1. Introduction

The number of armed conflicts is on the rise, with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region being particularly affected. According to World Bank President “By 2030, half of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile and conflict-affected countries”. In these challenging environments, the humanitarian needs of affected populations far exceed the capabilities of national and international agencies to meet these needs. Like those residents trapped in the cities of Iraq, Syria and Yemen, people have little choice but to draw on the innate resilience of the local neighbourhood and communities for their immediate survival.

In these life and death situations, resilience is used to describe the ability of people and their communities to survive and sustain essential life-support functions when subjected to extreme violence. In an uncertain world, where everything is interconnected and deemed important, observing how people cope with extreme shocks and stresses can provide critical insights into the capacities (means and resources), inter-dependencies,and thresholds that are essential for critical functions to be sustained. The application of this knowledge can increase the effectiveness of external interventions to strengthen the resilience of communities.

Historically resilience has been considered the ability to rebound from crisis. Over time the concept has evolved from recovering (absorption capacities) to one that encompasses the ability to adapt and transform to sustain functionality (adaptive capacities). Not surprisingly, in a world defined by disruptions, strengthening resilience has widespread utility and has been incorporated into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. If nations and communities are more resilient they should be better able to cope with disruptions and meet future challenges. In recognition of the utility of resilience, organisations have developed trans-disciplinary multi-stakeholder approaches to strengthen resilience, although in reality these approaches are proving difficult to put into practice.

Although resilience is part of humanitarian / development agenda, concerns have been raised about its relevance and appropriateness in areas of armed conflict. A resilience approach can be interpreted as supporting people to endure and survive under acts of extreme violence and human rights abuses, rather than addressing the injustices that perpetuate violence in a more fundamental way. In social systems resilience is not inevitably just, inclusive,or egalitarian: local social structures can inadvertently or deliberately sustain patterns of marginalisation and exclusion. Arguably, approaches that do not address injustices and inequalities sustain the status quo and recreate the conditions for future conflict.

Some of the critical questions and concerns about the relevance of supporting community resilience in the context of protracted conflicts are outlined below:

    I. Does a resilience approach place even more demands on the limited resources of affected populations to endure and survive extreme violence and conflict?

    II. Can a resilience approach address issues of exclusion that causes vulnerability?

    III. Can community resilience and humanitarian assistance be mutually reinforcing?

    IV. How does a resilience approach sustain “life with dignity” ?

    V. How practical are holistic resilience tools to apply in complex realities?

2. Understanding community resilience in areas of conflict and insecurity

Two thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2030, with the majority of growth taking place in developing countries already considered fragile. Reflecting this growing urbanisation, many of the 21st century wars have moved into cities with often devastating impacts on ordinary people.

When wars are fought in cities, the complex civil infrastructures that makes neighbourhoods function is destroyed. Energy, communications, sanitation and water systems cease to operate. Housing, businesses, health and education facilities are destroyed and employment opportunities are lost.

Disease and epidemics increase as health and humanitarian workers are deliberately attacked.

The intertwined roles that individuals can take (from civilian to fighter) adds to the complexity, although the majority of people killed or injured are non-combatants. People caught in urban warfare have no choice but to adapt to extraordinarily difficult circumstances, with large numbers of people forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, further overburdening the capacities of the host country infrastructure. For resilience strengthening to be a useful complement to humanitarian action, a resilient community must be one where people are better able to survive and sustain life during the conflict, in a way that maintains human dignity and lays the foundation for future recovery. The more we can understand how affected people cope with these extraordinary challenges, the better we can design humanitarian interventions to strengthen community resilience.

From observations of war affected cities, it is apparent military forces have the ability to destroy the built environment leading to the failure of health, water, sewerage and electricity systems. Despite heavy loss of life and casualties there are inevitably survivors. When infrastructure is destroyed and public institutions fail to protect their citizens, it is human resources that remain. All people possess capacities and it is the way these capacities are used that enables people to survive and over time recover from severe shocks and disturbances.

Bayan Wehan Civilian, Eastern Damascus, Syria February 2018

“When the bombs start falling, two dozen adults and children gather into one basement room in our home, hold hands, hug each other and try to hope – I tell the children stories about beautiful thing. When the bombardment stops for a little while, we just go to prepare food, enough to stop ourselves starving”

Women and children are the majority in Eastern Damascus, partly because so many men are missing – killed, detained, volunteer or conscripted to the frontline. Across Syria, women are involved in providing aid; helping out medically, moving between the basements, helping whoever they can, including “psychological relief sessions” for children, and teaching people how to react when struck by chemical weapons. The support Wehan and others like her provide is critical to sustaining life during these sieges.

Fig. 1

When communities and nations are pushed to their limits, the innate resilience of people to survive, and endure is strongly manifest at the community level. Inevitably, families and neighbours, supported by local organisations, are the first and last responders to provide the essential resources

for sustaining life. In times of need, people interact and organise themselves to help one another by drawing on their web of relationships and social networks to access critical assistance and resources. Taking the initiative to undertake joint actions in response to crisis is one of the clearest expressions of human solidarity and is at the forefront of most major conflict. In fast-changing conflict dynamics, local responses have to be timely, flexible and appropriate as the situation allows. Like the residents living in the war-affected suburbs of Damascus, the ability of people to voluntarily organise themselves and respond quickly is critical to sustaining life during urban sieges. Principles of self-organising, collaboration and responsiveness are three core attributes underpinning community resilience.

Whilst community action is a manifestation of local resilience, it is not inevitably an inclusive approach; local neighbourhoods are a microcosm of the inequalities at play within the wider society. Social differences related to gender, class, caste and ethnicity can block inclusion, leaving some people more vulnerable because of their marginal position in society. Invariably, as a relational approach to mutual assistance, when people self-organise to support one another they draw on existing social networks which can limit opportunities for people outside these inner circles. Moreover, because social networks lack transparency and/or good governance arrangements they do not automatically address issues of vulnerability associated with patterns of exclusion.

Conversely, in a resource-scarce environment, a fragile neighbourhood must utilise all available sources of resilience. Inclusion and collaboration are essential to mobilise existing capabilities and use these to the full. Greater inclusion and collaboration can strengthen social cohesion and solidarity across the neighbourhood. This can increase access to resources and bring alternative perspectives, knowledge and information outside of close-knit inner circles, which can increase response options beyond those possible when smaller groups act alone.

Accordingly, inclusion and social cohesion are two mutually reinforcing principles crucial to strengthening community resilience. An important characteristic of resilient systems is the ability to moderate extreme shocks and disturbances, including anti-social behaviour. When people feel excluded from decision-making processes and economic disparities grow, social cohesion is weakened. This can lead to social instability, criminality, violence and conflict which can further divide people and weaken social bonds. Commentators attribute the 2010 Tunisian uprising and Syrian anti-government protests in 2011 to the profound social instability and fragility in these countries, in part due to rising unemployment, growing income disparities, combined with repressive minority government’s leading to increasing segregation and polarisation within society.

Supporting people to cooperate and undertake collective actions can serve to enhance trust and social cohesion, although the nurturing of inclusive governance and decision-making processes requires deliberate intent. In this respect, partnership between local groups and external actors can facilitate inclusion and participation – important for response, recovery & peace building processes.

Whilst community resilience puts the onus on strengthening local capabilities within the neighbourhood, it is apparent there are limits to resilience beyond which the community cannot cope. This is particularly in urban centres where people are dependent on large scale infrastructure such as water and electricity systems which local people are unable to repair. Moreover, the primary drivers of the conflict impacting on their lives are usually related to structural inequalities and abuses of power outside of the control of local people. In situations where local resources are insufficient, community resilience depends on being connected to external assets and resources. This may involve negotiating with different parties to provide safe passage for evacuees or access to food and medical care. It is vital local groups can identify appropriate intermediaries (Humanitarian agencies) that can connect communities with the external resource providers. External actors should design humanitarian assistance in a way that augments and build on local sources of resilience.

Another core resilience principle is the ability to learn – “reflectivity”. This is important in situations where people must respond quickly to the fast-changing dynamics of conflict. Communities in crisis need to make quick decisions based on sharing of real-time information. Responses need to be timely and flexible as circumstances and threat levels change. With experience, through an adaptive process of action-learning, communities become progressively better prepared and adept at utilising available capacities and resources to respond quickly and positively.

Closely related to reflectivity is the principle of diversity. Resilience is enhanced when there are high levels of diversity which can provide optionality. For example, economic diversity can provide flexibility in time of livelihoods and coping mechanisms. For civilians trapped in urban war zones or in displaced camps, the range of response and livelihood options is very limited. In these situations connections with actors outside of their immediate locality can provide additional sources of assistance.

In summary, drawing from practices in a variety of different contexts, resilience communities exhibit the following qualities: Self-Organising; Collaborative; Responsive; Inclusion; Social Cohesion; Connectedness; Reflective ; Diversity (Flexibility/ Optionality). These eight principles are mutually reinforcing. In complex systems, where different functions are deeply connected, the ability to perform one function is closely related to its ability to perform another – resilience enhancing strategies are robust across multiple scenarios.

Fig. 2 Core principles underpinning community resilience

3. Community resilience and humanitarian assistance

As disasters and conflicts become more frequent and intensive the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance far exceeds the capacities of national and international organisations to provide assistance. To manage the increasing scale of these challenges, the UNSG has led calls for a

change in approach that recognises that people are the first and last responders to any crisis and places greater emphasis on strengthening the inherent resilience of affected people.

During times of conflict and calamity, both humanitarian assistance and community resilience share similar goals in terms of saving and sustaining lives, preventing suffering and maintaining human dignity. Although there are differences of approach to achieving these goals, community resilience is considered a complementary rather than a replacement to conventional response intervention.

Some key differences between the two approaches are outlined below:

A critical difference between the two approaches is that humanitarian assistance is based on an assessment of the needs and vulnerabilities of disaster victims (where practical utilising local capacities), whilst a resilience approach starts with an understanding of local capabilities and functionalities, and then considers how external inputs can be designed to connect, augment and enhance these local capacities.

Importantly, both approaches recognise the importance of human dignity which is the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to IFRC, the mark of a resilient community or neighbourhood should be its commitment to human dignity for all who reside there. From a humanitarian perspective, the right to life with dignity is the first principle of the Humanitarian Charter – considered the “cornerstone” for how the humanitarian system should operate.

Although not concisely defined, human dignity is related to an individual’s sense of self-respect and self-worth. Respecting and maintaining human dignity implies being sensitive to people’s needs whilst allowing them to do what they can for themselves and others. It requires handing over responsibilities and placing people at the centre of decision-making processes that impact on their lives. Encouragingly, recent developments in terms of “localisation” and cash-transfer programmes support the devolution of decision-making power to local actors and project beneficiaries, although their relevance in protracted conflict where markets are dysfunctional has still to be determined.

From a humanity perspective, although what a humanitarian agency does in terms of meeting basic needs is vital to sustain lives, how it does this is fundamental to maintaining human dignity. An important distinction when in the words of a Syrian refugee “ life without dignity is a living hell”.

Similar to resilience, life with dignity is not created in isolation – all peoples have a desire to be valued and treated with respect. Treating others with integrity and humanity is a key aspect of life in order to form and maintain positive human relationships. Conversely, being treated as a helpless disaster victim can serve to further debase and humiliate.

Voluntary acts of mutual assistance based on kinship, a sense of community, shared identity and common needs are physical manifestations of human dignity and can help pool resources, build social cohesion and foster resilience without which societies become fragile and collapse. If in the words of a Syrian refugee “life without dignity is a living hell” the mark of humanitarian assistance should be the degree it sustains life with dignity . Recent aid for sex scandals would suggest some aid agency staff have failed to respect and uphold this founding principle of humanitarianism to the point where injustice is being done in the guise of compassion.

As emphasised in the IFRC Code of Conduct, during times of crisis, it is firstly through people’s own efforts that the basic needs of individuals, families and neighbours are met. It therefore follows that humanitarian agencies with a commitment to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity have a responsibility to design interventions to meet basic needs in a way that respects, protects, upholds and strengthens the innate sources of resilience as manifest at the local level.

Moreover, it is important to recognise that resilience has thresholds and boundaries beyond which communities and social groups become increasingly fragile. In social systems, sustaining life with dignity can be considered one such threshold / boundary beyond which people feel an intense sense of frustration and despair. The concept of living with dignity despite all adversity is captured in the Palestinian word “sumud” which can be translated as perseverance or steadfastness.

In the challenging context of protracted conflict, the provision of external assistance without supporting community resilience may inadvertently increase fragility by pushing aside local

capacities, increasing dependency on short-term foreign assistance and missing opportunities to connect local actors to recovery and peace-building processes. Observations in countries hosting refugees raise concerns that people living in a prolonged state of destitution and social exclusion without citizenship or access to jobs and basic services can lose hope and sense of purpose. In so doing they can become receptive to extreme ideologies that can lead to violent radicalisation and sow the seeds for yet further conflict. On the other hand, augmenting people’s basic needs in a way that maintains self-worth, supports relationship-building and collaboration in vulnerable neighbourhoods may be one of the most effective (and least expensive) ways to improve the quality of humanitarian assistance.

Experience from other parts of the world would suggest that in the longer term, strengthening resilience in crisis situations may serve as a catalyst to address injustice and inequality across the wider society through positive changes in cultural norms and values. For example, in war-time Britain, the increased role of women in the workforce resulted in greater gender equality and a significant shift in attitudes away from culturally ingrained sexism.

4. An approach to support community resilience in areas of conflict and insecurity

Over recent years a significant number of organisations have developed resilience metrics, indicators, operational frameworks, road maps, tools and methodologies to guide and facilitate a process of engagement to strengthen community resilience. Concerns raised by practitioners highlight some of the challenges in operationalising community resilience:

    1. In response to complexity, tools are becoming more complex, making them difficult to apply

    – addressing complexity with complexity doesn’t work

    2. Prescriptive rules and detailed methodologies hinder innovation, flexibility and adaptability

    3. Preparedness, response , recovery and preventative actions are fragmented due to conceptual frames, institutional mandates and funding channels leading to reduced coherence and synergy

    4. Centrally-driven frameworks and tools are evolving quicker than changes in local practices, with limited attention given to evaluate and learn from local practice.

Strategies to strengthen resilience must be based on an deep understanding of the local conflict context, including an assessment of the risks, capacities and inter-dependencies from the perspective of the primary risk bearers – affected people. To strengthen community resilience, existing sources of resilience (capabilities) must be taken as the starting point and fully utilised. This involves assessing the eligibility of local formal / informal actors for support from external agencies. External inputs must connect with local actors that have genuine roots in the community and serve to strengthen the emergence of local collaborative capabilities -collaboration is a prerequisite for the effective use of existing capacities.

Whilst community resilience has to come from within it can be supported by outside help, particularly where external actors have a comparative advantage in connecting with external

resources and engaging in the policy arena. Importantly, developing strategies to enhance community resilience must look through the lens of the resilience principles. Inevitably, the volatile and uncertain dynamics of conflict will need different choices for different setting, requiring high levels of flexibility, adaptability and improvisation. This would favour the use of a principles-based approach to support and facilitate the emergence of community resilience rather than top-down prescriptive rules and methodologies.

The development of resilience tool often moves ahead of changes in local practice, with a tendency to build increasingly complex methodologies in recognition of the inter-connected nature of risks . There is a need to strip out and simplify detailed approaches and replace with guiding principles to help actors and affected populations make informed choices. This can make better use of citizen’s insights in the way interventions are designed and deliver what at-risk people determine as their priorities. Given the fast changing nature of conflicts, well understood principles can empower and free-up local actors to make the right choices when faced with complex dilemmas and enable greater innovation and flexibility in decision-making processes.

Resilience principles should be drawn from local practices gained over time in different contexts. This “international” knowledge is an asset that should be blended with local expertise. Principles should be explained in simple yet specific statements to help practitioners make trade-offs and informed choices. A principles-based (as opposed to a rules-based) approach can create ownership of ethical values among staff. Notwithstanding the above, there are areas where there is only one acceptable way of working requiring a more prescriptive approach. For example; to ensure gender and equity-sensitive approaches to avoid exclusion of certain socio-economic groups.

5. Conclusions: Strengthening community resilience – Sustaining life with dignity

In a world increasingly defined by disasters and calamity strengthening resilience has become an urgent issue, although concerns have been raised about the appropriateness of community resilience in wars and conflict. Drawing on evidence from urban wars, it is apparent when institutions and infrastructure fail or are destroyed, it is the innate resilience of people and their communities that provide the primary means to survive and endure. In these situations resilience does not stand in isolation; people organise themselves and collaborate to pool resources and provide mutual support based on solidarity, shared identity and common interests.

Although resilience is relational it is not inevitably inclusive, as people cooperate through existing social networks that can reflect differences in socio-economic status. Moreover, resilience has limits and boundaries beyond which local capacities are overwhelmed, community’s breakdown and the prevailing norms which influence people’s behaviour can change. In social systems, human rights and dignity provide the cornerstone for these social boundaries. Without dignity, communities can lose hope and sense of purpose, becoming increasingly vulnerable to extreme actions, including violent radicalisation. A critical role of external agencies is to strengthen local capabilities, facilitate inclusion of marginalised groups and connect with external resources.

Observations on the ground have identified eight principles of resilient communities: Self- Organising; Collaboration; Responsiveness; Inclusion; Social Cohesion; Connectedness; Reflective ; Diversity. These principles are inter-dependent and robust across multiple scenarios. A principles- based approach can serve to guide action and empower local actors to make informed choices and enable greater flexibility and innovation in times of volatility and uncertainty.In life and death situations, community resilience and humanitarian assistance share common goals in terms of sustaining lives, preventing suffering and maintaining human dignity, although the way they achieve this is different: humanitarian assistance focuses on meeting basic needs of disaster victims, whilst a resilience approach focuses on strengthening local capacities and functionalities that people use to meet needs. Although what a humanitarian agency does in meeting needs is vital to sustain lives, how“life without dignity is a living hell”.

Significantly, respecting and upholding human dignity is an integral part of community resilience. Supporting community resilience therefore offers a way to provide life-sustaining assistance with dignity. It involves using resilience principles to inform the design of humanitarian interventions that reinforce local capabilities and enable local leaders to take ownership of governance and coordination structures. Accordingly, supporting community resilience can have multiple benefits: in the short term it can improve the integrity and effectiveness of humanitarian inputs; in the medium term it can foster engagement of local people in early recovery and enrichen peacebuilding processes; and in the longer term, support disaster risk reduction and transformative changes in cultural norms and values towards a more inclusive, equitable, and safer society.

The measure of humanitarian assistance must be whether life-saving assistance enhances human dignity. Dignity in crisis means respecting people’s views, choices and integrity, not making assumptions about how people want to be assisted and handing over responsibility to local governance actors on the ground. Strengthening community resilience provides a practical way to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance to sustain life with dignity.

The prevailing orthodoxy in the humanitarian sector is that “the right to life with dignity” is achieved through the provision of essential services in accordance with minimum standards (Sphere Standards). Whilst these standards are important for human survival they are not in themselves a guarantor of life with dignity. The emphasis on sector-based standards may have inadvertently undervalued the founding principle of humanity and the importance of empowering affected populations to maintain their sense of purpose, self-worth and dignity. Significantly, issues of devolved responsibilities, governance and accountability are at the core of the sexual exploitation scandals affecting humanitarian and peace keeping agencies. These abuses suggest an aid industry in danger of losing perspective on the meaning of humanity and its founding principle – to the point where injustices are being committed in the guise of compassion.

If life without dignity is not life at all, then humanitarian agencies need a stronger focus on human dignity. Meeting basic needs in a way that strengthens community resilience provides a model for humanitarian assistance to sustain life with dignity. According to IFRC “the mark of a resilient community should be its commitment to human dignity for all who reside there”. In a world where conflicts are on the rise, and the effectiveness and legitimacy of emergency assistance is being increasingly questioned, can the humanitarian sector afford not to support approaches that strengthen community resilience?

[This paper is written to stimulate debate and support the development of good practice. The views expressed are those of the author, and although informed by the experiences of the MENA Red Cross / Red Crescent Society members, do not represent the policy position of the IFRC. The sharing and use of this paper is welcomed with appropriate acknowledgement. Please send all comments and corrections to marcus.c.oxley [at] gmail.com]


Marcus C. Oxley

Director - Resilience Solutions Marcus Oxley is a resilience practitioner who has worked extensively on issues of humanitarian action, disaster management, resilience and sustainability across Africa,...

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