Why building ‘resilience’ matters, and needs to confront injustice and inequality

May 21, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Debbie Hillier, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Policy Adviser (right), introduces ‘No Accident’, Oxfam’s new paper on resilience and inequalityDebbieHillier

Asking 50 Oxfam staff what they think of resilience will get 50 different responses. These will range all the way from the Sceptics (“just the latest buzzword, keep your head down and it’ll go away”), to the Deniers (“really nothing to do with me”) to the Pioneers (“it’s obvious, we’ve been doing this for years”).  But probably the biggest category would be the Unsure Interested – “well, I suspect it’s pretty important, but I’m really not clear what it means for me.”

Answering that last point is key, and at a recent Oxfam get together, a humanitarian colleague gave a wonderful example.  He spoke about a tropical storm which had devastated a rural area of Honduras; Oxfam humanitarian staff had responded quickly and effectively with water and sanitation, cash-for-work, and essential household items to help people get back on their feet. But when he visited the area, and talked to the community, he found that the problem was less about flooding, and more about agribusiness.

Local communities had been displaced by massive sugar and melon plantations, denuding the land of trees, diverting water sources and thus altering the local hydrology.  The companies had employed cheaper Guatemalan labourers from over the border, so people no longer had either land to farm or paid labour, leaving them without livelihoods and impoverished.

All the tropical storm did was to expose the deepening vulnerability of the community.  So while Oxfam’s humanitarian response helped the community to cope with the flood, it would leave them in no better position for when the next inevitable storm/flood came.

People in a waterside house raised on stilts in a slum in Manila. © Robin Hammond / Panos

People in a waterside house raised on stilts in a slum in Manila. © Robin Hammond / Panos

A programme with ‘resilience’ as the desired outcome would look at the underlying factors for people’s vulnerability.  Critically, it would look at power dynamics and inequality (the latter extremely high in Honduras: for index geeks, a Gini coefficient of 55).  These are too often left out of the resilience debate, which so far has focused more on technical measures.  Yet Oxfam’s new report, No Accident, shows that countries with higher income inequality have populations which are more vulnerable to climate change, natural hazards and conflict.

The link between inequality and vulnerability is no doubt complex and defies simple correlation or causation.  But using language like ‘risk being dumped on the poor’ opens up a new way of looking at vulnerability.  At the international level it’s easy to see – rich countries reap the economic rewards of pumping carbon into the atmosphere, but poor countries bear the highest burden.  So whilst the impact of climate change by 2100 is estimated to cause GDP losses of 12-23% in poor countries, in the richest countries, the impact will be a range of 0.1% loss to a benefit of 0.9% of GDP.

Biofuel production and excessive speculation on food commodities is another way of exporting risk.  Food price spikes cause misery and hunger for poor people yet agribusiness firm Cargill’s profits surged during the global food crisis of 2007-8 and the US drought of 2012.

And at national level, big business and local elites can manipulate markets and governments to privatise the profits and socialise the risks. Clearly big business is not always bad but it can be.  In Peru, water supplies are dwindling as glaciers melt, but much is siphoned off or contaminated by mining companies, leaving local communities short of clean water.

The current response – at national and international level – is not good enough.  Climate change is picking up speed, food and commodity markets are more volatile than ever, environmental degradation is increasing, and more and more people are exposed to risk – either through population growth or migration. Whilst global poverty is declining, inequality is not.

States have the legal and political responsibility to reduce the risks faced by poor people, and ensure that they are borne more evenly across society.Resilience fig 1And note that equality is NOT about everyone having the same resources and support.  Disadvantaged people require more services and support simply to give them equal life chances (see pic, right).

Clearly targeted support, plus social protection, health, education – which one might call key building blocks of resilience – cost money.  Brazil is bringing down its (still high) inequality through concerted efforts by the government, including major increases in the minimum wage, and social protection schemes including a universal pension and the Bolsa Familia.  This is possible in part because there’s enough money – the tax-to-GDP ratio is approaching 35% in Brazil, compared to only 9-10% for Bangladesh and Pakistan.  Increasing tax revenues through progressive taxation has a key role to play in redistributing risk.

In terms of the aid sector – at the risk of oversimplifying, humanitarians are good at risk, and development experts are good at power.  But what we need is both.  Development thinking has often been blind to the shocks, changes and uncertainties that poor people face, and naïve in assuming that development takes place in largely stable environments.  Long term programmes need to internalise shocks and hazards (instead of sticking them in the risks/assumptions column of a logframe and then ignoring them) and then scale up and down as appropriate.

The newly fashionable focus on resilience can help communities not only to cope but to thrive despite the shocks and stresses, but only if the current resilience dialogue and practice is broadened out to tackle inequality, redistribute risk and stop risk dumping.

And here’s Debbie doing the increasingly obligatory video exec sum for wasters 3m piece to camera