The “Resilience Agenda” is increasingly dominating the discourse in both humanitarian and development circles. Some argue that resilience is simply another term for sustainable development, while others see it as a distinct and crucial element of disaster risk reduction that is not necessarily addressed by conventional development approaches. In essence, it describes the ability of people (individuals, communities) to resist or recover from sudden shocks to their livelihoods. Tempting as it may be, it can nevertheless not be equated with livelihood capacity, and it is a mistake to narrowly define resilience with livelihood indicators. Rather, resilience has as much to do with skills and individual / communal capacity as it has with economic and food security parameters of people’s lives. This explains why it bridges the still existing divide between humanitarian and development approaches – humanitarians can enable and equip those potentially or actually affected by disasters with a set of skills and tools, while development workers can support the right components of complex livelihood systems that are needed to resist and recover from shocks.
Humanitarian aid clearly has a role to play in strengthening resilience. Firstly, humanitarians are best placed to understand shocks and the impact they have on individuals and communities. Secondly, they understand best how essential services can be maintained even in adverse conditions or during forced migration. Thirdly, they know what skills are needed for individuals to deal with the first hours and days of an emergency, before outside aid arrives. Finally, they are at the forefront of recovery efforts , therefore knowing best how livelihoods can be restored as quickly as possible.
This translates into concrete action that a humanitarian organisation can support in (potentially) vulnerable communities and areas. With a good understanding of the impact of typical shocks in a particular environment, development and humanitarian programmes can jointly identify the most likely threats, their likely impact, and how people and services can be cushioned from them. This spans across the first three points listed above, i.e. understanding impact, understanding resilient services, and understanding resilient people (i.e. skills).
The area of skills is particularly interesting and remains less of a priority in typical resilience programmes. A recent study on disaster risk education in schools shows that while some countries have commendable school curricula where children are taught the locally relevant skills to deal with the impact of typical disasters where they live, globally this is an under-utilised area of strengthening resilience. There is value in early and widespread civil protection training. If children grow up knowing how best to respond when disasters typical for their environment hit, their communities are more resilient for it, and likely less lives or property are lost. No matter how good the outside response is, by the time they arrive a lot already has to be done by the communities themselves. Coping starts immediately, and it makes a big difference when there are people around who can deal with the basic challenges until outside aid arrives. There is clearly a strong case for investing into education and training, as relevant, to advance the Disaster Resilience Agenda.
The second key area where humanitarians can clearly contribute to better resilience in vulnerable communities is the resilience of essential services. This is where the resilience agenda is very close to the development agenda, and closely correlates with the wider Disaster Risk Reduction investment. Essential services that work well under ‘normal’ circumstances are a good start, and this is a task very much ‘owned’ by development programmes. However, humanitarians, with their understanding of what makes services resilient to shocks, must work closely with development programmes to e.g. ensure medical stocks can be maintained, water sources are protected against e.g. flooding, or schools can operate in adverse weather conditions or as mobile schools in situations of displacement. Ensuring this close cooperation, essentially bridging the development-humanitarian divide, is like skills a key and very worth-wile area of contribution.