Written by Pauline Eadie.

On 10 November 2013, United States President Barack Obama stated: ‘Michelle and I are deeply saddened by the loss of life and extensive damage done by Super Typhoon Yolanda. But I know the incredible resiliency of the Philippine people, and I am confident that the spirit of bayanihan will see you through this tragedy’. The former president’s evocation of resilience chimes with the heart of our project to examine poverty alleviation in the wake of Yolanda. Throughout this week, a series of blogs on IAPS Dialogue will explore the effectiveness of relief efforts in the Philippines for building sustainable routes out of poverty, and ask whether governments and aid agencies can do more to build back better against such harrowing circumstances.

It was also evident that some of the rehabilitation strategies used post Typhoon Yolanda had the effect of undermining communities, as opposed to making them ‘strong’. Equity in the distribution of rehabilitation goods and services was an important issue for survivors.

Resiliency is derived from the Latin word resilio, meaning to leap or spring back. Yet, resilience is not just about perseverance or the ability to absorb shocks. It is also about the ability to adapt in the face of challenges and about physical and social evolution in order to reduce vulnerability to future disasters. However, resilience is difficult to measure and understand. Survivors may state that they are resilient when they are not (for fear of being seen as weak) and accept material resources that they have no need for (for fear of appearing ungrateful or compromising access to future goods and services). Government and non-governmental agencies may use the term resilience to congratulate themselves on a job well done without due consideration of what it actually means to be resilient. Resilience also relates to intangible ‘assets’ such as trust, faith and familial and community cohesion.

Resilience strategies that resurrect pre-disaster inequalities and vulnerabilities, or even create new ones, are not resilient at all. It is important that the process as well as the end point of resilience is context specific and informed by local voices. However, even when local voices inform resilience these voices may be conflicting. Some may have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, some may favour different adaptation strategies over others, and some adaptation strategies may compromise other efforts with effects that are difficult to disentangle.

The adoption of the term resilience reflects a broader and relatively recent tendency among NGOs,, INGOs and government agencies. The United Kingdom 2011 ‘Humanitarian Response Review’, published by the Department for International Development (DFID), identified resilience as a leading theme in humanitarian and development work. In simple terms, DFID defines resilience as the capacity to deal with a disturbance. Disturbances are classified as both shocks and long-term stresses, with the capacity to deal with a disturbance based on exposure to risk, sensitivity to disturbances and the capacity to adapt or adjust.

The World Bank has also adopted the mantra of resilience. The term is used in relation to the convergence of policy designed to address climate change in relation to extreme weather events and disaster risk reduction. The World Bank ‘Resilient Cities Program’ has adopted resilience in order to address ‘an increasingly complex range of shocks and stresses to safeguard development gains and accelerate poverty reduction’. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) uses the term resilience in its ‘Making Cities Resilient’ disaster risk reduction campaign, whilst UN-Habitat has launched a City Resilience Profiling Program  (CRPP). Resilience also features in the USAID funded ‘Strengthening Urban Resilience for Growth with Equity’ (SURGE) project that focuses on inclusive and resilience economic growth for selected cities in the Philippines.  Resilience was a key feature of the United Nations’ ‘Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015: Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disaster’, with a strong focus on disaster risk reduction. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) succeeded the Hyogo Framework in 2015. Resilience features as a guiding theme. All of these initiatives equate resilience with growth and development.

Despite the increased use of the term amongst governments and aid agencies, understandings of resilience remain vague. Resilience is something to aspire to, and it is normatively understood as being a ‘good thing’ or an admirable characteristic. However, there is no consensus on what resilience is. Typhoon Yolanda survivors surveyed for this project overwhelmingly confirmed they considered themselves to be resilient. However, probing questions on resilience revealed that understandings of the term were vague. The most common descriptions offered in focus groups were: to be sturdy, durable and strong, to have faith, to not be in poverty, having a regular income, having a livelihood, being able to withstand calamities, for businesses to be back up and running and for buildings to be reconstructed, to recover quickly from calamities and for utilities to be restored.

It was also evident that some of the rehabilitation strategies used post Typhoon Yolanda had the effect of undermining communities, as opposed to making them ‘strong’. Equity in the distribution of rehabilitation goods and services was an important issue for survivors. A lack of equity tended to generate suspicion and distrust in communities. There was the perception that those aligned with barangay captains and mayors were more likely to receive favourable treatment. Meanwhile, for obvious reasons, aid agencies tended to target the most vulnerable, however this sometimes generated resentment and perceptions of inequity. One of the other core ideas of resilience is that communities should be empowered to help themselves. But our survey results show that the general consensus was that communities did not come together efficiently in order to bring about their own rehabilitation.

This consensus seemed to be due, at least in part, to the perception that goods and services were not allocated equally in the aftermath of the disaster. Some respondents also reported that some survivors were very active in the rehabilitation efforts whilst others were seen as ‘free riders’. When asked ‘what would you have done differently?’ many interview respondents said that they would have ensured fairness in the distribution of aid.

Over the course of this project we came to the growing realisation that the term resilience was being thrown around somewhat carelessly in the media and policy circles. It was particularly worrying that negative coping strategies can be equated to positive connotations of resilience. Reducing food intake, living in inadequate housing without adequate sanitation, the increase of excessive working hours are not positive adaption strategies or real indicators of ‘strength’.  We also realised that Typhoon Yolanda survivors referred to themselves as resilient even when the conditions of their existence were miserable.

Resilience was even bandied about as a national characteristic. This led us to the conclusion that the terminology of resilience was potentially being used as a type of ‘disclaimer’ for the failings of the relief effort. That is: survivors are used to these type of disturbances therefore they will have an innate ability to cope. This effectively reduced resilience to a state of mind. However resilience is more than an attitude or the ability to survive at a basic level of existence. It is about equity, and successfully adapting socio-economic institutions and the natural environment in order to mitigate the effects of future disturbances.

Pauline Eadie is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. She is currently primary investigator for a three year ESRC/DFID ‘Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research’ funded project entitled ‘Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. This project is run jointly with colleagues at The University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China and The University of the Philippines, Diliman. She tweets at @EadiePauline. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition  entitled ‘Yolanda: Building Back Better,’ run in conjunction with the project. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons

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