be integrating into our work. It is worth it. And here is why.
I have seen resilience strategies work.
As development practitioners, resilience requires a different way of thinking and acting – it forces us to look beyond our favorite go-to solution, the usual assumptions we make, the programmatic boundaries we sometimes arbitrarily set, and most importantly our own incentives and egos. It encourages humility.
Working through a resilience lens, we are required to work in true partnership with diverse stakeholders, find a shared vision that is rooted locally, and agree on set of strategies that move beyond the familiar framing of development structures. It requires empowering and unleashing the leadership, participation and perspectives of local actors—and letting go of our desire to control the outcomes, while we learn what actually builds resilience to the shocks and stresses that can send communities reeling.
At Mercy Corps, we have dedicated the last four years to understanding the true value of resilience in our work, and how to operationalize it across our agency of 4,000+ team members and 40 different global contexts. It has been, and will continue to be, a hard journey—but one where we are beginning to see the impact on the ground. The initial results are inspiring our teams to stick with it and make the process their own. In Mercy Corps Niger’s words, “It transforms the way we work and learn together.”
I joined that same team and their partners in Niger at several points during the process as they began to operationalize Mercy Corps’ Resilience Approach. I listened as they grappled with tough questions and intense moments of discussion highlighting the different viewpoints in the room. Many of the program managers worked in distant regions, were responsible for separate projects, and had never come together before to look at Niger at a systems level.
By conducting a Strategic Resilience Assessment (STRESS) they learned about the intertwined risks facing communities—or groups of people within them—that they had never considered before. They saw linkages between shocks in one system and how they impact other systems, for example, erratic weather and drought as a driver of early marriage for girls.
When the secondary research was exhausted, they set out in small groups to speak with communities and consult with local experts about the shocks and stresses impacting food security. Together, they traveled to all seven regions of Niger (clocking 20,000 kilometers or the equivalent of halfway around the world). During the process, this team became a better team—and better partners with a more robust and diverse group of people.
As a result of their resilience assessments, they understood that to end the cycles of malnutrition, which particularly affect women and girls, they needed to understand the impact of climate change and the resulting coping strategies of Niger’s vulnerable communities. Their early analysis suggested that poor farming practices, unprecedented demographic growth and a quick transition to agriculture were contributing to a loss of viable farm land and an escalation of local conflict over increasingly scarce resources between pastoralists and agro-pastoralists.
These impacts were then reducing household food production and incomes, requiring families to purchase more food than they produce—especially during the hottest season when market shocks are most pronounced. Facing dire circumstances, vulnerable families in Niger often feel pressure to marry off girls at younger ages, reducing the number of family members they must feed. Thirty-six percent of girls in Niger are married before the age of 15, and 75 percent by age 18.
Though the team had already integrated gender and agriculture approaches into their programming, using a resilience lens enabled them to further understand the systems-level feedback loops compounding poor development outcomes. As a result, our teams have begun incorporating a more comprehensive approach to build resilience into their programs.
For example, in addition to working at the community level, they are working in closer partnership with Niger’s Ministry of Population, Women’s Promotion and Child Protection to refine policies—raising awareness and collaborating with a more diverse set of partners to ensure that the legal age for marriage of girls is raised to match the legal age for boys at age 18.
The team is also beginning to understand ground and surface water issues, and their implications for community-level wellbeing in a new way. Through the assessment they learned that the existing community-based water management strategies were failing to tackle the root causes of water insecurity. With insights from non-traditional actors and the innovations they can bring – including NASA using remote sensing data to understand groundwater in Niger – the team was able to rethink their program strategies and work with key change agents, such as the government of Niger, to find adaptable solutions.
To learn more, watch this video produced by the Mercy Corps team in Niger about their experience and read their findings.
Team Niger has embraced a resilience approach. For them, the STRESS process was not a one-time shot; it is ongoing. They are using the process to gather and share new information, continually revisit their programming frameworks and test their assumptions about what is working to build community resilience.
Thierno Samba Diallo, Mercy Corps Niger's country director, has also continued what he started when he paired up his team leaders and put them in cars together to traverse the country. Recently, he brought his entire 120-person team together for a workshop to share their perspectives and deeply understand their own connections to their country’s progress.
As he sees it, he’s unleashing 120 catalysts for change who firmly believe a better world is possible if they work together. “Too often, we are focused on individual problems and the daily work of managing programs. This approach makes us step back and think systematically about the social, ecological and economic challenges our communities are facing,” says Diallo. “We need to continue building this approach into our work—and involve as many of our partners, friends and colleagues as possible in solving these issues together.”