Following Boris Johnson’s promise of a more resilient future in yesterday’s speech, I thought that now would be a good time to unpack the meaning of resilience. During the pandemic, the term has been ubiquitous in political and media landscapes. Has its overuse rendered it meaningless? Or does its diluted meaning strategically obscure wider issues at play?
The Rise of Resilience:
In recent years, the popularity of resilience has exploded. Its use in academic publications has increased ten-fold since 1995 (Koslowski & Longstaff, 2015). It has entered international policy frameworks, such an the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (Peters, et al., 2016). It was even Time magazine’s 2013 buzzword of the year (Walsh, 2013).
However, in the field of disaster studies it is a highly controversial concept. In this post, we’ll talk a little bit about what resilience means in disaster management, and why it’s so contentious.
What is resilience?
In our everyday vocabulary, resilience signifies an ability to cope, and is synonymous with strength of character and community. It comes from the Latin verb, resilire, which literally translates as ‘to spring back’.
During my short time working in the NHS, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have mentioned resilience, but being resilient has many possible meanings depending on who you ask (Salt, 2020). There is a valid explanation for this. It’s a cross-disciplinary concept, with applications as far-reaching as psychology, security, socio-ecology, engineering and development.
Reghezza-Zitt, et al. (2012) argue that this co-existence of many possible meanings results in a ‘semantic blur’, or ambiguity in interpretation. I have certainly felt this way whenever the phrase has been used! Let’s discuss the implications of this for disaster management…
Resilience in Disaster Studies:
In disaster studies, resilience is ‘the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner’ (UNDRR, 2009, p.24).
Our understanding of resilience in disaster management has drawn mainly on models from the fields of engineering and socio-ecology.
In this model, the aim is for the system to return to its original state after a disturbance, or bounce back (Miller, et al., 2010).
The socio-ecological model focuses on the degree of disturbance that a system can withstand without affecting function (Miller, et al., 2010). The aim is not necessarily to return to the original state, so long as the system’s usual activities are not disrupted.
This interpretation of resilience encompasses the processes of adaptation, learning and reorganisation (World Resource Institute, 2008), which reduce future risk upon exposure to similar hazards. In simple terms, this model can be understood as bouncing back better.
Joseph (2013) highlights another way that the distinction between the two models can be understood. The engineering model strives for a return to stability, whereas the socio-ecological model embraces the instability of disaster, harnessing it as a force for restructuring and development.
The Ball and Cup Analogy: This analogy is often used to illustrate the difference between socioecological and engineering resilience (Scheffer, et al., 1993; Walker, et al., 2004). Please see the image below.
In this analogy, the ball represents the state of the system at any one time – by system, we mean the environment, the economy, and society. The cup essentially represents the potential variability within the system. Movement of the ball within this cup represents the disturbance to the system resulting from exposure to a hazard e.g. a virus, an earthquake, a flood.
In the engineering model, the original state of the system (or ball) is at the bottom of this cup. The system will attempt to return to this state after disturbance i.e. bounce back (Holling, 1996).
In the socio-ecological model, adaptation and learning is possible. Once a certain threshold of instability is reached, a new potential space for the system to exist in is entered (Holling, 1996) – i.e. the system can change to reduce future risks. Because of this benefit, there has been a shift in the disaster management community away from engineering resilience towards socio-ecological resilience (Holling, 1996), although government policy is lagging behind.
But what’s this all got to do with politics I hear you ask?
Resilience as a Political Tool:
So what has a word really got to do with the governance of COVID-19? Well, during times of disaster, you’ll notice how the notion of resilience is mobilised more often in political and media spaces?
There’s a reason for this. Resilience is political. It can be used as an instrument to shape governance strategies in the political sphere (Joseph, 2013).
The acceptable state of the system is politically defined (Reghezza-Zitt, et al., 2012). Resilience in the context of disaster requires a definition of normality or functioning that we are striving to achieve. We could bounce back to the politically constructed status quo, or bounce back better to a politically constructed ‘new normal’. Reghezza-Zitt, et al. (2012) criticise how political choices establish a type of ‘desirable absolute horizon’ (para. 60), which is often sufficiently vague to suppress real questioning on what this acceptable state actually is.
Resilience can be used to redistribute responsibility (Manyena, et al., 2011; Tanner, 2017). The use of resilience invokes a moral responsibility of everyone to participate in disaster recovery (Manyena, et al., 2011; Reghezza-Zitt, et al., 2012). A discourse of resilience emphasises individual autonomy (Joseph, 2013), encourages self-reliance over dependence (Manyena, et al., 2011), and highlights the power of participatory approaches. However, with this decentralisation of authority comes a dilution of governmental accountability (Reghezza-Zitt, et al., 2012; Salt, 2020). Redistributing responsibility onto the individual also assumes that everyone has equal financial resources, social status and physical ability to enact this imposed resilience (Manyena, et al., 2011).
A legitimiser of political decisions (Reghezza-Zitt, et al., 2012). Klein (2007) describes how frantic states of emergency and so-called ‘extraordinary politics’ may have been used in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war for political and economic gains. She draws fascinating parallels between the political exploitation of public disorientation post-disaster, and the shock therapy tactics used to extract information from prisoners of war. Although her analogy is highly controversial, her central argument is mirrored in the academic literature. In fragile post-disaster spaces, previously questionable political decisions can be legitimised as opportunities for improvement, all in the name of building resilience (Reghezza-Zitt, et al., 2012).
False reassurance? Some academics believe that resilience is merely a buzzword wheeled out by politicians to obscure our helplessness in the face of disaster. Salt (2020) discusses the use of resilience in politics during the recent Australian bush fires. He goes as far as calling resilience nothing more than ‘a strategy of obfuscation and displacement, the strategy you roll out when you don’t actually have a plan’ (para. 2). Indeed the concept of resilience possesses several qualities that make it suitable for this kind of strategy, one of them being the ‘semantic blur’ mentioned earlier. Another being how the continued ambiguity surrounding resilience makes it a very difficult thing to measure and hold to account (Miller, 2010; Salt, 2020).
So we’ve established that resilience is an inherently political concept. Now let’s discuss the politicisation of resilience in the context of COVID-19.
The Problem with Bouncing Back:
When enacted as part of disaster management strategy and in political discourse, there are significant criticisms surrounding bouncing back. The engineering model of resilience is built on the assumption that returning to previous standards is acceptable (Manyena, et al., 2011), despite how these conditions facilitated disaster in the first place. Hernandez (2009) highlights this key pitfall of engineering resilience in the context of Hurricane Katrina; she criticises how resilience can perpetuate harmful policies and conditions that didn’t work initially. Striving to return to our previous state could have damaging consequences.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government have adopted a perspective that is more in keeping with the engineering model of resilience. Boris Johnson’s language has been indicative of this approach, stating in a recent interview that ‘the faster we can get back to the status quo ante the better’ (Gye, 2020). The language underpinning government projects further exemplifies their bounce back agenda. A case in point being the government-run loan project for small to medium sized businesses, entitled ‘The Bounce Back Loan Scheme’ (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 2020).
In order to bounce back better, we must adopt socioecological strategies for resilience, an integral part of which is adaptation and learning. In 2016, the government conducted a pandemic simulation called Exercise Cygnus. Although some recommendations from the report have been implemented, this operation foresaw many of the challenges we continue to face with COVID-19. These include difficulties maintaining consistency in messages to the public, PPE acquisition, test and trace issues, and inadequate surge capacity within the public health and social care system (Public Health England, 2016). Failure to act on this report demonstrates poor engagement in the learning and adaptation processes required to bounce back better.
So What Now?
Resilience is not going to be the magic bullet for recovering from COVID-19. We need to distance ourselves from the ambiguous use of resilience in political strategy, and develop a critical eye for its use in the media.
COVID-19 should be an opportunity for adaptation and meaningful restructuring, actively rejecting a return to previous norms. We should be moving away from accepting previous stability and towards harnessing the instability of disaster as a force for change. We should not be bouncing back, but bouncing back better.
Thank you for making it to the end – I know this was a long one! As always, please let me know what you think 😊
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