September Special

Achieving Resilience

The term ‘resilience’ has crept into common usage in the last decade or two. We hear it used in so many contexts these days. But what does it actually mean or is it just a jargon? There are numerous definitions of the concept of resilience covering a diversity of applications – disasters, conflict, pandemics, climate change, environment, economic, psychological, business and science, and national security.  Trying to find a single definitive description of resilience is not easy. 


Despite the enormity of the challenges thrown in its path since it came into being in 1947, Pakistan has proven itself to be the epitome of a resilient nation. In its short life, the country and its people have struggled through many crises. The country remains one of the most disaster-prone countries – there are constant threats from earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones, snowstorms, glacial lake outburst floods, and locust plagues. It is also in the top eight countries most affected by climate change. Each event puts enormous pressure on the economy and the wellbeing of the people, many of whom are pushed further into poverty and hunger when crises strike.



Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent across the world on studies by governments, universities, humanitarian and development organisations, bilateral and multilateral donors, and defence organisations to define resilience in their particular context, how to plan for, and to achieve it. And still, there does not appear to be clarity. It is certainly true that attendance at any conference on resilience will soon show that a common understanding is hard to identify. However, generally, all definitions seem to come down to a version of this same theme regardless of the context. 
“Resilience – to reduce the likelihood of a state, community or individual of being impacted by a crisis and, if affected, reducing the consequences of that impact. It means building capabilities to resist, respond to and bounce back from any crisis whether natural or man-made.”
Resilience is also synonymous with the endurance of the human spirit and the ability to withstand and recover from difficult, often horrific personal circumstances. Some humans will always be more able than others to cope with life’s challenges. Overall, human beings are capable of displaying extraordinary levels of endurance in the worst of circumstances. Faith certainly plays a role as does hope. If we consider our own lives, and how we found the strength to keep going when faced with tragedy, traumas, serious health issues, loss of loved ones and other dark times, we realise that we have somehow found an inner strength we may have been unaware of previously.
Is Resilience Just a Jargon?
The question many ask is it just a fashionable ‘buzzword’, part of a dictionary of jargon used extensively by development agencies, governments, policymakers, donors, academia, and humanitarian organisations to gloss over possible unsolvable problems. Which begs the question, if you don’t have a clear definition of what it really means, how can it be measured for results? Almost all bilateral and multilateral donor funding requires a component of ‘resilience building’ in some form but mostly, without a precise definition of their specific expectations. The reporting on such activities can gloss over the reality of how little was actually achieved and whether results would be sustainable – another word which fits into the jargon dictionary. 
Interestingly, individuals are less likely to think of themselves as resilient, and, in fact, many find the term to be patronizing. And they are often right, it is too easily used as a careless comment to absolve others from doing anything to reduce their suffering. 
Regardless of whether it is jargon or a buzzword, resilience has achieved a level of acceptability which at least helps us visualize human endurance, and also the need for states to focus on building strong systems that can reduce the impact of shocks on its economy and citizens.
Testing Resilience
2020 has tested the resilience not only of Pakistan but of the global community. COVID-19 continues to create chaos and economic hardship for billions of people. And there is no end in sight. It keeps reappearing in countries that have believed that it had been defeated within their borders. Economies of even the most prosperous countries have been hard hit by the costly impact on their health systems, businesses, jobs, education, travel and tourism industries. In Pakistan COVID-19 also proved to be a destructive force but the country has managed to keep it better under control than most countries despite a population of 220 million people. A focused approach bringing together government, military, donors and aid organisations, managed to keep it from becoming an even greater threat to the nation, at least for now.
Natural disasters have struck a number of countries in 2020 including devastating bushfires in Australia, floods in China and several countries in South Asia, ongoing droughts, unusually heavy snowfalls, avalanches, and locust plagues in Pakistan, and cyclones in the South Pacific. Conflict continues to affect millions of people. A devastating blast in the port in Beirut caused massive devastation causing significant casualties and leaving 300,000 people homeless. Every extreme event creates an economic shock to the affected country, and loss and misery to the affected families and individuals. And every major event creates a situation where the national security of a country must be considered. Natural disasters, pandemics, and man-made disasters can destabilise populations if not managed well and open up avenues for unfriendly countries to test for weaknesses.
Despite the enormity of the challenges thrown in its path since it came into being in 1947, Pakistan has proven itself to be the epitome of a resilient nation. In its short life, the country and its people have struggled through many crises. The country remains one of the most disaster-prone countries – there are constant threats from earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones, snowstorms, glacial lake outburst floods, and locust plagues. It is also in the top eight countries most affected by climate change. Each event puts enormous pressure on the economy and the wellbeing of the people, many of whom are pushed further into poverty and hunger when crises strike.
Although COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenges for the world in 2020, it is not the worst crisis the world has faced in the past century. Catastrophic events in the 20th century tested the resilience of billions of people. World War I which raged for 4 years from 1914 left almost 22 million people dead and up to 23 million wounded. At the end of the war another global crisis was emerging – the Spanish Flu – a pandemic that would affect 500 million people and take another 50 million lives over two years swept the world. In 1939 World War II broke out in Europe and spread to Asia. By the time the war ended in 1945, an estimated 75 million people, about three percent of the world’s population, had perished. Many died not just from battle wounds, but from genocide, starvation and disease. 
It is hard to imagine how people found the will to survive the horror of the war and its aftermath. With massive destruction across Europe and parts of Asia, millions of traumatized people displaced and homeless and often having to forage for food, somehow, found the will to survive. Resilience was not a common concept then, just survival and survivors wondering how to move on in life. Then, as now, humans found within themselves the ability to survive terrible circumstances, to go on. It would be reasonable to classify their ability to survive and rebuild their lives as innate resilience.
The 21st century has been categorized by regional and civil wars, massive displacements with millions of people fleeing their homelands to seek refuge in other countries but ending up for years in soulless refugee camps. Combined with the long list of natural disasters the toll on human life has been devastating. The impact on economies of affected countries has caused hardship to many millions of people including those who were not directly affected. 
Pakistan has faced down many threats to its survival and prosperity since 1947. Amongst the most destructive and potentially destabilizing: Wars in 1948, 1965, 1971 against Indian aggression set the tone for what is today, still a fractious and frequently threatening relationship as indicated by the increasing aggression and ceasefire violations by India on the Line of Control.
The massive 7.6 magnitude earthquake which struck Pakistan on October 8, 2005 caused massive destruction across a 30,000 square kilometre mountainous region of what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Jammu & Kashmir. 73,000 people perished and at least 120,000 sustained critical injuries. 600,000 homes were destroyed. Three million people found themselves homeless with a harsh winter approaching. Some found shelter with host families, government facilities, and camps while they prepared to return to rebuild their homes and shattered lives.
In 2009 more than two million people had to flee their homes in Swat to seek safety elsewhere during military operations to drive Maulana Fazlullah’s Taliban from their peaceful region.  In a remarkable effort to care for the displaced families, the government, military, UN and civil society were able to care for them in displacement and return them to their homes in a little over three months.
No sooner had they returned and were settling down, another disaster struck their lives. The monsoon season of 2010 brought the worst floods in memory, sweeping down from the north flooding the Swat Valley and ultimately, across one-fifth of the country all the way to the Arabian Sea.  1,982 lives were lost, 20 million directly or indirectly affected and the destruction of infrastructure, homes, crops, livestock, education and health facilities was extensive.
Conflict also had a profound impact over many years. Military operations against the Taliban in the tribal areas since 2003 have ultimately brought a more peaceful environment but at a terrible cost with thousands of soldiers and personnel from other law enforcement agencies being martyred in the battles to make this country peaceful and safe from the spread of terrorism and attacks that wrought havoc in the cities of Pakistan killing thousands of civilians. The suffering of survivors and families of martyrs lasts a lifetime. The cost to the economy of the War on Terror at over USD 126 billion was several times greater than the combination of all natural disasters in the same period.  Despite such times, the country stayed its course to find peace and stability for a more prosperous future. 
On both sides of the Line of Control, people are living in perilous circumstances.  On the Pakistan side, in Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJ&K) many communities live under the threat of frequent ceasefire violations by India with Indian troops deliberately targeting their communities. While this defies international laws, the attacks on civilians persist. In Illegally Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir, the people have lived for decades under the dark shadow of the largest military occupying force in the world. Their ability to survive and resist in the most brutal oppression is a testament to true resilience. 


Pakistan has survived so many tough challenges when other countries have fallen into fragility and conflict, and ultimately, disintegration. Despite remarkably challenging odds the nation stands tall and proud and prepared to face whatever comes its way, with determination and courage.  But we cannot lose sight of the need to do more.


These may have been some of the biggest challenges which required both the state and the people to strive for resilience, and to bounce back, or at least attempt to, but they are not the only ones. Even small disasters and shocks create additional burdens on society.  It is always the poorest members of society who suffer the most. In times of crisis, the social inequalities are exacerbated. Disasters and conflict destroy their homes, crops and livestock, they lose their livelihoods and access to income. COVID-19 has again exposed this reality as countries locked down and, with businesses shut down and without the means to continue to employ people, millions of jobs have been lost. For day wage earners in Pakistan, the numbers most likely were around 25 million. Although the Government stepped in to support them by implementing a plan that certain key industries could continue to operate, the reality was that it could not save all jobs for these workers. 
Droughts continue to be a serious threat to large parts of the country, threatening the existence of communities and all that they have. Developing drought resistance crops and improving water management will do much to strengthen food security not only for the affected areas, but the nation as a whole; any threat to food security can have catastrophic impacts. With a plague of locusts devouring its way around the region, plus other weather-related threats, any event that pushes people further into food insecurity will become a challenge that will be hard to easily resolve. Without work and scarcity of food, resilience is tested to the limit.
Strengthening the System
There is no doubt that human beings do have extraordinary resilience but that is not an excuse to ignore the need for lessening their burden by better planning and support where needed to ensure that coping with shocks is less painful and bouncing back is faster. This is the duty of the State but building national resilience requires the support of many stakeholders. Developing inclusive policies to lift people out of poverty through the provision of opportunities for livelihoods, and income is critical. With sustainable livelihoods communities and individuals can create assets which provide them with the means to build a better life for them and their families, educate their children, and save a little money for harder times.
While Government at Federal, Provincial and District levels must take the lead, everyone right down to community and individual level needs to understand how better to reduce risk, strengthen coping capacity, and how to recover from shocks. Not an easy task. Strong actionable policies and key messages are important. 
All planning by the State and humanitarian and development agencies requires a jargon-free understanding of the components of achieving resilience including understanding all risks. Risks include many types of shocks that can occur at any time – natural and man-made disasters, pandemics, and conflict, and an economic recession. This requires extensive work to assess vulnerabilities, develop preparedness mechanisms, early warning systems, better agricultural practices and drought-resistant crops, disaster-proofing all construction and infrastructure, community based risk reduction programmes, social inclusion and protection, and ensuring livelihoods for all. Education and healthcare must also be improved substantially. These are just a few of the considerations. All are costly to develop but the benefits will far outweigh the impact of actual shocks and will make Pakistan a truly resilient nation long into the future.
Pakistan has survived so many tough challenges when other countries have fallen into fragility and conflict, and ultimately, disintegration. Despite remarkably challenging odds the nation stands tall and proud and prepared to face whatever comes its way, with determination and courage.  But we cannot lose sight of the need to do more.
So perhaps we can look to the past for an inspirational quote that still resonates today about building a strong and resilient nation.  Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in his Eid-ul-Azha message to the nation on October 24, 1947, said, “My message to you all is of hope, courage and confidence. Let us mobilize all our resources in a systematic and organized way and tackle the grave issues that confront us with grim determination and discipline worthy of a great nation.” These words are every bit as true today. Success in building enduring national resilience requires vision, commitment, critical thinking, innovation and inspiration. Now is the time to build for a strong and resilient future.


The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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