Risk, fragility and resilience: lessons from typhoons and conflict

As we launch our new paper  No Accident,  Dante Dalabajan reflects on resilience and shares lessons from Mindanao, a conflict-afflicted region, which has been hit by two devastating typhoons.

Two popular books recently brought the issue of resilience into renewed prominence in the global discourse and shook our preconceived notions of risk and fragility.

In the book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back authors Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy argued that mindset is of primary importance and illustrated why “preserving adaptive capacity” is critical in “an age of unforeseeable disruption and volatility.” Elsewhere, Zolli argued that humans are hardwired to do stupid things for reasons
that have to do with risk compensation and risk homeostasis. We ratchet up on safety but behave in a riskier way, and, we avoid a certain types of risk only to end up in another risky – if not riskier – activity, all the while keeping the probability and values of losses constant.

Another noteworthy book is that of bestselling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb called Antifragile in which he contended that to be “suppressing volatility and randomness” is to be fragile, while to embrace chaos, stress and change is to be the opposite.  In Taleb’s worldview, avoiding chaos, stress and change weakens the system and makes an outlier event or the dreaded “Black Swan” (which, by the way, is the title of
Taleb’s other bestseller), all the more possible.

What if the system itself is already stretched to breaking point?

Taleb’s point is cogent, but I ask myself what if the system itself is already stretched to breaking point? This is the case for many communities that I work with in Mindanao and why I find resilience such a deeply unsettling idea.  It is deeply unsettling not in the polemical or epistemological sense but in a very real, visceral sense. 

As I navigate the highway that connects Cotabato City and Sultan Kudarat Province, I’ve often wondered why shanties are cramped up by the roadside in Maguindanao Province while vast swathes of surrounding land are virtually uninhabited. This did not make sense to me at first. 

Maguindanao, of course, is the site of one of the most brutal massacres in recent memory when in 2009 a ruling political dynasty was alleged to have cold-bloodedly murdered 58 people, including 34 journalists, who formed part of the convoy of the opposing political clan. 

The author in the mass grave of the Maguindanao massacreSince then, there were said to have been reprisal killing from both sides. I began to connect the dots.  The highway offers a quick escape for people who live in places where interpersonal conflicts could easily flare up into an internecine clan war. This is also why people take jobs that they can leave anytime rather than tilling land which they will be
forced to abandon when conflicts erupt. 

This sort of social dimension lends even more complexity to programming work in places such as Maguindanao.

(Picture right) the author in the mass grave of the Maguindanao massacre

Oxfam’s new paper  No Accident offers deeply penetrating insights in the way we approach programming on resilience.  Reading the paper and pondering our experience in Mindanao, I saw factors we could incorporate into our interventions, but I know that acting upon these insights is balanced against our own limits in resources and timescales.  Here I underscore the role of government, which has an inherent tendency to intensify the pre-existing vulnerabilities of local communities.  

I can cite two examples from the two catastrophic events that we have had to deal with. In the wake of Typhoon Washi in 2011, which claimed the lives of close to 1,300 people and damaged an estimated 48.4 million USD worth of properties and livelihoods, one can easily see that a disaster could have been avoided if villages were not permitted to rise up in sandbars and the river banks.  

Fallen banana grooves in Compostela Valley. Photo credit Dante DalabajanHardly a year passed by when 6.3 million people were affected by Typhoon Bopha, with more than 200,000 homes damaged or destroyed. 

Agricultural activity almost ground to a halt in the aftermath of the disaster as large scale banana, coconut and corn plantations were levelled off to the ground.  In both cases, the government failed in the elemental principle of anticipatory risk regulation.
Fallen banana groves in Compostela Valley.  Photo credit Dante Dalabajan

But there are a number of lessons that informed and continue to inform us in our programming work.

Four lessons on resilient programming

We cannot address the problem of income security without addressing human security.

First, interventions must proceed from a sound risk assessment.  We need to be able to collect all the evidence – from best available science and local and indigenous knowledge – necessary for us to identify precisely what the priority interventions are. Because of the complexity of the problem, there is always the danger of misdiagnosing risk and fragility, which could potentially aggravate the very same problem we are trying to solve. 

Going back to my Maguindanao example, it is always tempting to do livelihood intervention, which is a lot easier to do, than engaging in peace building.  But we cannot address the problem of income security without addressing human security, the latter being the only fertile ground where the former could flourish.

Second, inclusivity and participation needs to be there in every step of the way.  Women, children and people with disabilities have unique needs and are affected differently by risks, and are in the best position to determine what their priorities are.  Women, in particular, have their own innate strengths that enable them to contribute meaningfully to any response.

Microinsurance is cost effective and keeps peoples’ dignity intact.

Third, in finding the right responses we may be surprised to see a lot of low hanging fruits.  In two of the areas that are frequently visited by typhoons and flashfloods, we identified micro-insurance as one of the easiest way affected families could bounce back from shocks. 

It turned out that the premium for one insurance policy is equivalent to three kilos of rice, three cans of sardines, and two packs of instant noodles-essentially the very same one-day emergency food kit that families receive in an evacuation camp.  Microinsurance is cost effective and keeps peoples’ dignity intact. 

Fourth, we have to accept with humility that we can only do so much. This is the reason why we need to engage the government. National government agencies have mandates related to Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) risk assessments, planning and implementation. 

In the Philippines these are the Office of the Civil Defense-National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (OCD-NDRRMC), the Climate Change Commission (CCC) and the weather bureau Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA).  So too are the Local Government Units (LGUs). 

For the most part, they also have the budget and human resources for these purposes.  We work with them all the time and they all have contributed in lots of ways to the things we are trying to accomplish.  The key in eliciting the support of these agencies is for us to find common ground with them and complement each other’s strength.

Our experience tells us that resilience is not about ticking the boxes of a climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction checklist, but rather, it is a result of a meticulous analysis of the contexts that make the poor vulnerable and a well-thought out plan for community preparation, local governance reform, climate resilient livelihoods and CCA and DRR actions.

There is neither a cookie-cutter nor a cook-book for resilience.

Read more

Download No Accident at www.oxfam.org.uk/resilience

Author: Dante Dalabajan
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.