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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Putting vulnerability first – the need to revise targeting and delivering aid to promote sustainability and resilience

By Debra Prosnitz, MPH


The Humanitarian Policy Research Group (HPG) recently released a policy brief on resilience: Political flag or conceptual umbrella? Why progress on resilience must be freed from the constraints of technical arguments (1). Reading this brief, I began to reflect on the relationship between resilience and sustainability. In the context of development, resilience should address ability to cope and recover from crisis, and the sustainability should address the process of strengthening social capital to sustain progress in health, social progress, etc. (2). If sustainability is a process, perhaps resilience is one of the outcomes. I decided that the importance of this topic deserved a CEDARS blog update.

In this short (4-page) brief, Simon Levine succinctly captures two approaches to addressing resilience, brings to light the stalemate and consequent inaction in which they are stuck, and suggests a new way forward in theory through action (3).

Levine discusses two “broad arguments” for addressing resilience, both of which, he argues, distract us from the underlying need to identify and understand vulnerabilities of individuals and communities, and find ways to address these vulnerabilities: The political argument convinces us that something needs to be done - “since the shocks and stresses that cause crises cannot be prevented, the task is to ensure that people are better able to cope when things do go wrong,” and the technical argument calls for a refined definition of resilience and new approaches for addressing it because what has previously been implemented has not adequately addressed the complexity and challenges of resilience, such as climate change. While we may not yet know the best way to define resilience or the best strategies and approaches to address it, we must not let this stop or delay efforts to do so.  We know that vulnerabilities exist and should be addressed, and should move forward by identifying and understanding vulnerabilities of individuals and communities, and findings ways to address these vulnerabilities.

Resilience then—even if imperfectly conceptualized--can already be enhanced by ensuring that “vulnerabilities are the center of development policy and investment,” and that marginalization be addressed and minimized through development; resilience should not become another sector of development. Thus, Levine suggests that the definition of and theoretical framework for resilience can be developed and refined through action (rather than delaying action pending conceptual clarity).

While Levine addresses the complexity of development and the “structural, institutional and bureaucratic obstacles” to making change to how development aid is targeted and delivered, I wish he had made a clearer link between resilience and sustainability. I’m envisioning resilience as a pillar of sustainability, because while we can’t predict which shock will occur, the occurrence of shocks and changes following even the best of our interventions is almost a certainty. Further, neither resilience nor sustainability can be achieved by external intervention and leadership alone. Community involvement should be a prerequisite for approaching both, with communities and individuals leading efforts to identify vulnerabilities and define resilience.

Levine’s brief is a glimpse into larger bodies of work he has published on this subject (4), which can also be found on the HPG website. Whatever your stance on resilience as a concept, this paper is an important reminder of the old adage not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good; we should not be complacent in our thinking about models of aid delivery, and should be actively thinking about and advocating for changes in the way in which aid is both targeted and delivered. Vulnerability should be the primary criteria, with aid targeted toward the most vulnerable first and delivered in a way that bolsters resilience.  

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(1) S. Levine, Political flag or conceptual umbrella? Why progress on resilience must be freed from the constraints of technical arguments. Policy Brief 60. Humanitarian Policy Research Group (London: ODI, 2014).
(2) Sarriot, et al. Taking the Long View: A Practical Guide to Sustainable Planning and Measurement in Community Oriented Health Programming. Macro International, Inc. (Calverton, MD, 2008) defined sustainability as “a process that advances conditions that enable individuals, communities, and local organizations to improve their functionality, develop mutual relationship of support and accountability, and decrease dependent on insecure resources…(and) enables local stakeholders to play their respective roles effectively, thus maintaining gains in health and development…”
(3) As our fearless CEDARS leader Eric Sarriot summed it up “praxis can improve without a perfect epistemology.” 
(4) S. Levine, Assessing resilience: why quantification misses the point. Humanitarian Policy Group Working Paper. (London: ODI, July 2014); and 
S. Levine and I. Mosel, Supporting Resilience in Difficult Places: A Critical Look at Applying the ‘Resilience’ Concept in Countries Where Crises Are the Norm, HPG Commissioned Paper for BMZ (London: ODI, 2014).