Resilience: Entry point for transformation

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What does Local First have to do with the issue of resilience? As it turns out – plenty. Resilience is not only a critical lens for examining both humanitarian assistance and development, but it presents a real opportunity to awaken a broad range of policy makers to the importance of Local First.

Over the past week, hundreds of experts, policy makers and practitioners attended major conferences on resilience – the ability of people, communities, nations and the global system to predict, prevent and bounce back from shocks.

The first of these two conferences, in Montpellier was broad, and “explored multiple perspectives on social and ecological change and the multiple links between resilience thinking and development issues.”.  The second, held by the International Food Policy and Research Institute in Addis Ababa, focused on building resilience for food and nutrition security.

The issue of resilience has been slowly growing in importance for twenty years, but has become a very hottopic since the 2008 Food Price Crisis, and the near miraculous lack of disaster in Ethiopia during the 2011 drought. The word “resilience” comes up constantly in discussions of climate change, yet it is relevant to a wide variety of shocks and stressors that can cause enormous setbacks for people and communities.

Resilience – Lessons Learned

I attended the IFPRI conference: three days, 34 hours of sessions, 149 speakers and more than 800 participants.

Some of the most important takeaways from the IFPRI Conference should warm the hearts of advocates for Local First:

  1. The central importance of the community as the front-line of resilience,
  2. The vital priority to build on and strengthen local capacity,
  3. Systems thinking – understanding the relationships among all the components of the social, institutional, economic and natural environment – at all levels, from the household to the globe,
  4. Build Back Better – the recognition that shocks not only demand a response, but present unique opportunities to make needed systemic changes,
  5. A renewed appreciation of the relief and development continuum.

Why Addis? Because Ethiopia has invested heavily in its resilience over the past decade – particularly in building its capacity at the community level. The Prime Minister and his advisors and ministers who spoke at the conference described how they have placed top emphasis on supporting the power of communities to solve their own problems.

Ethiopia has achieved remarkable and rapid progress in health, nutrition and environmental restoration by training and deploying thousands of health, agricultural and women’s affairs extension officers at the local level, and ensuring that all development actors work in close coordination with local government. Ethiopian civil society practitioners I met spoke with great respect of the quality of local-level experts – something I cannot say I have heard elsewhere.

Resilience – A different analytical approach

The most provocative question at the conference was – is “resilience” really anything new? Does it really add value to development discourse, or is it simply the buzzword of the month?

The question, of course, is cynical but rests on the painful trackrecord of the development community’s failure to properly apply and sustain its focus on key concepts in the past.

The real question, however, is whether the advocates for the issues that are central to resilience will be effective enough advocates to mainstream the concept into policy and practice.

Resilience is different. It is not only a different way of thinking about policies and programs, but requires a different set of analytic skills to properly analyze, predict and plan for shocks.

Certainly the environmental and climate change activists are strong voices for applying a resilience lens. Nutrition advocates also have a lot to gain: like resilience, nutrition also can only be successfully addressed through a multisectoral approach that integrates food systems, the health system, water and sanitation and gender social norms. These two communities have ensured that resilience is incorporated into the current working papers of the UN Open Working Group on the Post-2015 agenda – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – in at least four places.

Resilience – The way forward

Local First advocates need to dive into the resilience issue and fully understand what it requires – and the opportunities it offers – for those committed to building our shared future on the strengths of local capacities.  The Open Work Group has kept alive the target of “Participatory Local Governance for All by 2030” within Focus Area 16 – but my sense is that it is holding on by a thread.

A final message from the IFPRI resilience meeting was that “now is the time.” The SDGs will have an enormous influence on government policies and programs, and key decisions are being made at the UN every day, and the window for having our voice heard will most likely close by September. As one speaker said, “Agenda Setting is a Crowded Process” and we need to lock arms with our allies in the nutrition, governance and environmental fields to ensure that SDGs empower local people and communities to be the key authors of their own development.

 

About the author

jcheadshotJohn Coonrod is the Executive Vice President of The Hunger Project, where he has been responsible for its programs in South Asia and Latin America. He also works on all aspects of strategy, including programs, fundraising and communications and is based in Washington, DC. He is a leading spokesperson for the organization, and expert on bottom-up, gender-focused development and decentralized local governance. John serves as co-chair of InterAction’s Food Security and Agriculture working group, as well as advisor and board member to a number of emerging international NGOs.

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