Resilience and Haiti

A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to a new concept: resilience.

Actually, it’s an idea that’s been around since 1973, albeit one that’s grown in prominence in recent (post 9/11?) years. But this was the first time resilience has crossed my radar in anything other than its common-or-garden dictionary definition sense.

The dictionary (Oxford Reference) definition of ‘resilient’, by the way, is ‘springing back to its original form after compression’.

The ‘social-ecological concept’ of resilience seems to lack a universally agreed definition, but most versions- after peeling away the long words- don’t, in essence, stray very far from what the dictionary says. The Resilience Alliance, for example, describes it as the ‘capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes’. A quick internet trawl will reveal resilience everywhere: in discussions of terrorism, climate change, national security, ecology, building design, infectious disease control, NHS business continuity and so on and on. It’s basically the capacity of a society (or any system- or maybe even just a person) to take a hit and recover quickly without being radically different from what it was before.

At first glance it seems little more than a buzzword. A redundant extension of what’s an obvious virtue in most settings. A high-falutin theory which takes an originally simple and straightforward word/idea and amplificonfusiclates it. That’s my initial reaction. Does it really deserve the fuss?

But a couple of things made me look further.

The first ‘thing’ is the person who introduced me to the idea: an environmental epidemiologist working for a UK government agency. His job requires extensive familiarity with quantitative methods, and a pragmatic approach to new ideas. If he thinks resilience is worth a look, I’ll definitely take a look.

The second thing is the origin of the concept- in the natural sciences. Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling came up with the idea originally to describe how complex systems in nature- ecosystems- respond to unexpected events. An ecosystem which could handle big changes, such as an alteration in local climate, yet persist in its original composition- without extinction of species- was said to have high resilience. In the original 1973 paper he suggests ways in which resilience might be measured, and how the concept might be used in the management of natural resources. In other words, resilience is potentially both quantifiable and useful.

It’s a short step from ecological systems to social systems (humans being animals in the global ecosystem), and the idea has since been widely applied in the social sciences. As the RA website says, ‘resilience in social systems has the added capacity of humans to anticipate and plan for the future’ which complicates things somewhat. Clearly it’s going to be much harder to quantify resilience in the human arena, and to determine its utility, but that’s not stopping people from trying.

The recent and ongoing tragedy in Haiti throws all this theorising into sharp perspective. The country was in a parlous state before the earthquake. Its human development index- an aggregate measure of health, living standards etc- is closer to those of most sub-Saharan African countries than those of its Caribbean neighbours. It has suffered from decades of political corruption and environmental degradation (gets a prominent mention in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) and has known vulnerabilities to natural disasters such as hurricanes, and of course, earthquakes. The country was highly dependent on international aid even before recent events, with the UN supplying the security and policing services that the national government couldn’t.

The country has few resources of its own, and only a single, crowded airport through which emergency aid is being funnelled. Delays in providing medical care, food, water, shelter and sanitation are being documented in the world media. Unfortunately it seems probable that the recovery period will be prolonged and difficult, with plenty of scope for further loss of life and suffering.

I don’t know if anyone has already used resilience-related concepts to identify countries particularly vulnerable to natural and other disasters, but if they have, and if Haiti’s current situation was not predicted and explainable in terms of those concepts, what’s happening there now would be a convincing falsification of the theory (unless I’ve completely misunderstood what it’s about). Can resilience provide a demonstrably useful framework for anticipating which societies are most at risk from disasters, and suggest the best ways for them to prepare, manage and rebuild afterwards?

I was recommended Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book The Upside of Down as a good introduction to resilience and related ideas in ‘ecological economics’. As I read, I’ll be thinking of the tragedy unfolding in Haiti.

Further information:

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4:1-23.

Resilience Science blog


2 Responses to “Resilience and Haiti”

  1. jackinthegreen Says:

    I’m a lay student of resilience and what I’ve read suggests to me that one way that haiti and port au prince lacked resilience in regards to the quake was the lack of quake retrofitted housing and infrastructure. Of course big quakes are infrequent there and lord knows Haiti had many other seemingly more pressing issues and very little revenue to leverage. But that’s one possible example of a lack of adaptive management: managing for a narrow set of future threats/disturbances, only 2 be blind-sided by one not expected; ie: Haiti has arguably “weathered” hurricanes in the recent past much better that this earth quake; “the devil they know”.

  2. geodoc Says:


    Thanks for the comment.

    If you’re already a student of resilience (lay or otherwise) you’ll be way ahead of me on this. I haven’t had the chance yet to look closely at the related ideas like adaptive management, but I will- something that promises a way to improve responses to disasters in multiple settings and on multiple scales must be worth a look.

    And yes, I can see how it’s possible to retrospectively make a good case for Haiti having a lack of resilience, resulting in it being hit particularly hard by the earthquake- poor housing, lack of resources/planning for disaster preparedness etc

    I’m still left with questions about resilience as a concept, and how helpful it is for this kind of situation.

    I think this reflects my current more general uncertainty about the idea- is it a scientific (ecological) theory, a sociological concept, or something else? Does it have an agreed definition? If it’s ‘science’, is it quantifiable, is it falsifiable/can it make testable predictions? Either way, does it have any direct, practical utility (for Haiti or otherwise), or is it just a framework for discussion ?

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