Resilience in action on the drylands of Turkana

Source: Greta Semplici

Written by Greta Semplici

‘Stop asking direct questions about the meaning and definition of resilience’ I thought to myself one night towards the end of my second field visit to Kambi Lore in Turkana Central. Those questions were not giving me innovative answers. To understand resilience, I realised I should instead start living, working, resting, playing, and hearing stories as much as my untrained body would allow—there where shade is only found in the shadows of clouds. I needed to experience and observe the everyday form of resilience which I felt was lacking in development and humanitarian programming; seeking the missing piece for the foundations of a bridge between local experiences and outsiders interventions.

That night, Enyes, one of my research assistants, was telling me a story from his childhood. He comes from Turkana West, where the plains meet the mountains. He remembered playing with his friends, running and following shadows of clouds. Those who managed to stay in the shade of the clouds, protected from the sun’s rays the longest, were the winners of the game. A game for kids. A game for kids played at times when trees did not have a crown. A game for kids, when there were no bird traps to set. When there was no water to waste. No other games to play but running away from the sun. It must have been a time of drought.

Enyes was speaking of resilience. He was telling me  a story of movement, running bodies, and drifting clouds. It was a story of transformation of the harsh reality of a drought into a game. It was a story of attention to nature and environment. It was a story of a group of friends supporting each other. And it was a story of games and laughter. This is the everyday form of resilience, the local experience, which development and humanitarian programming often fails to understand.

Resilience is pervasive in policy and scholarly circles. Within development programmes resilience often operates as a risk management exercise in the field of disaster planning, referring to the “crisis” (shock, disaster, stressor) as the main conceptual framework to explain people’s behaviour. The danger of this approach is to bypass the ordinary, the relationships and the practices forged in the everyday—which tell about peoples’ history of resistance, adaptation, and transformation, often framed by development actors as key dimensions for resilience making.

Source: Greta Semplici

The centrality of shocks reduces resilience to a “discourse of survival“, yet under a self-reliance agenda. A review of some of the main resilience programmes in the Horn of Africa shows how the centrality of the “crisis” reflects equilibrium thinking, rooted in engineering and classical ecology theory, from which “bouncing” (back or forth in response to a shock) is framed as ideal. Programmatically this view gives prominence to information, monitoring, and insurance systems as forms of resilience action promoted by development actors in order to prepare for the next crisis. In addition, much of resilience programming concentrates around three main operational focus areas, namely the environment, livelihoods, and societal safety (social protection and safety nets).

By looking at how these programmes are designed, implemented, and evaluated there emerges a strong duality between outsider’s interventions and local experiences. Local insights on the definitions of development objectives, processes (implementation and distribution), and evaluations of programmes’ achievements are hardly incorporated, while there is a general preference for single, simplified and technological knowledge and for the measurability of interventions.

Life in the drylands of Turkana (and perhaps everywhere!) cannot be captured only with simple indicators. Understanding resilience requires proximity, changing vantage point to incorporate local insights, and taking a “view of the world from within”. Understanding resilience requires breaking the still dominant image of progress as linear path, to instead allow the messiness of everyday life into the design of development interventions which therefore would becoming more flexible, systemic, and grounded. Understanding resilience means “rethinking expertise”, making the locals the new experts, opening to diverse and situated knowledge, and working within—outside safe hotel rooms and conference halls.

Source: Greta Semplici

“Building resilience” should in this way turn to be a ‘quest for insight’, dignity, and self-existence; not in a subtractive way in correspondence of what is perceived, by outsiders, as lacking (food, infrastructure, services), but in direct dialogue with local communities in order to better respond to their needs and interests. An empirical understanding of what resilience means in practice is largely missing while conceptual and theoretical framings pile up. In other words, there lacks a bridge between local practices, as these have developed through time to negotiate everyday life, and external policies designed to support local needs and improve living standards.

This rapid review is a step towards the construction of such a bridge. It does not answer to the question “what does resilience mean” nor does it try to assess development programmes aimed at “building resilience”. Rather, it recognises the contextuality of these questions, while assessing whether something is perhaps lost in translation between local lives and outsiders’ policies. In the development and humanitarian sector, resilience has reshaped the goals and objectives of interventions, contributed to the emergence of a more holistic vision, mission, and composite principles, and led to adjustments of organisational structures, through the creation of departments, specialised teams, and new mechanisms of fund mobilisations. Yet, there remains potential for a thorough scrutiny of actual interventions and resilience actions for a real change of development practices.

Access the report ‘Resilience in Action: Local Practices and Development/Humanitarian Practices’ by Greta Semplici here.

This blog was originally published on the Research and Evidence Facility (REF) on migration in the Horn Of Africa website here. Many thanks to SOAS and the other partners for granting their permission for it to be republished here.

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