Relevance of the Resilience Concept in Development Theories and Practices

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1. Introduction

The climate is changing and the steadily growing human pressure on the Earth is considered the main driver of environmental change. In this new geological epoch defined by some scientists as the Anthropocene (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000), questions about future sustainability have therefore became crucial. Several scientists have studied the anthropogenic interactions with the surrounding environment as Rockstöm et al. (2009) and, more recently, Steffen et al. (2015), developing quantitative limits to abide in order not to compromise a sustainable future for human beings.

In this changing environment, climate change is considered to manifest at two different temporal scales, in slow and long-term changes in climatic conditions, rainfall patterns and increased temperatures, and in rapid and short-term changes with increased likelihood of extreme weather events and ecosystems’ degradation (Tompkins and Adger, 2004). Moreover, climate change is not foreseen to affect equally the whole planet. The tropics areas, where most of the developing countries are located, are considered the most exposed to climate change externalities (IPCC, 2014) with adverse effects going to exacerbate the vulnerabilities already in place (Godfray et al., 2010). Most the countries are dependent on natural resources and ecosystem services (ES), considered the “benefits that people obtain from ecosystems” (MEA, 2005, p.40), the most are considered vulnerable (Tompkins and Adger, 2004). Therefore, in order for the populations of these countries to manage to cope with the climate change externalities, they are required to increase their resilience, improving their adaptive and transformative capacity in terms of human and ecological systems at multiple levels (Tompkins and Adger, 2004).

The aim of this essay it to critically examine the relevance of the resilience concept in development theories and practices and, focussing on developing countries, to analyse two different resilience approaches for poverty reduction. The paper starts unpacking the resilience concept and its application in development (section 2). Section 3 examines the application of resilience building for poverty reduction with reference to one case study in Mozambique (section 3.1) and one in Trinidad and Tobago (section 3.2) and section 4 draws the final conclusions.

2. Resilience in development

Development, after decades of studies, is still a concept that suffers of a broad and not precise definition (Willis, 2011). Likewise, the concept of resilience suffers the same loose definition (Norris et al., 2008). It started getting momentum in the mid 1960s and it is now widespread in different sectors comprising, among others, development and climate change adaptation (Béné et al., 2012). The term resilience was firstly adopted in scientific studies (Norris et al., 2008) with the first most prominent author to apply resilience thinking to the ecological system being Holling (1973). Since then, as Norris et al. (2008) shows, resilience has been applied at several levels of analysis comparing social and ecological systems, or individual and community levels, with several scholars proposing their definition. Analysing resilience and development, Arnall (2015) differentiates between ecological science and medical science applications of the resilience concept. While the former considers the structure and functions of social-ecological systems to external shocks, the latter focuses on the capacities of individuals to curb shocks. (ibid.). Independently from the point of view taken, either ecological and medical sciences consider resilience a dynamic rather than static concept (Brown and Westaway, 2011). Nowadays, three among the most prominent frameworks that incorporate resilience thinking are the Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2015b), the Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction (United Nations, 2015a) and the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC, 2014).

While analysing the relevance of resilience in development, weight need to be given to the concept of scales, considering the temporal and spatial dimensions and cross-scale dynamics (Cash et al., 2006). As Arnall (2015) comments, there has been a progressive shift in resilience studies among different levels of spatial scales, from individual to community to national and its measurability at different levels is fundamental. Likewise, Brown and Westaway (2011) analysing social-ecological systems emphasise the need to analyse the cross-scale dynamic changes of surrounding environments.

Drawing from the definitions proposed by several scholars, Norris et al. (2008) define resilience as “a process linking a set of adaptive capacities to a positive trajectory of functioning and adaptation after a disturbance” (p.130). Therefore, their definition connects with the dynamic properties highlighted above where resilience is seen as a process that enhance adaptive capacities to reach a final adaptation (ibid.). This finds agreement with Arnall (2015) who critiques the conservative definition of resilience to maintain the status quo focussing on the need to apply the resilience concept more dynamically in order to promote adaptation and transformation. Figure 1 shows a framework of resilience proposed by Béné et al. (2012) which emphasizes the systematic steps of the resilience building.

Figure 1 Resilience framework (Béné et al., 2012)

Therefore, building resilience is considered the process that brings to adapted outcomes (Norris et al., 2008) and as a way to change the conditions that generated the stress (Arnall, 2015) in order not to return back to the same stage after the disturbance ends (Tompkins and Adger, 2004) but to get to a new transformed situation (Béné et al., 2012).

In order to understand the concept of resilience, and its relevance with development, it is necessary to unpack it further. As Brown and Westaway (2011) show, resilience is more than an inclusionary set of individual features and, as noted above, a cross-scale analysis need to be adopted. While considering a community, is fundamental to acknowledge the high degree of heterogeneity between the different members in terms of, among other things, gender, affluence, social position and ethnicity (Titz, Cannon and Krüger, 2018). Therefore, different individuals have different capacities, capabilities, levels of agency and power and all of these peculiarities are determining their adaptive capacity and resilience.

In this framework, agency is considered the ability of people to individually make their own choices and it is a milestone in the recognition of the power of people to engage with their surrounding environment in order not to be merely passive but become active actors (Brown and Westaway, 2011). Therefore, as Norris et al. (2008) emphasize, the concept of agency is at the foundation of individual and community resilience when robustness, redundancy and rapid accessibility are turning capacities into adaptive capacities. Moreover, the community itself need to build its own resilience as a set of resilient individuals does not mean a resilient community as a whole (Norris et al., 2008).

While analysing the adaptive capacity at the community level, it is important to consider the context specificity of the location and how the adaptive capacity is unevenly distributed (Brown and Westaway, 2011). As Norris et al. (2008) show, worse-off individuals, and worse- off communities among different societies, are considered the most vulnerable to external disturbances and less capable to absorb or cope against shocks. Therefore, social and context-specific disaggregation need to be conducted in the process of determining the resilience of individuals and communities.

From the analysis presented above, it is clear that the broad applicability of the concept, with different units of analysis, contributed to the increased popularity of the term in development (Norris et al., 2008). Moreover, considering the heterogeneity of disturbances affecting people, the adoption of a resilience approach can support in systematically analyse the event in a multi-scale and across-sector perspective (Béné et al., 2012). Furthermore, the aim of the resilience concept is to enhance the coping, adaptive and transformative capacity of individuals and communities in a conceptualization of resilience as a process rather than an outcome (Béné et al., 2012; Norris et al., 2008). In turn, this works toward an interdisciplinary conceptualisation of resilience in social-ecological systems with the overarching aim of future sustainability which underpins the same aim of sustainable development (Folke, 2006). However, for this to be the case, a dynamic application of resilience thinking and building need to be adopted in order not to limit it to coping or adaptation, but to embrace a full transformation process (Béné et al., 2012; Arnall, 2015).

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3. Resilienceforpovertyreduction:ResettlementvsAdaptivemanagement

Having analysed the relationship between resilience and development, the discussion now deepens its focus on the relation between resilience and poverty reduction. As for development and resilience, poverty has also suffered of a loose definition and measurements. In its broad sense, the MEA (2005) considers poverty as a lack of well-being which, in turn, is related to security; access to basic material for good life; health; social relations; freedom of choice and action. However, Daw et al. (2011) criticise the generalisation of human well-being proposed by the MEA (2005), emphasizing the need of its disaggregation in order to capture the social differentiation in a context-specific fashion. Focussing on poverty, Willis (2011) shows how different measurements have been deployed in the last decades and the adoption of the Multidimensional Poverty Index in 2010 is seen as a step forward to measure its underpinning complexity. It is also recognised that worse-off people are generally more exposed to poverty and are therefore more vulnerable to be caught into poverty traps due to external stressors (Brown and Westaway, 2011). As Wisner, Gaillard and Kelman (2012) show, vulnerability can thus be considered a function of political, economic and social structures’ failure to support people, coupled with an individual lack of availability and access to different endowments. Therefore, a linear and simple conceptualization of poverty would oversimplify the concept whereas a more nuanced classification is needed.

In the process of discussing the relation between resilience building and poverty reduction, Béné et al. (2012) clearly state that the former is not sufficient to ensure the latter and, therefore, cannot fully replace poverty reduction interventions. Following the same dichotomy that characterized top-down and bottom-up development, in the following sections two contrasting resilience-building approaches are going to be analysed. The first is a top-down governmental resettlement program in Mozambique meanwhile the second approach is a bottom-up co-management of natural resources study in Trinidad and Tobago.

3.1. Forced resettlement in Mozambique

The first resilience approach analysed is the forced resettlement conducted by the government of Mozambique of thousands of farmers from the Lower Zambezi river valley to highland areas as a way to improve the resilience of local farmers after the floods of 2007 that affected their houses and agricultural fields (Arnall, 2015). The resettlement was supplemented by livelihood enhancement activities conducted by different NGOs for the displaced people and a withdrawal of government provided social services in the low-land area to discourage people to remain (Arnall, 2015). Although the programme was conceived to diminish the vulnerability of affected population reducing their future risk exposure, improve their well-being and reduce their poverty (Arnall, 2014), considering resilience as a process rather than an outcome, it is noted how the resettlement practice disrupts people’s local livelihoods and capitals (Arnall, 2015).

As Barnett and O’Neill (2012) highlight, resettlement plans that do not consider people willingness to move, preference over destination and final outcomes, are having high chances to fail. Moreover, resettlements can cause maladaptation instead of adaptation outcomes with consequent environmental and social degradation (ibid.). In the case study presented by Arnall (2015), land governance, viability of livelihoods and local power structures are seen as main challenges for the displaced people. The redistribution of land to displaced people done by local authorities and following the local wealth structures can also be seen as a power-over domination of local elites which give rise to the elite capture phenomenon (Arnall et al., 2013).

Differentiating between pre-reflective and critical strategies, Arnall (2015) shows the difference degrees of agency that individuals and groups can exert in continuing with similar activities or try to adopt diverting strategies (Figure 2). From the analysis of these four groups of stakeholders, it can be seen that commuters (Individual/Pre-reflective) have not increased their resilience and have potentially worsened their vulnerability due to the continues movements and withdrawal of social services in low-lands. By contrast, negotiators (Collective/Pre-reflective) increased their coping capacities to absorb future distresses. Conversely, rule-breakers (Individual/Critical) and campaigners (Collective/Critical) have increased their resilience through the transformative capacity and increased agency (Arnall, 2015).

Therefore, from the evidence presented above, it can be seen how top-down resilience building can supplement poverty reduction programmes but the failure of embracing local preferences and social differentiation can hinder the intended outcomes or, in certain cases, increase the vulnerability of affected populations. Therefore, resettlement should be considered only when in situ resilience would not be possible (Barnett and O’Neill, 2012). Local adaptation may also entail the unavoidability of weather events and, as Arnall (2015) shows, early warning systems can support resilience building. However, in the event that resettlement becomes unescapable, social systems, economic and livelihood recovery strategies and host-community contributions need to be considered for a smooth implementation (de Sherbinin et al., 2011).

Figure 2 Different outcomes of resettlement for different actors (Arnall, 2015)

3.2. Adaptive co-management of natural resources in Trinidad and Tobago

Although not a silver bullet, a bottom-up approach of resilience building focussing on the engagement and participation of the grassroots in the management of natural resources can be an added value to reduce the vulnerability end enhance the social end ecological resilience (Tompkins and Adger, 2004). However, for the participation to be effective, the principles guiding the process need to recognise the different degrees of participation and the incorporation of the local stakeholders in the different stages of the process (Willis, 2011). Acknowledging the foundation of participations on power and control, Arnstein (1969) differentiates between authentic participation, with agency and empowerment outcomes, and manipulative participations or other forms of tokenism where the power and control is not devolved to the participants but kept by few influential stakeholders. Moreover, participation need to consider the different levels of bargaining power of the different stakeholders involved in order to limit the exertion of power of the already powerful (Cooke and Kothari, 2001). Thus, the marginalised groups within the different communities, often excluded from the decision-making process need to be engaged and turned as the main actors in order for the collaborative planning to promote a resilience process (Tompkins and Adger, 2004).

In the case study presented by Tompkins and Adger (2004) focussing on Trinidad and Tobago, is noted how the co-management and cross-sectoral and multi-scale stakeholder engagement functioned as a form of collective action. Barnett and O’Neill (2012) notes how tropical islands are the most threatened by the sea level rise and their inhabitants are highly reliant on coastal ES (Tompkins and Adger, 2004). In the scenario analysed, a progressive degradation of these services lead to question the top-down regulations and promoted a participatory process with the engagement of a different range of stakeholders in order to ensure the participation of the different affected actors. As Tompkins and Adger (2004) show, through an increased individual and collective ownership over the decisions taken, the group became cohesive and managed to influence governmental policies incorporating conservation and development outcomes. In turn, this resilience process initiates a transformative long-term process through the increased agency of the stakeholders involved and through the enhanced conservation of the coastal ES.

Therefore, from the evidence presented above, it can be seen how this bottom-up resilience building approach enhanced the resilience of this social-ecological system. Moreover, looking at it from a poverty reduction perspective, the improvement of the ES can be seen as a major positive contribute to well-being. As Fisher et al. (2014) show, people can benefit differently from the ES available according to their capacity to access the different services. Thus, it can be considered that the improvement of the ES for poverty alleviation could be resulting from the increment of fish-stock and the important climate regulation service provided by the conserved barrier reef. Furthermore, and despite not meant to be for poverty alleviation purposes, payments for ES in terms of ecotourism and aesthetic value can be considered a supplementary component contributing to poverty reduction considering the direct payments received by poor people (Wunder, 2005).

4. Conclusions

From the evidence presented in this paper, it can be seen how the concept of resilience became popular into the development sector for its broad applicability and for the possibility of adopting it for cross-scale and cross-sector analysis. While analysing top-down and bottom- up resilience approaches for poverty reduction it has been demonstrated how the social differentiation and the willingness of involved stakeholders is fundamental to be considered. Forced resettlement need to be considered the ‘last resort’ among the possible choices or, once unavoidable, designed in order to reduce the vulnerability and not cause maladaptation. Co-management of natural resources can be a strategy to enhance the social-ecological system resilience, but the participatory process needs to involve different stakeholders in all the different stages recognising their bargaining power and agency.

In conclusion, the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, coupled with slow but persistent changes, are forcing vulnerable individuals and communities to embrace transformative change. Therefore, the dynamic conceptualization of resilience, seen as a process rather than as an outcome, is at the outmost importance in the present days.

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Relevance of the Resilience Concept in Development Theories and Practices. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
“Relevance of the Resilience Concept in Development Theories and Practices.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022,
Relevance of the Resilience Concept in Development Theories and Practices. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
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