Article / DRYLANDS-CRP / Resilience / SLS

Operationalizing resilience thinking: What really matters?

Self-portrait with Maasai cow

(photo credit: ILRI/Jo Cadilhon)

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.

This fourth entry in the resilience blog series is written by Annette Cowie, a principal research scientist, Climate in NSW Department of Primary Industries. Cowie is the land degradation advisor on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility, and a member of the Science Policy Interface of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

I once published a paper with the awkward title Resolving terminological confusion in the debate on land-use change and forestry1. I wasn’t proud of the title – it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. I have no desire to prolong an academic debate for its own sake, but I feel that a piece with a similar title could be useful, this time focused on resolving the confusion created by multiple usages of the term resilience. Once we have clarified what we each mean by resilience we will be in a better position to usefully apply the concept.

As noted by previous authors in this series, resilience is the buzzword of the decade: it has overtaken sustainability as the goal of development. Resilience has come to mean stronger, deeper or longer-term sustainability. And as the other contributors to this series have also noted, the definition of resilience is contested. But does it matter if there is no common definition?

Well, to some extent the differences in definition do matter: depending on whose definition you use, resilience is not necessarily a virtue.

If we accept the Resilience Alliance definition, that resilience is the ability to absorb disturbance and reorganize, so as to retain essentially the same function and structure, then resilience is a neutral system property. Resilience is desirable if the system in question is performing well. But if the system is in an undesirable condition – an eroded landscape, an impoverished malnourished community, a household with few assets to buffer against ill-fortune – and it is resilient, then, by definition, it will be harder to change the system to a more desirable state. Such a system requires transformation, but transformation of a poorly-performing system will be more difficult if it has high resilience.

I see three ways to cope with the dilemma that resilience, according to this definition, is not always desirable. One solution is to use two different terms. Folke et al2 suggested the term resistant for systems in an undesirable state. A second solution is that applied by other contributors to this series: to define resilience with respect to a normative goal. Thus, Davies et al use the term ‘development resilience’, arguing that resilience of the development process – and therefore the ability of development per se to withstand shocks – is desirable. They describe development resilience as:

‘…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.’

Davies et al maintain that resilience should be defined differently in the development context from the usage of resilience by ecologists, pointing to the dilemma that social-ecological resilience is an undesirable feature where transformation of a system is what is needed. By narrowing the definition they are able to define resilience as a positive feature.

But defining a term specifically for your context has its disadvantages: it leads to confusion when communicating with those outside the circle, who don’t share the same understanding of the term.

I am not convinced that there is a benefit from defining development resilience differently from social-ecological resilience. To me, the social-ecological definition and usage of resilience meets the needs for development. Indeed, understanding the social–ecological context – with due recognition of the functioning of both social and ecological systems, and their interactions and dependencies – is critical to supporting sustainable development.

I suggest that we put aside debate on the definition of resilience. It is unlikely that we will agree on a common definition. Instead, accept that people define resilience differently, and that these differences do matter. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the user of the term to ensure that (s)he is aware of the different ways other people use the term, especially the usage by the audience being addressed, and to spell out his/her own definition at the beginning of the interaction.

So now, let us focus effort on the objective and devise practical strategies to get there. Why did we perceive a need to move past sustainability and onto resilience? What do we want to achieve from this new focus? How best can we pursue this aspirational goal?

This brings me to the third solution to the dilemma that resilience is not necessarily a desirable attribute: remove the focus on achieving resilience, and instead apply resilience concepts to progress the goals of sustainable development. The Resilience, Adaptation and Transformation Assessment and Learning Framework (RATALF) can help us do this. Developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in partnership with the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environmental Facility (STAP/GEF), RATALF is a practical tool that can aid the application of resilience concepts in development.

The RATALF brings together the social-ecological resilience principles developed by Brian Walker and colleagues3, and the participatory approaches to adaptation pathways devised by Wise et al4. As suggested by the title, it considers the three related concepts of resilience, adaptation and transformation. Rather than aiming to build resilience per se, it seeks to build or adapt system properties (such as resilience) to meet normatively defined sustainability goals.

The RATALF provides a structure and guidance to assess a system’s resilience, whether the system needs to adapt or transform, and gives guidance on targeting interventions to where they will be most effective. It applies a modular, iterative, participatory process to:

  1. Explore and describe sustainability goals, and develop shared understanding of how the system functions;
  2. Identify the values and outputs that people expect or desire from the system now and in the future, and the drivers that affect these;
  3. Identify a small set of controlling variables which are critical to the function of the system; and
  4. Determine the need and options for adapting or transforming the system, if this is necessary to achieve the sustainability goals, and adaptation pathways to avoid undesirable futures and maintain options for future generations.

There is no specific simple or complex indicator that is universally applicable to assess resilience. Instead the RATALF allows users to identify the most relevant amongst existing indicators. The results of the assessment are captured by ‘summary action indicators’ that provide broad guidance on the types of actions that may be appropriate to enhance resilience, or to support transformation. Meta-indicators are used to report the coverage, quality, progress and relevant actions based on individual assessments. These can be aggregated for reporting at national scale. Thus the RATALF provides a replicable, scalable approach which allows comparisons between assessments (different geographical areas and iterative assessments over time).

The RATALF doesn’t provide a recipe, or a simple formula for calculating resilience. It does much more than that: it guides the community to a better collective understanding of how the system works, what needs to change, and how to change it. Thus, it improves the chance that development actions will have long-lasting beneficial impacts. Surely that is the ultimate goal of our current quest for resilience.

The RATALF is described in

O’Connell, D., Walker, B., Abel, N. and Grigg, N. 2015. The Resilience, Adaptation and Transformation Assessment Framework: From Theory to Application. CSIRO, Australia.

And desktop case studies are provided in

Grigg, N., Abel, N., O’Connell, D. and Walker, B. 2015. Resilience assessment case studies in Thailand and Niger: Case studies to accompany a discussion paper for UNCCD STAP workshop 19–21 November 2014, Sydney, Australia.

Both available at:


1Cowie AL, Pingoud, K. and Schlamadinger, B. 2006. Stock changes or fluxes? Resolving terminological confusion in the debate on land-use change and forestry. Climate Policy 6:161–179

2 Folke, C., Carpenter, S., Walker, B., Scheffer, M., Chapin, T. and Rockström, J. 2010. Resilience Thinking: Integrating Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability. Ecology and Society 15(4):20.

3Walker, B. and Salt, D. 2012. Resilience practice: building capacity to absorb disturbance and maintain function. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

4Wise, R Fazey, I., Smith, M., Park, S., Eakin, H., Van Garderen, E. and Campbell, B. 2014. Reconceptualising adaptation to climate change as part of pathways of change and response. Global Environmental Change 28:325-336.

2 thoughts on “Operationalizing resilience thinking: What really matters?

  1. Annette, your comment that perhaps we should “remove the focus on achieving resilience, and instead apply resilience concepts to progress the goals of sustainable development”, is right on the mark. I’m very much concerned that donor agencies and other development actors in making “resilience” the goal, however we might define it, that development and improvement in well-being will be sidelined.

    Thanks too for drawing attention to RATALF. Although people such as myself are differentiating “development resilience” from “social-ecological resilience”, people working on the latter have developed tools, frameworks and concepts for appreciating complexity. These are sorely needed, and RATALF is a welcome addition to the mix.

  2. “What really matters?” is a good question. The dryland systems of E Africa that I am familiar with are degraded. Whether that degraded state is regarded as highly resilient or lacking resilience is neither here nor there from a project perspective. They need to be restored to something resembling their former condition, or transformed into something entirely different. From a resilience thinking perspective this will be a long, slow process that addresses issues of plant cover, soil and water loss, negative beliefs about the pastoralist lifestyle, the policies that arise from those beliefs, village and district council capacities, inequities and abuse of power, political conflict, and so on.

    Perhaps more importantly it would be useful to ask donors, project designers, managers and other stakeholders what kind of system do they think they are dealing with? What I am seeing in various papers and posts in this series is a muddle of complex and simple systems thinking. Much of the systems that “resilience building” projects are intending to improve are complex systems. Things like resilience, adaptive capacity and transformability are emergent in those systems and they are abstractions intended to enable understanding of the processes of evolutionary change in those systems. At best, all that projects can do is influence those system by enhancing the social, biological and physical attributes that contribute to resilience and other emergent systems properties. The influence is exerted towards a common vision of a desirable future system state, but all the stakeholders understand and accept that they are dealing with self-replicating, self-organizing, systems of humans and nature that will produce surprises.

    It makes no sense to treat emergent properties as anything other than open ended goals like liberty and equality; things that can never be achieved for any length of time but can be constantly strived for. The sensible thing to do would be to forget about designing indicators for things like resilience that cannot be measured and focus on components of the system that can be changed together with the feedback interactions that either drive or inhibit the movement of a system in a certain direction. Complex systems scientists have developed a range oft tools for doing these things. They are not perfect but they are worth using as an alternative to linear, cause-effect change modeling as a basis for project design and implementation.

    If people, cows, soil, grass and trees where machines, then linear modeling would be appropriate for development of drylands systems. We need to shift our machine age perspective and recognize that self-organizing, self-replicating life, requires a different approach.

    Perhaps I should write another blog entry that refers to some of the literature on complex systems and how to manage them.

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