WHD 2013

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Resilience in Simple Terms/ La Résilience en Termes Simples

What does resilience mean in the Sahel?

By David Gressly, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel

In nearly every meeting I attend on resilience, the first fifteen to thirty minutes are spent on coming up with a definition of resilience. It is then usually agreed that resilience means the ability of families, households or communities to absorb shocks. However for many who don´t attend such meetings, this still seems too conceptual and does not give a clear idea of what needs to change in practice. If we are to succeed in building the resilience of households and communities in the Sahel, those involved need to know what we are talking about.

I have found that describing what happens to vulnerable households in the face of drought or major increases in the cost of food clarifies the issue. While there are other problems such as floods and epidemics that can have an impact on households, access to food is the major threat households face. Access can be limited by either a local shortfall in food production or an increase in food prices that prevents vulnerable households from purchasing food.

So what do households do to survive a drought or high food prices? 

First, they may pull children out of school to save money. Then they cut back on the number of meals and quality of foods purchased. Then they may start to sell off livestock. The downward trend continues when the same households go into debt to survive and produce a crop for the coming year. Poor nutrition contributes to poor health and to health expenses that can no longer be afforded.

Decisions taken to survive compromise the long term prosperity of such households. By the time the drought passes, the means for making a living are eroded and burdened by debt. Children affected by malnutrition suffer physical and development problems that last for life. Children pulled out of school may not return. Therefore, both the ability to make a living and to offer their children a better life is lost.

When there a successive droughts as we have seen in the Sahel, recovery is even more difficult. More households will be caught in the trap of trading short term survival for long term development. And this is the dynamic: a resilience approach to humanitarian and development work can change. In general this will have to be done with existing resources as significant new funds are unlikely to come. Success will come primarily with better targeting of vulnerable households and better targeting of interventions that will make a difference for them.

In the United Nations we have adapted such an approach in our work on resilience as have many NGOs- Our objective is to have our country teams working to identify those households that are affected by the repeated food and nutrition crises in the Sahel and particularly those affected every year by chronic food and nutrition insecurity. This is one of the major contributions that humanitarian organizations can provide in support to building resilience.

For updates on the Sahel crisis response, follow @DavidGressly


  1. Great to have a clear explanation... And great to hear people from the UN speaking in simple terms!

  2. I think that "Resilience" is a way to build communities capacities to face chronic crisis!

  3. Building resilience might be key, but this involves many different aspects. See http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/entry/5782/seven-characteristics-of-resilience

  4. It is a great initiative! Thanks @David Gressly! Resilience is key. Don´t forget there are so many other critical issues in the Sahel we should be explaining in simple terms.

  5. Why not ask the people living in the Sahel what resilience means? This would be useful. The debate should also take place in the street.