"This is not just about assets": New insights into social determinants of resilience

"This is not just about assets": New insights into social determinants of resilience

Resilience has been increasingly recognized as a powerful concept to help practitioners, academics and policy-makers better understand the links between shocks, response and longer-term development outcomes. Incorporating resilience alongside vulnerability analysis can contribute an essential element to societal ability to better prepare for future shocks and stressors. In response to the impact of climate change and our imperative need to adapt, resilience can be a game changer.

The problem however is that so far most of the ‘thinking’ around resilience has been mainly theoretical. Very little of this has been applied or tested empirically.

In a recently published research funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and DFID a group of international researchers working in four different countries in Africa and Asia explored further some of the hypotheses behind the current empirical determinant of resilience.  They were especially interested in getting a better insight into the ‘psycho-social’ factors that influence and affect individual and collective capacity to respond to shocks and stressors. Their assumption was that resilience is not simply function of tangible factors such as income, assets or, even, level of education, but also has some important subjective dimensions, related to less tangible element such as people’s individual perception and self-confidence about their own ability to handle future events (what this group of researchers propose to call ‘subjective resilience’).

The research which was published (open access) last month in the journal Global Environmental Change reveals a series of notable results in relation to these questions. Conducted in eight coastal communities from Fiji, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Vietnam it first confirms what we knew already: that factors such as social capital (the quality of the relationship between members of the communities) is an important element in the resilience of those communities. But it also shows that this relationship is not as simple and linear as it is often assumed. In particular it seems that the scale at which it is measured (household or community) is critical.

Perhaps even more ground-breaking; the data collected across the four countries reveals that people’s subjective resilience significantly affects the type of strategies(s) they adopt in response to shocks and stressors. In particular households that show higher subjective resilience seem to be characterized by a lower probability to engage in negative coping strategies. This behaviour is surely something that development practitioners and policy makers would like to strengthen, since these coping strategies (reducing expenses or food consumption, borrowing money, or selling assets) are generally recognized to be detrimental in the long-term.  Interestingly the data also reveals that households with those higher levels of subjective resilience are also more likely to engage in adaptive/transformative strategies. In other words, perception about one’s own ability to handle adverse events seems key in determining whether people will (or will not) engage in particular types of responses.

Those empirical findings are critical in the context of the discussion about resilience as they suggest that people’s decisions and actions as response to shocks and stressors are socially constructed, subjective and shaped in part by deeply-embedded cultural and societal norms and values. Some of these processes operate at the individual level; others at the ‘higher’ community level.  This points to key social variables that relate explicitly to cognitive and subjective dimensions (e.g. perception about risk, interest in change), as opposed to the material (income, assets, property rights) dimensions which are often emphasized to be key elements in the ability of people to buffer shocks.

The direct implication of these findings is huge: so far, the vast majority of the interventions that have been proposed as part of the numerous ‘resilience building’ projects implemented by NGOs and international development agencies have focused on the more tangible / measurable elements of resilience, through activities such as livelihood diversification, micro-enterprises development, climate smart agriculture promotion, etc. The results of this paper demonstrate the importance of the less tangible elements of resilience such as risk perception, fatalism, self-confidence, or (as this research showed) households’ perception about their own capacity to handle shocks and stressors. Those results, if they were to be confirmed by similar research in other cases, would mean that, in addition to the activities addressing the more tangible elements of resilience, interventions and programs should start directing some of their efforts toward these more subjective elements of people’s resilience if they want to maximize their impact.

Fishers in Sri Lanka rebuilding their livelihood after the devastating Dec 2004 Tsunami. Photo: Christophe Bene.