Resilience makes sense

In 2017, natural and human-made disasters struck with unabated force in developed and less-developed countries alike. In spite of decades of emergency preparedness, prevention policies and measures, in many instances the destructive impact of disasters has not been reigned in or significantly reduced.
Traditional maize storage in Kano State, Nigeria. Shenley/Lineair Traditional maize storage in Kano State, Nigeria.

The hurricanes that struck the USA in 2017 affected millions of people and destroyed countless livelihoods. The damage caused by Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston, alone is estimated to amount to $ 180 billion. In contrast, the total official development assistance (ODA) made available by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last year was worth $ 143 billion.

As a policy and research body of 35 developed countries, the OECD tracks the sectors where aid is directed to. In 2015, the most recent year tracked, disaster prevention and rehabilitation efforts accounted for less than $ 3 billion. Vulnerabilities to disaster risks are multi-faceted and omnipresent. Natural disasters such as floods, droughts and avalanches have increased in intensity and frequency as the impact of climate change deepens. But while disaster preparedness and relief aid have often temporarily been stepped up in response to these challenges, efforts to avoid major loss of lives and livelihoods have not kept up. In large part, this is due to considerable deterioration of existing coping capacities, in particular where prolonged conflicts and political instability have gripped countries and regions.

Social, political and economic shocks have multiplied manyfold in recent years, especially when accompanied by violent conflicts. This results in the loss of countless human lives and the collapse of state institutions, as is tragically evident in places such as South Sudan, Yemen and Syria. The near annihilation of service delivery and crisis-response capacities of the state has devastating consequences for the people concerned. The most vulnerable – and worst affected – are disadvantaged communities who struggle with poverty and marginalisation even before disasters occur.

Under conditions of conflict and crisis, it is an uphill struggle simply to maintain coping mechanisms, whether they are institutional or individual. Where service delivery and policy implementation are still operational, however, the chances of boosting resilience to disasters and crises are better. Nonetheless, poor quality of services, patchy regional coverage and capacity shortfalls may thwart even the best-intended efforts. Moreover, urban-rural divides are often difficult to bridge. Infrastructure-intensive cities need other measures to improve their shock resilience than isolated village communities (World Bank, 2013).

The term “resilience” originated from biology, referring to how organisms cope with ecological stress. It has now gained a foothold in the social sciences and policymaking. Resilience building is about monitoring, anticipating, responding to and managing risks. Focused action should inform democratic decision-making and lead to lasting change. The concept is of global relevance, and practical measures to implement it should be taken.

In the political context, resilience is not a clearly defined concept. To some degree, it is about a long-term vision. Usche Merk of medico international, the Frankfurt based health-care NGO, has warned that this trendy buzzword may serve to supersede the sustainability concept (see article in D+C/E+Z e-paper 2017/03, p. 15) and ultimately blame disaster victims for their own suffering. On the other hand, some donor institutions have adopted detailed action plans and committed to funding (EU Commission, 2013).

From a grassroots perspective, it would be wrong to wait for high-level policy debate to be resolved. Many forms of resili­ence strengthening can be launched fast and without major funding. They are a matter of common sense, not ideology.

Local-level action

A starting point is people’s self-organisation. The stronger it is, the better communities can develop potentially life-saving buffer capacities to absorb stress, hazards, disturbances or destructive forces.

Contingency plans make sense too. Interventions in a handful of areas can reduce the impact of both human-made and natural disasters at the local level. Relevant examples include:

  • Basic health services can benefit from a range of preparedness measures. Such measures facilitate continuity of service provisions or a quick resumption thereof. Drawing up a safe health clinic checklist can enable health workers and managers to better identify institutional shortcomings. It can also help in overseeing human resource and logistics challenges, should disaster strike. The World Health Organization offers sensible guidelines (WHO, 2015).
  • School emergency operations plans can make educational facilities safer environments for their students and teachers. The buildings may have to be used as temporary accommodations for displaced people. In physical terms, schools built in accordance with appropriate architectural standards withstand earthquakes better. UN-Habitat and the UNISDR (the UN office for disaster risk reduction) have published guidelines for schools and hospitals (UN-Habitat and UNISDR, 2012).
  • Water, sanitation, and hygiene programmes are essential for community resilience. Disasters may disrupt or destroy water supply, storage, treatment facilities and sanitation systems. Community-led risk reduction approaches can contribute to designing and building stronger and more resilient basic infrastructure, at safer locations.
  • Poverty and food insecurity compound disaster risks. Research shows that for highly resource-constrained people who depend on low-input, small-scale agriculture and pastoralism, notions of personal well-being are conflated with food security and the fulfilment of relatively basic ma­terial needs. Resilience thus becomes equated with meeting short-term subsistence needs and taking action to prepare against future shocks and stresses (Thiede, 2016). Income opportunities outside agriculture can help to improve fragile livelihoods. Access to credit and community services can provide further short-term relief for what are essentially structural and political problems.
  • An often overlooked intervention area is pest control. Resilience to risks posed by pests is often limited because of the high cost of herbicides, insecticides and of rodent control measures. While pest control tends to focus on invertebrate pests like stem borers, armyworms and locusts, little attention is paid to vertebrate pests like rodents or birds. Rodents are a particularly concerning group of pests. They can cause farms considerable damage because of their abundance, diversity, feeding habits and high reproduction abilities. Income-stressed small-scale farmers can lose entire crops to one or a variety of such pests. Alternative modes of crop storage can help limit losses to rodents as can crop diversification, where feasible (Swanepoel and Belmain, 2015).

Without doubt, resilience building must go far beyond the individual and community levels. Structural conditions must be tackled. The high-level debates and resulting policies are important. Resilience must be conceived in a way that it improves the fate of vulnerable people and ultimately supports the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and its partners have recently published a Multi-Hazard Early Warning Systems Checklist. It can serve as a practical, non-technical reference tool to ensure that the major elements of an effective early warning system are in place (WMO, 2018).

However, until global discourse reaches a conclusive definition of the term resilience that can find widespread application, a multitude of local-level actions can lead to much-needed short-term improvements. There is no reason not to start building resilience now.

Glenn Brigaldino is a Canada-based aid and trade adviser.


EU Commission, 2013: Action Plan for Resilience in Crisis Prone Countries 2013-2020.

Swanepoel, L., and Belmain, S., 2017: Rodent control on small-scale farms a key to food security.

Thiede, B., 2016: Resilience and development among ultra-poor households in rural Ethiopia.

UN-Habitat and UNISDR, 2013: Tools for the assessment of school and hospital safety for multi-hazards in South Asia.

WHO, 2015: Hospital safety index for evaluators. 2nd edition.

WMO, 2018: Multi-hazard early warning systems – a checklist.

World Bank, 2013: Building urban resilience principles, tools and practice.

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