Hard times are normal times:  reflections on resilience to crises

13 April 2022 –  Mukesh Kapila

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[Based on a keynote address given on 27 March 2022 to the Kartepe Summit, Turkey]

The world’s problems multiply – be they frequent and ferocious disasters or vicious and unending conflicts. They come on top of grinding poverty and misery for many, and the disgruntlement and grievance of those hard done by unfairness and inequality around us.

Modern crises are an amalgam of these factors. Their defining feature is that the stresses caused in one place rapidly transmit elsewhere because we live in an inter-connected, globalised world.  As said by the poet John Donne: “no man is an island entire of itself”.  A current example is the Russian-Ukrainian war triggering the forced migration of  millions, a massive energy crisis, and a hunger surge.

Policy and decision makers faced with such complexity are recognising their diminished ability to influence the course of events, a bit like a runaway train that gathers its own momentum. It is not unreasonable, then, for people to try and save themselves (‘cope’) as best as they can.  And so,  it is not surprising that the term ‘resilience’ is fashionable nowadays. 

Events shape meanings

The English word comes from the Latin ‘resiilre’ meaning to rebound or recoil. It is noteworthy that it arose amidst great  17th century turmoil with the “Thirty Year War” in Europe, aggressive Ottoman Empire expansion, start of colonialism with its first forays into America, and farther afield, famine and earthquakes speeding up the end of China’s Ming dynasty. 

The society-shifting upheavals of subsequent centuries gave different shades of meaning to resilience.  As did advances made in the understanding of the physical sciences, especially since the Industrial Revolution when the importance of stress-resistant materials such as steel was recognised: resilient structures are those that “meet extreme natural and man-made challenges with minimal disruption to occupants and function”.

The various usages gradually consolidated into the modern definition of resilience in the Oxford English Dictionary: “the ability of people or things to recover quickly after something unpleasant, such as shock, injury, etc.”  

As old as humanity

Anti-shock survival strategies have been around since time immemorial in all cultures.  The inability to adapt quickly to changing environments  (i.e. lack of resilience ) is postulated to explain the collapse of several civilisations such as the Mayans.

When ancient coping strategies failed in the face of massive shocks, our ancestors put it down to fate or luck.  Or just rewards for sin. Sacrificing your first born or a goat or  virgin to appease the gods didn’t guarantee results. But as human enlightenment spread,  we were not content to stay passive victims of divinely-ordained circumstances.

Long-suffering communities began figuring out that it was prudent to ‘make hay while the sun shines’, and fill your barns with grain for the famine ahead. Farmers everywhere had soil management techniques to handle frequent droughts. The Biblical Noah’s Ark was a flood mitigation strategy, and the ancient Pharaohs were controlling flood waters 4000 years ago.  Indians figured out that tree-planting reduced landslides, and the Chinese even had a primitive seismograph. These types of disaster handling approaches were where we more-or-less stayed for centuries.

The modern era  

In 1972, the United Nations Disaster Response Office (UNDRO) was formed to coordinate international disaster response, and concepts such as ‘early warning, early action’ became mantras.  There was reference to prevention and risk reduction at the rhetorical level and useful scientific and technical work – but little real action.

A shift emerged in the 199Os with the UN-declared International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. There were several UN General Assembly resolutions, workshops, and so on – culminating in the historic 1994 World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Yokohama, Japan that called for a “global culture of prevention”. 

While the resilience phrase had crept in, the concept started to be fleshed only around the 2005 World Conference on Disaster Reduction , also in Japan. This adopted the Hyogo Framework that called for a “culture of resilience”: a multi-pronged  effort to understand disaster risks and reduce them through spreading awareness and enhancing preparedness and response.

The Conference, an initiative of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR)   (later UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction), took place in the shocked mood after the massive 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. I recall from my involvement both in the Tsunami response and the World Conference that the focus was still  narrow around anticipating and controlling disasters.

Unfortunately, it meant that in subsequent years, resilience remained  a catch-phrase, a subset of a catch-all disaster reduction  through, for example, early warning systems, stockpiling relief supplies, and training first responders.  The same UN Undersecretary-General (Jan Egeland) was in charge of both disaster reduction and response. Understandably he was kept busy travelling the  world firefighting and begging money for humanitarian relief, rather than worrying about reducing the factors that led to crises.  

I recall as a major donor (UK Government) that when I suggested earmarking 10% of my large disaster response budget towards disaster reduction, I was hugely criticised by the emergency response lobby who said that I was being cruel taking life-saving aid away from desperately needy people. Even though what I was doing was creating a formula to benchmark a level of investment in prevention: the more disasters multiplied and the more we spent on them, the more we should invest in preventing and reducing them.

Ultimately, the argument for investing in prevention carried, not by reducing humanitarian relief budgets but providing an increment of 10% on top of that, earmarked for disaster reduction. Gradually, this became something of a norm, reflected for example, in UN and Red Cross Red Crescent emergency appeals.

Unfortunately, what happened next was that the additional funds were hijacked towards disaster response preparedness and management, and not primary risk and vulnerability reduction. As such they contributed little to genuine resilience building. Thus, as late as the 2010s, the mindset within the powerful humanitarian lobby was focussed on tackling disasters, rather than upstream interventions to prevent them.

The relief-development disconnect

At the heart of that policy divide was the tussle between the development lobby led by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and humanitarian groups led by what is now  the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). That division was quite sharp – in conceptual and structural terms. The two sides operated in parallel universes during what was the age of the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs made little, if any, reference to disasters and crises.  So, the debate was: is the reduction of risks and hazards a ‘humanitarian’ or a ‘development’ issue? The answer depended on the bureaucratic division between humanitarian and development budget-lines among donors. This  drove the global institutions and developing country governments who were heavily aid-dependent in those days.

But then the World Bank came along. With greater intellectual, resource, and convening power than the UN, they created the Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) in 2006.  I was privileged to serve as an adviser there. We were able to bring a more modern concept of resilience to the forefront. 

The trigger was that more and more of the investments made by the World Bank  in infrastructure, health, education, and other sectors were getting damaged or destroyed by disasters. And repairing or replacing them was increasingly costly.  Even insurance companies complained at paying for mounting damage and losses, and pushed up protection premiums to unaffordable levels. Human development, the primary mission of the World Bank, was regressing in some of the poorest countries. This could not go on, and it was irresponsible not to disaster-proof future development. So emerged new project design approaches  that required  greater robustness to resist future disasters.

The World Bank’s leadership settled the debate on whether disaster reduction and resilience was a humanitarian or development matter. Obviously, it was the latter, and development – not humanitarian – programmes became the principal conduit for investment in resilience-building . 

When the flawed Millennium Development Goals finished in 2015 and could be  replaced by the comprehensive Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a new emphasis on ‘sustainability’ was injected into resilience.

Previously, we had talked about resilience as rebounding or recovering from a disaster. But restoring the status quo ante – to be destroyed again by the next disaster – was just foolish. After all, crises are also opportunities. Hence, resilience language now started including the notion of “building back better, and emerging stronger”.  In other words, doing what we do more enduringly and sustainably. 

What concentrated  our minds was accelerating climate change.  Also big global trends such as forced migration from the consequences of disasters and wars, and urbanisation which magnifies risks, hazards, and vulnerabilities and concentrates them on large, crowded populations.

These phenomena force us to recognise that regardless of the billions we can throw at disaster-proofing our physical assets,  it is not going to be enough in the face of multiple, and interconnected shocks. We just don’t  have enough resources and capacities to mitigate all the natural and man-made disasters that inflict us. indeed, a lot of countries – like Afghanistan or the Horn and Sahel in Africa – are  in recurrent or permanent crisis. We call them fragile states.

The notion of ‘surplus’

In a lifetime of working with disasters and conflicts, and witnessing the disparate experiences of populations navigating them,  a simple observation has struck me.  The survivors who recovered were those who had some spare resources or capacities (‘surplus’) when crisis struck.  They could cling on and eventually clamber back up.  But those who perished had zero ‘surplus’ to call upon.  I saw this among the recurrently flooded riverine groups in Bangladesh or the conflict-ravaged in South Sudan, among countless examples.

Resilience-building is, therefore, about enabling vulnerable individuals and communities to accrue a modicum of ‘surplus’ to enable them to see-through the bad days that inevitably come, and which descend more frequently and viciously on structurally poor and disadvantaged people.

Of course, that is what sustainable development and poverty reduction are all about. But development strategies don’t automatically build  surplus and thence, resilience. Thoughtless development approaches may do the reverse i.e. erode whatever personal and collective capital has been painfully accrued. The balance between harm and good can be a fine one.

Resilience as outlook

The resilience concept goes beyond development including the physical robustness of our houses, roads, electricity and water supplies or hospitals and schools.  Equally significant are the dimensions of policy resilience, institutional resilience, community and personal resilience.

Policy resilience is about the courage of politicians and decision-makers to change their minds, and alter – even reverse – course – if facts and circumstances dictate. We have seen that with the combined European reaction to the Russian aggression in Ukraine that is requiring reduced dependence on Russian oil and gas and, hence, generating huge costs for European consumers as well as re-militarisation of countries such as Germany.   Climate response policies will be a much bigger test of policy resilience in the years ahead.

Institutional resilience  is about service providers  ensuring business continuity in the face of shocks.  The COVID-19 pandemic humbled us and crashed all our systems, including for health. That’s why, the World Health Organization is now talking more about resilient health systems, and not just strong ones. A big current challenge to institutional resilience nowadays are cyber-attacks, that is requiring a whole re-engineering of the  controls and communications of the systems that enable our daily functioning.

Community resilience concerns not just a geographical group in one place but also a group with shared interests, say a network of professionals scattered across the globe. Community resilience is about harnessing their collective capabilities to tackle a shared problem. This is evident in many different ways in towns and neighbourhoods everywhere as people help each other. It requires a mix of both solidarity and self-interest, not just altruism.  The Red Cross Red Crescent has been at the forefront of developing notions and practices in community resilience that are centered on using voluntarism to build the social capital in communities – that can be drawn upon in crisis times.

The resilient mindset

All these different resilience domains rely, ultimately, on personal or individual resilience. We know this well with mental health problems that occur among stress or trauma affected people. For example after the Indian Ocean Tsunami or among the millions who are witnessing bloody conflict in Ukraine. Or the people of Tigray who have been enduring a terrible blockade, famine, rape, and many types of brutal assault from Ethiopian and Eritrean forces.  They are surviving through summoning up their coping capacities and resilience. Nevertheless, such experiences that traumatise the whole of society make recovery very difficult because it depends on the robustness of  individual as well as on some type of collective social healing.  Overall, we are not good at that.

Therefore, modern resilience is not simply a disaster or development issue, but also political. In conflict contexts where whole populations suffer from a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) , peace – when it comes –  can only sustain if people are mentally resilient to overcome the horrors they experienced, and the courage and capacity to move on. There is also a spiritual dimension to this ‘moving on’ through the notion of ‘forgiveness’ in many faiths. Otherwise, traumatised populations are doomed to repeated cycles of violence as we see in so many prolonged conflicts, such as Syria and Yemen.

Resilience as transformation

We have come a long way since the earliest simplistic ideas on resilience to seeing it now in all dimensions – physical, mental, social, organisational, and political. That being said, what is the most important virtue of the notion of resilience?   For many it would be about bringing courage and comfort at our moments of greatest need. Also the motivation to adapt and transform in the face of adversity, thereby emerging stronger, both as individuals and as societies. 

Published by Mukesh Kapila

See http://www.mukeshkapila.org

One thought on “Hard times are normal times:  reflections on resilience to crises

  1. Let me know what I can do to sustain the attention to the matters you are reporting about regarding the UNOPS scandfal.

    Liked by 1 person

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