‘Resilience’. The word is everywhere as the COVID-19 pandemic and its multiple impacts unfold. Frequently appearing in the titles of webinars and articles, the desire for resilience is stated, but its operational meaning rarely unpacked.
This is unsurprising. Resilience is a word with intuitive appeal in moments of crisis. It appears to convey shared meaning, and has people nodding their heads in agreement that resilience is a ‘good thing’. Resilience is a concept with a long history of theory and application in various disciplines, including psychology, engineering, and ecology. It is a familiar term to those working in fields such as Disaster Risk Management, Climate Change Adaptation, and humanitarian assistance. However, there has been a gap when it comes to describing the nuts and bolts of resilience or making the case for the what, how, and why of resilience interventions as a wider arena of thinking and practice.
A decade ago witnessed a similar uptick in the use of the term. In the post-2008 Great Recession recovery – in a world increasingly aware of vulnerabilities due to global market volatilities, impacts of climate change and growing inequalities – the idea of building resilience was being picked up and more carefully interrogated in different arenas from city planning to flood management to food security interventions. In the international development sector, its increasingly frequent use in project and program objectives created a challenge. A term resonating within program design teams, it lacked a conceptual framework and implementation hypotheses against which progress could be monitored and evaluated. This raised critical questions. How would we know resilience had been strengthened by a project when we saw it? How would we know when people and communities were more resilient, and to what? What would we be looking for?
This kind of questioning, accompanied by innovation and investment in resilience measurement from bi- and multilateral donors, international NGOs, universities, and evaluation consultants, has produced a rich body of conceptual and evaluation frameworks, methods and tools, and accompanying insights into what works for strengthening resilience.
The formation of the Resilience Measurement, Evidence and Learning Community of Practice in 2016, created a remarkable opportunity. Collaboratively engaging resilience thinkers, researchers, evaluators, and practitioners from government, academia, civil society, and business, the RMEL CoP has created space to learn together and to inform, speed up, and scale-out the practice of resilience.
With its purpose being to Strengthen the Evidence Base for Resilience Investments, the RMEL CoP took stock of the RMEL field through Analysis of Resilience Measurement Frameworks and Approaches and Resilience Measurement-MEL Approaches in Practice. A living Timeline of Resilience Thinking in Action maps the events, tools, and knowledge developments that move resilience practice forward, and the RMEL Innovation Awards stimulated new collaborations. The RMEL CoP produced the inaugural RMEL Conference and Convening 2018, Measuring up to the Resilience Challenge, generating rich insights and lessons for use in the wider world.
As governments, civil society organizations, businesses, and partnership initiatives turn to recovery – even as the world continues to grapple with the many uncertainties of life with COVID-19 – what insights can RMEL offer?
We offer six broad reflections from these RMEL-led efforts to understand, measure, learn about, and invest in resilience. There are clear opportunities for immediate action as well as for supportive investments in sustained learning and knowledge development.
1. Resilience is a practice that can be developed and learned: Resilience measurement, evaluation, and learning demonstrate that there are capacities, assets, and systems that can be enhanced. When strategies, plans and projects intentionally assess, design for, and invest in them – before, during, and after shocks – these capacities can enable people, communities, and systems to recover, adapt, and even transform, in ways that protect lives, restore livelihoods, and maintain well-being.
2. Resilience practice is informed by principles, such as ‘flexibility’ or ‘maintain diversity and redundancy,’ and these principles must guide recovery and resilience planning: For example, the idea of ‘failing fast’, core to flexibility and adaptability, is being promoted as cities rapidly rethink transport systems, putting in place ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes and walking routes. And equity or the commitment to broaden participation, foregrounds the need to address structural and systemic inequalities, as we ask the question ‘resilience of who, to what and through what?’ in different contexts and use this to guide interventions.
3. The resilience of people and places is interdependent with the resilience of ecological systems, and can be understood and acted on through applied systems thinking: We have insights, research, and guidance to support plans and interventions that work with ecological systems in ways that support human well-being outcomes. Indeed, efforts to promote social and ecological resilience are vital to mitigating against but also to reducing the scale and frequency of shock events.
4. Resilience efforts produce measurable benefits in terms of human health and well-being as well as financial returns: With advances in resilience measurement, evaluation, and learning, a range of initiatives are now modeling business cases for adopting resilience practice. Using approaches such as benefit-cost analysis, averted costs, costs of inaction, or return on investment models, these studies and more like them will be important to guide decision-making in the coming months.
5. Resilience practice is a strategic priority for the 2020s and should be mainstreamed in organizational, program, and investment strategies: Shocks, change, and uncertainty are increasingly the new normal in our world. COVID-19 is revealing how deep and challenging those shocks can be, where multiple systems fail at once. Just as, for example, many organizations have institutionalized commitments to Gender, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, through developing organizational standards, benchmarks, mandatory training, and guidance, so too it must be with resilience.
6. There is a growing community of knowledge-informed resilience practice that your organization and your team can engage with: As the RMEL CoP – hosted and championed by the Global Resilience Partnership – becomes part of an emerging Resilience Knowledge Coalition, we look forward to hearing more about your priorities, insights, knowledge, and expertise, as you work with these and related lessons in your daily resilience work.