Four ways to rethink ‘resilience’ and its links to social protection

Published on 28 March 2023

Carolina Holland-Szyp

Research Officer

‘Resilience’ has become a firmly established part of the aid lexicon. Overall, global policy discourse recognises the potential of social protection to contribute to resilience outcomes, and highlights many examples of mechanisms to achieve this. Resilience as a term is used frequently as an objective or indicator in vulnerability-reduction interventions, including in protracted crises.

Yet, resilience in these settings has been questioned, for several reasons. In its original understanding, it implies a return to a pre-existing ‘normal’ situation – something that is problematic in places where ‘pre-crisis’ conditions may have included weakened livelihoods and social divisions. Disturbances can be an opportunity for learning and transformation (e.g., the T in the 3A+T resilience capacities framework), if there is recognition that risks are disproportionate due to structural inequalities. However, resilience responses with ‘transformative’ objectives have had limited attention so far, compared to the overwhelming prevalence of more absorptive-type approaches.

While scanning global policy and science-oriented reports as part of background research into the relationship of social protection and resilience policy and programming, it became evident to me that approaches to operationalising resilience in protracted crises must be rethought. Below I highlight four areas that deserve more attention in linking resilience to social protection.

1. Expanding a resilience focus to root causes of vulnerabilities.

Evidence and policy discourse suggest that a wide array of social protection interventions can contribute to positive outcomes for different resilient capacities, particularly absorptive ones through coping strategies. However, less is said about the potential negative outcomes for resilience, including maladaptation.

Moreover, while the debate on resilience focuses on operational effectiveness, structural issues and vulnerability drivers – such as socio-economic and political challenges, particularly in protracted crises, power dynamics, and incentives for system transformation – are often misunderstood or neglected. These structural issues are linked to the critique that resilience tends to treat symptoms rather than causes: intending to tackle the lack of resilience, but missing a focus on causality. This contrasts with vulnerability approaches, which more naturally prompt questions about causes of vulnerability. In fact, resilience is often approached at the level of individuals and households, rather than looking to transform scales that require longer-term investment and political commitment.

2. Better understanding of objectives and trade-offs in strengthening resilience.

There are many approaches to strengthening resilience. These include socio-ecologically literate solutions (sensitive to the sustainability of social and ecological systems), promotion of ‘diverse’ livelihood portfolios such as through ‘cash-plus’ type interventions, schemes to build community-level assets  and in-kind transfers for the vulnerable in conflict contexts with inflation and low market access. Identifying the objective of strengthening resilience makes these different approaches more effective. This involves highlighting what to strengthen the resilience of, and to what types of shocks. The objectives of interventions are determined by three factors: the type of shocks that trigger the need for resilience strengthening (including different climate, conflict, health hazards); the scale to strengthen resilience (individual, community, societal and social-ecological system); and the type of resilience to address (e.g. economic, social, urban).

Noting and weighing up the trade-offs in resilience-strengthening approaches is also key, but remains a challenge in practice. This refers to trade-offs between different types of resilience-building interventions that may exacerbate inequalities. Because resilience is approached at different levels, trade-offs occur as not all different ‘types’ of resilience are naturally aligned. In some contexts, factors which strengthen individual resilience may have adverse consequences for resilience at a community or social-ecological system level; for example, promotion of livelihood diversification to off-farm activities can strengthen individual livelihoods and resilience, but also involve a surge in natural resource extraction that hampers community or environmental resilience.

3. Fully tapping into the potential of integration between multiple sectors.

The dominant discourse on resilience often advocates for integrating policies and interventions from multiple sectors in order to mitigate any potential trade-offs. This relies on resilience’s brokering capacities (i.e. ‘polycentric governance’), mainly among stakeholders and approaches from disaster risk reduction, social protection, climate change adaptation and early warning systems, for instance in Adaptive Social Protection or Shock-Responsive Social Protection. Layering or sequencing of support is also highlighted as a method for integration, as well as collaboration between humanitarian, development, and climate stakeholders for coherent design, implementation, and M&E.

While in principle, the positives of linking are understood, more analysis is required to fully tap into the potential of integration. For instance, potential tensions between stakeholders may arise due to different mandates, the lack of a unifying vision, unclear roles and responsibilities, and different terminologies across sectors which may create misperceptions. Moreover, as contexts of protracted crises often have weak or nascent social protection systems, their institutional capacity to operationalise synergies for increasing resilience is limited. These frictions need understanding and navigating before integration can be achieved, such as through good leadership and long-term vision that fosters dialogue, complementarity between interventions to reduce vulnerabilities, setting up incentives for collaboration and integration, and clear definition of roles and responsibilities.

4. Adequately considering and integrating local support systems.

Another critique of resilience approaches is that they are targeted at making infrastructures – rather than people – resilient, failing to account for lived realities and experiences. This may exacerbate the vulnerability of marginalised communities and provide limited opportunities for broader participation in defining resilience priorities. Formal external notions of resilience from donors or experts often dominate, based on needs as perceived by these external actors.

Furthermore, the value of non-state and non-aid social protection for strengthening resilience is not always recognised. This includes mutual support social networks, local solidarities and self-help groups which may be more flexible and/or sustainable than programmes led by external organisations. In some instances, global policy discourse acknowledges the need to support these networks in order to enhance their ownership of potential solutions. However, even in these instances, the constraints of these local networks, such as how they only provide support to particular identity groups, is often emphasised. Despite the limitations of local support systems, they can be useful for resilience and need adequate consideration and support.

Integrating resilience into social protection; and social protection into resilience

‘Resilience’ has become a hugely influential term and a buzzword worldwide. As the four areas above indicate, the approach to social protection in resilience discourse, as well as the use of ‘resilience’ in the provision of support, have many nuances which need to be understood in order to effectively engage in policy, research and practice. The scan of the literature informing this blog will contribute to the ongoing IDS-led Better Assistance in Crises (BASIC) Research programme, particularly the work under the Livelihoods and Climate Resilience project, which is exploring the potential for social assistance, as an element of social protection programmes, to enhance livelihood resilience in protracted crises contexts, especially in Ethiopia and Niger. Building on this rapid scan and continued work on this project, our team will critically reflect on and rethink the dominant discourse around the linkages between social assistance and resilience in protracted crises. We will do this in ways that address the root causes of vulnerabilities, consider objectives and potential trade-offs, fully tap into sectoral integration potential, and integrate local support systems.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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