Why does resilience matter?
Over the past few years, resilience has become the latest buzz-word amongst many in the climate change and development vocabulary. Like sustainability and integrated water resources management, it is an important, but poorly defined concept. USAID, for example, defines it as “the ability of people, households, communities, countries and systems to mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth.”
Generally, however, the discourse on resilience now incorporates a further dimension, the ability to create a new system when the initial state is not bearable anymore – what is considered the transformative element of resilience. My concern arises when resilience becomes an end in itself, rather than the means to an end. In sub-Saharan Africa, over the past two decades, the concept of integrated water resources management (IWRM) was introduced as the governing framework for water management, and IWRM came to be seen as the holy grail of water resources management. Twenty years down the line, many people now accept that while IWRM is a useful philosophical tool for framing our understanding of water management it is not, in fact, fully implementable, and a different, simpler approach is required in developing countries to manage water resources on a day to day basis.
Similarly, there is a danger that resilience comes to be seen as a goal in its own right, transcending a focus on development and poverty eradication. Let us return to the transformative element of resilience, where ‘the initial state is not bearable any more’. The current ‘initial state’ of the 700 million people living on less than $1.90 a day is unbearable, not due to a shock event like a drought or flood, but because they are living in extreme and chronic poverty. Nearly half of these are living in Sub-Saharan Africa. For these millions of women, men and children, the greatest step towards resilience to a range of shocks, and to climate change, is the eradication of poverty. In this context, resilience is a way of doing development, an approach to development that ensures that the interventions taken are sustainable despite various shocks and changes that might impact on the people at the heart of the interventions.
Resilience is an important lens on how we do development, just as sustainability and gender transformation are important lenses on how we do development. But it must not become an aim in itself, transcending the need to lift the remaining 700 million people out of poverty and into a decent quality of life, in which their basic human rights, to water, food, shelter and dignity are protected. Poverty is, after all, the ultimate non-adaptive, non-resilient condition.
 Monitoring and evaluation of climate resilience for agricultural development – A review of currently available tools Sabine Douxchamps, Liza Debevec, Meredith Giordano, Jennie Barron, World Development Perspectives 5 (2017) 10–23
Is normative integrated water resources management implementable? Charting a practical course with lessons from Southern Africa. D.J. Merrey, Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/CVolume 33, Issues 8–13, 2008, Pages 899–905 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pce.2008.06.026