Resilience: Development Fad or Concept with Staying Power?

Resilience—the ability of individuals, households, communities, institutions, nations, or even value chains and ecosystems, to withstand crises, recover from them, and adapt so as to better withstand them—has become an increasingly important concept for the international development community. The focus of donors on resilience has led their main counterparts—local groups, governments in recipient countries, and international nongovernmental organizations and development firms—to integrate the concept into programming.

But just how innovative and useful is the concept? By way of introduction to DAI’s collection of articles around the topic of resilience, let us briefly survey its contribution to the debate and practice of development, and also the criticism it has encountered.

Resilience: Genesis And Advantages

Over the past decade, stung by repeating cycles of crisis, conflict, and natural disasters, many of the world’s leading donor organizations have made resilience a central pillar of their programming, across most sectors. The basic idea undergirding this new agenda is to ensure that donor-funded contributions address the root causes of crisis and enable local populations to become stronger, rather than merely survive.

There is no standard definition of resilience. Most large institutions have their own definitions, but they tend to share a central theme: the resolve to help communities, economies, and governments in developing nations avoid the disastrous effect of recurring and often foretold crises. “Chronic poverty and recurrent shocks are driving the same communities into crisis year after year,” states the U.S. Agency for International Development Resilience Agenda1. Individual disasters are not the only drivers, whether natural or manmade. Climate change and macro-level trends in an increasingly connected world economy, and especially fluctuations in the cost of food and energy, are making communities the world over more vulnerable to food insecurity, ill health, and poverty2.

The specter of repeated, compounded, self-fueling shocks—and the need for donors to find strategies that allow societies to adapt to them—has driven the emergence of resilience as a doctrine.

Institutional Definitions of Resilience

The focus of donors and global institutions on the effects of disasters and crises highlights not only a desire to find a more effective way to help populations deal with violent disruption, but also a growing concern over the systemic impact of climate change.

U.S. Agency for International Development:

  • The ability of people, households, communities, countries, and systems to mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth.

U.K. Department for International Development (DFID):

  • The process of helping communities and countries to be better prepared to withstand and rapidly recover from a shock such as an earthquake, drought, flood, or cyclone.

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies:  

  • The ability of individuals, communities, organizations, or countries exposed to disasters and crises and underlying vulnerabilities to anticipate, reduce the impact of, cope with, and recover from the effects of adversity without compromising their long-term prospects.

European Commission:

  • The ability of an individual, a household, a community, a country or a region to withstand, adapt, and quickly recover from stresses and shocks such as drought, violence, conflict, or natural disaster.

The concept of resilience is rooted in engineering and ecology as the ability of a system to respond to change—most often disruptive change—and recover from it. Social scientists adapted the concept to social and economic systems, in particular to behavioral systems: how groups of people react and adapt to crises3. The concept then found currency in development aid, first in long-term programs and increasingly, during the past 10 to 15 years, in the humanitarian sphere, fueled most recently by growing concerns about the effect of climate change on vulnerable communities.

The resilience concept presents some very real advantages. First, it allows development actors to address the issue of vulnerability. Moreover, rather than focusing solely on the adverse effect of a disruption, resilience-based analysis sees the response to stress as an opportunity to strengthen the community—or household, or institution, or value chain. Surviving the disruption is an opportunity for more than just recovery3. This aspect of the resilience agenda is especially important in the humanitarian field as it provides a rationale for building programming frameworks for disaster preparedness, famine early warning, food security monitoring, emergency response, and early recovery programming.

Second, the resilience concept recognizes vulnerable communities as the key actors in their own future. This principle compels program activities to more directly tackle international development needs that have often proven elusive: program sustainability, local participation, capacity gaps among local actors, and even people’s rights4.

The resilience approach is dynamic and multifaceted. It can apply across sectors and at different levels, making it possible to find common language and build mutual support across programs and sectors. It can strengthen links between very different sector programs such as institutional and physical infrastructure, local capacity building, disaster preparedness, and emergency response. Resilience-enhancing programs engage various levels of society and aspects of human activity. They ensure physical security and a voice in political processes. They build well-being in economic and financial terms. They promote access to both natural and institutional resources.

This diversity, flexibility, and unity of purpose of resilience programs makes them especially valuable tools in planning for and managing the effects of climate change—or at least trying to. A DFID document notes that in 1970, “a cyclone in East Pakistan [now Bangladesh] killed nearly half a million people. A cyclone of similar strength in 2007 killed 4,000.  In the intervening 37 years, Bangladesh had become more resilient through the development of disaster-resilient infrastructure and better disaster risk management strategies5.” The lesson for better withstanding future extreme weather patterns is clear: a blend of development and preparedness strategies that focuses on the resilience of the society.

Third, the resilience concept allows humanitarian actors to address issues that have long been problematic. Focusing on vulnerability and sustainability lends a much-needed practical dimension to discussions of the relief-to-development continuum, for example. In this arena, experience from relief operations has shown that factors other than the physical well-being of individuals are central to the resilience of conflict- or disaster-affected communities, even at the height of the crisis. For instance, the ability of families to remain together, continuing spiritual and cultural traditions, and self-governance are key contributors to resiliency. A study of how war has affected rural communities in the Nuba Mountains of southern Kordofan in Sudan, found that:

[an] overriding message from the Nuba respondents who spent the war under attack in SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army]-controlled areas was the enormous importance they gave to the sense of belongingness, solidarity, and unity that they experienced. It seems that this sense of belonging was not only answering a fundamental human need…but was also important in providing a boost to morale, self-help, courage, respect, determination, endurance, and all those other qualities needed to survive a protracted crisis6.

In interviews, Nuba people went so far as to say that relief had in some cases undermined their resilience by weakening the group solidarity that had emerged as a result of government-led violence against their communities. The resilience concept makes it possible to say what remains mostly unmentionable, despite two decades of mostly lip service to “do no harm” programming in humanitarian circles: that in some cases, not providing relief may be better for the long-term health of a community under stress.

Finally, the focus on resilience provides a way for international actors to address the difficult issue of their length of stay in areas of conflict. Emphasizing the resilience of affected communities forces international actors to focus on what can be done in anticipation of their eventual departure. In terms of programming, this translates into more progressive, community-centered interventions: a focus on local capacities, economic activities, markets, and value chains; and community contributions to relief activities.

What Is The Future Of Resilience?

As with all concepts that rise and spread quickly, there has been some backlash against resilience. Building the resilience of vulnerable people is hardly a revolutionary idea. The themes around which it revolves have been central to development and disaster recovery theory for decades: preparedness, sustainability, local participation, capacity building, livelihoods, rights, and so on.

Resilience has also been accused of being the latest industry buzzword. “The term has assumed such political and financial clout, whether you’re working in family planning or disaster management, it seems as if every funding proposal, every program, every result has to be seen to be contributing to resilience,” wrote Misha Hussein in March 2013. “Your very survival as an organization may depend upon it.” Other sources of criticism include the lack of a single, accepted definition, the difficulty in generating hard data to measure resilience, and the fear that donors may divert relief resources to unproven resilience processes7.

Then there is the broader, political criticism that resilience may be a way of shifting the burden of recovery and development on to local people who may lack the agency necessary to make informed, beneficial choices.

[W]hat characterizes the lives of people [affected by crisis] is a lack of freedom from fear, which severely constrains their ability for autonomous action…. [T]heir resilience can best be seen through the range of choices which they are able to make, and the degree to which they can make informed choices about their own futures. This would entail a shift in the focus of humanitarian and development actors, from measuring specific behavior, assets or other symptoms, to looking instead at people’s ‘agency,’ their ability to make their own choices8.

In particular, observers have pointed out that for international aid actors to successfully build resilience in vulnerable communities, they must themselves be “reliable,” providing “a level of engagement of high enough quality and for long enough duration in order to contribute to resiliency”9.

So, ill-defined, difficult to measure, even counter-productive—is resilience bound for the scrap heap of development terminology?

No. Resilience remains a valuable concept. Resilience-based frameworks help external development actors tie together disparate and often elusive development principles. They remind us to engage vulnerable communities, institutions, and countries, so that they are the primary actors in the development enterprise and their priorities drive the work. They encourage us to build the capacity of individuals, communities, societies, and countries to better withstand further crises. They urge us to focus on process as well as outcomes, to work across sectors—bringing together rights-based approaches, governance features, and nuts-and-bolts technical development—and to build partnership between local authorities, communities, economic actors, and private and public risk-mitigation institutions, such as insurance companies. Resilience programming provides a valuable option for helping populations whose agency is curtailed by violence, lack of freedom, or economic injustice, precisely because it aims to help them claw back some of their autonomy.


  • There is no single, standard definition of resilience, but most resilience programming—multifaceted as it is—shares the resolve to help communities, economies, and governments avoid the disastrous effect of recurring stress.
  • A resilience-based analysis sees the response to crisis as an opportunity to strengthen the community—or household, or institution, or value chain—and recognizes those communities themselves as the key actors in their own future.
  • The very breadth, diversity, and popularity of the resilience concept has earned it criticism as an ill-defined approach that may divert resources from proven methods of relief and development and shift the onus of recovery to populations ill-equipped to take it on.
  • But the utility of the concept lies in its insistence on building local capacity and hence sustainability, and on integrating work across sectors and disciplines to help struggling communities attain or retain greater autonomy.


USAID. 2012. The Resilience Agenda: Helping Vulnerable Communities Emerge from Cycles of Crisis onto a Pathway Toward Development. Washington, D.C.: USAID

Kellett, Jan, and H. Sweeney. 2011. “Analysis of funding mechanisms and funding streams to enhance emergency preparedness.” Development Initiatives: 13.

Alinovi, Luca, E. Mane, and D. Romano. 2009. Measuring Household Resilience to Food Insecurity: Application to Palestinian Households. Rome: European Commission and Food and Agriculture Organization Food Security Programme: 1–2. 2

Offenheiser, Raymond. 2012. Putting People at the Heart of Resilience. USAID website.

Department for International Development (UK). 2011. “Defining Disaster Resilience: What does it Mean for DFID?

Corbett, Justin. 2011. Learning from the Nuba: Civilian Resilience and Self-Protection during Conflict. Local to Global Protection. Bergen, Norway: Chr. Michelsen Institute: 43.

Levine, Simon, A. Paine, S. Bailey, and L. Fan. 2012. The Relevance of Resilience? London: Overseas Development Institute.

Pain, Adam, and S. Levine. 2012. A Conceptual Analysis of Livelihoods and Resilience: Addressing the ‘Insecurity of Agency.’ London: Overseas Development Institute.

Lautze, Sue. 2011. “The Role of the Humanitarian Sector in Building Resilience.” Paper presented at the Risk, Adaptation and Innovation in Humanitarian Action conference, New York, December 2011.