Resilience: Connecting the dots between conflict, climate change and disasters

Last month I was honoured to be on the panel of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery's Resilience Dialogue on Fragility, Conflict and Disaster Risk.

The dialogue, held at the World Bank’s annual Fragility Forum, was a very welcome step from the disasters community, to explore the link between disaster risk and conflict situations. This is both an incredibly pertinent and timely issue to address: some of the largest natural disasters in recent years – including climate change impacts – have occurred in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. These include the 2008 cyclone in Myanmar, the 2009 drought in Chad and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

In fact, between 2005 and 2012 more than 50% of people impacted by disasters lived in fragile states, and for some of these years the figure was closer to 80%. Predictions show that this trend is only set to increase. The risks are thus inexorable. And from the aid community’s struggling efforts to meet the humanitarian needs arising from these crises, it is clear that it is not possible to address one of these issues without the others.

The Resilience Dialogue discussion looked at the similarities and differences of recovery in natural disaster scenarios and conflict situations, and explored how many of the same institutions and preparedness measures that have been used to build climate and disaster resilience can play a substantive role in reducing fragility and violence. In particular, it put a spotlight on the concept of resilience and its value in bringing the idea of ‘interconnectivity’ to the fore.

But there is an imperative for such discussions to dig deeper, to really get into the weeds and figure out some of the ways around the obstacles we face to achieving this elusive ‘interconnectivity’.

How far have we come ‘in connecting the dots’?

Over the last six years, resilience has moved from engineering, ecology and psychology to become widely used by humanitarian and development actors across diverse themes: disaster risk reduction, climate change, urban planning, peacebuilding, and food and nutrition. It has also become a common theme in processes such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which now shape the future for worldwide development cooperation and humanitarian action.

As such, resilience has largely been expressed as an ‘agenda’ to enhance cost-cutting, improve partnerships, and to create joined-up approaches to counter sectoral silos. It has therefore been largely driven by international donors, then adopted by implementing agencies dependent on these donors’ resources.

Consequently, there’s been an explosion of consultations and initiatives on resilience, with different interpretations of what it is, but largely uncoordinated, and lacking differentiation between the political agenda and the practical approach required. They are not the same thing, yet both are necessary to ensure that resilience is successfully implemented.

It is critical that this political agenda is translated into a practical approach – an approach where climate change and disasters programming does no harm to existing conflict dynamics in fragile states, and actually fulfils its potential to build peace.

Donors such as the UK Department for International Development, the US Agency for International Development and the European Union recognise the inter-connectedness of different types of risk and acknowledge that joint risk assessments across conflict, development and humanitarian issues is a priority. But there is more work to do to see this reflected in practice.

Great in theory. But where are we in practice?

What we’re seeing at present is many actors (donors and practitioners alike) interpreting resilience as a technical approach to fit their own mandate, rather than letting the operational context define the problem to which resilience offers the solution. This results in a repackaging of existing approaches and ‘products’.

In practice, therefore, interpretations of resilience tend to focus on natural disasters – especially weather-related risks, which largely ignore other social, political and economic risks. In many cases, resilience is applied to a specific hazard or trend (e.g. flood resilience, drought resilience, climate resilience, etc.), due to the narrow mandate of an organisation or their programme, rather than reflecting the contextual reality that people and institutions face.

International Alert is working to broaden the understanding of resilience to incorporate resilience to the linked risks of conflict and natural disasters. In my next blog, I will look at the value of resilience to peacebuilding.