Thursday, 10 October 2013

Can we actually measure resilience?

By Chris Bene

Resilience as a new paradigm...

There is little doubt that resilience is now part of the post 2015 development discourse. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) but also the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Canadian International Development Research Center (IDRC), the European Union, the World Food Programmes (WFP) or even the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) are some of the many bi- and multi-lateral agencies which have recently embraced the resilience agenda. In parallel –or perhaps slightly pre-empting this general move-, a growing number of non-governmental organizations including CARE, CRS, MercyCorps, Oxfam, World Vision, etc. have also adopted resilience as one of their new programmatic pillars. In these conditions no wonder that resilience will be one of the key topics put forward in both the 2014 World Development Report and the 2014 Human Development Report.

... Yet we are still not sure what resilience is exactly

Some would probably see the fact that resilience is becoming the new development paradigm as a possible paradox, in the sense that no one (so far) has actually managed to propose a definition that enjoys a general consensus. How can a concept become a paradigm while it is still not properly defined? Well... when we think about it, this is not necessary so paradoxical. Poverty or even vulnerability are certainly two other examples for which many different and sometimes conflicting definitions exist in the literature. This did not prevent them from becoming central elements in the past and recent development discourse.

There are however at least two major difference between the case of poverty as a driving paradigm for development, and that of resilience. First: poverty is something we try to avoid, or to reduce; while resilience is increasingly becoming this ultimate ‘objective’ we are trying to reach. In that regard, I am not sure everyone would agree but avoiding something even if it is loosely defined, is perhaps easier than targeting something that is equally loosely defined? Second: poverty has (at least in the past) benefited from some degree of consensus around the way it can be measured/monitored. Even if the concept of income poverty and its Foster-Greer-Thorbecke metric have been continuously criticized for being too simplistic and mono-dimensional, some would certainly argue that this mono-dimensional nature is actually a strength when it comes to measure poverty (see for instance the recent debate between Sabine Alkire and Martin Ravaillon).

An urgent need to be able to monitor resilience

For resilience, however, such mono-dimensional indicator does not exist, or at least not yet. The question which one may then ask is: are we likely to see emerging in the near future an ‘universal’ indicator of resilience? If we let our pragmatism lead the reasoning, this eventuality might not be such a bad idea. Since so many agencies and NGOs are now claiming that the objective of their development programmes and interventions is to ‘strengthen the resilience of the poor and vulnerable’, it will soon become urgent to make these agencies and NGOs accountable for the money they are spending and more importantly for the ‘experiments’ they are implementing on households and communities in the name of resilience.

However, without an independent and quasi-universal (in the sense comparable across projects) indicator of resilience, we have so far no choice but to use the context and project -and often time- specific indicators that are being proposed by these NGOs or agencies which we are supposed to assess. In these conditions it may be difficult to rigorously evaluate all these different programmes and distinguish those amongst them which effectively have an impact on people resilience from those who are simply recycling some old wine in new bottles...

Some initial progress...

There is therefore a need to agree on some form of resilience measurement or indicators, and this is with no doubt one of the reasons the FAO and the WFP recently set up a ‘Resilience Measurement Technical Working Group’ under the Food Security Information Network (FSIN). In their introductory declaration the Working Group note: “Given the relatively recent emergence of the concept of resilience within the wider development community, there is an understandable scarcity of robust, verifiable evidence of the impact of programmes seeking to build resilience”. The Working Group had its first meeting this week in Rome (9th - 10th Oct.), with the firm hope to make some good progress toward the identification of some measurement principles.

This need to identify the ways of measuring resilience is also the motivation of a recent working paper “Towards a quantifiable measure of resilience” published by IDS. The main objective of the paper is to propose a new framework that addresses some of the concerns and limitations of resilience measurement as identified in that literature. In doing so it also identifies a series of key-principles which, the paper argues, are critical to build an appropriate measure of resilience. These key-principles are:

  • Multi-scale: Resilience indicators should be able to capture change in resilience at different scales: individuals, household, community, (eco)system, national levels;
  • Multi-dimension: resilience is not simply about coping strategies that help households to ‘survive’ a shock; resilience is also about adaptive strategies or even transformative strategies. It is about ex-post but also ex-ante (anticipation) strategies. An appropriate resilience indicator would be one that captures all these different dimensions.
  • Objective and subjective: resilience is as much about what people do to go through a harsh period, than about how they feel about it. Resilience indicators should therefore aim at monitoring both objective changes and subjective perceptions – including stress.
  • Generic: Although we recognise that indicators are relevant only if they can capture and reflect the specificity of the situation they are applied to, too many indicators are currently built on specific circumstances or specific agenda. An appropriate resilience indicator is one that can be scaled out and replicated.
  • Independently built: to be analytically useful, a resilience indicator needs to be defined and measured independently from the factors and processes that are (presumably) affecting its level, such as income, assets, level of participation or social coherency. Only when these factors are not incorporated in the resilience index can we explore and test rigorously the actual effect of these characteristics on resilience.