Living Through Extremes: Building Livelihood Resilience Across Sectors and Countries | Wilson Center
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Living Through Extremes: Building Livelihood Resilience Across Sectors and Countries

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As climate change upends established patterns of life, resilience – the ability of social and ecological systems to mitigate, endure, and adapt to short-term shocks and long-term stressors – has become a buzzword in development and humanitarian circles.

But critics have voiced concern that rather than lay the foundation for flexible and dynamic communities, efforts to build resilience may unintentionally reinforce the systems that create inequity and make communities vulnerable to begin with.

Paying more attention to people’s livelihoods in the design and implementation of resilience-building activities could prevent such outcomes, said Roger-Mark De Souza, director of population, environmental security, and resilience at the Wilson Center.

De Souza was joined by five fellow members of the Global Resilience Academy, a five-year research project sponsored by the Munich Re FoundationInternational Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, and United Nations University, onDecember 4 to talk about their work exploring resilient livelihood systems in South Asia, Alaska, and small island states.

Building Back Better?

“Human rights and climate change are completely interlinked,” said Robin Bronen, a professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Those most affected have often contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions and are the least equipped to deal with their impacts.

The concept of resilience has “been transferred from ecological theory and thinking into social and political systems, which we fear has led to quite a weak engagement with the normative, the political, the social dimensions of climate change adaptation,” said David Lewis, professor of social policy and development at the London School of Economics.

For example, as a metaphor that implies a return to a condition that existed before, it can be a somewhat conservative idea, he said. “For people who are most vulnerable and the poorest, they don’t want to build back to that previous state; they want to build back better.”

Through meetings in Bangladesh and Germany, Resilience Academy members have been examining how to better incorporate the perspectives and interests of those most at-risk. In a co-authored paper in Nature Climate Change­, Lewis said he and other academy members argue “that if we bring a livelihoods perspective into resilience ideas and thinking, this will help to place a greater emphasis on human needs and their agency, on empowerment, and on human rights.”

Linking the Micro and the Macro

livelihood system encompasses all the tangible and non-tangible resources that shape the ability of individuals, households, and communities to support themselves and thrive, Lewis explained. It’s comprised not only of material factors like land, agricultural inputs, and technology, but also institutional and social components such as land rights, patron-client relationships, access to informal loans, education, health care, social mobility, and diaspora networks.

Access to family planning, for example, is an often underappreciated tool for development that can have a tremendous impact on the livelihoods of women and their families, said Clive Mutunga, a family planning and environment technical advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Women who are able to choose the number of children they have tend to be healthier, more empowered, and can provide better for their families; consequently, during times of crisis or disaster, they are more resilient.

By contextualizing the ability of households to adapt amidst wider institutional and power dynamics, a livelihoods approach may help address some of the criticism that has been leveled against resilience approaches, said Lewis:

It provides a way of linking the micro and the macro. It looks at both the small-scale aspects of how households work and how they go about trying to build and maintain and strengthen their livelihoods, but it also looks at the different forces which both act upon them at the institutional level, but also which they seek to engage with or to influence or to change.

Strengths as Well as Vulnerabilities

The Sundarbans, the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world, stretching across the border of Bangladesh and India, supports the livelihoods of 3.5 million people. Over the last three decades, it has lost 415 square kilometers of land to rising sea levels, said Ashiqur Rahman, a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona, and as a consequence gained significant attention from climate resilience programs. But such adaptation efforts will fall short if they don’t address corruption that prevents local people from making a living, he said.

Political elites in Bangladesh have mobilized an extensive network of criminals and forest officials – known as “mastaan” – to collect forest entrance and transportation fees, profiting at the expense of those most at risk, Rahman said. Often, individuals will pay more than half of their income to simply enter the forest to fish or collect timber, honey, and palm leaves.

Fueled by weak rule of law and corruption, this “mastaanocracy” is bolstered by the central government’s failure to provide universal education, Rahman said. Most forest users are illiterate, sometimes paying up to three times as much as mastaans are legally allowed to charge. Some also perceive climate impacts as natural, rather than anthropogenic, he said.

A livelihoods lens is critical to understanding how to build resilience in the Sundarbans, not only because it highlights the resources that at-risk groups can’t access, but also because it showcases what innovative things they are doing, said Lewis. For example, some communities have floating gardens, schools, and hospitals in boats powered by solar energy. “They do adapt,” said Rashman. “I call the people of Bangladesh, ‘climate warriors.’”

While framing particular groups or countries as “victims” may help rally concern around the severe climate impacts they face, it may also inadvertently strip those places and people of agency, said De Souza. Through a review of several case studies, De Souza and Resilience Academy colleagues highlighted examples of island communities – often portrayed as among the most vulnerable in the world – deploying traditional knowledge to strengthen their livelihoods before and after disasters.

In Fiji, said De Souza, islanders rely on a set of tested strategies, including relocating their houses further inland, harvesting crops before disasters, building sea walls and buffer vegetation, and planting rapidly maturing food crops following events. Similarly, migration, oven portrayed as a last resort measure, is in fact a well-established coping strategy used by Haitian families to maximize income.

“Island communities are not just vulnerable; they’re not just victims,” said De Souza. “There’s a lot of action that’s happening within these communities that the international community should be cognizant of and should recognize.”

A Robust Operating System

Grounding adaptation measures in an understanding of livelihood systems makes them not only more ethical, but more effective, said Bronen.

As the executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice, Bronen advocates for the relocation and migratory rights of indigenous Alaskan communities. Through her work, she’s seen “people who are being affected now by climate change, and with very limited resources, taking extraordinary steps to adapt and protect their livelihoods.” But federal programs have done more to hamper than help these communities, she said.

Even as the number of Alaskans considering relocation has quadrupled in recent years in the face of accelerated erosion, thawing permafrost, and more frequent storms, no federal agency has been given a mandate – or funding – to relocate communities after disasters. In fact, the Stafford Act, which governs most federal disaster response activities, requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild communities in or near the original disaster zone.

Those who do attempt to move anyway can face other legal hurdles, Bronen said. The community of Newtok, for example, managed to receive federal approval to relocate to an unoccupied site, but faced a legal catch-22: to build a school, a community needs to have at least 10 students ready and able to attend, but families were unwilling to relocate without a school already in place.

Instead of falling into a “top-down trap,” governments and NGOs should build on the agency and abilities of people on the ground to create environments that nurture community-led resilience measures, said Lewis.

These dynamic systems can be thought of like a computer, said Vivek Prasad, an environmental science and policy professor at George Mason University. “Once your operating system is robust, strong, and functioning, you can add whatever software you want… It changes according to the need and according to the situation.”

Prasad has conducted fieldwork examining several community-managed sustainable agriculture projects in India’s Andhra Pradesh. Two decades ago, lack of credit, poor market access, and high fertilizer costs were forcing some small farmers out of business. With microfinance and other support systems from federal agencies and NGOs, those farmers decided to organize into collectives, applying for carbon credits to increase incomes and sharing best practices through videos of local “heroes” explaining successful techniques. Through the community-led initiative, farmers have been able to expand not only their incomes but their knowledge base and are now better poised to deal with a broader range of economic and environmental stressors, said Prasad.

“Farmers can do experimentation, and they can do a very good job,” Prasad said, “but they need overarching support.”

Collective Rights

There is evidence that the notion of resilient livelihoods is gaining traction in adaptation and development policy circles, said the panelists. Bronen pointed to the U.S. government’s newly created State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force On Climate Preparedness and Resilience; De Souza referenced growing global momentum toward recognizing the contributions of local and traditional knowledge to resilience; and Mutunga highlighted the increasing willingness of leaders to draw links between population, family planning, and climate change in in high-level development policies and UN climate negotiations.

This systems approach could not only be helpful in bringing human rights to the fore of adaptation programming, but also in expanding common perceptions of human rights, said Bronen.

“We normally think of human rights as being individually based,” she said. “We don’t normally think of collective human rights, and the collective rights of communities to be together… That’s one of the pieces that really needs to be further worked out and articulated because…people want to stay together, with their family and social networks.”

Event Resources:

Drafted by Sarah Meyerhoff, edited by Schuyler Null

Speakers

  • Roger-Mark De Souza

    Global Fellow and Advisor
    Former Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience
  • Robin Bronen

    Senior Research Scientist, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks; Executive Director, Alaska Institute for Justice
  • David Lewis

    Professor, London School of Economics
  • Clive Mutunga

    Population, Environment and Development Technical Advisor, USAID
  • Vivek Prasad

    Department of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University, George Mason University
  • Ashiqur Rahman

    School of Anthropology, The University of Arizona