By Chuck Chopak,
DAI Global Practice Lead, Resilience
AIARD Director and Membership Committee Chair
I am, to put it diplomatically, a “seasoned” development professional. So seasoned that I did my Peace Corps service in the early 1980s. Ndjiarème, a tiny village in northern Senegal, was a dry, harsh environment. In the five years I lived there it seemingly rained only a handful of times. The farmers saw their staple millet crops fail in several of those years and eventually abandoned growing millet altogether. While these events seemed normal to me at the time, I realize now that I was living in a momentous multiyear drought that would change the lives of the village families irrevocably.
Understanding the ability of households and communities to absorb and adapt to shocks and stresses—whether a single dry season or a chronic drought as I witnessed in Ndjiarème — is at the core of an emerging discipline in development work: resilience.
When you’ve been working in international development as long as I have, it can be easy to assume you’ve seen it all before, that new trends in development thinking are fads, or “old wine in new bottles.” Resilience thinking is anything but. While resilience does, of course, contain elements of what we have learned from work in developing countries over the years (old wine can be pretty good, no?), the way resilience is currently envisioned marks a fresh departure from the past.
Three significant aspects of the new approach to building resilience merit the attention of all of us gathering for the AIARD’s 55th annual conference, where we will be focusing on resilience in global food systems.
What is Resilience?
There are several definitions of resilience, some of them sector- or donor-specific, but I find USAID’s a useful guide to thinking about how resilience can be operationalized for development programming. USAID defines resilience as “the ability of people, households, communities, countries and systems to mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth.”
Shocks and stresses are features, not bugs
Shocks and stresses are something that people, households, communities, countries, and systems anywhere must face, whether you live in the developed world or an emerging nation. While this statement seems obvious, we haven’t actually “mainstreamed” factoring shocks and stresses into our development planning and programming. Efforts to address the underlying causes of stresses—such as climate variability, population pressure, cultural practices (i.e., around water, sanitation, and hygiene), weak institutions, limited service provision, poor infrastructure, and degraded natural resources — have had some success. But on the whole, we haven’t done enough to build the capacity of vulnerable populations—those that hover around or below the poverty line — to withstand anticipated shocks and stresses.
In some countries and regions — such as the Sahel (drought and locusts), Nepal (earthquakes), South Sudan (civil insecurity), and Haiti (drought, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes) — recurring crises are readily apparent and often in the news. In other countries, shocks are less frequent. In both cases, the simple truth is that shocks are normal occurrences, they can be anticipated, and their impact can be mitigated through programs that focus on building resilience in people, communities, institutions, or systems.
Linking humanitarian and development assistance
Countries susceptible to recurring crises have received large volumes of humanitarian assistance. Indeed, USAID spent about three-quarters of its humanitarian assistance funding in just 10 countries. While these billions of dollars are crucial in saving lives, the overall impact hasn’t proved long-lasting, as evidenced by malnutrition indicators — such as stunting and wasting — that in countries such as Niger remain at or above the World Health Organization’s severe or emergency levels.
Linking humanitarian and development efforts in countries liable to recurring crises is an important step forward. The approach is to coordinate and optimize such efforts through joint analysis, planning, and implementation of activities. Several significant multidonor activities in the Sahel and East Africa illustrate the evolution of this new thinking, including the USAID Partnership for Resilience and Economic Growth in the arid and semi-arid areas of northern Kenya, and USAID Joint Planning Cells in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. In these contexts, USAID brings together relief and development teams to “layer, sequence and integrate” their efforts toward the shared goal of building resilience.
Efforts to support inclusive economic growth, environmentally responsible development, and strong government and civil society institutions can be undone if we fail to anticipate, plan for, mitigate, and respond to shocks and stresses. This backsliding is particularly pernicious for marginalized and disenfranchised people who can easily fall below — or further below — the poverty line.
The 2007–2008 world food price crisis is a good example. This systemic shock radically disrupted global food markets, resulting in huge price spikes, the brunt of which was borne by urban populations and poor rural households in developing countries. Some — such as Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Senegal, Indonesia, and Egypt — saw food riots; in Haiti, the violence contributed to the ouster of the Prime Minister. In the wake of the crisis, in 2008 and 2009, an additional 70 million and 80 million people, respectively, lapsed into malnourishment.
The events of a decade ago confirmed that the global food system is an interconnected web where significant shocks or longer-term stress can reverberate globally. As we gather for this year’s AIARD conference — under the theme of “Resilience in global food systems: what does this look like and what will it take?” — we find ourselves at an important moment, compelled to reflect on how we can build resilience in food and other systems. In part because of factors such as climate change, shocks and stresses are occurring more frequently and with more severity. While we will never eliminate shocks and stresses entirely, it is our task to ensure that by building the capacity of people, communities, and systems to absorb and adapt to disruptive forces, we can minimize the human impact in terms of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition.
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The mission of the AIARD Blog is to highlight and share thoughts, ideas and work from people who have devoted their careers to global agricultural development and hunger alleviation.