Resilience is a term that permeates development and adaptation conversations alike. However, it is often used without clear definition, and the definitions assumed or elaborated generally misrepresent the dynamics of human-dominated systems.

TL;DR: We’re doing resilience wrong, and it is screwing up the lives of people who are supposed to benefit from resilience programming.

To address this problem, I recently wrote an article seeking to address these conceptual issues and make resilience a useful, constructive concept for development and adaption. The key points:

  • Socio-ecological resilience is an outcome of projects steering diverse actors and ecological processes toward human safety and stability in a manner that preserves the privileges of those in positions of authority.
  • At even moderate levels, disturbance in socio-ecologies is not a source of transformation, but instead produces rigidity that limits innovation and transformation in the name of safety and stability. When a resilient system provides safety in the context of a disturbance, the system and its attendant social orders and privileges are legitimized. This is why many development projects fail: they gently disturb a project, which rejects the intervention in the name of safety and certainty, and returns people and activities to their initial state.
  • Disrupting resilient socio-ecological projects, whether through extreme disturbance or interventions associated with development and adaptation, opens space for transformation, but creates risk by removing existing sources of safety and certainty. This is another source of project failure, one where the intervention blows up the existing project, but what comes together in its wake leaves some or all of the people involved more vulnerable to existing stresses, or vulnerable to new stresses that leave them worse off than they were before the intervention.
  • Reinforcing existing socio-ecological projects, such as through interventions aimed at stabilizing existing activities, reduces opportunities for transformation by legitimizing their practices and social orders.
  • Interventions seeking to build resilience while achieving transformative goals can catalyze change by easing stress on livelihoods. In the context of reduced stress, the side of these projects aimed at maintaining existing structures of authority relaxes, allowing space for innovations by actors who are otherwise marginal to decision-making.

There is a lot going on in this article, and I intended it as much as a provocation as a path forward. If any of this is interesting or challenges the way you saw resilience in the world, feel free to read more deeply – the article is here.