Resilience: A Critical Framework for Development

Strengthening resilience is a core tenet of international development and offers a “lens” to apply to development challenges far beyond disaster response. Resilience is central to resolving challenges of capacity building, integral development, and governance itself.  Definitions of resilience vary from organization to organization, but USAID defines it as “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.” Although other organizations use different definitions, most contain some of the components listed in USAID’s definition: withstand, recover, and adaptation. Yet there are several issues emerging around resilience in the context of development. These issues include how we define resilience, how resilience is applied in non-disaster situations, and how assessments are performed to identify problems before they emerge. Clarifying these will be essential to embedding resilience in development programs.

Defining what the development community means by “resilience” remains a significant issue.  The lack of a common definition has contributed to the sense that resilience is simply the latest “fad” in development. As Maria Otero, former Undersecretary of State, noted at a recent CSIS event on resilience, definitions of resilience continue to focus on linking it to crisis or disaster risk mitigation and response. Put another way, resilience is about how communities respond to stresses. How “stresses” are defined is one way in which resilience can move beyond simply disaster risk management. Traditionally, stresses would be defined as natural or man-made disasters, but in the globalized world it must include far more. Looking at recent events, stresses should include economic shocks such as the recent global financial crisis and the rise in food prices that occurred in 2007-2008. Both of these events tested developed countries to say nothing of the stress they placed on developing countries. But what is clear is that resilience is being built both with the help of donors and organically within societies.

Looking beyond the debate surrounding resilience, there is much to be optimistic about in terms of the strength of developing countries to withstand shocks. Many countries have made significant strides over the past several decades. A cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1970 killed an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people, thirty-seven years later a cyclone killed “only” 2,000 people in Bangladesh—of course the loss of any human life is tragic and intolerable but it is clear that Bangladesh’s government and civil society had responded to the 1970 tragedy and had built in lessons learned so they were far better prepared for the 2007 disaster. Similarly, an earthquake in Chile in 1939 killed 28,000 people and caused extensive disruption to the country; the 2010 earthquake that struck Chile killed “only” 525 people and, although, suffered billions of dollars of damage, Chile recovered far easier. In both of these countries, the vastly improved response can be attributed to a number of things, most importantly improved disaster preparedness. But, perhaps, equally important has been the deepening of resilience within government at the national and local level as well as at the level of civil society and among individual at large systems across the many societal levels needed to achieve real resilience.

In addition to a country’s growing ability to withstand natural disasters and conflict, developing countries are increasingly able to withstand economic and financial shocks. Countries, such as Indonesia, fared far better during the recent global financial crisis than they did in earlier economic shocks (i.e. 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis) or developed economies performed during the same period During the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis, Indonesia saw its economy contract in one year by over 13 percent, inflation skyrocketed, the currency collapsed, and foreign investment fled the country. Ten years later, it was a far different story as  Indonesia benefited from a decade of robust economic growth and significant policy reforms that allowed them to weather the global financial crisis. Indonesia’s (and other emerging market countries) economic transformation is an important example of resilience that goes beyond simple disaster management, preparedness, and response.

Building resilient systems is of particular importance in conflict affected and fragile states. In order to build resilience in these countries, three things should inform development: 1) the rate of occurrence of the destabilizing issues; 2) the political will of the government to remove the existence of the issue; and 3) the interest in the community to develop new social systems without the issue.  In these cases, building or strengthening resilience requires state building at its most basic level. In a country, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), resilience is weakened due to the existing institutions of state and the lack of security in critical parts of the country (i.e. the Eastern Congo). The three things listed above are all present in the DRC; ultimately, increased resilience will require capable political leadership and a serious effort to tackle the security challenges that exist in the East. The UN peacekeeping mission has taken steps recently to take on armed groups and progress has been made on reforming the Congolese security services, but donors need to remain focused on these areas.

Even in conflict situations, resilience is being built through donor and local government programs. Colombia has experienced over 40 years of civil war and a number of years of significant violence associated with the international narcotics trade. And, yet, over the last decade the Colombian government has instituted an extensive security plan that has extended its control to over 90 percent of the countryside, cut the country’s homicide rate nearly in half, and reduced annual kidnappings by 85 percent. Much of this has been accomplished through the political will by successive Colombian governments, but assistance by donors—particularly the United States through its Plan Colombia—has been vital to this dramatic turnaround. Colombia has been able to reap the success that improved security has generated through robust economic growth (5 percent or better in recent years), declining unemployment (under 10 percent now from a high of over 20 percent in 2000), and increased foreign investment. Issues remain—Colombia, for example continues to have one of the highest Gini coefficients in Latin America—, but Colombia by and large withstood the recent shock of the global financial crisis and increasingly appears to the have the space to work out remaining political and economic problems.

Resilience is an important aspect of achieving long-term, broad-based economic growth in the developing world. Without strengthening individuals, communities, and societies—the whole system—investments by donors and local governments are at risk of being very short-term and missing the target of addressing the underlying causes and implications of stress, conflict, and shocks. Development practitioners are beginning to recognize that resilience should be strengthened across the full spectrum of programs and projects in order to achieve success. But issues remain, not least of which is the lingering belief that resilience is a part of the humanitarian and disaster response conversation and not related to broader development. Development success requires that practitioners understand the dynamics within various societies and then craft strategies for resilience.

Daniel F. Runde holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis and directs the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  Conor Savoy is a Fellow with the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development and the Project on Prosperity and Development.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.



Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development
Conor M. Savoy

Conor M. Savoy

Former Senior Fellow, Project on Prosperity and Development