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

Chapter 7: Resilience in the future: 2025 and beyond

As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it
Antoine de Saint Exupéry

As we project forward to 2025 and beyond, identifying who will be most vulnerable to what risks is no easy task. Exposure and vulnerability are dynamic. Risks vary across time and space and depend on economic, social, geographic, demographic, cultural, institutional, governance and environmental factors (IPCC, 2014). While we know that climate change will amplify existing risks, it is also likely to create new unanticipated risks. In addition, it is not just extreme weather events that we need to worry about: as more people crowd into flood plains, informal settlements and other high-risk areas, routine hazards can quickly transform into major catastrophes (CRED, 2015). 

A future with interlocking and complex threats 

The future environment of humanitarian response along with the predominant threats challenging the world, will drive practice in 2025 and beyond. As urbanization and uncertainty characterize this environment, the interrelated nature and complexity of the risks we are expected to face is becoming clear. Singular risks, such as the unsustainable pace of unplanned urbanization, climate change or conflict, cannot be seen or addressed in isolation. They cause a cascade of further risks, compounding the challenges for international and local humanitarian actors. 

The changing climate will drive displacement at a scale unknown. Current estimates of forced migration due to environmental change range dramatically from 25 million to 1 billion people by 2050 (IOM, 2014). Although some of this migration will be slow and adaptive, much of it will be sudden and harmful displacement. This displacement has obvious imperatives for humanitarian action and may also trigger conflict. Protracted conflicts in Darfur and the Sahel have been cited as evidence of climate change playing a direct role in the instability of countries and regions, potentially fuelling conflict (Mazo, 2009). These cascading effects of climate change exemplify how future threats could become ever more entangled. 

Trends in violence and conflict mirror the interrelated complexity described above. While the number of conflicts globally has declined over the past 70 years, recent trends have seen the frequency and intensity of armed conflict and terrorism rise. Conflicts are also becoming far more protracted and chronic (von Einsiedel et al., 2014). Modern warfare is increasingly urban as well. The number of people violently killed a year has tripled, driven largely by deadly conflicts unfolding in cities across Syria and Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Yemen. Terrorist violence is also on the upswing with the vast majority of attacks concentrated in just 20 cities in Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria.

Criminal violence is now even deadlier than armed conflict and terrorism in terms of lives lost. At least four times more people around the world die as a result of homicide. While men are the major perpetrators and casualties of this violence, women suffer disproportionately from non-fatal violence (World Bank, 2011). In some cases, extreme homicidal violence has caused millions of people to flee violence, including gang hot spots in Central and South American cities such as Acapulco, San Salvador, San Pedro Sula and Recife (IDMC, 2016).

The interrelated nature of risks to health play out further when considering the threat of pandemics. The Zika and Ebola outbreaks highlight the risk globalization poses as larger and formerly disconnected population centres are more easily exposed to viruses that were once isolated or self-limiting. Displacements into urban areas and rapidly-growing slum populations further compound the risks of pandemics. As cities in many disaster-prone zones struggle to maintain adequate healthcare systems (including water and sanitation infrastructure, disease surveillance, early warning and rapid containment), they will become centres of outbreaks.

Resilience pathways

Enabling a more resilient future

 As we look ahead to 2025 and beyond, there are at least three things that should be done to enable a more resilient future:

  1. Develop a shared understanding of resilience. Factors that promote resilience also tend to be hyper-contextual, and isolating universal factors is potentially misleading as it can ignore powerful context-specific processes. Recent studies have indicated how resilience is subjectively constructed, too (Béné et al., 2016); i.e., that the perception of risk and the ability to overcome it may be as important as actual tangible factors such as income, social support systems and disaster management capacities (DFID, 2016; Béné et al., 2015). This makes arriving at a standard definition and identifying universal metrics difficult. A central message is that building resilience requires important investments across a range of sectors. A precondition is investment in safety, well-being and risk governance. This implies, at a minimum, preventing humanitarian crises and building-in disaster response capacities. Efforts to rein in violence, promote meaningful employment and ensure access to basic services are also critical (World Bank, 2011). Other fundamental areas of investment include functional and durable infrastructure and environmental improvements. Reliable public transportation and adequate communications coverage, the existence of quality disaster management plans, social protection for vulnerable populations and risk mitigation are vital, too. Finally, the role of inclusive governance and effective leadership cannot be overlooked. 
  2. Adopt a systematic approach to operationalize resilience. To solve challenges, effective leaders often borrow ideas and practices from around the world and work with different layers of government and actors spanning the private sector and civil society. A starting point for operationalizing resilience would be to share practices, successes and failures. Resilience encompasses multiple efforts that must be taken together and integrated. Yet, practice to date has largely followed established silos of activity divided by disciplines such as disaster preparedness, disaster risk reduction, poverty alleviation, climate change adaptation and violence prevention. While they have each enjoyed success in addressing risks, their differences in approach are significant. As a result, there has been very little cross-fertilization between these sectors. What this means is that we don’t know exactly what works and what doesn’t in building resilience to the multidimensional impacts of shocks and stresses. The future is promising; however, many of the examples given above lack systematic evidence on how they protect against various risks or complement other approaches to achieving effectiveness in different environments. To do so, a sustained and coordinated investment in knowledge must take place among development and humanitarian communities in an interconnected way. 
  3. Improve our ability to understand disasters. Our capacity to help build resilience to disaster among affected populations also depends on the ability to understand how disasters are likely to evolve. Situations on the ground often change rapidly in the context of crisis. The current approach to assessing needs, which often takes days, can be rendered irrelevant quickly. This can lead to ineffective responses and cost lives. Quality data (across the full spectrum of disasters – rapid onset and chronic, large and small) is essential for effective disaster response and to ensure that promoting resilience is at the centre of government decision-making. This message is being increasingly recognized around the world. For instance, the Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities recently set up an Open Platform for Natural Disaster Resilience Decisions. The objective of this platform it is to promote a long-term commitment to resilience in Australia based on a comprehensive and coordinated approach to collecting data and promoting research on the impact of disasters triggers by natural hazards (Deloitte, 2014). 

Following the lead of local actors

Certainly, the answers are not all technical or top-down. Resilience cannot be imposed from above. Instead, it needs to be – and often is – found in the relationships that govern people’s everyday lives. In many cases individuals and communities have already developed some of these capacities through informal networks. Research has shown that some of the most resilient people and communities are those in places that have experienced deep challenges (Zolli and Healy, 2012). These capacities have developed as a result of having overcome repeated disruptions and challenges to the point where a culture of resilience has emerged through informal networks rooted in trust and the ability to learn.

Humanitarian actors can support locally-driven resilience efforts directly by engaging with ongoing initiatives of citizens, communities and local governments. Many aid organizations have engaged with communities in disaster risk reduction efforts through enhancing community mobilization for early warning systems, first responder training, flood mitigation and infrastructure projects, among other activities. Community-led, resilience-based partnerships have proven to save lives and money (Boonyabancha and Mitlin, 2012). Investing in grass-roots leadership, particularly women’s leadership, is also essential for reducing vulnerability to disaster and building resilience to hazards (Gupta and Leung, 2010). 


Chapter 7 was written by John de Boer, Senior Policy Advisor, UN University, and Ronak Patel, Assistant Professor at Stanford University. Box 7.1 was written by Bernard Manyena, Deputy Director of Postgraduate Teaching, Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester; Box 7.2 by Paul Currion, Humanitarian Affairs Consultant; Box 7.3 by Adriana Allen, Professor of Development Planning and Urban Sustainability at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London; Box 7.4 by Joanna Friedman, Cash and Protection Advisor, UNHCR; and Box 7.5 by Abhas Jha, Sector Manager for Transport, Urban and Disaster Risk Management for East Asia and the Pacific, and Zuzana Stanton-Geddes, Operations Analyst at the Sustainable Development Department, The World Bank.

Sources and further information

Béné C, Frankenberger T, Langworthy M, Mueller M and Martin S (2016) The Influence of Subjective and Psychosocial Factors on People’s Resilience. Technical Report Series No. 2, Feed the Future.

Béné C, Headey D, Haddad L and von Grebmer K (2015) Is resilience a useful concept in the context of food security and nutrition programmes? Some conceptual and practical considerations. Food Security, Vol. 8, Issue 1, pp. 123-138.

Boonyabancha S and Mitlin D (2012) Urban poverty reduction: learning by doing in Asia. Environment and Urbanization. 1 October 2012;24(2):403-21.

CRED (2015) The Human Cost of Natural Disasters 2015: A global perspective. Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, Brussels. Available at: accessed on 27 July 2016.

Deloitte Access Economics (2014) Building an open platform for natural disaster resilience decisions. Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities, July 2014. Available at: accessed on 27 July 2016.

DFID (Department for International Development) (2016) Guidance Document on Measuring Resilience. Department for International Development, London, UK. Available at: accessed on 27 July 2016.

Gupta S and Leung I S (2010) Turning Good Practice into Institutional Mechanisms: Investing in grassroots women’s leadership to scale up local implementation of the Hyogo Framework for Action. Huairou Commission and Groots International, 2010. Available at: accessed on 27 July 2016.

IDMC (2016) Global Report on Internal Displacement. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Norwegian Refugee Council. Available at: accessed on 27 July 2016.

IPCC (2014) Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Available at: accessed on 27 July 2016.

Mazo J (2009) Darfur: The First Modern Climate-Change Conflict. Adelphi series 49 (409) (2009): 73–74.

Von Einsiedel S, Bosetti L, Chandran R, Cockayne J, de Boer J and Wan W (2014) Major Recent Trends in Violent Conflict. UN University Centre for Policy Research Occasional Paper 1, 2014.

World Bank (The) (2011) Violence in the City: Understanding and Supporting Community Responses to Urban Violence. World Bank, Washington DC, USA. April 2011; 1-347.

Zolli A and Healy A M (2012) Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York.