, Volume 51, Issue 3, pp 390–396 | Cite as

Resilience and ‘Climatizing’ Development: Examples and policy implications

  • Emily Boyd
  • Henny Osbahr
  • Polly J Ericksen
  • Emma L Tompkins
  • Maria Carmen Lemos
  • Fiona Miller


There is a growing scientific consensus on climate change and the need for adaptation, yet an impasse on realizing development for the rural and urban poor. Emily Boyd et al. suggest that a resilience lens may assist development policy to consider pathways towards more successful livelihood transformations in the face of climate change. We recognize that there are also limitations to this approach.


climate change adaptation development poverty transformations 


The growing scientific consensus that the climate is changing (IPCC, 2007) reinforces the importance of timely action to both mitigate its causes and adapt to its unavoidable effects. However, worldwide action on climate change remains sluggish. In less developed countries, action has been constrained by multiple competing challenges including uneven economic growth, rapid urbanization, debt, entrenched poverty and threats to food security. In developed countries, entrenched vested interests, negotiation of cost distribution, political debate and economic incentives limit action. Climate change adds to the economic development and environmental governance dilemmas that all countries face. In what ways, we ask, are societies really prepared to cope with the unprecedented challenges that lie ahead? Although a rich body of literature examines many of the relevant issues pertaining to the ‘environment-development’ challenge, we propose that a more significant paradigm shift is necessary.

Some suggest that there is nothing new about climate change or the way that people and societies adapt to change over time. However, climate change coupled with increasing scarcity of essential ecological resources, and increasing disparities between rich and poor in some regions of the world are unprecedented, with far reaching consequences for the world's most vulnerable societies. Furthermore, scientists are concerned with the gamut of climate changes, including the threats from rapid or abrupt change and the increasing intensity of frequent extreme events such as tropical cyclones and slow onset changes such as sea level rise, which is likely to impact low lying islands and coastal regions. Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to experience the impacts of multiple stressors such as simultaneous droughts and floods, with serious consequences for food security.

Despite some promising policy directions, including the World Bank's Poverty Reduction Strategy Programmes and the UN Millennium Development Goals, which aim to focus on delivering sustainable development to the most vulnerable (World Bank, 2000; UN, 2005), development still falls short of delivering in practice. Government and agencies still have some way to go in rigorously identifying the most vulnerable people in society and implementing the most appropriate strategies to reduce their vulnerability (Miller et al., 2008). Despite the shift from macro development interventions alone to a twin focus in development policy on addressing micro-level vulnerabilities and livelihood dependency, development practice has so far predominantly delivered palliative care. This might be due to the underlying assumption that poverty is a condition that can be ‘fixed’. The result is ‘locked-in’ development pathways that do not facilitate institutional learning, or targeted initiatives that tackle the complexities of vulnerability across different scales and timeframes. We argue that in ‘climatizing’ development there is a serious risk that not much will be achieved, precisely because adaptation and mitigation policies are building on a set of flawed development assumptions. There is often little attention given by development policy to the enabling environment or consideration of the ‘ecological politics of development’ (Harcourt, 2008), and the development model is a static and fairly standardized rather than dynamic and context sensitive framework. Poverty is complex; it is about the deprivation of basic capabilities and is characterized by social exclusion (Sen, 1999). Poverty is also about prejudice, power and politics.

In particular, predetermined development pathways have been endorsed without adequate understanding of the changing climate. These pathways have been enabled by a range of factors, including weak governance structures and lack of civil society participation (Harcourt, 2008). This has resulted in (a) continuation of particular development pathways without forethought about the sustainability of a fossil-fuel driven market economy in a world governed by greenhouse gas emissions limits, carbon trading and climate impacts and (b) the limited creation of adaptive capacity in response to change (i.e. capacity to learn, buffer and self-organize by means of access to capital and resources, participation in networks and investments in skills and education). In the case of rapidly urbanizing cities throughout the developing world, inequitable access to water is a threat to people's ability to cope with current everyday challenges and future climate change. Yet, investment in basic services for urban dwellers continues to be neglected and/or is unable to keep pace with urban growth, and without guaranteed water access for all, society's resilience cannot be attained. This is but one of many examples of the development challenges posed by climate change (United Nations, 2007). Without sufficient resources or voice, poor communities have little capacity and are extremely unlikely to be able to cope and adapt to climate impacts or to harness climate solutions (Lemos et al., 2007,, accessed 19 June 2008). Thus, in order to enable people's capacity to engage in social opportunities, development will have to be innovative and will have to prioritize the reduction of disparities in wealth and factor in new strategies for living with climate change.

What resilience means for ‘climatizing’ development

In the effort to grapple with the challenge of global climate change, policymakers, social scientists and development practitioners are increasingly discussing the concept of resilience (for example, in February 2008 a scoping workshop was hosted by the Austrian Ministry for European and International Affairs specifically on ‘Resilience – A concept of Socio-Economic Crisis Prevention’). In general, resilience refers to a system's capacity to deal with change and to continue to develop ( Resilience is used as a concept in many disciplines, including ecology (Holling, 1973), healthcare (Carthey et al., 2001), disaster management (Pelling, 2003; Paton and Johnston, 2006) and so on. To better reflect the interdependence of human and environmental well-being, the notion of resilience is increasingly examined in the broader context of politics and social change (Berkes et al., 2003; Folke et al., 2005). In the context of climate change, a resilience approach is one that allows undesirable socioeconomic states (for example a system characterized by deep deficits in income, power, education and social capital) to be transformed into more desirable ones without threatening the integrity of the atmosphere or the ecological systems on which humans depend.

We propose that resilience is a useful lens through which to think about the notion of ‘climate friendly’ development, which is inherently complex and interlinked to both multi-scale ecological and social contexts and efforts to tackle the global aspects of the climate change problem. Resilience helps us to rethink the process of development as adaptive and dynamic, featuring interactions between people and their environments at many political levels. This ‘coupling’ of the social with local ecological and global climate constraints requires a new consideration of inter-linkages and relations, and of how societies (as well as ecosystems) organize themselves, learn and innovate under the pressure of multiple stressors such as droughts and floods occurring with greater intensity in the same location, when people are already managing stresses such as chronic poverty, HIV/AIDS, limited market access, food insecurities and so on. This raises questions about the social sources of resilience that help a system reorient, recover and/or improve after change. Such social sources of resilience include knowledge systems, memory, organizational capacity, trust and so on.

Resilience ideas overlap with the ultimate goals of development and adaptation to climate change, in that resilience focuses on how the social and the ecological systems together buffer disturbance, organize to form functioning and effective supporting institutions, and generate adaptive capacity. Managing for resilience (Gunderson and Holling, 2002; Lebel et al., 2006,, accessed 26 September 2006) requires identifying and negotiating development paths, which maintain options for social and economic change while also safeguarding ecological systems. This emphasis on negotiation raises issues of diverse power and values. In many contexts, especially in less developed countries, resilience may require improving or transforming rather than maintaining the features and functions of existing social institutions and ecological habitats, and hence enhancing latent capacity (i.e. potential capacity to respond in the future). Thus continuously monitoring feedbacks and building adaptive capacity of the social systems is vital, particularly in situations of poverty and inequality, environmental degradation, rapid change and uncertain futures.

To enable adaptive capacity to be developed, resilient institutional systems rely upon flexibility, redundancy, diversity and adaptability. An illustrative point is Burma, where in May 2008, devastating cyclone Nargis killed an estimated 100,000 people and displaced 1.5 million people across the country. Early reporting points to the failures in national government institutions to adequately warn and prepare the population about the approaching storm. The degradation of mangrove forests along Burma's coastline also left the region exposed to storm surges. Moreover, the regime was unwilling to respond to the crisis with sufficient haste or external support (The Guardian, 2008). The population was already quite vulnerable prior to the cyclone, with Burma recognized as one of the poorest countries in the region. It will be essential for Burma and the international community to learn from this experience and enhance institutional capacity for vulnerability reduction for future shocks. It is difficult to see how this can occur, however, without a transformation of current economic and political systems.

Resilience and development in practice

By introducing a focus on resilience, ‘short-termism’ and dead end policy and praxis that lead to the palliative care that perpetuates undesirable outcomes could be avoided. One advantage of resilience is that its positive emphasis appeals to a wide audience, in particular to private sector actors who are increasingly looking to ‘get involved’ in poverty or climate change solutions. If resilience is used to consider ways in which societies respond to multiple stressors, buffer shocks, learn and reorient following crisis, this might lead to some creative and insightful contributions. Moreover, it can perhaps yield ways to convince development institutions to engage with climate change and other major development challenges.

A growing number of examples exist that show the dangers of pursuing policies that ignore the complexity of livelihood strategies and the multiple dimensions of poverty, for example, carbon sequestration projects in poor areas that despite good intentions reinforce existing power inequalities (Boyd et al., 2007), and government extension in rural agriculture that leads to planting of unsuitable new crop varieties (Thomas et al., 2007). Instead, by focusing on policy and praxis that maximize ‘adaptive capacity’ and enable negotiated transformations resilience thinking can shift development perspectives, for example to permit new ways of looking at food systems in developing countries (Ericksen, 2008). Three examples are examined, where we argue that elements of resilience can help to facilitate the way in which climate-friendly development can be pursued. These include (i) food security, (ii) disaster risk reduction (DRR) and (iii) carbon markets for development. These are examples that all interface, to some degree, with both development and climate change agendas.

Food security

In the case of food security, resilience thinking forces us to examine how well coupled food systems are performing their key functions of contributing to food security, social welfare and ecosystem security, and may help us to limit the tradeoffs among these objectives. A resilience approach demonstrates that we can only maintain ecosystem services such as food provisioning through fostering social institutions that monitor feedbacks from food production activities to other ecosystem services and negotiate among the objectives of different food system actors. With respect to climate change, monitoring these feedbacks is important as food systems are themselves emitters of greenhouse gases. While some food producing areas will benefit from elevated temperatures and CO2 concentrations, it is a terrible irony that climate change impacts are expected to be most damaging for food security in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Using a resilience approach, we understand that responses to adapt food systems to climate change must consider the connectivity of local, national and regional food systems over time, to avoid situations such as the current price crisis where US and European investment in biofuels is contributing to food insecurity in Asia and Latin America (World Bank, 2008,, accessed 15 May 2008). Food systems are complex and highly globalized, and thus food security at one location or for one social group may either subsidize or be at the expense of food security elsewhere or for others. So decisions by Europeans to minimize their greenhouse gas emissions (or ‘food miles’) by limiting food imports penalizes the livelihoods choices of African farmers who rely on horticultural exports to earn cash income. Conversely, greater investment in market infrastructure, local food governance and sustainable agriculture within Africa, combined with global trade reform, could ensure food security for many communities. However, adaptive management of food systems, to both accommodate the impacts of climate change and adapt to these in an equitable way, will require transformation rather than maintenance of current structures and governance mechanisms. By stressing the social functions of food systems and the need for equity, addressing this development challenge can strengthen resilience approaches.

Disaster risk reduction

In the case of DRR, resilience provides important insights. Not only does resilience consider adaptive capacity, but also the role and quality of actors and institutions. Pursuing a resilience approach involves pinpointing who the important agents are, what they know about ecological systems and the nature and structural relation of their linkages to other agents (Olsson et al., 2007,,accessed 19 June 2008). In Mozambique there are limitations to relying on informal social networks to cope with livelihood disturbance from drought or flooding for the rural poor (Osbahr et al., 2008). While buffering shocks is critical, resilience also requires disaster planning to consider how to support local actors and those at other levels to self-organize, learn and increase adaptive capacity. The government and international NGOs working in Mozambique have explored DRR plans that build resilient livelihoods to drought, food insecurity and poverty; wide cross-scale institutional networks, better communication and the capture of ‘innovators’ in agricultural initiatives are some of the characteristics of effective applications identified in southern Africa (Osbahr et al., 2008). NGOs hold an important place in the development community as catalysts or enablers of local transformation (Bebbington et al., 2008; Osbahr et al., 2008). In the context of climate change, integrated DRR appears to contribute to more adaptive and flexible systems, by providing critical institutional innovation where resources are scarce. To illustrate this point, the 2005 drought in Amazonia provides interesting insights. The 2005 crisis culminated in extensive forest fires, which impacted the health of more than 400,000 people and damaged more than 300,000 ha of rainforest, amounting to an estimated cost of US$50 million (Brown et al., 2006). The scale of the unfolding crisis was unprecedented, and instigated a novel response in the context of Amazonian governance. Arguable, latent adaptive capacity was revealed in the speed of the response, multiple collaborating networks, the establishment of a permanent ‘situation room’ and the use of modern technology such as the Internet (Boyd, 2008).

Carbon markets for development

Tackling development and poverty alongside climate change requires large-scale change to governance structures and to the culture of participation (Harcourt, 2008). The resilience lens can perhaps ‘lend a hand’ in better understanding the extent to which tackling poverty under climate change can be achieved by global carbon markets. The concept of resilience resonates with the market aspects of carbon finance. In other words, it is obvious that designers of carbon markets think about minimizing risks to shareholders while maximizing carbon emission reductions. It is perhaps less evident in what ways resilience can guide delivery of development and poverty alleviation by carbon markets. For instance, the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism has largely struggled to deliver development to poor people (Bozmoski et al., 2008). In the case of the voluntary carbon market, projects are more often implemented in rural communities and include tree planting, wind energy and transfer of low carbon technologies in exchange for voluntary emissions reductions. However, standards are scant and projects tend to be implemented by ‘carbon cowboys’ who are unfamiliar with the accumulated experience of development practice. The resilience concept can inform thinking about how to shift away from a narrow emissions focus, to a broader framework that could help to strengthen resilience of communities and avoid vulnerability. Ways to do this include engaging communities in projects and processes of negotiation that include social protection measures to buffer shocks, and which enhance livelihood diversity, rather than locking communities into monocultures, elite capture of benefits (Platteau, 2004; Fritzer, 2007) or inappropriate technology transfer, leading to potential poverty traps. Further empirical research is required to examine these important aspects of designing carbon markets as climate-friendly development opportunities. Also required is a better conceptual understanding of the complexity of development and poverty in the context of emerging markets.

Limits to resilience: policy consequences

The downside of resilience is that it is nearly impossible to measure or evaluate, and there are few examples of resilient managed systems in developing/poor countries. It is useful as a conceptual lens, but the practice of resilience is less well examined. Above all, a resilience lens is not a panacea Social-ecological systems resilience theory, in particular, also has had a tendency to alienate those who believe it is important to incorporate normative aspects of power and inequality into any climate-friendly development policy. While there is now an acknowledgement that certain states are too resilient and require transformation, the discussion of transformation to more desirable ecological and social states is inherently value laden. Vulnerability research, in contrast, places issues of marginality and inequality at the centre of its analysis and has had more experience operationalizing key concepts through vulnerability assessments in contexts of climate change, disasters and food insecurity. A resilience lens, moreover, lends itself to criticism of being descriptive and unsatisfactory to those who want quick and measurable solutions to the various problems discussed in the preceding section. Resilience on its own is not ‘the solution’ to better understanding how societies should adapt to or mitigate climate change, but rather should be considered a complementary approach to other ones such as vulnerability and complex thinking for development.


There are a number of resilience-development related questions that require further understanding of the linkages between poverty and resilience:
  • What new insights can resilience provide about how to eradicate poverty and to facilitate this aim through the development process?

  • What are the implications of adopting a resilience approach for existing political structures, power relations and the role of the State?

  • What are the tradeoffs between development priorities and social and ecological resilience for long-term sustainable futures, and how do these play out across multiple scales?

  • What might precipitate critical transitions or regime shifts and how can these be managed to ensure that they create more desirable states for concerned stakeholders?

Resilience thinking could generate new insight on how societies that are transforming under climate change best manage change. We call for serious and timely consideration of the relationship between resilience and development among the development and the resilience community, ecological and climate researchers, policy agents and private actors. Resilience thinking raises an array of issues that need addressing, such as how resilience deals with assumptions about growth and de-growth in capitalist systems, and scaling up of practical examples of resilience from the local to the global. The first step is to understand that the concept of resilience is not about buffering and persistence, but is about focusing on the meaning of social change, its relationship to climate change and how societies can continue to develop under situations of abrupt change.


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Copyright information

© Society for International Development 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Emily Boyd
  • Henny Osbahr
  • Polly J Ericksen
  • Emma L Tompkins
  • Maria Carmen Lemos
  • Fiona Miller

There are no affiliations available

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