Foreign Policy Blogs

Sustainability vs. Resilience

“Resilience” has become something of a buzzword in development policy circles lately. U.N. agencies are holding consultations, white papers are being written and policies are being drafted. Resilience has taken on special importance as it relates to two recent food crises in Africa,  one in the Horn and one in the Sahel.

So, what is resilience? Like so many hot topics in policy circles, it often depends on whom you ask. At a basic level, resilience in development embodies the concept of helping people increase their ability to respond to and withstand future shocks (often while responding to an ongoing crisis). So, for people weathering the food emergency in the Sahel, it means coping with the present crisis in ways that build capacity for dealing with the next one.

This concept of resilience has become a major emphasis for both governments and private donors working in the relief and development fields. But for proponents of sustainable development, resilience can sometimes present a bit of a catch-22.

If sustainability is about returning a sense of balance to our world so that future generations can meet future needs, resilience is about helping future generations manage in what is assumed will become an increasingly imbalanced world.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by Andrew Zolli entitled “Learning to Bounce Back” captures the inherent tension between these two concepts well by looking at some recent disasters that have affected the United States and how governments and planners are responding.

According to Zolli, resilience leaves many old-school environmentalists and social activists feeling uneasy. “If we adapt to unwanted change” he hears them argue, “we give a pass to those responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place, and we lose the moral authority to pressure them to stop. Better, they argue, to mitigate the risk at the source.”

Zolli goes on to explain his response. “In a perfect world, that’s surely true,” he says, “just as it’s also true that the cheapest response to a catastrophe is to prevent it in the first place. But in this world, vulnerable people are already being affected by disruption. They need practical, if imperfect, adaptations now, if they are ever to get the just and moral future they deserve tomorrow.”

Zolli’s op-ed is a reasoned and articulate plea for more focus on resilience or, as he so succinctly describes it, “rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop the ocean.”  But I sincerely hope this discussion need not be a zero sum game. Surely we can learn to roll with the waves while simultaneously working to turn back the tide.




Krista Zimmerman
Krista Zimmerman

Krista Zimmerman works for a non-governmental organization as its senior advisor on international development assistance and food security policy. She has worked as the deputy director for a rule of law advocacy project in Karnataka, India and as a business services attorney for a leading multinational law firm. Krista grew up in the Philippines and has traveled extensively throughout Asia and Africa. In her free time, she enjoys experimental cooking, canning and blogging. She has a BA in History from Goshen College and a Juris Doctor from the University of Notre Dame Law School.