World Disasters Report

Resilience: saving lives today, investing for tomorrow

Elhadj As Sy
Secretary General


Earlier this year, during a visit to rural Zimbabwe, I met Victor digging in the middle of the dry Mudzi riverbed. Kneeling in the dirt next to him, I asked what he was doing. “Digging for water,” he said. He had indeed been digging for about an hour, he explained, and managed to draw about half a gallon of dirty water.

Like millions of people in Zimbabwe, and tens of millions across southern Africa, Victor was struggling to survive in the midst of a terrible drought, influenced by one of the worst El Niños on record. As I write this, an estimated 40 million people are affected, with 23 million of them likely to need emergency assistance before the end of the year. It is a truly desperate situation that has occurred in near silence, with little of the attention and resources needed to reduce its impact.

Humanitarian needs are growing at an extraordinary pace – a historical pace – and are outstripping the resources that are required to respond. That is a familiar refrain, but one that sadly is worth repeating here. It goes some way to explaining why the situation in Zimbabwe, one that is both despairingly sad and sadly predictable, has come to pass. The human suffering has been lost amongst the conflicts and mass displacement around the world that dominate the humanitarian landscape.

‘Business as usual’ is no longer acceptable. It will only lead to further silent suffering as more and more people exhaust all coping mechanisms and are left to fend for themselves without the help they so desperately need.

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This World Disasters Report makes the case simply and eloquently for a different approach to humanitarian action, one that strives to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable and at-risk communities. To paraphrase the report: investing in resilience saves lives and money.

This is by no means a new idea, but the widening gap between available resources and persistent, urgent needs in southern Africa, the Sahel, the Horn, across South and South-East Asia, and in many parts of Latin America, makes it more compelling and more urgent than ever before. If we are to break this cycle of crisis-response, and make real progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and disaster risk reduction, the answer is not just better response: it must also be fewer people in need. A focus on resilience should not replace or undermine the humanitarian imperative that demands that all need is addressed directly and with dignity.

Effective and efficient response will always be needed, and should be wholly defended. Resilience and response are not at odds with each other. Building resilience is a logical extension of the humanitarian imperative. Our shared humanity compels us to go the extra mile to reduce the scale and impact of shocks and stresses, and to help communities to recover better and stronger. This is about more than creating a new way of working, it is also about finding a new way of working together. Building resilience requires partnerships – with communities, local humanitarian actors, development agencies, governments and with the private sector. It forces us to go beyond our institutional priorities, step out from our silos and to commit to working together in a spirit of true collaboration.

This thinking is at the heart of the “One Billion Coalition for Resilience”, an initiative which was launched by the IFRC in late 2015 that aims to transform the state of resilience in the world. By creating networks of caring individuals, motivated communities and like-minded organizations from all sectors, the IFRC and its partners will support 1 billion people to take action that builds resilience by 2025. This report calls on us to adopt ‘resilience thinking’. All our interventions, at all points along the humanitarian continuum, must seek to strengthen resilience. This must be backed by funding for resilience. Barriers to investment need to be identified and overcome.

This brings us back to Victor in the dry riverbed in Zimbabwe. He was not passively waiting for authorities or aid groups to provide assistance. With the limited resources that he had, he was taking action. But it wasn’t enough. This is what resilience is about: empowering people to help themselves. It is about putting our plans and efforts at the service of their initiatives and their capacities. We must step past the artificial divide between humanitarian action and development, and constantly be there on the side of communities to accompany them into a future less fraught with risk and vulnerability and defined more by their own interest and capacity to thrive.

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Chapter 1: Making the case for resilience

Humanitarian need has reached unprecedented levels and the aid sector is struggling to cope. Raising more money to meet ever-increasing need is not going to be adequate to handle future crises. Counting the number of people we reach is no longer a sufficient measure of success. Something must change. Pre-disaster investments must be taken more seriously to stem the increase in the number of crises.

There are many definitions and understandings of resilience and some argue that this is a weakness. However, this is to ignore the strength of diversity. There is a good enough understanding of resilience as a concept to convene a whole range of actors, from individuals and communities, to politicians and the private sector. Moreover, resilience can help link emergency response and development. At policy level, resilience is now formally recognized and included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction – it is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

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Chapter 2 Proving the case: measurement and evidence

Numerous methods and tools have emerged to assess resilience at all levels and in a variety of contexts, but there are three main methodologies. Firstly, quantitative methods to measure resilience tend to involve calculating scores, ranks and indexes, with resilience seen as an outcome. Secondly, a focus on vulnerability uses qualitative methods that provide descriptions of local realities. Resilience is viewed as a process or an attribute through the lens of vulnerability. Thirdly, people’s self-assessment of their own resilience works on the assumption that those at risk, although often marginalized, still display capacities in facing natural and other hazards.

All approaches to measuring resilience have their strengths and weaknesses, but there is a wider question of who is benefiting from such measurements. Why do people need their resilience to be measured? Statistical data speaks to donors and government agencies who need to demonstrate accountability. Yet, quantitative measurements often fail to capture the realities of those at risk. Whilst there is a consensus that measuring resilience is needed to prioritize action and investment, there is also an understanding that a blend of approaches is needed if people are to remain at the centre of any solutions and are to build their own resilience.

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Chapter 3 Time to act: investing in resilience

Despite progress in disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, overall investment remains low. Both the number of disaster events and their related economic and humanitarian losses have been increasing steadily since the 1980s. Economic losses from extreme weather events are now in the range of 150–200 billion US dollars annually. Despite the growing emphasis on resilience in international policy, investment is not happening quickly enough.

Investments in risk reduction are visible and immediate, whereas the benefits are only visible once a disaster has occurred – the longer-term benefits are undervalued. This is why the case for investment needs to highlight the many secondary benefits that are often overlooked: strengthened river embankments can act as walkways, parks or roads; disaster shelters can be used as schools or community spaces. The risk of disasters also creates background risk, which constrains investment in long-term capital projects and entrepreneurship for fear of disasters eroding returns. Risk is uncertain, but that uncertainty that needs investment is often a barrier to investment itself.

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Chapter 4 Anticipation: getting better at getting ready

Anticipation requires a shift away from assuming that the future will be a repeat of the past. While adaptation is largely reactive, anticipation is predictive and proactive. An at-risk community, for example, must be able to envision alternative futures in order to change its future. It may be necessary to develop its capacity to envision alternative futures or a desired new reality. The actors in an at-risk community must be able to predict and change their behaviour in the future state. If development choices ensure safe housing, will the community still reside in makeshift housing even though a better alternative is given? The at-risk community, importantly, must be able to change, and do so rapidly.

Reducing risk and vulnerability requires local communities to mobilize resources, stimulate knowledge contribution and claim rights. Participation is not a favour given to people; it is, primarily, a right. By shifting existing power structures, decision-making can become more democratic and inclusive, strengthening participants’ capabilities, rather than merely improving existing conditions. Scenario planning and action planning reinforce this people-centred approach: action planning relies on local capacity and knowledge, whereas scenario planning is used to consider the outcomes of decision-making. It helps improve understanding and anticipation of the future, and helps people and communities to move forward more skilfully in uncertain times.

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Chapter 5 Inner resilience: mental health and psychosocial support

The long-term impacts of disasters can undermine well-being and threaten peace and human rights. Mental disorders and psychosocial problems are significant public health concerns in humanitarian settings, with most affected people experiencing considerable distress. A common understanding of what defines psychosocial well-being and resilience may not only vary from country to country, but also within populations in the same country. In major disaster situations, there are often secondary stressors, such as relocation, that have a negative impact lasting many years. In one-off acute events, distress tends to lessen when danger has passed compared to when individuals experience prolonged situations such as conflict.

Preparing individuals and families psychologically to cope with crises may influence communities to invest more in mitigation and disaster preparedness. Psychosocial support in risk reduction can facilitate community networks, contribute to mapping strengths and vulnerabilities, and promote capacity building of local populations, including staff and volunteers. A common psychosocial support intervention after a disaster is psychological first aid. The aim is to assist people to take care of themselves and regain their capacity to think clearly. Psychosocial support is also relevant in longer-term development programmes. Although there have been advances in good practice throughout the disaster cycle, there continues to be a gap between good practice consensus and some activities in the field. 

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Chapter 6 Stronger together: partnerships that build resilience

The One Billion Coalition for Resilience acknowledges that the key to success in building resilience is to mobilize a broad partnership of actors from local to global, committed to the common cause of building resilience at the individual or community level. In urban settings, this collaboration is critical. Population density and diversity, and a wide array of stakeholders, mean that humanitarian actors find themselves ill-equipped to respond single-handedly to the complexities of urban crises. Another initiative, the Global Resilience Partnership in Africa and Asia, places a strong emphasis on connecting civil society with government and the private sector. The latter is emerging as a key player in building resilience as companies seek to reduce business risk and take advantage of wider resilience benefits.

Effective partnerships require understanding and trust, transparency, incentives, impact measurement and institutional capability. Despite this ideal, partnerships do have their detractors who argue that partnership values are often not realized in practice; larger, more powerful, budget-holding partners tend to dominate local partners. The One Billion Coalition for Resilience has among its stated aims the promotion of local organizations, so that they are treated as primary and equal partners. 

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Chapter 7 Resilience in the future: 2025 and beyond

Looking into the future and identifying future risks is no easy task, but the interrelated nature and complexity of the risks is becoming clear. Climate change will drive displacement to new levels. Current estimates of forced migration due to environmental change range from 25 million to 1 billion people by 2050. The frequency and intensity of armed conflict and terrorism have risen and the number of people killed violently has tripled, driven largely by conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Yemen. Criminal violence is even deadlier than conflict or terrorism, with at least four times more people around the world dying as a result of homicide. The threat of pandemics is ever present. The Zika and Ebola outbreaks highlight the risk that globalization poses, while urbanization compounds it.

Looking ahead to 2025 and beyond, there are at least three steps that should be taken to enable a more resilient future: acknowledge a shared understanding of resilience, adopt a systematic approach to operationalize resilience, and improve our ability to understand disasters. The solutions are not all technical or top-down and resilience is often found in the relationships that govern people’s everyday lives. In many cases individuals and communities have already developed some of these capacities. Humanitarian actors can support local resilience efforts directly by engaging with existing initiatives driven by citizens, civil society, communities and local governments.