Resilience in EU international cooperation: A new fad?

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      ‘Resilience’ is topping the list of new buzzwords in international cooperation rhetoric lately. Many policy makers, including from the European Commission, are using it abundantly. Thus the policy proposal entitled 'The EU Approach to Resilience: Learning from Food Security Crisis’ the EU launched last week is an important document because it frames the term. Up to now, EU humanitarian aid and development cooperation actors used the word - which has its origin in material sciences, psychology and ecology – without any conceptual underpinning and orientation on how to translate it into practice.

      In its policy proposal – called a ‘Communication’ in technical jargon – the European Commission defines resilience as ‘the ability of an individual, a household, a community, a country of a region to withstand, to adapt, and to quickly recover from stresses and shocks’. Systems thinking underpins the paper. Resilience is meant to link relief, rehabilitation and development and to address different thematic priorities, depending on country and regional contexts. The EU proposes a three-phased resilience approach: anticipating crisis by assessing risks; focusing on prevention and preparedness; and enhancing crisis response. Although it is based on lessons drawn from food security crises, the approach is also applicable to other types of vulnerability, notably dealing with disasters, climate change and conflict. At the end of the policy proposal, the EU lists 10 steps setting out a resilience-sensitive aid approach in food insecure and disaster-prone countries, including a focus on more flexible funding and donor coordination.

      The Communication’s strength lies in its potential to establish constructive linkages between different challenges that had previously been discussed under terms such as sustainable development, vulnerability, disaster risk reduction, and link them with new challenges relating to climate change adaptation. It appears comprehensive and contributes to existing EU policies on Food SecurityClimate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction.

      A more careful read of the Communication, however, reveals  three major weaknesses:

      It airs a highly “top-down” and “state-centric” approach to resilience building. The Communication stipulates that responses to resilience are to be embedded within partner countries’ policies and that EC initiatives to support resilience should be incorporated in national resilience strategies. This is in line with principles agreed in the Paris Declaration but misses the point that the state can also become a factor reducing the resilience of vulnerable communities. This state-centric approach also risks overlooking the existence of a multitude of local communities, tribal settings or other pockets of society that have their own sources of resilience. In situations where government structures are absent or not genuine in the partner country, the EC should try to discover, research and link up with them. Given the recently published EC Communication on Europe’s engagement with civil society in external relations, which puts people at the root of sustainable development, it is disappointing that the EU doesn’t establish links between its own policies in a complementary and highly relevant domain.

      The EU also fails to incorporate and to refer to lessons learnt from its own work on capacity development. While the proposal recognises the leading role of partner countries - fully in accordance with aid effectiveness principles - there is a risk that this will remain rhetoric as long as the EU does not lay out its approach on how it, as an outsider, can support, facilitate or stimulate endogenous change that can lead to enhanced and lasting resilience in a partner country or any other type of environment. Understanding existing endogenous resilience strategies, coping mechanisms or ways to mitigate risks by the people in a given territory or country is indispensible and will lead to a more differentiated approach on how to provide support.

      Finally, it is questionable whether the Communication is based on a solid understanding of policy coherence. The new policy aims to undertake a wide range of resilience-enhancing actions that link up diverse sectors, ranging from agriculture, health, natural resource management, disaster preparedness, governance, regional trade, peacebuilding and national reconciliation. The fact that such actions are risky and can be at odds with each other is not sufficiently addressed in the Communication. For instance, a focus on markets and increasing agricultural productivity may lead to less resilience and higher vulnerability to shocks, such as market fluctuations. This is not reflected where the Communication mentions the G8 Alliance for Food and Nutrition Security which has a very strong productivity and market focus and which many criticize for not being sufficiently livelihood or resilience focused. The European Commission has insightful experiences in supporting existing livelihood strategies that take account of possible negative effects, for example through the Livestock Policy Initiative in the Horn of Africa, so this omission is a pity.

      The new Communication is a good first step to venture into an area loaded by rhetoric and expectations, and that was confused by different interpretations of the term resilience within the EC. But is is too focused on an aid effectiveness perspective that does not give sufficient tribute to the complexities and distinctly endogenous nature of resilience. It is positive that the Communication announces the preparation of an Action Plan to implement the policy. In this, it should make use of the EC’s own operational experiences in supporting resilience, such as from SHARE and AGIR, the EC’s support in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel and incorporate lessons from its work on livelihood strengthening, capacity development and non-state actors.


      Volker Hauck is Head of ECDPM’s Conflict, Security and Resilience Programme.

      ECDPM's Frauke de Weijer, Policy Officer Conflict, Security and Resilience , Quentin de Roquefeuil Policy Officer Economic  Governance and Willem Vervaeke, Research Assistant Food Security, provided inputs to this article.

      This blog post features the author’s personal view and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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