Hauck, V. 2017. Will the new Communication on resilience help to make EU external action more effective?. ECDPM Talking Point Blog, 17 March 2017.
The European Union is preparing a new Communication on resilience. This concept has played an important role in the EU’s approach to the development-humanitarian nexus but has evolved over the past years. Resilience is now set up to play a key role in EU external action since the publication of the EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy. In this blog, Volker Hauck casts light on the term and its implications for EU external action in facing situations of fragility and protracted crisis.
The term ‘resilience’ has increasingly dominated the EU’s external action policies since the publication of a policy document in 2012 – called a ‘Communication’ in technical EU jargon – on resilience entitled “The EU Approach to Resilience: Learning from Food Security Crises“. By 2016, the term made it as one of the five priorities of the union’s external action into the Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy.
Following an October 2016 call by the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council to swiftly translate these five priorities into clear policy initiatives and action, the EEAS, and Directorate General NEAR, DEVCO and ECHO, started a consultative process contributing to the formulation of a coherent policy framework on resilience across the EU’s external action. The new Communication is planned to see the light during the second quarter of 2017.
Given the evolving nature of the term’s use, such a policy framework is indeed needed. However, it provokes questions whether it offers a different way to conceptualise the EU’s external action and whether it can help to drive change in the EU. The use of the term ‘resilience’ has evolved considerably since the Communication in 2012, where it was framed as “the ability of an individual, a household, a community, a country or a region to withstand, to adapt, and to quickly recover from stresses and shocks”.
The strengthening of complementarity between the EU’s humanitarian aid and development assistance in regions affected by a food shortage was a central aim of this Communication. Meanwhile, the resilience term was intensely used in the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy and has become a kind of convening concept across sectors to bring policies, initiatives and actors from security, peacebuilding, sustainable development, the fight against poverty, humanitarian assistance and climate action together.
The term ‘resilience’ appears attractive as it ventilates more humility and realism, it does not sound politically threatening and is relatively fresh – and not worn out, like the old buzzword ‘capacity development’. The term ‘resilience’ is also able to hit a nerve-string of our time: it puts the focus on the need of states and societies to take more responsibility and to reform – with different levels of support from the outside – at a time of growing fragility, crisis and conflict in the European immediate and more faraway neighbourhood, and at a time of less financial abilities and willingness of European and other Western countries to provide assistance. Given its ambiguity, ‘resilience’ appears as a perfect fit for several complex EU external policy processes. But will it stick?
Convening different actors around resilience requires conceptual clarity. Otherwise, the word risks being used as a “catch-all” or “multi-purpose” term for doing something jointly under EU’s external action, without a clear understanding of its underpinning ideas and purpose. The fundamental notion of resilience should be kept, understood as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance, to reorganise and to adapt while undergoing change without a loss of its essential functions”, as described by Brian Walker and Carl Folke. Such systems can be individuals, households, communities, countries or regions, which is very much in line with the understanding of the EU’s Communication from 2012 – a perspective that should be kept but further sharpened.
In fragile and crisis-ridden environments, which display fractures of society that permeate down to the household level – but also pockets of resilience that might need assistance – the engagement from the outside, in support of maintaining or re-building endogenous forms of resilience, needs to be comprehensive and well-informed. An approach that looks at the state and broader societal level only, without digging deep and without connecting to the change or conflict dynamics of the systems and local actors concerned, remains superficial and ineffective. Such an approach also risks overlooking what is already there, disregarding the need to nurture or preserve a system that is functioning or innovating on its own terms, without the need for doing things differently or follow approaches brought from the outside. Endogenous and self-regulating systems should be supported through a “resilience-sensitive” approach, as long as they are in line with the EU’s external action objectives.
All of the above has several implications for EU external action and should be taken account of in the new Communication on resilience. First of all, resilience should be dealt with in its own terms and not as a new buzzword that simply convenes different actors around the same table. A common language across EU external actors needs to be shaped and lenses need to be provided to let officials more innovatively look and recognise the different forms and expressions of resilience. In-house guidance will be required to make this happen, and will need to connect to a gender-sensitive engagement, as women are of pivotal importance for maintaining and rebuilding resilience.
A resilience-sensitive approach should also help to think differently about whether and how external support can enhance resilience, and how to embrace the complexity of an environment. Second, resilience assessments that build on existing EU guidance should be promoted, in order to create a good situational awareness in terms of conflict dynamics, power relations, the state of fragility, the impact of possible disasters and other external influencing factors. Such assessments should allow access to early warning systems but should not become overly formalised, as this would limit the ability of the system to react quickly to changing dynamics in the partner regions and countries.
Third, context-specific pathways need to be conceptualised on how to transition out of fragility and protracted and/or violent crisis. This needs to be a bottom-up process, spelling out how to engage, where better not to engage and where to engage only minimally. A bottom-up conceptualisation means to start with the problem in the first place, to avoid blueprints and connect with change and reform at the macro-level. Fourth, the apparatus of EU external action needs to become equipped to implement a resilience-sensitive support, to connect with local actors, build relationships and thereby shape an in-depth knowledge of the situation the EU is investing in. The most important link to making EU external action effective are the EU delegations, particularly those located in fragile contexts.
Finally, having incorporated resilience as one of the five priorities in the Global Strategy, the concept has grown out of the more limited domain of humanitarian and development policy. Hence, clear political leadership is required to fill this concept with content and to apply it for making EU external action more effective.
Without creating incentives and setting priorities for a resilience sensitive approach across EU external action and without promoting this approach throughout the different EU institutions, the Communication will likely become another ‘reframing exercise’ which actually changes very little in the way of how EU institutions approach external action.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.
Photo courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO
I agree that the EU will have to think carefully about how to engage with its external partners, incorporating resilience as a new policy paradigm. However, the Global Strategy is misleading in its insistance that it can encourage reslience-building in its external environment. It's almost impossible to do so, especially in the EU's case: the EU in the GS is very clear about pursuing its interests. Building resilience in other systems, and pursuing one's own interests are counterintuitive and illogical. If the definition of resilience is indeed as it is cited above, it stands to reason that there will be (many) instances where being resilient means not engaging with the EU; the EU in order to build resilience in others will have to set its own interests aside to do so. I don't see this ever happening. Also, I have found that the concept of resilience is best applied outside of the traditional (political) constructs of international relations: Folke and Walker introduced the concept of the socio-ecological system within which their understanding of resilience made sense. SESs - and resilience - know no political borders. Trying to create resilience / sustainability (which is, after all, a matter of security for the future) using the tired old concepts of states, etc.will be in the long run another misinterpretation and distortion of the original framework and what it was meant to draw attention to. In my opinion, therefore, giving the impression that 'states and societies' should be responsible for resilience is ultimately misguided and short-sighted.