In a world exposed to increasing environmental, political, economic and social uncertainty, the ability to withstand shocks and bounce back into a functional state has become critical. This skill, known as resilience, has been studied at length for decades in the context of complex economic, ecologic and social systems by researchers such as C.S. Holling and Carl Folke and, more recently, climate change specialists Neil Adger and Mark Pelling – to name only a few. As international development organizations adjust to the changing circumstances and paradigms of aid provision in the modern world, resilience has gained relevance in development practice.
Our understanding of resilience has evolved through time. Initially, we assumed systems were resilient if they were able to return to their original state after perturbations. Through extensive research, we’ve grown to understand that complex systems are dynamic rather than static, and that resilience often involves a shift towards a new system state, one which, in spite of following different processes, manages to preserve system functionality and structure. While there continue to be discrepancies as to how one defines resilience in practice, there is tremendous interest and international financing going towards “building resilience”, with millions spent annually in aid to build resilience in the developing world. As interest grows around resilience in the field of international development, so does the need to measure the impact and track the effects of resilience-building activities on the ground.
In a July 2015 publication for the Overseas Development Institute, authors Lindsey Jones and Thomas Tanner address the question: how should we measure a household’s resilience? Bringing this complex concept down to the household level enables researchers to suggest specific indicators and socioeconomic variables that can be analyzed to measure resilience in practice. Developing objective frameworks to measure resilience has resulted in extensive debates among academics due to the biases that inevitably arise when defining resilience. In their paper, Jones and Tanner argue for the use of subjective resilience measures at the household level as a complementary approach. Assuming that people understand the factors that contribute to their own ability to prepare for and adjust to external shocks, the subjective measurement of resilience calls into question the notion that outside experts are able to evaluate household resilience without including those who are effectively part of the household. Relying on household members’ cognitive ability to self-evaluate, subjective measurement takes a bottom up-approach to determine household resilience. Providing an overview for the study of resilience and the ways in which to measure it, the study makes a case for the ways in which subjective household resilience can be used to improve policymaking; promoting the need for bottom-up subjective methods to be integrated into international resilience measurement.
The subjective method was recently tested in east Africa by a consortium of international NGOs and research organizations operating under the Global Resilience Partnership. The consortium, teaming up with the East African movement and EASST partner, Twaweza, asked people in 1,300 households across Tanzania to evaluate their ability to adjust to future flood risk. Subjective measurement of resilience surveys tend to be much shorter than the more traditional, objective resilience surveys, making the data gathering process easier and cheaper. While final results are still under analysis, some initial results are featured in ODI’s recent Global Development blog post “The best way to measure a household resilience? Ask those who live there?” Subjective methodology is still a point of contention for researchers and is very much under development. However, the bottom-up perspective provides an opportunity to identify new indicators that could very well help us develop more robust ways in which to measure resilience and hold governments and households accountable.
Visit this link to read Lindsey Jones and Thomas Tanner’s working paper, “Measuring Subjective Resilience”.