What is the value of resilience to peacebuilding?

In my last blog, I looked at how far we’ve come in connecting the dots between conflict, climate change and disasters. In this blog, I’ll discuss what relevance resilience has for peacebuilding.

The resilience agenda can be very useful for promoting peace and peacebuilding. At its best, it could harmonise different aspects of risk management, covering both manmade threats (such as conflict) and natural hazards, together with different forms of relief operations, spanning ‘short-onset’ (e.g. floods) to ‘long-onset’ (e.g. drought) to ‘complex emergencies’ (e.g. chronic conflict).

The resilience agenda also encourages donors and humanitarian agencies to shift focus from short-term disaster response to long-term stresses that change the nature of risks, such as climate change, environmental degradation, economic fragility, marginalisation, demographic changes, and governance and insecurity trends.

It could also provide a better means of linking risk management actions made at different levels (household, community, national), ensuring those working at each layer are aware of and coordinated with each other. This is highly desirable for peacebuilding, given that the interconnectedness of different shocks and stresses on different layers of society have profound implications for peace.

Moreover, on a practical level, the concept of understanding the ‘risk landscape’ is useful to peacebuilding. Resilience, like peacebuilding, is about trade-offs – the balance between risks and returns – and how to optimise these trade-offs. This includes the management of short lived shocks, and doing so in a way that allows long-term sustainability. Different types of risks are managed better by different players at different layers of society.

An understanding of whose risk we are talking about is also critical. Local reality is a complex multi-risk environment and risk priorities will vary depending on whose perspective is being considered – and in some cases they will even clash. Understanding the different actors and power dynamics involved in any risk assessment is a key component in ensuring peaceful risk management approaches – whatever shape they may take.

What does resilience mean for communities, donors and practitioners?

Resilience approaches build on current risk management practice to better manage change and uncertainty. Adopting a resilience approach involves understanding the multitude of linked issues people are facing and of the importance of strengthening the capacity of communities and authorities to deal with both known and unknown risks. This is what peacebuilding also purports to do – peaceful transformation of relations, behaviours and contexts. There is a lot of common ground.

A strong and well-functioning state (e.g. the Netherlands) shows how strong governance is imperative for managing risks that citizens face. We may not always be able to predict risks, but we can predict that a stronger state (i.e. one that functions well) and stronger communities will be better able to deal with the risks they face. Prioritising governance, or at least the promotion of a positive relationship between authorities and communities, should be a core principle of resilience-building in fragile contexts.

Investments in peacebuilding, such as effective conflict-resolution mechanisms around natural resource sharing, can also bolster resilience. So too can strengthening relations between and within fractured communities.

So what are the challenges?

One key challenge is to move resilience out of the exclusive purview of the humanitarian sphere. Risk assessments must look beyond just physical hazards.

They have to factor in all the complexities of the real world, including politics. Factors like weak governance and political marginalisation reduce people’s capacity to deal with risks. And political uncertainty, say around election times, affect an individual’s willingness to plan long term. It is the interaction between socio-economic and political factors and physical hazards, therefore, that we need to understand in order to build resilience to the messy, comingled risks people face.

It’s also vital to get the incentives right and understand the politics of risks. Famines are always political, not natural disasters. There is also a need for more transparency around risk analysis. Politicians may wish to supress information about risks if it could deter investment or be seen as a governance failure – especially around elections.

We also need to account for different audiences and the different information needs of affected communities versus response providers. For example, decision-makers may only be interested in projections of mortality, when actually, just keeping people alive is not a sufficient response, and not what those affected prioritise.

Some of the practical and institutional challenges of operationalising what is essentially a common-sense approach include:

  • lack of coherent understanding and communication of what resilience entails, from the household to regional level;
  • political resistance by those used to working in silos with strict mandates and in competition with others;
  • feeling threatened that resilience replaces existing approaches and agendas; and
  • the struggle to fully implement existing initiatives.

How can we progress?

There’s obviously no silver bullet, but four practical steps include:

  • incorporating a ‘political economy analysis’ and a ‘resilience components analysis’ within risk assessments, and using monitoring and evaluation systems that measure resilience;
  • creating connections between different layers of society (households, communities and national), ensuring that programmes at one level do not compromise the wellbeing of those at another;
  • promoting common planning between organisations based on a comprehensive analysis of complex risks; and
  • incentivising joined-up programming by making ‘conflict sensitivity’ mandatory to receive funding.

The road ahead

We currently have a unique political window to do what is critical for the successful adoption of resilience: namely, a re-examination of how humanitarian aid and development cooperation should best address the reality of complex risks – characterised by change and uncertainty. This is a catalyst year for implementing climate change, development and humanitarian policies under the new global processes agreed in 2015 – including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sendai Framework on disaster risk reduction.

Against this backdrop, there is a renewed attempt by some donors (e.g. UK Department for International Development, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, US Agency for International Development, etc.) and implementing agencies to link climate change and disaster risk reduction with other aspects of resilience, such as conflict and security. The World Humanitarian Summit in May will also provide a potentially paradigm shifting moment to shake-up the way we deal with humanitarian crises.

I hope these steps will maximise the peace potential instead of compounding conflict risks.