What is resilience?

Just back from a lot of discussion on scarcity, resilience and crises at a conference convened by the Development Studies Association and European Association of Development Institutes.

The basic rationale for the conference are outlined well here and here. Crudely – lots of interlinked crisis and a need to think how to build adaptive institutions, ideas, and political coalitions. The conference blog is worth a look (here).

In short – global shocks in economics, food security and fuel prices, together with chronic stressors relating to demographic pressure, climate change and resource scarcity – aka ‘the long crisis of globalisation’ or the ‘perfect storm’ of problems – are combining to produce complex, shifting configurations of vulnerability as experienced by households and communities. And all of this is leading to more interest in the ideas of resilience.

Understanding these complexities and vulnerabilities in global development, and navigating global volatility for resilience-building purposes, is not straightforward (surprise). Together with Rich Mallet at the Overseas Development Institute, we review (and published by UNDP’s International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth in Brasilia) represents one attempt to make sense of this problem. Reviewing the inter-disciplinary literature on vulnerability, we found that existing definitions of the concept largely fail to capture the multidimensional and complex nature of vulnerability in the twenty-first century. Vulnerability tends to be viewed narrowly by discipline or sector, which obstructs the kind of broad, holistic analysis needed to understand how patterns of vulnerability occur, how they shift, and what can be done to strengthen people’s capacities to respond. We call for a new analytical approach that is able to manage complexity and recognise the many faces of vulnerability…

‘Three-dimensional’ (3D) wellbeing (see summary here and paper here) is a new conceptual approach that emerged from the Wellbeing in Developing Countries (WeD) research programme led by Allister McGregor.

It is constructed around the central idea that wellbeing is a dynamic process with material (what people have), relational (what people are able to do) and subjective (how people feel) dimensions. These dimensions are interlinked, co-evolving and fluid. We found tha t3D wellbeing is useful because it takes us beyond the objectively measurable assets and incomes that people own and generate, and towards a fuller understanding of the roles played by power, relationships and idiosyncrasy in shaping lives and livelihoods. And, as we found, it is also useful for understanding vulnerability and resilience. The review is largely an individual/household level analysis but potentially could be applied to community/country-level resilience too.

Here’s the 3-dimensions:

The material dimension. People can be vulnerable to material risks, such as environmental catastrophes and volatile labour markets. The immediate impacts of risks are also often material in nature: households suffer asset loss; people’s health deteriorates; families go hungry. And attempts to minimise vulnerability in the present can have material consequences in the longer term, such as when households fleeing violent conflict face difficulties accessing basic services, receiving humanitarian assistance, or generating secure incomes at their place of destination, as is often the case with displacement trajectories towards urban areas.

The relational dimension. Risks can also be relational as well as material. Violence targeted at particular groups, or protection deficits stemming from weak, distorted relations between states and their citizens, are as much about the dynamics of interaction between particular actors as they are about the tangible nature of shocks and stressors. Similarly, response strategies often depend on social interaction, as demonstrated by inter-household reciprocity arrangements and asset transfers in times of crisis. Social networks are also important in enabling migration towards areas of relative safety and opportunity, even when restrictive policies are in place to limit movement.

The subjective dimension. Finally, perceptions of what constitutes risk and vulnerability are not universally homogeneous. The way in which an individual feels vulnerable is ultimately shaped by the culture and environment in which they grew up, by their position in society, by gender, and by a whole other range of contextually specific factors. Moreover, research on the impacts of the financial crisis in developing countries shows how the need to work longer hours places additional stress on families, which can lead to intra-household breakdown and generate feelings of misery and despair – findings not limited, of course, to households in the global south. The experience of risk is also a subjective one. Recent evidence from conflict-affected parts of Bangladesh illustrates how heightened subjective perceptions of violence influence household decision-making in relation to, for example, children’s school attendance and land use.

By looking through these three, interrelated lenses of wellbeing, it is possible to start to make sense of the complexities of vulnerability and risk in a volatile and less predictable world. 3D wellbeing also helps us realise that while vulnerability and living with uncertainty and risk is indeed the ‘norm’ for many, it is often also the result of rational behaviour: exposure to certain risk(s) tends to occur through attempts to minimise vulnerability from others. Again, the empirical example of urban displacement is illustrative.

Fundamentally, we are not proposing anything groundbreaking here. But we are asking that more researchers and policy makers start taking complexity seriously (see here and here for recent engagement on the topic). Embracing non-linearity, multiple interaction and dynamic processes of change could be the key to building resilience in a complex and volatile world – and analysing vulnerability and resilience via approaches such as the 3D wellbeing might be one step in that direction.