Entries tagged with “resilience”.

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.

I am in the midst of (finally) reading James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed.  The book is a fascinating exercise in anarchist political geography – basically, examining how state power was limited by/shaped by various geographic factors in upland Southeast Asia.  As with many Scott books, it is a readably huge, sweeping view of a long timespan and a lot of diverse people, but thus far it hangs together well.

I was struck by a particular passage in chapter 3 that speaks rather directly to a lot of food security/agricultural development work being done in the world today, not least under Feed the Future.  The passage comes in a section where Scott is reviewing the historical efforts of various tenuous states to consolidate their control over the surrounding population, but contains an important message for those who are pushing the newest era of agricultural modernization (I call it part II, but there are compelling arguments for this being part III, or IV, depending on how you parse the history of development):

At about the same time as the Peloponnesian War, the early Chinese state was doing everything in its power to prevent the dispersal of population. Manuals of statecraft urged the king to prohibit subsistence activities in the mountains and wetlands “in order to increase the involvement of the people in the production of grain.” . . . The objective of this policy was, it seems, to starve the population into grain farming and subjecthood by separating them from the open commons.

There is no leap at all from this ancient Chinese case to what the inadvertent outcomes of much of our “efficiency-driven” food security and agricultural development work might do.  By compelling greater and greater market integration, and doing so through a focus on fewer and fewer crops, we are effectively closing the commons and prohibiting/constraining subsistence activities among the affected populations.  The result, in the best case, is improved agricultural outcomes and incomes that translate into improved well-being for all involved.  The worst case is a scenario where various marginal populations who have developed some expertise in managing the uncertainty of their particular contexts lose adaptive capacity, making them much more vulnerable to state violence and control.  Critically, these are not mutually exclusive scenarios – what works in one year or season to improve the quality of life for rural farmers might, in another year or season with different market and weather conditions, work to extend state control over marginal populations who already receive little for their status as citizens. I am sure that nobody who works on the donor side wants to be part of a campaign of state violence (at the worst) or part of a project that results in the further marginalization of poor, marginal populations (in the better to middle-case scenarios).  So, at least for Feed the Future, perhaps now would be a good time to call the Democracy, Human Rights and Governance folks (they’re just one floor up!) and have them take a look at this?

Not everyone wants a resilient population, folks.

The larger message here: incorporating people into agricultural markets is about much more than economic efficiency – there are much broader considerations, from state-level political economic issues to sub-household gender roles, that come into play when we radically rework existing agricultural systems and the livelihoods that go with them.  I seriously doubt we are doing enough to capture the wide suite of challenges that comes along with market engagement to ensure that our agricultural development programs are not enhancing vulnerability and stripping resilience from some of the most marginal people we are working with.  Output per hectare is not the only relevant metric. It’s probably not even the most relevant metric, given the fact we are not suffering from a production crisis at the global scale (despite what you hear from various outlets).

Incidentally, if you are at all interested in rural development, you should buy every book James Scott has ever written and get to reading.  Now.  Links below.

Weapons of the Weak is a classic – shame on you if you do rural development/community-based development and are not familiar with it. Or, shame on the people who taught you…

The Moral Economy of the Peasant is Scott’s most underrated text.

Domination and the Arts of Resistance is Scott’s first “meta” text – huge topic, giant sweep, really interesting.

Seeing Like A State shows up on everyone’s must read list…pretty much because you should read it.

Via Grist:

TIANJIN, China — China will on Monday host its first U.N. climate conference as it seeks to showcase its green credentials, but hopes are dim that the event will yield major breakthroughs that environmentalists crave.

Three thousand delegates will converge on the northern port city of Tianjin for the latest round of tortured United Nations negotiations aimed at securing a post-2012 treaty on tackling global warming.

But even the most optimistic forecasts for the six days of talks foresee only incremental progress amid the continuing fallout from last year’s failure in Copenhagen by world leaders to forge a comprehensive deal.

“Our expectations are not very high, in the sense that we have not witnessed a willingness from governments to really move the negotiations forward,” Greenpeace International Climate Policy Director Wendel Trio told AFP.

Check the Oh Crap box in the right sidebar.  These guys are foot-dragging, and we’re already out of what most people think is the safe range for CO2 concentrations.  What do I mean by safe?  Well, it comes down to the odds of catastrophic change.  The concern is that, as CO2 levels inch upward, we are approaching a situation where nonlinear changes start to happen – that is, where slow, steady changes in the climate “jump” to a new state very, very rapidly (in decades or less).  We can cope with slow, steady changes in rainfall in most parts of the world.  That is much of what adaptation planning is about these days – adjusting livelihoods and infrastructure for expected changes in the future to minimize the negative impacts.

What worries me, however, is what I don’t know.  Global climate and ecology are extraordinarily complex, linked systems that are not completely understood.  Changes in some parts of these systems may have no effect at all on the larger picture.  Other changes might radiate through these systems, having massive, unintended and largely unpredictable consequences.  As we inch the CO2 concentrations ever upward, and we inch global temperatures upward, we create conditions in which the likelihood of this sort of non-linear change increases.  The big example of this you might have heard of is the potential shutdown of the Gulf Stream, a shift in ocean circulation triggered by larger changes in oceanic circulation linked to salinity and temperature.  If this happens (and it could, though I think it remains unlikely), Europe (for example) would become much, much cooler, radically altering agricultural production and the accessibility of ports from France north much faster than we could keep up with the changes.

This is an extreme example, but there are many other such shifts we worry about . . . and many, many more that we’ve not yet thought of because of the complexity of the systems with which we are engaged.  It is possible to plan for adaptation to such events, though – in fact, I would argue that the idea of the discontinuous change is an opportunity for more productive adaptation and development thought than that which is practiced today.  All you can do in the face of discontinuous change is make communities and countries as resilient as possible – build as much capacity for change as you can, and then let people address these changes in locally-appropriate manners as they start to happen.  In other words, discontinuous change gives us the opportunity to take our hands off the wheel – to stop lying to ourselves that we can plan for everything, or that we even have all of the knowledge we need to make such plans.  Instead, it encourages us to think about a more flexible, resilient world in which people are empowered to address the challenges in their lives.

In every challenge, there is an opportunity . . .