The Exchange From Vulnerability to Resilience

Event Details

DATE: May 27, 2015

TIME: 9:00 am

Location:Hammamet, Tunisia

Leonard Hessling

World Bank Consultant,

Public Sector Expert


The Exchange conference series is an annual forum which provides a channel for dialogue. Enabling countries to share experiences, lessons learned, and best practices, the Exchange begins where governance diagnostics leave off, supporting the creation of an enabling environment for reforms to move from concept to reality. The Exchange feeds into the design of the other three components in the regional Connecting Voices of MENA (CV MENA) initiative and partnership (Boot Camps, Solutions Labs, and the Maarefah community of practice).


From Vulnerability to Resilience. The tile of the fifth Exchange conference suggests a transition away from a state of vulnerability towards increased resilience. Vulnerability and resilience represent two related yet different approaches to understanding the response of systems and actors to change (Miller et al. 2010). In order to frame the debate on governance in MENA, the two complex concepts of vulnerability and resilience first need to be understood, differentiated from related concepts, and narrowed down to a working definition, before they can be contextualized and adapted to the complexities of a dynamic region like MENA.


The MENA region is in a state of vulnerability. The region is experiencing significant instability, with several violent conflicts and political transitions, which are fundamentally altering the political, social and economic landscape. Underlying causes and dynamics are complex and multi-faceted, spanning sub-national, country and regional forces. The impacts and consequences of violence and conflict are not limited to individual countries, with significant spillovers on neighboring countries and even globally (World Bank, 2015b).


Drivers deepening vulnerability. Despite positive economic growth and declining levels of poverty in the MENA region between 1990 and 2010 (Figure 1), several structural challenges contributed to deepening vulnerability, in particular due to the trajectories of political transition, instability and conflict after the 2011 Arab Uprisings. In summary, these structural challenges include: (i) Deep horizontal and vertical inequalities exacerbated by worsening global and regional economic conditions that led to strengthened perceptions of marginalization; (ii) Poor governance, characterized by inadequate service delivery, lack of transparency and accountability, lack of rule of law, and corruption; and (iii) Increased social fragmentation and polarization leading to the fragmentation of the national and social fabric in some countries, and the rise to prominence of identity-based agendas at the expense of a collective national vision (World Bank, 2015b).


MENA countries are experiencing transition, large-scale conflict, and acute vulnerability. Although overall warfare in MENA has been decreasing since 1990 according to some measures, the region is experiencing a renewed increase in state fragility and warfare since the early 2000s with the number of major episodes of political violence and armed conflict increasing steadily (Figure 2). While the dynamics of conflict and violence differ significantly between countries, they can be roughly regrouped as follows: (i) Countries undergoing complex transitions that have addressed some grievances and initiated important reforms and institutional transformation, including through constitutional processes (e.g. Egypt, Tunisia); (ii) Countries experiencing large-scale conflict characterized by the breakdown of institutions, major loss of life, significant population displacement, destruction of infrastructure, and economic crises (e.g. Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen); and (iii) Countries in situations of acute vulnerability that have been significantly affected by conflicts occurring in neighboring countries, and that have been directly impacted by the Syrian conflict through the influx of refugees, as well as the spill-over of conflict and violence across borders increasing their vulnerability to destabilization and conflict (e.g. Lebanon, Jordan). While vulnerability is registered not by exposure to hazards alone; it also resides in the resilience of the system experiencing hazard (Berkes, 2007).


The concept of resilience – a holistic methodology. Resilience refers to “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties” and other notions include the ability to “bounce back”, “return to equilibrium” and to “reorganize after a disturbance”. Resilience can be approached from multiple angles and historically it has been used in engineering, psychology and ecology.


The approach of psychological resilience is useful insofar as it defines the individual’s ability to properly adapt to stress and adversity, which can be extrapolated to entire societies (Cyrulnik, 2009). The resilience perspective in ecology uses a wider approach in order to understand the dynamics of social–ecological systems, and to the study of governance, the emerging notion of ‘resilience’ serves as a perspective for understanding how societies cope with, and develop from, disturbances and change (Folke, 2006). Although resilience thinking contains substantial normative and conceptual difficulties for the analysis of social systems, the resilience approach to governance issues also shows a great deal of promise as it enables a more refined understanding of the dynamics of rapid, interlinked and multi-scale change (Duit et. al., 2010). By bringing together the humanitarian and development communities, resilience provides “the missing link” between relief and development, between disaster risk reduction, climate change adaption and conflict prevention, thus offering a holistic methodology to these and other interconnected issues (Mitchell, 2013). Including this “missing link” plays an important role in the strategic approach to governance in MENA.


The Exchange is built around the four pillars of job creation in the private sector, state institutions, service delivery, and rule of law. The conference will also cover associated themes of citizen engagement and social accountability; and the concept of resilience, its relevance and usefulness when applied to public sector governance in MENA.


Understanding resilience. Although everyone is talking about resilience, some people find it difficult to understand what resilience actually means. The following table aims to facilitate the discussion about resilience and its linkages to governance by providing an overview of resilience-related terminology that shall serve as working definitions for the Exchange.


Resilience and Governance in MENA

Since the 1990s the concept of good governance has been an explicit part of the World Bank’s development agenda acknowledging that inefficiencies and weaknesses in the institutional environment have a direct impact on the achievement and the quality of development results. The increasingly complex, interconnected and evolving risk landscape of MENA in 2015 requires a new approach linking the concept of good governance with resilience. In an attempt to grasp the emerging thinking on resilience and by looking at tools such as resilience systems analysis, this session will explore how resilience can be applied as a framework to good governance practices.


Resilience as an opportunity for development. For the present purpose of analysis of vulnerability in MENA after the Arab Uprisings of 2011, resilience appears rather as a process leading the region and its governments back to a state of peace and normality where perhaps the most important element is the development of adapting abilities of governments themselves. Resilience appears as the capacity to overcome difficulties despite, or maybe because of the factors of risk and stress. In this sense resilient people and communities have the tendency to see problematic situations rather as opportunities than as barriers for development.

Resilience involves understanding the complex risk landscapes in each context holistically. This means determining where – in which layer of society – those risks are best owned and managed, and working to strengthening these components of resilience, and thereby empowering different layers of society with the ability to cope with those risks that they face in their everyday lives. However, due to the interconnectedness of risks, a certain layer of society can no longer be ‘selectively’ resilient, instead issues need to be addressed holistically (Mitchell, 2013).

The added value of resilience thinking. Besides highlighting the interconnectedness of risks, building resilience and strengthening the resilience of people and states to shocks and stresses can help protect lives before a crisis hits, reduce potential economic losses, and empower people to take better decisions about the risks they, and those they are responsible for, face (Mitchell, 2013).

Different resilience approaches in different countries. Although MENA countries are facing similar threats and governance issues, the disturbances to societies in the Levant are different from those in the Maghreb and the Gulf. While a country’s resilience and long-term perspective appears to be associated with factors such as income inequality, the size of the middle class, ethnic fractionalization, female participation in the labor force, education levels, public sector size, and public private sector relations, states have different capacities to absorb disturbances and to reorganize. The challenge for the Exchange will be to assess countries’ absorptive, adaptive, and transformative capacities to address the impacts of negative events in MENA.

The resilience systems analysis tool. Developed by the OECD-led Experts Group on Risk and Resilience, this tool is based on a conceptual framework consisting of five steps (Figure 1). The analysis process starts with (i) an understanding of the risk landscape in a particular context, then (ii) it looks at how those risks will affect a society’s systems, and (iii) it gathers information about how systems are set up to cope with risks, and whether this makes them resilient. The analysis (iv) determines what needs to be done to boost resilience; to help the different parts of the system to either absorb shocks, adapt or transform. The result (v) is a resilient system, which will then change the overall context and risk landscape (OECD, 2014).