At Agriculture for Impact we talk a lot about resilience and in particular how farms and rural economies can become more resilient to shocks and stresses like climate change, pests and diseases and food price fluctuations. In the new UNDP Human Development Report 2014 released recently, the concept of resilience in terms of individuals, communities and of global political systems is explored. As the report states, “resilience is about ensuring that state, community and global institutions work to empower and protect people”.
In particular the report highlights the precariousness with which we view advances in human development, improvements in peoples’ welfare and the state of the environment and global governance. Corruption, environmental and humanitarian crises, crime, changing leadership, negligence of key sectors such as health and civil unrest can all spell disaster for progress made in tackling poverty, malnutrition, food insecurity, environmental degradation and poor health. As the report states achievements in human development should not only be measured in terms of the gains made but in how secure these gains are or how likely they are to be lost when under pressure. Key then for this report is exploring the vulnerability of current progress and of future human development being sustained. The report also emphasises how human vulnerability, in this case taken as the erosion of people’s capabilities and choices, prevents human development.
Vulnerability appears to be on the increase due to continued environmental degradation, climate change and instability in financial systems. Perhaps this is contributing to the rate of progress in human development falling significantly since 2008. Globalisation increases connectivity around the world which can increase resilience but also introduce vulnerability across broader areas. If one system faces collapse its interconnectedness puts other systems at risk while national abilities to address shocks and stresses become more tied to global rules. A global system seeking to build resilience, however, can be supportive of actions at a local scale.
To understand the causes of vulnerability the report asks why certain people do better in the face of adversity than others and what enabling environment helps people become less vulnerable and thus more resilient. Typically we think of women, children and the elderly as being more vulnerable whether in terms of personal safety, health or economic freedom but what type of interventions can lessen this vulnerability? Responsive policy mechanisms, institutions and social norms that diminish vulnerability and structures that support human choice and empowerment could be included in these. For the most vulnerable groups in society, targeted and sustained interventions are needed as is addressing inequality.
The report identifies several factor making people more vulnerable – poverty, a lack of social protection, chronic hunger, gender, ethnicity, social status and disability, some of which are clearly linked to human development while others relate to age (life cycle vulnerability) or discriminatory social norms. As such a multidimensional approach to reducing vulnerability is needed across agricultural, health, financial, education and other sectors if an enabling environment for sustained human development is to be created. Most important, as the report states, is not the specific policies but the strength and vision of leadership, effective institutions, collective action and dedication to building societal resilience and creating opportunities for all.
The report emphasises resilience as being about having choices and the ability to act or respond to shocks and stresses. It urges a global commitment towards the universal provision of social services, of strengthening social protection and of assuring full employment. Although key to building resilience across the most marginalised groups these are ambitious goals. Beyond this commitment other important factors in building resilience are thought to be the creation of responsive institutions and cohesive societies, and crisis prevention and response.
As the shocks and stresses the world faces become more extreme, more frequent and more interconnected, resilience and vulnerability are two concepts we can expect to hear a lot more of. Policy responsiveness, building human capabilities, social protection and dedicated and motivated leadership are the significant features, identified in this report, needed at local, national and global scales if we are to reduce vulnerability and improve the lives of the most marginal, poor and hungry. Without addressing human vulnerability progress on human development will not be equitable nor will it be sustained.
While the Human Development Report brings attention to the important concepts of vulnerability and resilience and to some extent explores why people are more or less resilient it fails to go beyond broad strategies to reducing vulnerability. As Duncan Green in his blog From Poverty to Power points out the report is evasive in addressing how to bring about real change, alter power structures to cater for marginalised groups and transform political systems to be more responsive, supportive and protective. Perhaps such specificity is beyond the scope of the UN system and so the main questions this report raises are whose responsibility it is to develop strategies to build global, national, local and individual resilience, what are the best approaches to reduce vulnerability and how can they be implemented?