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Guest op-ed: Stop talking about ‘resilience’ in disasters

 A guest post by Joy Portella, president of the communication consultancy Minerva Strategies and former director of communications at Mercy Corps.

Philippines Scavenging
Flickr, roger_alcantara

During last weekend’s announcement of assistance to typhoon-devastated areas, President Obama praised the “incredible resiliency” of the Philippines.

“Resilience” has become part of the lexicon of disasters. The term has been used to describe Bostonians in the wake of the marathon bombings, Haitians after the 2010 earthquake, and Japanese rebuilding post-tsunami. Each time the term is trotted out to describe people who are deemed special in their ability to cope with disasters, unique in their heartiness.

Earnest politicians use the resilience label to invoke inspiration and empathy. NGOs often employ it as part of fundraising efforts, depicting disaster survivors as determined and sometimes heroic. Even locals use the term to describe themselves as a point of pride, with variants like “Jersey Strong” after Hurricane Sandy.

I believe that there is a very real danger in the way we use –and misuse – the label of resiliency.

First, the idea that some people are more resilient in the face of disasters is absurd.

Certain people live in areas that are more prone to disasters, whether natural or manmade, and may be more practiced at dealing with them, or perhaps just more resigned. But the idea that there’s a “resilience gene” has no scientific backing. This is underscored by the fact that the resilience label arbitrarily surfaces wherever something happens to go terribly wrong.

The truth is that people everywhere are resilient because, simply, they want to survive. After disasters, people take what they have left and march forward, often carrying the scars with them.

How much they have left depends on where they are lucky – or unlucky – enough to live, and how traumatic of an event they’ve just survived.  Regardless, that instinct to survive and persevere is common to people the world over.

Calling someone resilient does little more than make us feel better – because tragedy isn’t befalling us, because we want to believe that survivors will rebuild regardless of their circumstances, because we truly cannot comprehend how people can bounce back from incredible loss.

So if it’s just an issue of semantics that make us feel better, what’s the harm?  The dangerous part of the resilience label is that it lets us off the hook. True resilience is not an inherited trait; it is nurtured, tested, and built. It requires investment of time and resources. If we simply announce that people in some corner of the world are “resilient,” there’s no need to help them undertake the difficult slog that is long-term rebuilding or prepare for the next disaster.

Here’s what true resilience looks like: In the summer of 2011, when I was working with the global humanitarian agency Mercy Corps, I traveled to the Horn of Africa, which was being ravaged by a drought and famine. People and animals were desperate, and Mercy Corps worked to provide immediate relief in the form of clean water, cash infusions – a tactic that’s getting a lot of attention these days – and mobile medical units.

It’s more than two years later, and Mercy Corps has long stopped trucking water and other emergency resources. Instead, they are working with pastoralists to provide access to better veterinary services so that animals – the lifeline for many people in the region – can stay healthy. They’re training people on better water management techniques, and helping them start small business that are not as vulnerable to weather-related shocks.

This is the difficult, long-term work that makes people more resilient, but it is often less appealing to emergency-craving donors. These efforts make relief and recovery efforts significantly less traumatic and expensive when disaster does strike. The director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at USAID recently wrote a great piece on how disaster risk reduction efforts undertaken in eastern India over the course of the past decade were the difference between life and death when Cyclone Phailin struck last month. Investments in resilience pay off.

As the world faces another major disaster relief and recovery operation, this time in the Philippines, we should be wrestling with the hard issues beyond relief: Can alert systems be improved to help communities evacuate more speedily? Can infrastructure be built to withstand battering weather? What role does climate change play in strengthening already powerful storms?

In short, we should be thinking less about the inspirational rhetoric of resilience, and more about how to make it real.


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