STEPS Centre Reframing Resilience report

Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre, has written and posted a report on the Reframing Resilience symposium the centre hosted in Sept 2008 (Re-framing Resilience: A Symposium Report – pdf 484kb).

The symposium aimed to address questions such as:

  • How does resilience intersect with development and debates about it?
  • What insights does resilience thinking bring to understanding and action concerned with reducing poverty, vulnerability and marginalisation?
  • What are some of the frontier challenges, tensions and gaps as resilience thinking engages with perspectives and debates from other angles and disciplines?

Melissa Leach concludes her report by summarizing the final panel of the symposium:

a panel of speakers (Esha Shah, Andrew Scott, Henny Osbahr, Bronwyn Hayward, Joachim Voss, Carl Folke, Melissa Leach, Andy Stirling) offered their reflections on what had been learned, and what challenges and opportunities remain. Summarising across these discussions, a series of central themes emerged.

First, there is great value in a systems approach as a heuristic for understanding interlocked social-ecological-technological processes, and in analysis across multiple scales. Yet we need to move beyond both systems as portrayed in resilience thinking, and the focus on actors in work on vulnerability, to analyse networks and relationships, as well as to attend to the diverse framings, narratives, imaginations and discourses that different actors bring to bear.

Second, debates about resilience need to engage with normative concerns. This means that when we use terms like vulnerability and resilience we need to attach them to a person, form or organisation, rather than discuss them in the abstract. There is also a need to deal with the many trade-offs between people, systems, levels and scales in a normative way: someone’s resilience may be someone else’s vulnerability, or resilience at one scale may compromise that at another – but the key question is what trade-offs do we want or not want to see? Linking resilience with normative debates in this way may provide a valuable platform for critical discussion, helping to fill the current gulf between optimising and justice-based approaches in development, and contributing to the building of a new ethically and morally-driven development discourse.

Third, resilience approaches can be enriched through more disaggregated attention to action and strategies, considering transformations and transitions; endogeneity/exogeneity and depth of transitions; the relationships between functions, flows and structures; the dynamics (shocks/stresses) they address, and the agency (control/response) involved. We need to consider the processes through which actors at different levels decide strategies, and which would be enabling in terms of adaptiveness, learning, flexibility and empowerment.

Fourth, power and politics are crucial – as a growing area of resilience thinking that could valuably be strengthened with insights from other areas of work in politics, governance and democratic philosophy. Power relations are involved in assigning or avoiding responsibility and accountability; the domination of certain framings/narratives over others, asymmetries between pathways, and which are pursued and which are not. While resilience thinking is clear about the need to conserve life support systems, this will often require politically progressive thinking and action to challenge and transform unsustainable structures and framings in radical ways, and to hold powerful actors and networks to account. Depending on the issue and the setting, strategies might involve a spectrum from discursive and deliberative politics, to more antagonistic politics of resistance and struggle; all involve moves away from the managerialism that characterised early resilience approaches, towards conceptualising it in fundamentally political terms.

Finally, reframing and working with resilience involves an array of challenges for language and communication, and linking understanding and action. Resilience approaches involve complex language and concepts, and integration with other disciplinary perspectives can add to this complexity. A series of balances need to be struck, between attention to the nuances of different frameworks, and articulating their differences clearly; between conceptual advance, and remaining grounded in empirical settings; and between understanding complexity, and the clarity needed to inform policy and practice. The latter is crucial: policy decisions are being made as a matter of urgency in areas from climate change and energy to agriculture, water and health. Building resilience and pathways to Sustainability thus requires both reflection and reflexivity, and clear communication in terms that decision-makers can use.

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