Politicizing Resilience

Resilience is a concept that has gained popularity across many disciplines during the past decade.  Resilience refers to the capacity of an individual or system to recover from or adapt to shocks or other changes.  The idea originated in studies of ecology, but is increasing utilized to understand human systems.  In a world beset by crises ranging from natural disasters to financial collapse to armed conflict, the concept of resilience is critical to understanding how communities and groups respond to traumatic changes.

Among the practitioners integrating the idea of resilience into their work are those in the international development profession.  Many aid organizations seek to reduce the vulnerability of individuals and communities to famine, climate change and other shocks and crises that affect populations in numerous parts of the world.  Development agencies are increasingly describing their work in this are in terms of strengthening the resilience of vulnerable groups.  However, this turn towards resilience is not without its challenges.  Notable among these is the need to adopt an understanding of resilience that considers the political dimensions of the concept.  If development practitioners fail to address the political nature of resilience, their work in this area may lead to disappointing outcomes.

The Perils of Development ‘Fads’ 

As noted, the idea of resilience is being increasingly utilized in the field of international development.  In this regard, it is increasingly becoming the latest in a line of popularized concepts, such as social capital, empowerment, and participatory development.  Each of these ideas came to the fore in development circles and was widely adopted by aid organizations, only to recede as the next ‘fad’ took hold.  Individually and together, these concepts had the potential to transform development practice by focusing attention on the relationships and networks of power and inequality that undergird chronic poverty (see Mosse, 2010).  Yet social capital, empowerment and participatory development were each criticized for the manner in which they were applied by development practitioners, absent sufficient consideration of issues of power and politics (Cooke & Kothari, 2001; Fine, 1999; Rowlands, 1995).

Critics have particularly scrutinized the application of the idea of participatory development, the simple, yet seemingly radical notion that local individuals and groups should be engaged meaningfully in development decisions and processes that affect them.   Scholars pointed out that participatory development, as conceptualized and applied, was riddled with assumptions about the power dynamics of groups, communities and households (Cleaver, 2004).  Furthermore, critics noted that development practitioners often equated consulting local people with participation, ignoring who was excluded, how individuals exercised voice, what previous ‘agenda setting’ had occurred, among other issues.  As Andrea Cornwall notes,

“‘participatory’ processes can serve to deepen the exclusion of particular groups unless explicit efforts are made to include them…. Without a dynamic understanding of people’s social networks and the institutions and dimensions of difference that matter in the pursuit of their livelihoods, naıve efforts to bring about inclusive development may simply make things worse (2008, pp. 277, 279).”

Furthermore, other scholars have argued that the use of the concepts of social capital, empowerment and participatory development (and likely resilience) by development agencies has led to a misconception of the role of communities in development:

Development practitioners excel in perpetuating the myth that communities are capable of anything, that all that is required is sufficient mobilization…and the latent capacities of the community will be unleashed in the interests of development (Cleaver, 2001, p. 46).

According to this (mistaken) logic, participatory methodologies can empower individuals and communities to drive their own development processes.  Absent from this conceptualization is any role for the state, as development is defined as a community-driven and -owned process.  In removing the state from the equation, this understanding of development falls into an essentially neo-liberal framework and is devoid of political considerations regarding inequality, rights, control of resources and distribution of decision-making power.

This vision of development as an apolitical process has long been embedded in the approaches of many development institutions, despite a more recent rhetorical acceptance of the role of politics (Carothers & De Gramont, 2013).  Indeed, the message about the centrality of politics in development has been growing clearer, as the following quote from a United Kingdom Department for International Development research report demonstrates:

“To understand development we must understand the politics that shape it. …The key message from all four research programmes has been the centrality of politics in building effective states and shaping development outcomes (Department for International Development, 2010).”

Yet despite an increasing acknowledgement that ‘politics matters’, aid organizations struggle to adapt their procedures and technocratic approaches to this reality.

Resilience could fall into the same trap and become locked into an apolitical, and likely, neo-liberal mold, lionizing the resilient, empowered community unreliant on state institutions or on broader structural reforms to address development needs.  This possibility is highlighted by one group of scholars investigating the increasing use of idea of resilience in development:

“…resilience approach is not particularly well equipped to embrace these social issues of agency and power. … [by utilizing] a resilience framework, there is therefore a risk to move back to technical, apolitical interpretations and solutions with the consequence to ‘evacuate’ the social justice/transformative dimension (Bene, Godfrey Wood, Newsham, & Davies, 2012, p. 28).”

Thus, the idea of resilience risks falling into the mold of previous development concepts and being applied without incorporating political considerations.  This could lead to interventions by development agencies that fail to fully address the vulnerabilities faced by those communities aid practitioners seek to support.

Resilience is political.

When natural disasters or armed conflicts strike, poor communities (and rich ones, for that matter, as “Superstorm” Sandy made clear in the United States) cannot adapt and “bounce back” on their own, they require the support of public institutions.  Amatya Sen famously argued that famines do not occur in democracies, not because communities in democratic countries are more resilient to famine, but rather because a free press and political competition oblige governments to mobilize public institutions to support famine-struck areas (Sen, 1999).  Yet in many countries around the world, democracy is partial, and public institutions are weak and corrupt.  Strengthening democratic governance and state institutions is not primarily an issue of achieving proper institutional forms or building technical capacity, rather it is an intensely political process, one involving elites, coalitions, contestation, and the long road to reform (Leftwich & Sen, 2010).

Some streams of the discourse on promoting resilience makes it clear that governance is a critical element of resilience.  According to the U.S. Agency for International Development’s policy on resilience:

“Functioning institutions of good governance and democratic accountability are also essential, as building resilient countries and systems requires effective and inclusive governments that hold themselves accountable for results (2012, p. 5).”

Diane Davis, in her investigation of resilience in situations of chronic violence, makes governance even more central to resilience.  In her formulation:

“…resilience appears at the interface of citizen and state action, and is strengthened through cooperation within and between communities and governing authorities…. citizens…and governing authorities establish institutional networks of accountability that tie them to each other at the level of the community….activities produced through citizen-state networks are most accountable, legitimate, and durable when they are directed and monitored by communities themselves, in a relationship of cooperative autonomy (2012, p. 9).”


Thus, resilience is a product of good governance, of constructive and mutually-accountable relationships between citizens and state actors.  However, just as with building strong public-sector institutions, strengthening relationships between vulnerable communities and the state is an inherently political process.   Indeed, those communities that are most impacted by trauma or crisis are the same communities that are often politically marginalized, and thus have relationships with political authorities marked by clientelism, disenfranchisement and/or indifference.  In the case of Davis’ discussion of chronic violence, she investigates this phenomenon primarily in poor urban neighborhoods, yet in communities such as these relationships with government actors are most often marked by networks of patronage and vote buying, rather than mutual accountability (Desai, 2010).

Development agencies and practitioners interested in promoting resilience must then focus on strengthening accountable and inclusive governance frameworks in which vulnerable communities are embedded.  Yet even as governance has emerged as a prominent area of intervention for aid agencies, practitioners have been slow to understand the political drivers of poor governance and slower still to incorporate politically-informed practices into their programs.  Sue Unsworth has proposed three mutually reinforcing barriers that prevent the integration of political considerations:

  1. Getting people to take politics seriously requires them to change their existing mental models of how development happens;
  2. Institutional incentives within aid agencies and development NGOs that reinforce the status quo;
  3. Political analysis highlights the stark reality that there may be very limited local ownership of a development agenda (2009, p. 889).

Although some progress has been made in incorporating politics into development work, primarily through the growing popularity political economy analyses, politically informed development practice is still the exception rather than the rule (Carothers & De Gramont, 2013).

There is an additional danger that in their rush to promote resilient communities, development agencies will displace their true purpose: combating poverty.  Strengthening resilience should not be conflated with efforts to address poverty, for:

“there is no relation between poverty alleviation and resilience building. Resilience is poor-neutral; in other words, it is not a pro-poor concept; nothing in it makes it specifically linked to the poor (except perhaps that the poor are often presented/assumed to be more vulnerable, or less resilient, than others). And this last assumption is exactly where the concept of resilience starts falling apart. Indeed, in contrary to what people seem to believe, households can be very poor and very resilient. … This means that the whole discourse about how it is important to build resilience as a tool for poverty alleviation is flawed: there is no direct and obvious way out of poverty through resilience. Ultimately, development should therefore remain about poverty alleviation and wellbeing, not about resilience building (Bene, et al., 2012, p. 48).”

Thus, the trend towards a focus on strengthening resilience may likely mean that development agencies (likely unintentionally) de-emphasize combating poverty.  Yet this does not have to be the case.  Promoting resilience and addressing poverty both require tackling governance and political issues.  Strengthening resilience by promoting strong public institutions and accountable governments would advance poverty reduction goals as well.  Yet if development agencies and practitioners are to achieve real gains in these areas, they will have to adopt politically-informed analyses and approaches.

In sum, resilience depends critically on capable public institutions and inclusive and accountable governance.  The processes of strengthening state institutions and democratic governance are inherently political.  After several decades of highlighting the importance of governance, development agencies are still struggling to come to terms with the political nature of this concept and to move towards politically-informed interventions to strengthen governance.  If aid providers have been slow to incorporate politics at the heart of their governance work (and their development work more generally), it is unlikely that they will readily adopt a political understanding of resilience.  Ultimately, this failure may lead to disappointing outcomes and perhaps the decline of resilience (joining social capital, empowerment and participatory development in the development fad dust bin) in favor of the next popular conceptual tool that will surely emerge in the years to come.


Bene, C., Godfrey Wood, R., Newsham, A., & Davies, M. (2012). Resilience: New Utopia or New Tyranny? Reflections about the Potentials and Limits of the Concept of Resilience in Relation to Vulnerability Reduction Programmes. IDS Working Paper(405), 1-61.

Carothers, T., & De Gramont, D. (2013). Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Cleaver, F. (2001). Institutions, Agency and the Limitations of Participatory Approaches to Development. In B. Cooke & U. Kothari (Eds.), Participation: The New Tyranny? (pp. 36-55). London, UK: Zed Books.

Cleaver, F. (2004). The Social Embeddedness of Agency and Decision-Making. In S. Hickey & G. Mohan (Eds.), Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation? London, UK: Zed Books.

Cooke, B., & Kothari, U. (Eds.). (2001). Participation: The New Tyranny? London, UK: Zed Books.

Cornwall, A. (2008). Unpacking ‘Participation’: Models, Meanings and Practices. Community Development Journal, 43(3), 269-283.

Davis, D. (2012). Urban Resilience in Situations of Chronic Violence. Cambridge, MA: Center for International Studies.

Department for International Development. (2010). The Politics of Povety: Elites, Citizens and States.  Findings from Ten Years of DFID-Funded Research on Goverance and Fragile States 2001-2010. London, UK: DFID.

Desai, R. (2010). The Political Economy of Urban Poverty in Developing Countries: Theories, Issues, and an Agenda for Research. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Wolfenson Center for Development.

Fine, B. (1999). The Development State is Dead – Long Live Social Capital!? Development and Change, 30, 1-19.

Leftwich, A., & Sen, K. (2010). Beyond Institutions: Institutions and Organizations in the Politics and Economics of Poverty Reduction – A Thematic Synthesis of Research Evidence. Manchester, UK: Improving Institutions for Pro-Poor Growth.

Mosse, D. (2010). A Relational Approach to Durable Poverty, Inequality and Power. Journal of Development Studies, 46(7), 1156-1178.

Rowlands, J. (1995). Empowerment Examined. Development in Practice, 5(2), 101-107.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Random House.

United States Agency for International Development. (2012). Building Resilience to Recurrant Crisis: USAID Policy and Program Guidance.  Washington, D.C.

Unsworth, S. (2009). What’s politics got to do with it? Why donors find it so hard to come to terms with politics, and why this matters. Journal of International Development, 21(6), 83-894.




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