With thanks to Polyp for permissions.
Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
Resilience has become popular in foreign aid, but it is far from easy. Previous posts on this blog have discussed challenges of applying the ideas – which emerged from numerous places including ecological sciences – to development and humanitarian aid (see here and here).
A New Scientist editorial piece on the aftermath of hurricane Sandy highlights the fact that the challenges are not unique to our sector. It usefully outlines what I call ‘resilience risks’ – shortcomings which may arise from narrow or simplistic applications of resilience concepts. This post shares the three key resilience risks – which I hope may prove relevant for aid practitioners, researchers and policy makers working on these issues.
Resilience risk 1: Resilience is analysed in highly linear ways
A key critique made in the NS piece was that the potential risks from Sandy were thought about, anticipated and planned for in a linear and simplistic fashion:
Danger of fire? Equip fire departments. Possible electricity failure? Turn off transformers and give hospitals generators. Risk of floods? Build barriers. But in New York City all three risks hit at once, and then some. Houses burned because firefighters couldn’t get to them or operate equipment. Electricity substations exploded as record floods hit. Two hospitals were evacuated as backup generators failed.”
This analysis resonates with a previous post on this blog focusing on complexity and disasters – to quote directly:
Consider the following three ingredients: a mega-city in a poor, Pacific rim nation; seasonal monsoon rains; a huge garbage dump. Mix these ingredients in the following way: move impoverished people to the dump, where they build shanty towns and scavenge for a living in the mountain of garbage; saturate the dump with changing monsoon rain patterns; collapse the weakened slopes of garbage and send debris flows to inundate the shanty towns. That particular disaster, which took place outside of Manila in July 2000… was not inherent in any of the three ingredients of that tragedy; it emerged from their interaction’
Taken to extremes, the linear approach diminishes the potential relevance of resilience efforts. Work by the Stockholm Resilience Centre shows that narrow approaches to resilience can actually heighten rather than reduce vulnerability.
Despite the widely discussed notion that resilience should be a ‘unifying concept’ to bring together different disciplines and approaches, the reality is that the old silos may simply be too rigid to enable such cross-fertilisation.
Resilience risk 2: Resilience is only thought about after crises
The editorial also drew comparisons which will no doubt be familiar to regular readers of this blog:
…the lesson of Sandy is the same as the lesson of the Eurozone crisis and other recent events such as the Egyptian revolution: complex systems play by their own rules. You can’t manage them in a linear way. We live in a web of systems: if one falls, it takes others with it… as climate change bites, there will be more and bigger storms, and other mega-events such as crop failure, political instability and financial crises. The knock-on effects will accumulate. All complex networks are susceptible to collapse. How many body blows can ours take before it can no longer stand back up? (emphasis added)
While this suggests that there is more need for anticipation in our resilience work, and more continuous and ‘joined-up’ resilience thinking, the reality is that we only tend to think of resilience when it is too late. This is what I have elsewhere called the ‘catastrophe-first school of lesson learning’.
Moreover, even when we do try, anticipation is often limited by the too-common tendency to fight the last war. The reality is that the crises of the future are likely to be very different to those we experienced in the past.
Resilience risk 3: Resilience is seen as ‘the money saving option’
Finally, the piece shared some sobering thoughts for initiatives that push hard in the ‘resilience equals value for money’ direction.
[networked] systems can be made more resilient [but] to do so will be expensive. Money-saving efficiency would have to be sacrificed for more redundancy… Resilience may be expensive, but as Sandy showed… we need a lot more of it. [emphasis added]
Clearly, the value for money approach is not going to go away any time soon. But in pushing resilience forward, we have to be careful not to oversell it, raise unrealistic expectations, and thereby diminish its actual contribution. The key I think is not to take too limited a view: what is needed is less of a bean-counting approach, and more of a long-term perspective of the value of resilience.
The overall lesson for those of us working on resilience in development and humanitarian aid may be that we need to find ways of moving away from an overly reductionist approach. Multi-dimensional analytical frameworks (such as the disaster resilience model I developed for DFID in 2011) are an important starting point. But these need to feed into policy and practice, and this is much harder – as suggested by a recent thoughtful (and at times delightfully grumpy) ODI think piece.
My sense is that, to date, efforts which attempt to take a more ‘systemic’ approach to resilience are a bit thin on the ground in foreign aid. As a result, I would argue that we are currently leaving our efforts wide open to all three of the ‘resilience risks’ raised here.
Do others agree, and if so, what might be done? Or am I over-stating the potential impact of these risks on resilience efforts in development and humanitarian work? I’d be interested to know what readers think.
In the beginning, the Donors said, “Let us make development in our image, and in our likeness, so that we may bring about changes in developing countries”. And other Government Departments replied, “Yes, but not too much change, and not all at once, who knows What might Happen.” And the Donors did reflect upon this, and after a time they did say, “Let there be Aid Programmes”.
And lo, having completed the appropriate paperwork and then randomly recruited staff members on the basis of spurious social connections, the Aid Workers did create a great many Aid Programmes upon the land, with rather fewer in the sea.
Now at first many Aid Programmes were formless and empty, there was darkness over any possible engagement with intended beneficiaries, and attribution of impact was absolutely nowhere to be seen. With naught else to look at, the Donors did peck at the financials like bureaucratic vultures.
And the Donors did say, “Let there be light on this programme”, but there was no light, merely quarterly reports cut and pasted from other endeavours. But the Aid Workers saw that the reports were sufficient to get the donors off their backs. They called the reports “evidence-based” and they did construct programme narratives, after a fashion. And there were visits and some more reports.
And the Aid Workers said, “Let there be a separation between us and the communities we seek to serve, to keep us even further away from messy reality, lest our donors seek to explore this area further, nobody needs that”. So the separation was made and the people ‘under’ the programmes were divided even further from those people ‘above’ them. And it was so.
The Aid Workers called the separation ‘our new decentralised structures’ and occasionally ‘our new national partnership modalities’. And there was more reporting and the first mid-term reviews.
And upon reading the reviews, the Donors said, “Let all the programmes under this sky be gathered to one place, and let duplication and waste disappear.” But it was not so. Instead the Aid Workers did gather in the bar and Grumble about it over numerous beers. The next day, the Aid Workers said those programmes whose representatives had gathered in that bar formed ‘a new Coordinated Operational Network System, or CONS’. And the Donors did scratch their heads, and then said, “Well, Okay”.
Then the Donors said, “Let the programmes produce results: monitoring systems and impact-bearing evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, according to their various kinds.” But again, it was not so. The programmes produced reports bearing more narratives and nice photos on the front. But the content was heavily skewed according to pre-defined objectives and indicators that could have been copied off a cereal box.
And the Aid Workers saw that it was rather woolly and vague, and were satisfied. And the Donors saw that it was not Actually very good, but would at least keep the Right Wing Press off their backs for a little longer.
And the Aid Workers Head Offices said, “Let there be journalists and blogs and tweets to separate the donors – both individual and institutional – even more quickly and deeply from their cash. And let our Woolly Results serve as signs to mark our fundworthiness. And let there be pictures of children, ideally being hugged by tired-looking pretty white girls.”
And it was so. Head Office made two great lights—the greater to shine into possible funding opportunities, and the lesser light to identify photogenic but hungry looking babies. Head Office also invited the stars and celebrities, after their Compassion-Fashion-Kicks. And Head Office saw that it was good.
And then one Aid Worker did Stand up and Say, “Let our Programmes be shaped by those we seek to serve, and Let them tell us what is good and right, and let us shine a true light into these programmes of ours, so that a light may then shine forth from them. And let that Light be Truly called ‘Development’.”
But the other Aid Workers did say, “Shut up and sit down, What are you playing at, Dost thou wish to get us all into the Deep Excrement?”
Thankfully the Donors were too busy creating new Declarations of Aid Effectiveness, within which all new and existing efforts should be fixed, according to their kind, and so did not notice.
And so this Aid Worker did leave that place, and became a Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist.
The other Aid Workers blessed her departure and said “Come back when our next mid-term review is due, and verily your rates will be good.” And they were.
And then finally the Donors, after yet more ambiguous reviews, did say, “Let your programmes prove their sustainability, such that we shall see how they continue after we reduce core funding.” And this Exit Strategy they all did promise to abide.
And so, after more grumbling, questionable reports, and beers, the Aid Workers did leave that place to work in areas which were more aligned with the Donors current priority interests. And so it happened that National Partners were left to wind the programmes down within one year, albeit at a fraction of the original cost and with Minimum Overheads.
And then, two more years after that, New Donors and their staff members did arrive, and they did say, “Let there be an Aid Programme Just Here.”
And, lo, it was so.
- On fundraising:
Saleswoman: “…this is the first toy made for children, by children, with all profits going to children.”
Saleswoman: ”Well we’re all somebody’s children”
- On donor decisions:
The Superintendent: “But I’m a public servant. I can’t use my judgment.”
- On UN effectiveness:
Principal Skinner: “Do you kids want to be like the real UN? Or do you want to squabble and waste time?”
- On labelling the vulnerable:
Chief Wiggum: “OK, we’ll put the tired over here, the poor over there, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free over there.”
- On evaluators:
Marge: “Homer, it’s very easy to criticize…”
Homer: “And it’s fun, too!”
- On age, gender and other biases:
Grandpa: “I’m an old man, no one listens to me.”
Lisa: “I’m a young girl, no one listens to me.”
Homer: “I’m a white male aged 18 to 49, everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.”
Homer then goes to the cabinet and takes out a can of food labelled, “Nuts and Gum: Together At Last”
- On failing to adapt to a changing world:
Abe: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what “it” was. Now, what I’m with isn’t “it”, and what’s “it” seems weird and scary to me.”
- On simplifying narratives
Official: “What was the cause of the Civil War?”
Apu: “Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter…”
Official: “Wait, wait [pauses] Just say slavery.”
Apu: “Slavery it is, sir.”
These images by Oren Ginzberg appear on this blog as a guest post by Katrin Volkov of Survival International.
To download the full publication, click here.
For more about the work of Survival International, click here.
Our original aim was the same as usual:
to bring them sustainable development.
However, in this specific case
we encountered an unexpected challenge.
in their own strange kind of way,
were already sustainable…. So all we could really bring them was…
So we opted for a Multi-Stakeholder Cross-Disciplinary Integrated Approach.
We developed innovative Private Sector Partnerships.
We developed Vocational Skills adapted to a shifting economy.
We developed tough conservation measures, to protect the environment from further harm.
And we developed ambitious Social Safety Nets – for those unable to take care of themselves.
This has been a challenging process with many lessons learned.
Just a bit of Friday fun, making ten old proverbs relevant to the 21st century aid system…
- Always make sure you have a problem for every solution.
- An eye for an eye and soon we will all be in gainful employment.
- Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single logframe.
- Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and run the risk of overfishing, contravening fishing policy and reducing biodiversity of the world’s rivers and oceans. (thanks due to Hippo)
- Remember, there is no human situation so miserable that it cannot be made worse by the delivery of large quantitites of unwanted goods.
- You don’t have to be faster than the lion, you only have to be faster than the other organisations in your priority areas.
- Would an infinite number of NGOs with an infinite number of laptops eventually deliver a coordinated humanitarian response?
- It’s easier to get paid for one’s principles than to live up to them.
- If at first you don’t succeed, simply revise your indicators.
- Imagination is more important than results.