One of the focus areas of the Livestock Systems and Environment 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. Over the next few weeks, we shall publish a blog series featuring newly-published work by scientists in the program, focusing on the subject resilience and issues around development resilience in the context of drylands.
This second entry in the blog series is written by Mike Jones, who leads the Resilience Thematic Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) under the Commission on Ecosystem Management.
This blog series arose as a consequence of my informal review of the Davies, Robinson and Ericksen (2015) paper just prior to its publication. I approach the debate from the perspective of an ecologist who has been managing the complexity of conservation and development challenges for 40 years. I found Holling’s panarchy and adaptive cycle (Holling 2001) to be useful tools for understanding complexity, systemic change, and the role that resilience plays in change processes.
This ‘Holling perspective’ affects the way in which I see environmental management problems and think about what might be done to improve the manner in which we seek the ever elusive goal of sustainability.
My other reason for using Holling’s metaphors is the finding of Mooney, Duraiappah and Larigauderie (2013): ‘Thus, the resilience approach [developed by the Resilience Alliance] is an important approach to sustainability and has the same goal as sustainability science, but it is built on an overarching theory that sustainability science per se lacks.’
I share the concerns of Davies, Robinson and Ericksen (2015) with regard to the manner in which resilience-building has become a mainstream development activity and agree that we need to focus the meaning of ‘resilience’ in a development context, so that aid dollars are spent in ways that effectively address the vulnerability of impoverished communities to undesirable change. A narrow focus on food security may not build resilience or do much to lift people out of poverty traps because these are complex problems that require an understanding of the drivers and interactions across scales that create poverty traps and lead to food insecurity. Enhancing resilience must include socio-economic development, and the primary aim of development should be to create systemic change that addresses the drivers keeping people locked in poverty.
What I have difficulty with is deriving some meaning from ‘resilience of the development process’. Holling’s models provide a method for defining a change process, in which resilience only plays a part. ‘Resilience of the development process’ seems to be tautological. Resilience is a characteristic of complex systems that affects the way that systems change. Too much resilience – the system becomes rigid and risks collapse when environmental conditions change. Too little resilience – the system is unable to recover from disturbance and becomes locked in a poverty trap. This view of poverty as a maladaptive system state characterized by low resilience stands in contrast to the view that poverty traps are resilient. Poverty traps are not resilient but they are difficult to spring because of feedbacks that prevent the accumulation of resources necessary for developmental growth. In the drylands where I have worked in Africa, the resources necessary to sustain pastoralist livelihoods have been expropriated by others to satisfy the growing demand for access to land.
In contrast to the ‘resilience of the development process’ the Barrett and Constas (2013) definition of development resilience is consistent with the meaning of resilience in complex systems. Their model applies to the lower end of the growth curve of Holling’s adaptive cycle and is an attempt to define what it takes to escape from a poverty trap and continue to grow. This is useful, and when combined with consideration of the interactions that occur across local, regional, national and global scales will enhance our ability to understand and address poverty traps.
Another part of the Davies, Robinson and Ericksen paper that leaves me searching for meaning is the notion of risks associated with resilience, when resilience assessment based on Holling’s sense-making models, is a method for assessing the risk of changing to undesirable system state.
Apart from my quibbles about the meaning of some of the statements made by Davies, Robinson and Ericksen, their paper raises important issues to be addressed if the mainstream is to be successful in its attempts to build resilience. In this regard it is worth considering that the concept of ecosystem services has been oversimplified to the point where people are unaware of the underlying complexity of the systems that they are managing (Norgard, 2010). Let us hope that the concept of resilience does not suffer the same fate and that a useful tool for helping us to understand and manage change in complex systems is not reduced to a simplistic device of little value.
Brand, F.S. and Jax, K. 2007. Focusing the meaning(s) of resilience: Resilience as a descriptive concept and a Boundary Object. Ecology and Society 12(1):23.
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.
Holling, C.S. 2001. Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological, and social systems. Ecosystems. 4(5):390–405.
Mooney, H.A., Duraiappah, A. and Larigauderie, A. 2013. Evolution of natural and social science interactions in global change research programs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Norgaard, R.B. 2010. Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder. Ecological Economics, 69(6):1219–1227.