What is resilience and why does it matter?

The concept of resilience seems to be quite a popular lens of analysis in the development world right now.  Projects in all sorts of sector, from climate change and water security to disaster programming.

Knowing what the term means is critical to effectively designing the programs and winning the bids from donors and foundations.  Resilient  has a great set of definitions to help zero in on the meaning.  Borrowing from the Wikipedia definition, one can see the physical manifestation of resilience:

“Resilience is the property of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed elastically and then, upon unloading to have this energy recovered.”

Much like a spring, resilience is the ability to bounce back after an impact.

Combining notions of physical, ecological, social and economic resilience, Resilient  states the following:

“A Resilient City is one that has developed capacities to help absorb future shocks and stresses to its social, economic, and technical systems and infrastructures so as to still be able to maintain essentially the same functions, structures, systems, and identity.”

At the heart of resilience is absorptive and adaptive capacity of household and community livelihoods.  One very useful livelihood framework is DFID’s, which maps out the human, natural, financial, social, and physical capital that exists and puts these assets in context of the institutional processes, the vulnerability context, and the livelihood strategies (see below).

One can go into much more detail in terms of various ways of measuring the resilience itself, as ODI does in this recent publication, but the take-home lesson for now is that resilience (or vulnerability) is shaped by livelihood capacities to ‘weather the storm’ and/or adapt to external shocks – and still bounce back.

As you might imagine, this framework of analysis is highly relevant to emergency relief in flood or other disaster situations, where households suffer physical, financial, and other losses.  It is also very useful, and often employed, in the context of climate change, as the abilities of households and communities to prevent, mitigate, and adapt to both incremental effects of climatic changes and the increased severity of weather events.  Issues of food security also lend themselves very well to this lens of dealing with external shocks.  Lastly, urban management concerns, from flooding, water supply planning and sanitation to the health impacts thereof, often speak of the importance of building resilience.

Are you working with donors who emphasize the importance of resilience?  I would love to hear from you about how you are translating this theory to actionable interventions.


Building Poltical Will for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene

Building Political Will for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)

There is quite a bit going on in the world of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) right now.  Not only did World Water Day recently highlight the importance of managing and recycling wastewater, two big things happened in the area of political will.  One, the 2017 GLAAS (UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water ) report highlighted the fact that although funding is increasing in the sector, 80% of countries report inadequate funding for the sector.  Two, the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) High Level Meetings (HLM) of ministers recently met to discuss how to build solid WASH sectors, with effective institutions, capacity, planning, policy, and financing.

In terms of institutions and capacity, I would urge anyone to read the recent IDS Bulletin on decentralization and service delivery.  While discussions of service delivery governance can get quite academic, there are numerous articles in here that speak to practical, concrete issues that face institutions that facilitate WASH service delivery.  Specifically, I would suggest reading the two papers on metropolitan and municipal district authorities (MMDAs) in Ghana- one on taxation and clientelism and the other on staff quality.

Finances, as you might expect, are just as critical as strong institutions.  When I speak of finance, I am talking about more than just donor and government funding, including the taxes and tariffs that support effective operation and maintenance of WASH facilities.  There are countless examples of failure in the sector due to lack of cost recovery (feel free to ask me, and I could send you dozens of examples).

While there is always talk of the separate worlds of academics and NGOs (and I learned this all too well during my PhD thesis on urban water governance)  effective discussions of and improvements in institutions and finance are what is needed right now.  In a recent article at WRI’s City Fix blog, I make the argument that accountability and affordability are the main drivers of access.  Simply put, poor people in Africa and Asia often do not have access to water or sanitation services because they are either too poor to afford the service or the government does not provide (using tax revenues).  Water, for example, is neither equally distributed across the earth nor is drinking water handed out to people.  It should be thought of as a service, rather than a good in most cases.  What is needed are more serious political economy analyses of water and sanitation that bridge the gap between academics and the policy crowd (here is a good example).

call from Matt Damon for more funding in the sector is helpful, in that a celebrity is able to reach a wide, global and general audience.  Nevertheless, banging one’s fist on the table and saying what should be done is not enough without an understanding the systems of institutions and finance that drive change.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.


Dar es Salaam, Africa, Urban Planning,

Urban Planning and Density in African Cities

I recently read an interesting paper from the World Bank on the shape of African cities.  As I have lived in Dar es Salaam and I am currently staying in Accra, I’d like to think that I have a practical viewpoint to add to a discussion of the urban planning issues.

The research paper looks at spatial data  from Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Kigali, Dar es Salaam, and Dakar and puts it in context with similarly-sized developed country cities (Paris, New York City, Barcelona, etc).  Through a lens of population density  and land use patterns, the paper aims to make general conclusions about challenges for transportation planning in these cities.

The most interesting pieces of data were the the population density figures.  Overall density for nearly all of these African cities was at or around 50 people per hectare, while Barcelona and Paris had population densities of 150 and 200 people per hectare, respectively.    Taking  a more nuanced look at density, graphs were made of density at different distances from the central business district (CBD).  Nearly every African city studied had high population densities closest to the CBD that tailed off in a downward sloping curve.   Paris, Barcelona, London, etc all had much more smoothly/slowly tailing off population densities from the center of the city outwards.  Additionally, the African city density figures in first three to five kilometers from the CBD were nearly double that of the non-African cities.

The lesson here is that, while overall population densities were greater in the non-African cities, the African cities had the greatest densities closest to the city center.

One of the main reasons for this study was not just to understand urban density, but to also get a better sense of what all of this means for urban planning and transportation.  This is where living in an African city comes in handy when thinking about these things.

After years of living in Dar es Salaam and now Accra, I am comfortable making some common general assertions about transportation in a mega African city.  (Please do not be offended by my bluntness in these statements, as they are just general, reasonable assertions.)

  • Main roads are generally paved, secondary roads are compacted dust roads.
  • All roads are riddled with potholes of astounding sizes, often with open sewer channels alongside them.
  • Sidewalks don’t exist.  Everyone who walks, walks around the side edge of each road and cars and pedestrians are constantly in negotiation (with cars winning, of course!)
  • There is an astounding level of economic inequality and segregation of neighborhoods in many African cities.
  • The well-off drive in Range Rovers/Land Cruisers and have few transportation problems (outside of traffic), while just about everyone else walks and takes minibuses (dala dalas, tro tros, etc).

In this context, I imagine that you can see the scale of the problem.

One excellent solution that has been tried in Dar es Salaam, has been a major bus rapid transit (BRT) project.  The jury is still out in terms of effectiveness, but, having lived in the city I would say that it is starting to make some real positive change.  In particular, many of the stops are in the nearby and far flung informal settlements.  I await this evaluation of it.

What are your thoughts?  Have you lived in an African city?  

How do you think knowledge of the nuances of urban population density and land use can affect transportation and city planning in cities like these?