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The Importance of Evidence for Building Resilience

By Dina Esposito, Feed the Future Deputy Coordinator for Development and USAID Global Food Crisis Coordinator

Photo of Beatrice Nyanga in market

Beatrice Nyanga operates a restaurant at the Feed the Future Livestock Market Systems Lodwar Livestock Market. Establishing strong livelihoods, especially for women and marginalized groups, is a key factor for strengthening resilience. Photo credit: Andrew Ongyango, USAID

My journey into resilience began in the 1990s as a young USAID disaster relief officer working in the Horn of Africa. I saw how droughts, which have always been recurrent in this region, were treated as anomalies, rather than regularly recurring and expected events. It was clear even then that rather than waiting for disaster to strike, we needed a mindset shift to focus on both better understanding risk and developing ways of preventing, mitigating and managing it through building the capacities of people and systems in advance.

Fast forward to 2023, shocks are now the “new normal,” making resilience — or the ability of people, households, communities, countries and systems to manage adversity and change without compromising future well-being — a household word. Due to global shocks like extreme weather events and COVID-19, the majority of us have our own personal stories of resilience; we uniquely understand the concept as never before as we and our loved ones work to navigate a changed world.

At the recent Resilience Evidence Forum in South Africa, I met a man who worked for a local coal power company, who said many in his industry were not interested in discussing more sustainable and resilient energy solutions, so he attended the event to find people who were discussing these topics. For me, the Forum reinforced the idea of resilience moving out of the food security and climate research spaces and becoming truly mainstream. More than 250 people met in person and nearly 1,000 more attended virtually from over 30 countries to better understand the many different facets of resilience and the need for evidence. The Forum, co-hosted by USAID and the Global Resilience Partnership, was the first one in five years and brought together a wide range of actors from the private sector to universities to NGOs and local community groups to further the conversation about resilience, adding their own unique perspectives.

female food vendor holding dry goods in outstretched hands

Photo Credit: Mercy Corps

Because of the rich diversity of the Forum, it was a great stage to highlight USAID’s new draft resilience policy. The policy advocates for strengthening resilience through adaptive management, collective planning and execution, and inclusive approaches that work with and benefit local actors, including the most marginalized. The policy recommends that a resilience lens be used across all USAID investments, and as USAID’s Global Food Crisis Coordinator, I like to think about how it can be applied to achieve stronger global food systems.

We are now facing a world in which historic numbers of people are in need of lifesaving food assistance and the number of undernourished — on the order of 750 to 800 million — is back to levels we saw in 2015 when the Sustainable Development Goals were first launched. We have to build up our global food systems in ways that are more resilient, with enough adaptability and redundancy to not only reduce humanitarian need and hunger, but actually create a world where all people have sustained access to safe and affordable, healthy diets. And we need to do this in genuine and fair partnership alongside local communities, who make their voices heard.

This recognition was part of the catalyst for the launch of Feed the Future, the whole-of-government hunger initiative, and remains central to its mission. While we are still learning, we have much greater insights today than we did a decade ago about what works.

We know building resilience includes:

  • Resilient livelihoods, which include more diversified sources of income to reduce and manage risk, and maintain consumption of nutritious foods in the face of shocks and stresses. It is critical that livelihood investments include access to financial services (savings, credit, insurance, remittances), especially for women and marginalized groups;
  • Resilient systems for managing resources and risks that are beyond the capacity of households and communities to manage on their own. On-the-ground, these include vibrant markets that create and sustain economic opportunities even during shocks; shock-responsive safety nets such as the USAID-supported Productive Safety Net Program in Ethiopia; insurance or other forms of risk financing, and strengthened social networks that households and communities can rely on for support in times of need; and
  • Resilient people — healthy, well-nourished, and educated — are the foundation for household and community resilience. We’ve learned the importance of empowering and promoting the self-confidence, aspirations, and psycho-social well-being of program participants.

USAID and Feed the Future have for the last decade been bringing innovative solutions to build resilience and to measure our impact so that we can learn and adapt as we go. We have developed groundbreaking metrics, like shock response monitoring systems and resilience indices, and invested in qualitative and quantitative data collection all to better understand “what works” to build resilience.

And we see significant bright spots. Impact evaluations and other studies have found that programming designed to strengthen resilience protects household wellbeing which, in turn, creates and sustains development progress. For instance, the PRIME evaluation from Ethiopia found that in the face of the severe drought in 2016, households reached by comprehensive resilience programming were able to maintain their food security status, compared to households in other communities, which experienced a 30 percent decline. The same study estimated that programming reduced the need for humanitarian assistance for about 240,000 people, at a cost savings of about $22 million. Environmentally, a recent study revealed changes in vegetation in areas of Niger where the World Food Programme, supported by the USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, implemented water management practices Analysis of satellite imagery by USAID and the SERVIR program, a joint USAID-National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) venture, found that vegetative greenness had increased over a nine-year period and was nearly 50 percent higher in areas where soil restoration and water harvesting practices were implemented. With continued application of these adaptation techniques on a larger scale, subsistence farmers in West Africa will be able to increase agricultural production and build resilience to drought.

With climate and other shocks becoming more frequent, severe and overlapping, there is an urgency to getting smarter, faster in terms of knowing what works when it comes to building resilience. The sheer number and diversity of participants joining the Resilience Evidence Forum — from all walks of life and regions of the world — reflects that others feel that urgency too. At USAID we will continue to try new approaches and improve our evidence base — applying that learning ourselves and sharing it with others. And we will continue to promote convenings like the Forum, to learn more about what others are doing and learning, and promote collaboration and partnership needed to drive equitable growth and well being in an increasingly unpredictable world.

About the Author

Dina Esposito is the Feed the Future Deputy Coordinator for Development and USAID’s Global Food Crisis Coordinator

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