World Disasters Report: Resilience: saving lives today, investing for tomorrow

Chapter 2: Proving the case: measurement and evidence

If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it.
H. James Harrington.

Strengthening resilience has become the priority of most, if not all, agendas for disaster risk reduction at all scales, from the Sendai Framework and international funding agencies’ priorities, to national policies and practitioners’ everyday initiatives. Three approaches provide a useful framework for understanding the different ways resilience is assessed in the context of natural and other hazards:

  1. The quest for quantification mirrors the overwhelming influence of Western science and knowledge (Hewitt, 1995). Quantitative methods to measure resilience tend to involve calculating scores, ranks and indexes. They predominantly look at resilience as an outcome. These somewhat reductionist methods are usually driven by ‘experts’ who design questionnaires and other extractive tools based on their generalized assumptions of what resilience is.
  2. The vulnerability paradigm draws upon qualitative methods geared toward providing contextual and rich descriptions of local realities. These have long been used in disaster studies, as well as in other related fields such as poverty alleviation and health, to examine people’s response to disaster and more recently to assess their resilience to natural and other hazards. Resilience to natural and other hazards is viewed here as a process or an attribute and through the lens of the concept of vulnerability.
  3. People’s self-assessment of their own resilience draws upon the assumption that those at risk, although often marginalized, still display capacities in facing natural and other hazards. These capacities include the set of diverse knowledge, skills and resources people can claim, access and resort to in dealing with hazards and disasters (Wisner et al., 2012).

Measuring resilience in practice: examples of methods and tools

The past few decades has witnessed the emergence of numerous methods and tools to provide evidence and assess resilience, both as a process and an outcome, in a variety of contexts. These have focused on multiple scales, from the household, organization and ‘community’ to city, province, region and country levels in poor, wealthy, urban, rural, mountainous, coastal, island, landlocked and many other environments.

Qualitative measurements of resilience

There are a number of qualitative approaches for assessing the resilience of people and places. Most of these emerge from the social sciences and try to explore the deep-seated mechanisms that support the process of resilience at different scales. Some are stand-alone studies for the sake of academic research, while others are designed to reflect upon the outcomes of a particular project. Some are geared to inform policy and practice. Three streams are as follows:

The first stream comprises raw accounts and stories from people at risk or those affected by disasters. These testimonies are usually collected through extractive tools such as interviews. Such accounts are highly contextual and can barely be compared to each other, although they are often compiled into books or reports to show the diversity of people’s experiences and needs in facing disasters triggered by natural and other hazards.

The second stream of studies uses a more diverse variety of ethnographic tools, including interviews, life stories and observations, to collect qualitative evidence of people’s resilience in facing disasters triggered by natural and other hazards. The analysis of these involves a higher degree of data analysis through a wide range of codified methods.

The third stream aims at providing proactive frameworks to anticipate and measure resilience in projects concerning disaster risk reduction (as well as in related fields). These frameworks emphasize key and usually broad components of resilience that need to be considered in designing projects and measuring progress.

Strengths and shortcomings

All approaches to measuring resilience have their own strengths and shortcomings. Efforts that quantify resilience, as an outcome or attribute, are relatively quick to set up and provide tangible evidence to allow for comparisons across places. They facilitate decision-making and prioritization in policy. Over time, policy-makers and practitioners have become number-savvy to the point that decision-making has often become a matter of juggling with figures and statistics.

Numbers and figures further speak to donors and government agencies which call for upward accountability from their funding beneficiaries. Yet, quantitative evidence and measurements of resilience often fail to capture the realities of those at risk, which differ from one household and one place to another. They are also often biased by choices made by outsiders that include focusing on easily accessible places at favourable times of the year. For this reason, they have been called ‘quick-and-dirty’ (Chambers, 1984).

Migrant response in Greece

Quantifying displacement

The risk and impact of displacement on people who are, by definition, “forced or obliged to leave or flee their homes or places of habitual residence” (OCHA, 1998) is most commonly considered as both a manifestation and a cause of vulnerability in terms of human rights concerns and humanitarian needs. It has become increasingly recognized as a development concern in relation to the need for increased investment and efforts to both prevent or minimize displacement as well as to find lasting solutions. Under global policy frameworks for measuring progress towards sustainable development outcomes (UN, undated), disaster risk reduction (UNISDR, 2015) and climate-change objectives (UNFCCC, 2015), displacement is considered to be a driver of risk and a form of non-economic loss. Approaches to the measurement of displacement and its impacts for both operational and policy purposes tend, therefore, to be framed from the perspective of people’s lack of options and a focus on their varied needs for external assistance.

At the same time, displaced populations are people who have used their mobility to survive and to minimize the immediate threat and impacts of disaster. Their own capacities and resources should be enhanced and added to, rather than replaced, as they seek solutions to their situations.

Where people are unavoidably exposed to a threat or disaster, well informed, prepared for and managed displacement can enable people to minimize the immediate risks they face and save lives. This includes the facilitation of emergency evacuations. In this regard, displacement may also be seen as the first stage in a resilient response to disaster.

Whose resilience is measured, by whom and for whom?

There is a consensus that measurements of resilience are needed to prioritize actions for disaster risk reduction and other fields, monitor changes, whether for the better or the worse, and to make agencies that claim to work towards strengthening resilience accountable to their donors (Béné, 2013). Such calls make sense in the context of present policies and practices for disaster risk reduction. Therefore, measuring resilience constitutes a pragmatic response to those needs.

However, asking whether resilience can be understood begs the broader question of power and power relations in disaster risk reduction. In other words, whose resilience is measured, by whom and for whom? Do those who are facing disasters triggered by natural and other hazards need their resilience to be measured, especially by outsiders, and who is benefiting from such measurements? For many, resilience remains a poorly-defined Western concept with a Latin origin. Thus, it rarely translates in non-Latin languages and attempting to capture and/or measure whatever it means in the eyes of Western outsiders may just, most often inadvertently, satisfy the appetite of the latter more than answer a local need. As Bhatt (1998, 71) so eloquently put it in the context of vulnerability, another concept of Latin origin, an outsider is likely to be “filtering what she or he reads through the conceptual framework, assumptions, and values of her or his culture and, as a result, is creating false ‘stories’ that fit her or his expectations”.


Chapter 2 was written by J C Gaillard, Associate Professor, School of Environment, The University of Auckland/Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau, New Zealand, and Rohit Jigyasu, UNESCO Chair and Professor, Institute of Disaster Mitigation for Urban Cultural Heritage, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan. Box 2.1 was written by Michelle Yonetani, Senior Advisor, Disasters, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Norwegian Refugee Council, Geneva, Switzerland; Box 2.2 by Kanmani Venkateswaran, Research Associate, ISET-International, and Karen MacClune, Chief Operations Officer and Senior Staff Scientist, ISET-International, Boulder, USA; Box 2.3 by Rajib Shaw, Professor and Executive Director, Integrated Research on Disaster Risk Programme, International Council for Science, Beijing, China; Box 2.4 by Paula Silva Villanueva, Director, ResilienceMonitor, Brighton, UK; and Box 2.5 by John McAneney, Professor and Managing Director, Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University, and Andrew Gissing, Director, Government Business and Enterprise Risk Management, Risk Frontiers, New South Wales, Australia.

Sources and further information

Béné C (2013) Towards a quantifiable measure of resilience. Working Paper No. 434, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, UK.

Bhatt M (1998) Can vulnerability be understood? In: Twigg J and Bhatt M R (eds) Understanding vulnerability: South Asian perspectives. Intermediate Technology Publications, London, UK. pp. 68-77.

Chambers R (1984) Rapid rural appraisal: rationale and repertoire. Public Administration and Development 1(2):65-106.

Hewitt K (1995) Sustainable disasters? Perspectives and powers in the discourse of calamity. In: Crush J (ed.), Power of development. Routledge, London, UK. pp. 115-128.

Wisner B, Gaillard J C and Kelman I (2012) Handbook of hazards and disaster risk reduction. Routledge, Abingdon, UK.