Resilience as a process: the multiple meanings of a popular buzzword

Resilience is one of those buzzwords that seems to be everywhere. Every self-respecting donor project has ‘resilience’ in the title, and no doubt in the hallowed halls of COP28 ‘resilient’ climate development is being discussed right now. But what does the term mean? It’s been worrying me for a while.

I originally trained as an ecologist, and resilience was developed as a concept by the likes of Buzz Holling to explain how ecosystems recover after major shocks and stresses. Holling and team studied the effects of spruce budworm on Canadian forests, but it was a systems idea applied to many settings. The work of the Resilience Alliance took the concept further, linking resilience to cycles of recovery in socio-ecological systems. But since then, the concept has become more vague and much more widely used.

I recently was invited to write an epilogue to the excellent book, Reconsidering Resilience in African Pastoralism: Towards a Relational and Contextual Approach, edited by Shinya Konaka, Greta Semplici and Peter Little and published jointly by Kyoto University Press and Trans Pacific Press. In the epilogue I tried to draw out the multiple meanings of resilience from the different contributions. You can read a pre-print of the full epilogue here, excerpts of which are included below. I do encourage you to get hold of the book too. 

While focused largely on East African pastoralism, the themes discussed in the epilogue are relevant to many settings – including the farming areas of Zimbabwe. Just as East Africa’s pastoral areas, there are dozens of ‘resilience’ projects in Zimbabwe’s rural areas. Interrogating the meanings of resilience is important, as the framings of resilience by those designing projects create a politics of intervention in rural areas.

Framings matter

We must always remember that the ‘resilience programming’ interventions of governments, aid agencies and NGOs, carrying with them particular meanings of resilience, are always political – whether pushing particular types of market engagement or encouraging livelihood diversification presented as ‘alternative’ livelihoods. Framings are important, and in highly differentiated societies, by class and other social differences, including gender, age, ethnicity, we must always take account of how resilience is understood by different social groups through a political process of deliberation and negotiation. We must always ask, resilience of what in relation to what, and where?

The multiple meanings of resilience are explored in the epilogue, drawing on from across the book. I identify three ways of thinking about resilience, each of which help get us away from the standard, instrumental view so often promoted in development projects.

Meanings of resilience

First, resilience is not just a ‘system property’, able to be visualised in terms of balls and cups ‘bouncing back’ to prior conditions, as in the standard ‘engineering’ framing. Just as with that other buzzword, ‘sustainability’, resilience is inevitably framed in different ways by different actors, and the process of (co-)construction of pathways to resilience is always a political act, negotiated among different players, and with power relations always central. Resilience is therefore always embedded in social relations, culture and identity and wider political-economic relations.

Second, resilience is not just about responsiveness to and recovery from short-term, immediate shocks, but about longer-term transformations of livelihood systems and the relationships that make them up. ‘Relational resilience’ highlights the importance of the reconfiguration of relationships, including human/non-human relationships, as people, labour and nature are restructured in the face of challenging events and changing contexts. Centred on diverse relationships at the core of resilience building, identities and identifications, forms of solidarity and moral economy and social bonds forged through everything from age sets to religious congregations or WhatsApp groups become important. Relationships exist within networks, so how these are constructed – and the power relationships within them – become vital in thinking about how resilience emerges over time.

Third, resilience has to be seen as emerging out of people’s everyday practices and their social relationships within networks. It is the process through which resilience emerges that is important, not the endpoint. As Emery Roe and others explain, rethinking resilience as ‘high reliability management’ is helpful in this regard. Transforming high variance inputs into relatively low variance outputs via diverse practices and processes is central to generating reliability, and so a sustained provision of goods of services that support sustainable livelihoods. Enhancing the capacity of reliability professionals and their networks is a sure way to increase resilience, but in ways that are very different to the standard, instrumental modalities of most development projects being promoted in the name of ‘resilience’. 

Resilience as a process

Resilience is therefore not a ‘thing’ – a definable system property offering stability in the face of variability and shocks – but a ‘process’ – something emergent out of relationships, connections, networks and practices, rooted in cultures and identities, and always in-the-making by people (and their relationships with the non-human world) in places. Resilience therefore should not be seen as noun, but a verb.

A focus on contextual, processual perspectives on resilience, with an emphasis on relationships, cultures, identities and practices thus challenges the standardised, instrumentalised version of resilience promoted through development programmes across the drylands and promoted on the multiple project signboards littering the landscape.


This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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