Building resilience: So much more than seawalls

March 25, 2013

Guest blog by Kathleen Mogelgaard

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience. And I know I’m not the only one.

In some ways, resilience is the new “it” concept, resonating throughout the climate change community, the disaster risk reduction community, and the mental health field. The US Agency for International Development has released a new resilience strategy. Even my church is focusing on resilience from a spiritual perspective.

But what is resilience, really? My colleague Laurie Mazur has written thoughtfully about these varied lenses on resilience. She provides a universal definition of resilience as “the ability to mitigate and withstand disturbances and bounce back afterwards, while continuing to function.”

Last week, Laurie facilitated a fascinating discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center on the Social Dimensions of Resilience. She pointed out that too often, policy discussions of resilience focus on how we can “harden our defenses.” For example, much of the discussion in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy was about building better sea walls to protect communities, or strengthening other aspects of physical infrastructure.

But, as other speakers pointed out, physical infrastructure is only one among many factors that determine vulnerability. Dr. Betty Hearn Morrow, a sociologist at Florida International University who has studied how communities recover from hurricanes, noted that inadequate economic resources, poor health and weak social networks are all associated with deeper vulnerability to storms.

Dr. Elizabeth Malone, a social scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, examined our assumptions about how population growth might affect resilience in the face of climate change. If, for example, you model a world in which every women has access to family planning information and services, you end up with markedly  slower population growth than most used in climate change models. Under that scenario, Malone and her colleagues found that resilience, as measured by a multi-indicator index called the Vulnerability-Resilience Indicator Model, was higher by 2050 in all seven countries where they ran the model.

Roger-Mark De Souza of Population Action International shared inspiring stories from places like Bangladesh, the Philippines, and the Caribbean, where people are mobilizing to emphasize social factors like gender and family planning in the development of climate change resilience and adaptation policies. In Malawi, the coordinated work of researchers and journalists is informing decision makers developing a new national climate policy, as well as a national population policy.

As I listened to these presentations, I thought about how these lofty concepts resonate in my own life. I have a “little sister” here in DC – a Latina teenager who has grown up in the context of generational poverty. We’ve become close over the past four years, and it’s hard for me describe how happy and proud I was when she graduated from high school last spring – the first in her family to do so. Education is one of the foundations of resilience. She understands that implicitly – she was elated by the sense of possibility that the future held.

But then my little sister experienced an unintended pregnancy. She didn’t plan to start a family at age 19. But she has come to terms with the fact that she is going to be a mom, and with her family and community supporting her, she now looks forward to motherhood.

She is a strong, capable young woman, and she is tough as nails. But we both wonder what the future holds. Becoming a mother so early means that she is forestalling the higher education she dreamed about. It means fewer options for jobs she can pursue right now, while she’s pregnant, and for the kind of job that will make sense for her when she is a single mom. It means the little savings she has needs to stretch even further. Her resilience will be tested.

And, of course, her situation is not unique. There are hundreds of millions of women around the world who want to delay or avoid childbearing, but lack the information and services they need to allow them to make those decisions effectively.

Many of these women live in the world’s least developed countries, and in places that are highly vulnerable to the droughts, floods, and extreme weather brought about by climate change. When these women have children earlier and more frequently than they desire, what does that mean for their resilience? For their own health? For their ability to bounce back, and to help their families and communities bounce back?

In her talk last week, Laurie highlighted characteristics – things like diversity, reserves, social capital and agency – that are the building blocks of resilience, whether we are talking about an individual, a community or an institution.  I think the ability to determine one’s reproductive destiny is closely tied to these building blocks. And as climate change adds to the threats and uncertainty facing us all, incorporating reproductive health and family planning services into programs designed to promote resilience is an important way to help us all keep bouncing back.


Kathleen Mogelgaard is an independent consultant with more than 15 years of experience in policy analysis, advocacy, and teaching on global environmental challenges and solutions. Her writing on the links between population, family planning and the environment has appeared in Grist, New Security Beat, and RH Reality Check


*Photo courtesy of Flickr user His Noodly Appendage