July 10, 2015 – When Samuel Doe was growing up during Liberia’s 1990s civil-war he recalls aid workers distributing wheat to feed the hungry.
“Liberians never ate wheat. We had to learn to eat wheat,” he says. “It wasn’t our decision.” He also remembers mothers queuing up to receive cooked porridge to feed their babies and aid workers insisting on feeding the babies themselves. “They did not trust the mothers would feed their babies.”
“That sort of indignity is becoming less and less now,” says Doe, who is the UN Development Program’s policy adviser on resilience, an often-used and misunderstood term that is transforming the way aid and development work.
At a fundamental level, “resilience is about harnessing agency, the intentional action of human beings and believing that human beings can make dignified decisions that over time strengthen their independence, strengthen their interdependence and their self-reliance,” Doe explains.
But how does that translate on the ground for the UN and international NGO’s doing aid and development work and what were the reasons behind the shift to a resilience approach?
There are four broad reasons, Doe says.
The first is a realization that, with a lot of complex emergencies, once the response and recovery phase is over, these countries do not have a stronger society and stronger systems.
“We find them repeatedly again and again falling back onto those conditions of fragility that have been exacerbated by the crisis. Countries that have gone through war and have recurrence in 2-3, maybe 5-10 years,” Doe says. “Countries that have repeated disasters have been depleted of human resources and social capital. That is one of the reasons why people begin to ask how can we make the humanitarian response and recovery processes put countries on a path that is sustainable after a disaster.”
“The second reason behind the motivation, the push to resilience, is that prior to this thinking we have always thought in the international system that there is a sequential approach, a sequential relationship between humanitarian response and development. So there is a crisis, the first line actors are humanitarians, they do their bit then they get out and then we come in and then development people pick up the pieces. But, increasingly, depending on the quality of work that humanitarians do, they are likely inadvertently to make the development space more difficult.”
“For example in many humanitarian responses there is a tendency to develop parallel systems: we can’t work with the governments so we will establish our own coordination system, which brought about the cluster system. We will set up our own accountability system. The funding mechanism will go directly to the implementing organizations that we will work with. So government being the primary actor to responding to disaster is often left out in these emergency response.”
“Parallel systems that are developed in a crisis context that then overcrowd the local government systems over time make them almost inoperable to assume responsibility once the response is over. Many governments are saying increasingly that unless we use the country systems in preparing and responding to disasters it will be difficult for these countries to develop much more robust systems against future disasters.”
The third reason is that emergencies are increasingly slow-onset, says Doe, and aid and development work is happening at the same time.
“Take the case of Syria, the case of the Horn of Africa, or the case of the Sahel. There is no relief and then development. There is relief and then development constantly interacting because it’s a slow-onset crisis, it’s a protracted crisis. This illusion that humanitarians will do their bit, they will get out and then we’ll come in does not work. Therefore we have to cultivate a new way of working that allows development actors and humanitarian actors to work in the same space at the same time but that then puts a lot of pressure on the humanitarians who say well ‘we need the core humanitarian principles to still be respected,’ principles of neutrality, independence, impartiality. These need to be respected but they do not preclude the recognition and use of local systems. So how can local systems be used by respecting impartiality and neutrality and independence. This is the discourse we are pushing.”
The fourth reason is that the architecture of the development and humanitarian communities reflects the financial architecture of the donor communities so there are donors that fund only humanitarian work and donors that only fund development work. “There is no bridge conceptually or operationally for humanitarians to tap into development funds and vice versa,” Doe says.
But slowly UN appeals are being reconfigured to move away from short-term appeals, months or up to one year, to multi-year appeals that address both the humanitarian emergency and the underlying development issues.
So how will a resilience approach be implemented and what lessons have been learned from the past?
“Society should have the capacity to predict risk and if possible prevent risk using development, prevent the threat factors that are preventable,” says Doe. “So say, for example, we look at the Ebola crisis in West Africa, we’re saying the recovery plan should emphasize the resilience of the countries because when the crisis happened, it only took three months for Ebola to destroy the institutions the international community had invested billions into in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It took just three months for the economy to go into free fall, for the health systems to collapse completely. The highest donor support in Liberia was to the health sector. The system that we put the most money into was the system that collapsed in three months. What gave way to that?”
“Prior to Ebola, Liberia had literally 51 doctors for 4.5 million people. More than two-thirds of those doctors were concentrated in Monrovia, Although we’re investing in building the infrastructure of the health system, we’re building the clinics, but the Liberian medical school was producing less than 20 doctors every year. It’s appalling that the doctors being produced weren’t equipped to deal with very basic supply chain management, access of rural clinics to supplies, roads that were inaccessible. Even basic gloves were not in villages and clinics. So the way we invested in the health system focused a lot on payment of salaries, focused a lot on building the infrastructure but the human capital that is necessary to sustain those systems was less invested in. So our investment was sort of skewered to different priorities.”
A major push behind resilience thinking is strengthening local governments as they are the front-line responders to a crisis.
“If we do risk sensitive development we need to emphasize local government systems, emphasize working with local governments, making sure local governments and administrative bodies are strong, that local governments have their own preparedness capacity in place,” Doe says. “That there is a strong, fluid, very active supply line, a communication line that runs across local and central governments. We’ve seen that in the Ebola crisis, we’ve seen that in other crisis: when the local systems are functioning, when the local communities are actively engaging the systems, the response capacity is fast and is effective.”
The resilience approach is now being used for the Syrian crisis and Doe explains the thinking that lead to this.
“There was tension between humanitarians and the development people. At some point the humanitarians said this is a humanitarian crisis, we want to focus on humanitarian issues. we do not want the development actors to confuse this, but over time we all realized that this crisis is going on years and it’s transnational. Turkey is affected, Jordan is affected, Lebanon is affected. They all have refugees. The refugees are not all in camps, they’re in homes, some are working. So you can’t use the way we do humanitarian response in that setting.”
“In Lebanon for example you have two shifts of schools, morning and in the afternoon, so maybe you have to increase the salaries of teachers. Paying that cannot come through a humanitarian fund, it goes through the government. That is the kind of thing that is happening. Strengthening systems of governments so that they deliver on a humanitarian crisis. Rather than strengthening humanitarian systems so that they deliver only humanitarian aid. So that is the distinction that is being made in the Syrian situation.”
Another example Doe gave is the credit card system used in Jordan where Syrian refugees are given prepaid cards instead of aid workers determining what goods and services the refugees need, the refugees decide for themselves.
“They have credit cards now, they can go to a bank, use their credit card and get their funds for their own welfare. That’s an example of choice, of empowerment. So giving them choice giving them the freedom of choice is an important outcome or characteristic of building resilience. It’s dignity,” says Doe, who was instrumental in designing the 3RP plan for Syria.
Although resilience has been a buzzword for the past few years, it is only now that it is being codified. The United Nations is about to release its UN System Principles on Building Resilience, a document two years in the making that involved not just the UN’s humanitarian and development arms but also international NGO’s working on the ground.
“It’s an amazing process, just to have a blueprint, something that is codified,” Doe says. Now the hard work starts. “Multi-year appeals, getting donors to change their way of thinking, trying to really get governments thinking too that this is about ownership: this is your crisis. Working together more coherently getting coordination systems way ahead of time, making sure we have preparedness – we spend billions of dollars on response but less than one percent on readiness of countries, changing that paradigm, making sure we spend a bit more money on getting people ready. Are these schools ready, are they producing the right human capital?”
Doe also says a more integrated early warning system, not just for food and conflict, but also pathogens is needed. He said there’s currently a push to get the EU to develop its own Center for Disease Control so that it too can provide global disease surveillance.
The stark reason why the UN is changing the way aid and development is done is simply because natural disasters are increasing and new conflicts continue to emerge and escalate at an alarming rate. This underlies the resilience approach.
“We will not be able to deal with all of these exogenously, just from outsiders going in,” Doe says. “That’s not going to work.”
– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz