Resilience: from conference room to conflict zone

Resilience advisor Daniel Morchain recently attended a conference on resilience in Addis Ababa and then travelled to Mindanao in the Philippines and saw some of the lessons of resilience in action. Here, fresh from the plane, he shares his thoughts.

If we believe the development sector's understanding of resilience of, 'thriving despite facing recurrent and intensifying shocks', then we must agree that resilience does bring something new to the table. The question is whether or not there is any substance to this grandiose assertion. And the implication for practitioners is that evidence needs to be developed to support the claim.

A plea for evidence to support the general premises behind resilience was sung in unison at the recent resilience, food security and nutrition conference organised by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Addis Ababa.

After all, a ten year timeline starts today. Mid to long term goals are directly dependent on short term progress. We already have the evidence to prove that long term planning can suffer blows from sudden shocks, if preparedness and short term risk management have been sidelined. And yet we still see DRR projects being implemented in isolation, and, similarly, cases of CCA projects or funding calls that miss the link between long term resilience and managing risks in the face of extreme events.

I followed the conference with a field visit to the Philippinesand, two weeks later, as I now fly back to the UK from there I see in the flight map how we cross the delta areas of the Irrawaddy and the Ganges, moving on to the arid lands of Rajasthan before I fall asleep. Earlier, on solid ground on the southernmost of the major island of the Philippines, Mindanao, the lessons from the conference in Addis about the 'integration' dogma became urgent and visible, again.

The lessons learned in the barangay (village) of Hinatuan in the aftermath of tropical storm Washi are being incorporated in our team's latest initiatives. In 2011, Washi destroyed the seaweed farming set up by communities not long before. 

This alternative livelihood opportunity was thought to have been made 'climate proof' through awareness raising, risk assessments and regular monitoring of water salinity and sea surface temperature through data provided by both a newly installed refractometer and a hydro thermometer, respectively. The latter triggers a response by sinking seaweed lines 1 metre below the water's surface to keep them cooler when water temperature is high.

However, accompanying DRR measures across the barangay and municipality proved insufficient to secure the seaweed farming facilities and enable the community to become less vulnerable to shocks and thrive. Preparedness mechanisms are not enough by themselves to enable communities to recover from a crisis, unless communities' sources of income and livelihood are secured. 

Not too far from Hinatuan, one example of DRR/CCA integration is the installation of an Automatic Weather Station (AWS) in Jabonga. The AWS provides early warning for floods and 12 hour forecasts to communities living within a 30 km radius. It also facilitates agriculture and other everyday decision-making in a region where it can rain heavily throughout the year. 

Furthermore, after tropical storm Agaton hit the barangay this January, the AWS provided the necessary data for insurance claimants from the community to successfully claim from the private insurance company operating in the area, showing the value of data to support risk transfer mechanisms for the validation of claims. In the pipeline are plans to work with the national meteorological office and research institutions to explore the possibility of producingseasonal weather forecasts that would supportagriculture decision making, and consequently strengthen food security and nutrition.

Southwest areas of Mindanao face an additional issue, amidst the series of hazards that communities experience throughout the island: conflict. 

Conflict has played a painfully relevant role in people's lives for decades and has challenged the subsistence of families in many ways, including forced migration, family rupture(such as men going into hiding from insurgent groups or from authorities, fearing for their lives), trauma in children, and limited agricultural production. Conflict, furthermore, is something that communities are forced to address before they can meaningfully engage in agricultural adaptation technologies, ensure food security, or participate in communal decision-making processes. Story after story that women living in this area confided to us, each one powerful and touching, described the enormous contribution of women in maintaining the unity of the family, preventing communities from falling further into violence, and creatively providing stability, food, income and livelihood options to family members. They showed how building resilience is as much about governance, collaboration and innovation as it is about natural resources, physical systems and climate impacts.

The conversation with this group of women tempts me to draw this parallel: a refractometer is only useful if those operating it can come out of hiding to take a reading and respond - and not just by sinking the seaweed line, but also by strengthening and repairing the lines, or by harvesting early, based on their understanding of weather information and impending risks.

Back in Addis, while INGOs, research institutions, private sector players (albeit too few) and others did the networking thing and continued thinking and testing ideas about resilience, the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) committed to enhancing its collaboration with its development counterpart, DEVCO, in order to form joint, long term resilience-building programmes and to not repeat the development sector's errors of the past. DFID, meanwhile, is also showing its cards on DRR/CCA integration and resilience building projects, such as with their ongoingBRACED funding programme. The signs are good; intentions are good across the board.

Evidence suggests that the cost of integration may well be lower than the cost of no integration. But how far will these good intentions go?

Read more


  • Vicky Awitan, a member of the United Farmers of Cuyago in the rice fields, Agusan Del Norte. Credit: Dante Dalabajan/Oxfam
  • Amy Pasco of the Agri-Aqua Development Coalition talks to Daniel Morchain. Credit: Dante Dalabajan/Oxfam
  • Alicia Monoy, an 84 year old 84 yr old moringa farmer in Agusan del Norte. Credit: Dante Dalabajan/Oxfam

This blog is also posted on Oxfam's Policy and Practice Website.

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