Challenges for resilience policy and practice

Tanner, Thomas; Bahadur, Aditya; Moench, Marcus

Resilience has a long history but has emerged in the past decade to become a more widely adopted concept to underpin policies and projects, particularly in international development contexts. This working paper summarises some of the challenges and debates based on a review of recent academic literature.

The paper highlights the multiple and sometimes conflicting ways in which resilience is interpreted. This same diversity that prompts critiques is seen as a strength by others, bringing together otherwise disparate groups, institutions, disciplines and scales. The paper highlights the broad dichotomy between functional and dynamic interpretations of resilience, which lead to different operational approaches. A functional perspective tends to fit with existing institutional approaches and a projectised approach, while dynamic interpretations perhaps represent the complexities and chaos evident across the world. The inconsistent treatment of system transformations is also a major challenge; while some see transformation as occurring incrementally within a system, others see it as when resilience fails and systems collapse.

The absence of explicit values within resilience concepts has caused some authors to caution its use as a guiding narrative or framework. A major challenge for practitioners lies in how to explicitly inject values and to navigate trade-offs in resilience between groups, locations and timescales. As operational approaches to building resilience have grown, so have efforts to measure those processes and their impacts, as well as their costs and benefits. Measurement approaches are highly dependent on context, but efforts to learn from common challenges are growing globally.

As the resilience concept has been popularised, it also becomes prone to appropriation as a narrative to further particular goals and aims. Resilience narratives have been accused of a depoliticising effect by reframing issues in a way that makes populations affected by shocks and stresses responsible for securing themselves. Similarly, resilience has been interpreted by some as a potential form of ‘governmentality’ through which neoliberal ideas and discourses are perpetuated and embedded in particular governance systems.

This working paper aims to help researchers and practitioners take stock and to stimulate further debate and discussion. As such, it concludes with a series of forward-looking questions to address some of the challenges highlighted in the paper.