From humanitarian aid to disaster risk reduction the word ‘resilience’ is involved in nearly every aspect of people’s ability to recover and adapt after a catastrophic event. Many researchers from various fields along with emergency practitioners, who are depended on during times of disaster throughout the world, use resilience in their everyday language, and even incorporate it into their operations in the field. Although its meaning remains elusive, researchers and practitioners have opportunities to learn from each other about resilience.
There is no one way of defining resilience yet this does not seem to have prevented it from growing in popularity (See The rise of the word resilience). On the contrary, it may have allowed it to spread far and wide in the first place. Within the context of disaster resilience reminds us that even the most damaging, traumatic experiences may reveal how vulnerable communities are able to adapt to unusual situations or environments. In recent academic and practitioner literature resilience is continually evolving.
There is a growing number of researchers and practitioners who are interested in how resilience will grow over time. Will it continue to spread rapidly amongst practitioners focused on humanitarian aid and development for example, or will it fade away? Is resilience merely re-framing the same problems that have existed for centuries? What are its actual contributions to disaster management and similar practices?
Used in the physical sciences, engineering, ecology, psychology, sociology and various other fields, researchers continue to contribute largely to how resilience is viewed today. Resilience is not a new idea, but seems to have been in the background eventually defining a new paradigm for how people understand and manage disasters in society. While novel concepts in academia tend to come and go like clothing fads, sometimes society catches on much later.
Resilience is sometimes portrayed as central to effective practices in assisting communities recovering from disaster, or at least something that is desirable when helping communities or organisations to prepare. The Red Cross for example had an entire conference earlier this year dedicated to the topic of resilience, that produced quite an interesting mind map of the many different ‘ingredients of resilience’.
Emergency practitioners see resilience as a way of enhancing communities’ ability to cope, because immediately following a disaster the only people they can rely upon are themselves and those around them. If disaster can be mitigated through community preparation it can, for example, lead to a reduction in loss of life and potentially better infrastructure able to withstand extreme weather.
For ‘man-made’ disasters emergency protocols are usually in place in the event of a nuclear meltdown or industrial accident. Yet if such a plan is primarily dependent upon responders alone it may not be resilient. Resilience seems more to do with improving or enhancing the ability of emergency services to help others by tapping into the informal social networks already in place. Resilience cannot grow from the top-down, which makes integrating informal networks within communities crucial to their survival. If people are merely labelled victims of a disaster with little to no agency, their capacity to cope may not be acknowledged and their ability to adapt overlooked.
Listening to all parties involved in preparing for disasters or other emergency situations is essential to building community resilience. In a recent article published in Policy and Politics, an interdisciplinary team of researchers found this to be the case, particularly in relation to infrastructure and extreme weather. The presence of social inequalities and lack of resources are problematic for cultivating resilience. Increasing resilience involves reducing social inequalities and this could help aid emergency planning efforts.
When understanding resilience at the community level an important question is who is relied upon primarily in order for a community to bounce back? In the case of people in need of care women are primarily relied upon to deliver emergency care to the most vulnerable when the formal support systems around them have failed. They are the ones who come to the rescue. Finding ways to make existing systems of aid more resilient by focusing on key actors who in many cases may be minorities, would assist in developing adequate emergency planning and aid networks.