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Resilience, development and drylands

One of the focus areas of the Livestock Systems and Environment (LSE) program at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) through the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems is on adaptation and resilience. Here, the objective is to build capacity for adaptation to environmental change and resilient development processes among farmers and livestock keepers. Over the next weeks, we shall publish a series of blogs featuring newly-published work by scientists in the LSE program on going research on adaptation and resilience research in drylands.

In this first article in the series, Lance Robinson, an environmental governance and resilience specialist at ILRI, explains ‘resilience’ and current trends in understanding and applying the concept.

The building of resilience has become a core objective, an organizing concept and even part of the mission statements of many organizations working in development and humanitarian relief. Resilience is extolled as a concept that can help to bridge the much criticized division between development and humanitarian relief (Pain and Levin 2012). While the term has become the pre-eminent buzzword for those of us working in these fields, it is not just a buzzword: tens of millions of dollars are spent on resilience programing and it is vitally important that we know what we mean by resilience and that we have some way of assessing when we have or have not strengthened it. In the past couple of years some progress has been made on these two fronts. While there is not yet a single definition accepted by everyone, there is a growing consensus that resilience in this context is related to well-being and poverty and refers to the capacity to maintain and improve the former and avoid the latter. Barrett and Constas , for example, define development resilience as,

‘the capacity over time of a person, household or other aggregate unit to avoid poverty in the face of various stressors and in the wake of myriad shocks. If and only if that capacity is and remains high over time, then the unit is resilient.’

With definitions such as these, the thinking on development resilience has begun to clearly differentiate itself from ecological and social-ecological resilience.

Divorcing development resilience from development?

However, together with some colleagues I began to notice that even though definitions referred to well-being, or some times more specifically on avoiding poverty, early attempts to operationalize measures for development resilience tended to focus narrowly on food security. Food security is certainly a basic component of well-being, but it is not the whole story. Moreover, some of the discourse on development resilience has seemed to equate resilience with avoiding destitution or death in the face of disasters such as droughts. The danger of decoupling development resilience from development in this way is that governments and aid agencies will deem that for some regions and people, especially in dryland areas of the developing world, the objective which is relevant is food security and resilience, not development or prosperity. If resilience is nothing more than robust food security, if it means that some communities can hope for nothing more than ‘bouncing back’ and should just shelve any hopes of improving their well-being over the long term, then it is an inherently conservative concept and, moreover, can only fail its promise to bridge the development-humanitarian relief divide.

Alternative approaches to conceptualizing resilience in the context of drylands development

usnr20.v028.i03.coverIn a new paper published in Society and Natural Resources, Jonathan Davies, Polly Ericksen and I challenge this trend in the thinking on development resilience. Well-being, we argue, should be front and center in the way we define, think about and measure development resilience. We suggest that development resilience really refers to the resilience of the development process. That is to say, development resilience implies continued progress toward self-defined sustainable development outcomes for human well-being. Development is resilient when, in the face of shocks and stresses, basic needs continue to be met in the short term and overall well-being continues to improve in the long term. The term resilience is typically applied to some entity—to an individual, a household or a community for instance. In the scholarship on social-ecological systems, which has greatly influenced thinking on development resilience and my own work, resilience is a characteristic of complex adaptive systems. In our new paper, however, we are speaking of the resilience of a process. Thinking of development resilience in this way raises questions around its relationship to social-ecological resilience. Our hypothesis is that development resilience will sometimes benefit from resilience of social-ecological systems but will sometimes require transformation of those systems. Debates about definitions can often seem tediously pedantic. In this case, however, it is critically important that we get it right. Our paper is certainly not the last word on the subject, and we welcome criticism and feedback.

Download the paper


Barrett, C.B. and Constas, M.A. 2013. Toward a theory of resilience for international development applications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(40): 14625–14630. Davies, J., Robinson, L.W. and Ericksen, P.J. 2015. Development process resilience and sustainable development: Insights from the drylands of eastern Africa. Society and Natural Resources. 28(3): 328–343. Pain, A. and Levine, S. 2012. A conceptual analysis of livelihoods and resilience: addressing the insecurity of agency. HPG working paper, London: Overseas Development Institute, Humanitarian Policy Group.

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