By Aytan Gahramanova, DCU
At the 2014 Resilience conference in Montpelier, France, resilience was described as a new paradigm for development. Since then, donors and implementing agencies started presenting ‘resilience’ as a new development work paradigm to the public. Once, during one of my interviews with the project manager of EU donor organisations I asked, what they meant by “resilience”. The answer was “nobody knows, most probably we will just reframe what we have been already doing….” Still, as any other paradigm, resilience may carry positive and negative consequences for all stakeholders – donor countries, foreign policy, implementing agencies and the host countries.
Although resilience as an idea is not new, it is introduced into plans for development aid without a clear definition. Originally, the term signified the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a crisis by repelling destruction and recovering rapidly. Obviously, the drive for a new paradigm, came from the long standing inability of the traditional paradigms to explain abrupt systemic changes and crises. One of such traditional paradigms is the ‘transitional paradigm’, for example, which governed international aid in post-communist settings since the last 25 years. Exemplifying a linear approach to understanding social change, this theory proved to be incapable for both understanding and addressing social change processes. Gaps in development science and practice led to the borrowing of intellectual tools from other disciplines where resilience has been in use since long time.
While resilience as an important notion can bring important dimensions to the understanding and formulation of sustainable development, the question is what it may mean specifically for work aimed at democracy promotion?
Described as a theory of change, resilience may be understood not only as a response to change, but also as a strategy for building the capacity to deal with and to shape change. Notably, the concept of resilience brings a long awaited recognition (which was lacking in the transitional paradigm) that uncertainty is a part of how systems and social process work. That means acknowledging that social processes are inherently dynamic, involving historical and societal interactions which produce synergetic results, perhaps even unexpected. This very ‘expecting the unexpected’ may help to realize trade-offs between different courses of action.
But what are the everyday forms of resilience for individual implementing agencies in the field of international development? It means, first of all, that organisations will have to define the idea of resilience for themselves by working out feasible goals and adequate measurement systems. It may mean a sort of de-centralisation of international development aid; dropping rigidity; turning towards tailor-made approaches and more appreciation for local ownership; and an integrated approach in general.
Some critiques of the resilience paradigm consider these very features of the new model as something negative because of uncertainty, problems with accountability, lack of measurable indicators and the targets it brings. Consequently, these critiques raise concerns with regard to the possible use of the term by some organisations in a rather misleadingly way, in order to rebrand their work with the mere scope of accessing funds. Instead, the claim is that development work shall be “evidence-based”, “money-return” oriented, etc. Others argue that the discourse of resilience rings well with a pragmatist turn in social sciences and global governance.
However, years of international aid which used rigid, business oriented approach and business terminology did not prove to be too efficient neither. Unrealistic targets and dubious indicators led the pursuing of “tangible results” and inspired made-up “success stories”. Conversely, good quality work was hidden in the process behind the dry reports delivering tangible results. An example of one of the venues that ignored international aid in the post-communist realm for long as “not tangible” was policy-making related capacity building, as I elaborated in my policy paper.
Nevertheless, while a resilience approach may potentially open new entry points in international development aid contributing to positive change, there is another side of the coin, which I would like to stress. There is a risk that resilience may be used for justifying and reinforcing the status quo, hereby setting off a dynamic property of the resilience approach. That would further imply successful adaptation despite challenging circumstances.
There are already voices in the academic realm that articulate a rightful concern with regard to the new EU Global Strategy. This proposes “principled pragmatism” in the form of resilience-building as a new foreign policy paradigm. Critiques point out that while the paradigm proposes to move beyond liberal pace towards a more bottom-up approach, it opens doors for double standards related problems. This is because principled approach and pragmatic approach are two different approaches. The latter acts in accordance with the universal values while the former denies the moral imperatives of those universal categories. In practice, such policy may lead to the bifurcation of the EU identity, creating a situation where the EU will be carrying out democracy promotion related activities on a case-by-case basis, selectively, and guided by political conjecture.
Thus, as any other paradigms, resilience can be good or/and bad. It can lead to bottom up positive social change, but it can also lead to traps, depending on the goals of the individual implementing agency in each case, and its understanding of the potential for social change in the specific host country.
The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of CASPIAN or the universities affiliated to the project.