In its most basic sense, “resilience” is the ability to bounce back from acute shocks and chronic stresses. But in recent years, conversations regarding resilience have both broadened and deepened, expanding to incorporate elements of disaster risk reduction; development; climate change adaptation; and socio-economic, political, and ecological factors.

It is no longer enough, some say, to provide immediate relief and longer-term recovery and/or mitigation for the next disastrous event. New ideas of resilience focus on a more systems-based, integrated approach that also takes into account sustainability despite future changes in, for example, political structure or the economy.

“There are two trends at work,” said Dr. Nancy Kete, managing director, the Rockefeller Foundation. “The development community would always want to work holistically…. Although resilience is becoming a popular and powerful concept, it is still difficult to operationalize, and people still tend to reduce it to just a few angles they are comfortable with. We think a comprehensive resilience framework that takes both physical assets as well as culture and behavior into account is workable.”

Part of the challenge is that our world is smaller and more closely connected than ever before. What happens in one area can have a profound effect in another; the impact of a disaster once considered a world away can now be felt in our own backyards. That’s not all: Climate-related natural disasters continue to be on the increase—and the costs of recovery continue to rise, as well. As our nations become more and more urbanized—10 percent of the world’s population lived in cities in 1913, 50 percent in 2013, and an estimated 75 percent will by 2050, according to Rockefeller—disasters impact more people simultaneously than ever before. And when the urban growth has been quick, the related structures and assets may also be more vulnerable.

Recent suggestions for funding, then, have an eye toward long-lasting, adaptable impact, in a much broader scope.

“Generous donors who respond to disasters should also consider giving to those groups and places that are investing in building up resilience capacity,” Kete said. “These investments should reduce the likelihood that the next big event like a drought or storm will trigger a disaster that needs enormous relief and recovery donations. We call this the ‘resilience dividend.’ It’s the return on investment in lives saved, livelihoods protected, and relief and recovery money not needed. Resilience is so much more than disaster risk reduction, although it includes that. I’d love to have more philanthropists thinking that way.”

So what does effective resilience look like? Kete, in addition to Steven Hansch, humanitarian aid veteran and adjunct professorial lecturer in the School of International Service, American University, and Warren Edwards, director of the Community and Regional Resilience Institute (CARRI) in Oak Ridge, Tenn., suggested a few components of a successful effort, both domestically and internationally:

  • It must be structured and involve a variety of players, starting at the local level. “There’s nothing scientific in this, but I now tend to view communities of three groups: local government, the private business sector, and everybody else,” said Edwards, whose organization supports communities in their resiliency efforts and works with state, regional, and national stakeholders to create incentives and provide other assistance. “That ‘everybody else’ is absolutely critical. Organizations like churches, faith-based groups, Red Cross, Rotary Clubs, if you want people to get excited about resiliency in a town, that’s the group that will get excited. These are also the people that absolutely have the least ability to influence the action. The two actors we really need to get involved are the local government and the private business sector. But there is no system of incentives that causes them to do this. If I go to any mayor and say, ‘There’s a 30 percent probability that your town will be hit by a catastrophic big one,’ the only thing they’ll have heard me say is, ‘There’s a 70 percent chance that it won’t happen while I’m mayor.’ Emergency responders say all disasters are local. I believe all disasters are someone else’s, at some other time.”
  • It must be sustainable over time, yet adaptable to future changes in, for example, the region’s politics and economy. These things can all impact an NGO or a funder’s ability to continue engagements.
  • It must be contextual. “Resilience” is such a broad term that it can be applied in a variety of ways.
  • It must be system-based and holistic. At the same time, responsibilities—and accountability—must be clear.
  • It must be inclusive and participatory. Multi-stakeholder resilience planning is the foundation of effective resilience building, Kete said.
  • It must consider vulnerabilities of people, incorporating both tangible and intangible elements of human behavior. Consider the impact of chronic stress through, for example, gang violence in a community—and how that could impact that area’s ability to withstand a catastrophic event.

Resilience at Work

The Rockefeller Foundation recently launched its “100 Resilient Cities” Centennial Challenge in an effort to help people, communities and systems better prepare to withstand catastrophic events. Tied to the organization’s 100th anniversary—not to mention its longstanding focus on building resilience overall—it offers technical support and resources to 100 cities worldwide, helping those areas develop and implement plans for urban resilience over the next few years. A panel of judges named the first group in December 2013, chosen from close to 400 applicants on six continents.

Even so, Steven Hansch, humanitarian aid veteran and adjunct professorial lecturer in the School of International Service, American University, names another Rockefeller effort as the most effective resilience effort he’s ever seen: the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative at Oxfam America, also supported by Swiss Re. The project, a partnership with the World Food Programme, allowed

poor farmers to strengthen their food and income security by managing risk in a variety of ways. More recently, the project has been expanded to Senegal to help additional farmers improve their management of natural resources; receive access to microcredit; gain insurance coverage; and increase their savings. All together, the emphasis is—and has been—on providing a holistic risk management approach. And the farmers can, for example, pay for insurance with a degree of sweat equity, trading time and labor to efforts such as crop irrigation and forestry endeavors.

The project works, Hansch said, in part because it incorporates risk transfer, or the shifting of risk from one more vulnerable party to another. Offering insurance is key. “We take it for granted in the developed world,” he said. “But I believe there’s a big change coming within the next 20 years.”

How to Help

For funders interested in supporting resilience, opportunities abound. Suggestions from the experts include:

  • Work to change the conversation about disaster risk reduction. Not all disaster risk reduction efforts are as beneficial as they could be—especially when they fail to take into account potential changes in communities, economies, and leadership over time.
  • Focus on efforts that are ahead of the curve. Disaster philanthropy continues to happen primarily in the immediate wake of a catastrophe. But efforts that reduce the impact of disasters in addition to shoring up a community’s ability to rebound and adapt can offer more “bang for the buck.”
  • Understand that resilience isn’t just about individual traumatic events or disasters. Communities also can be affected by, for example, a manufacturing plant closing, which leaves a larger percentage of the population in a more vulnerable state.
  • Support efforts that go beyond simply gathering data to testing it. Past studies and measurements have not been predictive.
  • Support efforts that are holistic in their approach. Back in 2012, Lucy Bernholz encouraged the philanthropic community to start listening for talk of resilient organizations rather than sustainability strategies. “Resilient leaders (and leadership) will be next,” she wrote in her blog, Philanthropy 2173. “Yes, it’s a buzzword. But with all the change taking place, and the uncertainty that comes with it, focusing on adaptability and bouncing back seems like a good idea. The word might become buzz, but the idea and capacity are the keys to evolution and survival.”
  • Encourage better collaboration between the academic community that wants to focus on research and the NGOs that can bring efforts to life. As the conversation about resilience continues to come to the forefront, support convenings, creative thinking, and inclusive, holistic approaches. Achieving resilience requires taking action, and funders can help by supporting efforts that lead to positive, enduring forward movement.

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