What Does Resilience Look Like "In the Field"?

As international development practitioners, we are constantly confronted by the gap that exists between theory and practice. Resilience is the perfect example: it is a complex concept to define, and when we do define it, it is often through technical jargon and elusive terms like “absorption” and “transformation”.
But what do these terms really mean for the vulnerable communities that we work with?

In other words, what does resilience looks like “in the field” of development practice?

Sitting in Bungoma, Kenya, LWR’s CAFÉ project team (Climate Adapted Farming on Elgon) is helping shed light on these questions. The CAFÉ project was designed to help coffee farmers make a better living through their coffee production, but with a deliberate intention to help these farmers be more resilient to the effects of changing weather patterns and a volatile international coffee market.

The project explores how to improve coffee livelihoods from a resilience perspective. The team participated in sessions that allowed them to reflect on the progress that the project has achieved so far, and identify the areas that could be strengthened going forward. These sessions helped them develop a “resilience lens” through which to view the project.

Adopting this resilience lens allows LWR and our coffee cooperative partners to:

  • Gain a more holistic understanding of the that affect the Mount Elgon region. The team recognized that climate change, market instability and other kinds of uncertainty often interact, and have different effects in different communities, and they also affect men, women, girls and boys differently.
  • Identify the different stakeholders that influence— directly or indirectly — the project activities, and that play a role in achieving resilience for coffee farmers. These stakeholders are present at the local, regional and national levels, and include farmers, cooperative societies, and government officers.
  • Reflect about how are project activities are contributing to the capacity of smallholder coffee farmers to better cope with the effects of climate change, and adapt to its impacts.

The project team gathered in Bungoma reflected on five key questions that help us understand CAFÉ’s resilience approach.

Key Questions about CAFÉ’s Resilience Approach

Whose resilience, and where? CAFÉ focuses on increasing the resilience of smallholder coffee farmers in the Mount Elgon region, which is located on the border of Kenya and Uganda.

Resilience to what? CAFÉ addresses the challenges posed by climate change in the region, including increasing temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns that decrease coffee production and affect quality, decreasing the income of smallholder farmers.

Resilience for whom? By strengthening the capacity of smallholder farmers to better absorb, adapt and potentially transform the effects of climate change, CAFÉ is contributing to improve the quality of life of farmers, and the sustainability of their livelihoods.

How to achieve Resilience? CAFÉ is helping to improve the access and use of livelihood capitals (physical, social, human, natural, and economic) among smallholder farmers. A key point of entry for the project is strengthening the social capital of coffee farming communities, including the networks of support, collaboration and knowledge sharing between famers, Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs) and agricultural extension agents, as well as farmer cooperatives.

So, what does resilience look like from Bungoma?

It doesn’t look any simpler or any less complex. But by deconstructing the definition, and by linking its components to actual development practice (the CAFÉ project activities), it certainty makes more sense.

The concept of ‘resilience’ makes more sense when it is adopted by local stakeholders, field practitioners and community members, who understand better than anybody the daily challenges faced by smallholder farmers.

Resilience makes more sense when “absorptive, adaptive and transformative” capacities are translated into practical examples of human struggle, of will and desire to change and thrive despite adversity.

Building resilience is strongly rooted in good development practice. But it also adds value to the work of international development practitioners in several ways:

  • Resilience pushes us to be better at embracing complexity and at thinking ‘outside the box’.
  • Resilience helps vulnerable communities address the shocks and stressors that affect them today, but also those that may affect them tomorrow and in the years to come.
  • It helps us consider the feedback and the interactions that take place at multiple levels (among stakeholders at the local, regional, national and international levels) and over time (in short, medium and long term).
  • It pushes us to be more flexible, and to get better at adapting and learning throughout the project cycle, not only at the end.

Resilience is a process, not an end goal. The mid-term evaluation meeting held in Bungoma is proof of how rich and enlightening that process can be when it builds on local knowledge, on local needs and perceptions, and when it becomes an enabler of change beyond the life of the project.