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News & Media

Opening Remarks—Ensuring Resilient Livelihoods

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you, Nancy, and thanks to Administrator Shah, USAID, and the United Nations Foundation for partnering with us to organize this event, and for putting resilience at the center of your development efforts.

I would also like to thank Sundaa Bridgett-Jones from The Rockefeller Foundation’s resilience team who worked so hard to organize this event and make sure we were able to come together today to talk about this most important idea.

I’d like you all to take out your smartphones and set them to vibrate. That, right there, takes tungsten—it’s the rare metal that puts the buzz in your text message.

Many of our cellphones’ most sensitive components are derived from rare earth metals mined in central Africa—including tungsten. The same materials are used in everything from jet turbines to high tech medical devices. Armed groups already fight to control and exploit these conflict minerals.

But imagine an escalation in those conflicts, or an extreme weather event. It could cause a global shortage. Prices would skyrocket. And that’s not just an inconvenience for those of us who run our lives on our mobile devices. More importantly, it could keep the global poor from accessing mobile technology—just when we are finding innovative ways to use that technology to close the gap in access to health care and financial services.

One single shock and we could feel it from Nairobi to New York in rich and poor communities alike. The 2004 tsunami in Asia, the 2010 floods in Thailand, the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown in Fukushima all triggered social, ecological, and economic impacts that spilled over far beyond the immediate point of impact. The question for us and the organizations we represent is this: how do we anticipate which communities will be resilient to direct and indirect effects of disasters, whether they creep in slowly on cat’s paws—like the slow corrosion of corruption—or roar in like lions—as do hurricane force winds?

What is it that makes some places more resilient than others? What characteristics of place make the resilience difference? What do we even mean by resilience? Like all terms in use for so long, there are variations in its meaning. But, across the academic disciplines and indeed in common parlance, there is a universal meaning of the term that includes the abilities:

  • to respond to or bounce back from stress and shocks in a healthy and functional way;
  • or, to be transformed into something (or, in the case of psychology, someone) better adapted for more shock and uncertainty. When you think about it, these are exactly the traits that each—and all—of our humanitarian and development plans and aspirations should include. Sustainable development requires building in resilience because we can no longer predict all of the shocks that people, communities, and systems will have to withstand and recover effectively from… whether they are caused by climate change, financial crises, armed conflicts, or social upheaval.

And, clearly, in these early decades of the 21st century, we are witnessing new stresses and shocks. The long held fundamentals of a strong economic system—globalization and free trade—have increased efficiency, but they have created challenges for markets and finance. Industrialization in the last century has accelerated human progress but has given us a rapidly growing global population and a warming world in this century. Of course, this isn’t to say that the 20th century was devoid of significant challenges. But what distinguishes today’s threats from those of the past are the escalating rate at which they are occurring and the interconnectedness of our planet.

Issues once identified and analyzed individually—our environment, the economy, and social challenges—are now inextricably linked. Shocks and stresses in a single place inevitably ricochet throughout every other. Vulnerability in one area leads to vulnerability in many others. There is no such thing as humanitarian relief distinct from development. Humanitarian assistance and development experts face similar challenges in their respective target communities.

We may not know exactly how our resilience will be tested, but we know very well that those tests will come—and that they will come at the seams where our economies and communities and technologies intersect.

In other words, they will strike at our points of greatest vulnerability.For instance, let’s unpack the climate crisis—a significant threat multiplier. Global poverty is being exacerbated by climate change. To effectively address one is to focus on the other at the same time. Nowhere is this more true than the challenges of climate change for agricultural productivity and food security, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

On another front, the dangers resulting from climate crises are becoming especially acute in cities because rapid, unplanned urbanization tends to concentrate low-income people in high-risk areas. And this leaves them more susceptible to the consequences of imminent and worsening environmental degradation. Communities in Asia’s urban areas face especially great peril. During the next three decades, 60 percent of the world’s population increase will occur in Asia’s cities. And eight of the ten countries most vulnerable to climate change’s effects are located on that continent. Since 2007 the Rockefeller Foundation has been delving deeply into work on building resilience in African agriculture and rapidly growing Asian cities. We have already invested nearly 90 million dollars and the work has produced significant knowledge, practical examples and, of course, improved resilience in the communities that have been involved. Through this work we have seen that resilient places and resilient communities share certain characteristics.

We know that resilient systems—be they communities or cities or networks –tend to have observable characteristics such as:

1. Flexibility—the ability to change, evolve and adopt alternative strategies, especially when changing circumstances preclude going back to the way things were before.

2. Redundancy—Spare capacity to accommodate increasing demand or extreme pressure. Redundancy is also about diversity and the ability to adopt alternative pathways and a variety of options. This need for redundancy challenges long held fundamentals of economics, globalization, and many development banks who’ve pushed above all for efficiency.

3. Resourcefulness—the capacity to visualize and act, to identify problems, to establish priorities to mobilize resources and assets to achieve goals.

4. Safe failure—a network characteristic. Resilient network infrastructures are designed for safe failure—to absorb shocks and cumulative effects of slow-onset challenges so as to avoid catastrophic failure if thresholds are exceeded.

5. Responsiveness—the ability to re-organize and re-establish function and sense of order following a failure. While rapidity is a key part of responsiveness—in order to contain losses, speed shouldn’t be allowed to impair the capacity to learn. Which brings me to the final and maybe the most important characteristic of resilient systems: Learning…..

6. Through direct experience, even if that experience includes elements of failure, learning plays a key role in building resilience. Individuals and institutions should have the ability to internalize past experiences and use them to avoid repeating mistakes and exercise caution in future decisions.

Much of what I’ve just described has been developed during the implementation of the foundation’s Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network, or ACCCRN.

ACCCRN mobilizes local governments, NGOs, scientific experts, urban planners, and disaster management specialists to work collaboratively on urban resilience-building projects. And we have also been supporting innovations in collaborative financing, including linking different structured products from development banks, bilateral donors, philanthropy and private sector impact investors.

In 10 cities across four countries—Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and India—ACCCRN is piloting new approaches for cities and their inhabitants to build physical and structural resilience to withstand and recover from the impacts of climate change and sharing the learning with other cities and countries… first across south and southeast Asia and then around the world. A short summary of 23 projects in the 10 ACCCRN cities is available in the back of the room.

Consider just one of the ACCCRN cities, Surat, in Gujarat, on the East coast of India. Surat is a city of 4.5 million—smallish by Indian standards. Surat is the most flood prone city in the state of Gujarat, ranked as having high vulnerability for both industries and population exposure, mainly among the poor who live and work along the banks of the river Tapi.

The floods of 2006 inundated 75 percent of the city and were the direct result of a decision to make an emergency release of water from the upstream Ukai dam. But between 1971 when the dam was built and today, the city has constructed many more embankments and other new infrastructure along the river. The mouth of the river has been narrowed so much that the safe discharge level is considerably lower than when the dam was designed.

At the same time, climate change scenarios for Surat indicate that rainfall variability and sea level rise will lead to more emergency dam releases and flooding.

The Surat project was among the most ambitious of the ACCCRN initiatives. The partners developed an integrated modeling system in order to improve reservoir operations for both water supply and flood mitigation. They also created an end-to-end early warning system to inform city administration units to take action in case of extreme precipitation events. And they are building community disaster response capacity among the poor and vulnerable living near the water’s edge.

This project contributes to building multiple resilience characteristics in Surat and will benefit some 75% of the population and many industries and businesses. The links to protecting and improving livelihoods are obvious. Half a world away from India, in Eastern Africa, where climate change and political conflicts routinely affect agricultural productivity and food security, the Rockefeller Foundation, Swiss Re, and Oxfam America support HARITA, an effort to improve livelihoods of poor farmers in the drought-prone northern state of Tigray in Ethiopia.

HARITA finds ways to strengthen food and income security through a combination of improved resource management, insurance, and microcredit. It has piloted innovations that allow cash-poor farmers the option to work for their insurance cover by engaging in community-identified projects to reduce risk and build climate resilience, such as improved irrigation or soil management. When there is a seasonal drought, insurance payouts are triggered automatically when rainfall drops below a predetermined threshold, enabling farmers to buy the seeds and inputs necessary to plant in the following season and protecting them from having to sell off productive assets to survive.

In its three years of delivery in Ethiopia, HARITA has scaled from 200 households in one village in 2009 to more than 13,000 enrolled households in 43 villages in 2011—directly affecting approximately 75,000 people. This success of HARITA has led to a partnership between Oxfam, WFP, and USAID to take the model to multi-national scale by launching the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative. Today’s meeting represents the Rockefeller Foundation’s commitment to expanding collaboration with USAID, UN agencies, civil society and businesses who are building resilience around the world. And resilience isn’t just something we invest in overseas: Recently we’ve put another 1.5 million dollars towards the planning of a new 10,000 acre Great Urban Park in Jamaica Bay, New York, here in our own back yard. Along with the city of New York, the federal Department of the Interior, and private donors, we are supporting not only the park’s planning but also the design of a new Center for Science and Resilience.

The resilience center would focus initially on coordinating disparate scientific efforts now being undertaken to restore the bay’s damaged ecology by a wide range of public, private and non-profit entities.

Almost 1 million New Yorkers live along Jamaica Bay, making them much like the residents of the 80% of the major urban areas of the world similarly located on coast lines on bays or where rivers meet the sea.

And much like all these other coastal cities, New York’s waterways, are polluted, degraded, and no longer capable of providing the kind of coastal protections or safe recreation and food supply that they once could have.

The damage is fixable however—and that is what many of the ACCCRN projects involve, it is what New Orleans and the Gulf Coast States are looking towards, and what we’ve started here in New York.

In all these places, the focus is on rebuilding and strengthening resilience.

And, in the context of development that entails not only appreciating the notions of dynamic change, risk, and uncertainty, but also other important concepts such as rights, needs and vulnerability.

Indeed, a focus on resilience requires an increased recognition of the importance of strengthening local capacities and community assets, including knowledge, know-how, trust, connections and social support systems, along with more tangible hard assets like infrastructure.

We might call this “social resilience.” And by identifying social resilience as a piece of the goal for international development policy, we are putting the human dimension and human development at its center. Doing so let’s us think about the roles of the individual, of governments, of community groups, businesses, and other forms of organizations in building and sustaining resilience.

The resilience difference is about leading transformative change by creating strong bonds across similar groups; bridges among diverse groups; and links between different levels of action, and actors.

As funders and policy-makers, we must collaborate—and forge collaborations among those we fund and lead—to build resilience strategies into all of our sustainable development goals.

Because it will take unprecedented partnerships and a collective reimagining of the way the pieces of our society fit together.

We cannot know what shocks we will face, or how they will ripple out and touch our lives.

Because we do know, however, that they will be felt.

We at the Rockefeller Foundation believe that focusing on building resilience and more equitable growth lies at the heart of the development solution of the 21st Century, and we look forward to working with you to achieve it.

Thank you.

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Judith Rodin

Judith Rodin

Judith Rodin is a pioneer, innovator, change-maker and global thought-leader. Read Full Bio

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