A Think Piece on Rural Resilience and Insecurity

Arkleton Seminar 2017

Think Piece on Rural Resilience and Insecurity

In times of turbulence the insecurities and vulnerabilities both personally and in our communities can be troubling. Indeed today, politicians are expecting people and communities to do more (provide their own services) with less (usually money, but also other resources). So how do we take these vulnerabilities and insecurities and turn them on their head and make them opportunities for growth, personally and for the communities in which we live? The answer, we are told, is to become resilient. It has to be better than the opposite because this would mean our communities would break down. How can we ensure our communities at least bounce back from shocks that hit them, but preferably bounce forward to a new and better future? This seminar brings together communities from Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, India, UK and The Gambia to discuss these issues and learn from each other, which in itself is a key part of building essential social capital.

This brief paper draws on some of the projects and exchanges of knowledge that have been funded by Arkleton Trust in the last three years to act as a starting point to the discussion. An introduction to all the organisations funded by Arkleton, who have participants at the seminar is included in the appendix. Throughout this paper there are also stories that have been contributed by these participants. The stories are included purely to stimulate thought. It is important to have some items to open the discussion on how rural communities can become resilient enough to withstand shocks and deal with inadequacies in infrastructure etc. These points are not necessarily the views of Arkleton Trust but are put forward to start the process of discussion.

We remember that at this time much of East Africa is suffering and in a state of emergency.

What is Resilience?

Resilience refers to a capacity to cope with stress, overcome shocks and adversity or adapt positively to change. Adversity has the potential to both strengthen and weaken communities. This suggests that the so called ‘resilience levels’ of communities could determine whether they rise to the challenge or stumble in its wake. How robust is local capacity? How well can it adapt? How far do the answers to these questions vary with local histories and geographies, with the wider institutional context, and particularly with social and economic conditions of different communities?

These questions also focus the attention on the institutional infrastructures that exist in rural communities, and which assist in community development. What they encompass and how they have been evolving could throw a light on how rural areas can adapt and even thrive through economic, political and environmental hardship.

But rural areas are not homogenous and therefore distinctions can be made within and between different rural localities. A community located near an urban zone will face different opportunities and challenges than one that is remote. Additionally variances exist depending on the presence of a market town or multiple outlying villages and hamlets. It has also been well documented that rural communities are developing an increasingly unbalanced population structure. In short, the nature of rural communities is changing. What succeeded in the past may not do so for the future. We need to think of ever-more creative ways for sustainable development of rural and remote life – one of these is building community resilience.

Building community resilience involves developing social capital within a community or developing the connections, social networks and norms in the community. It is generally agreed that there are three types of ‘capital’ or relationship which make up social capital: Bonding capital, or the close ties between people such as family and close friends which builds trust and reciprocity and a shared sense of belonging and identity. Bridging capital which are the looser ties with friends, colleagues or people we meet through social networking sites. This builds broader, more flexible identities and allows innovation to be shared across networks. Finally linking capital which draws on people with different levels of power and status who meet and learn from each other. Linking capital allows groups to access networks of power and resources beyond their immediate community.

Resilience as a journey

Resilience is often thought about as the ability to resist change or to be able to ‘bounceback’ or recover from a shock or adversity. However in terms of an evolving society the ability to return to the pre-shock equilibrium or ‘remain the same’ is not always the wisest decision. Here resilience becomes more of a process to evolve or continually change.

This has been described as the difference between adaption and adaptability. If a community or locality is capable of adaptation it can respond to a shock with a movement back towards its pre-shock state. Therefore “adaptation” reflects an inherent tendency of systems to improve their adaptation to a given niche or environment by improving along the path that has been successful in the past”. Adaptability on the other hand shows the ability to be able to deviate from a previous path should a better opportunity be spotted. Adaptability embraces the idea of continual change rather than stability as the key to resilience.

In summary, we need to develop local rural communities to be able to adopt a new world view, attitude, or mind set, to recognize what is right for them. They can then make conscious decisions about when it is right to proceed with ‘adaption to a previous state, or when to have adaptability for new situations.

Adaptation of processes to a past state or a forward-looking approach of on-going adaptability? When addressing this question it is also important to inquire about what is known as ‘path-dependency’. This is where the history or chosen path of an area is said to influence its decision-making. Areas become ‘locked-in’ to a way of doing things because that is what they have always done, how they have always functioned or what they have always been told to do. This lock-in creates norms of behaviour which can enable or constrain adaptive decision making. Different community organisations have been created out of very different circumstances and have followed different paths.

Resilience is not just about measuring characteristics in a snapshot in time. It is about the journey or evolution, it is a process. It could be visualized as a process, as an adaptive cycle whereby when there is culture of growth and exploration there will be greater levels of connectedness and opportunities that will raise resilience levels. However, if everything becomes too connected and path dependent then resilience levels will fall as the infrastructure becomes more rigid and less adaptive. As decline sets in relations will become looser allowing for restructuring and growth once again.

How can resilience apply in rural communities when basic infrastructure is sometimes lacking?

There is a suggestion that rural resilience is yet another ‘western’ concept being applied to development. Certainly in countries like the UK developing resilience can be seen as a euphemism for politicians off loading their responsibilities onto volunteers in local communities. Examples abound of instances where politicians appear to be placing more institutional responsibility back onto citizens. For example, education being delivered by academies, paramedics being replaced by volunteer Community First Responders, aged care being delivered more and more by families, local parish councils covering services previously covered by District councils (e.g. local gritting services) all as cost savings. However, people in the UK, whilst they can be poor, are not in the level of lack of well-being of many in developing countries and have greater disposable income and time to build resilience. In developing countries it could be questioned how they can have the time and resources to build resilience when there is a lack of access to basic necessities such as water, electricity, sanitation, health care and education for all?

Building Resilience can be a Bumpy Ride.

In very remote and small communities, including African communities, the successful response to resilience is to take control, in whatever small aspects that can be manipulated for the benefit of the village, rather than rely on outside sources to provide mitigation measures. In some communities this might include forming farming co-operatives to respond to climate change or agricultural changes. In other cases, examples exist where communities are increasingly taking control and ‘doing it for themselves’. For example, developing community energy from waste or solar power, training women in basic technical or agricultural skills and creating small economic or skills cohorts to develop and sell their own products.

Two examples follow from participants in the seminar. 

Whole System Thinking

Vulnerability and insecurity are the flipside of resilience. Rural areas are facing a considerable spectrum of changes and uncertainties across several fronts on a global scale. The drivers for global change include economic restructuring, demographic change and depopulation, changes to agricultural practices and climate change. In order to remain cohesive and functioning communities, rural areas need to be dynamic, evolving, adapting and developing over time in order to adjust to these multiple drivers of change. If they do not maintain a good level of resilience, they become static, eventually ceasing to exist as a functional community. Their role in the wider country, ecosystem, and social hierarchy then becomes reduced and their social, cultural, ecological and economic capital (their contribution to society) is degraded.

All of these aspects are interdependent and a change in one can trigger a change or reaction in another. For example, climate change can affect water levels for crops or agricultural resilience to pests. Food then becomes scarce and more expensive to cultivate. The population moves away from the land, migrating to cities to seek employment in industry. With fewer people cultivating the land, food becomes more expensive so more people move to the cities to work, and so the cycle continues.

Resilience as part of Community Development

As previously mentioned with the current political focus on localization, there are potential problems, about ensuring that community stakeholders are representative of everyone from the place, communities of interest within that place, and sub-places and sub-interests within the geographic communities. In fact place-based development has been a key focus of Arkleton. In 2004 the focus of our seminar was the importance of place-based & consequential learning for rural communities and people. Of course grass-roots development has been a mantra for many years – the desire to ensure the local rural voice is heard. But this ideology- that specific resources and capital within an area can hold the key to its development, has been critiqued as being impractical in a complex society with multiple connections. So now we hear of rural governance needing to take into account a form of ‘new-grassroots’ development, where local resources and capital are combined vertically with ‘extra-local’ resources and capital, creating a balance between internal and external control.

Local connections still exist, however, and the infrastructure on which the community relies is not just about these ‘new-grassroots’ partnerships but also loose networks, cultures and practices within communities (the linking social capital). A more general term of ‘networked development’ has been adopted to encompass the multitude of connections and practices that make up the institutional infrastructure.   The growing emphasis on rural governance and localism suggests that there will be greater need for networked development and a degree of ‘buy in’ from the state so as to allow power to be transferred to the local; so as to facilitate empowerment and mobilise local capabilities.

Life will become more complex and local communities need to think of new ways to develop.

Communities now need to plan for devolved services and the new emergent institutions which would be required to deliver them. It is generally thought that the new delivery mechanisms would most likely result in an increased demand on local volunteers. As mentioned this could cause issues in rural areas where human capital tends to be older and more dispersed. The reason for older populations can be many, but examples from India include the rush of youth to move to cities; and in The Gambia the loss of the youth who want to take ‘the back way’ to Europe. Research also suggests that volunteers in rural areas already volunteer in services which are substitutional rather than additional. This raises the question as to how much more they can do as well as to how much more should they do? Or is this process just formalising something that is already being done?

We also hear of Public, Private Partnerships following the ‘new-grassroots’ method of horizontal and vertical integration. In effect the policies from Government are moving towards networked development practices where partnership working exists vertically and horizontally between public, voluntary and private sectors in order to meet the needs of the people. The current challenging economic circumstances have also meant that community development institutions of all sizes have had to review their situations. Again the synergies that may be gained from networking is increasingly seen as a delivery mechanism, which can offer new funding streams or resources, value for money and improved outcomes. Another route is the increasingly encouraged ownership of community assets.

If communities are to have more influence as to how resources are to be allocated there is a distinct need to have a strategic understanding of what communities require. However a growing inertia with top down prescribed strategic assessments, which change or disappear with every government or funding stream, is creating a desire for communities to take control and create their own strategic evidence-based understanding to use as a resource and as a directional development tool.

There is also great concern that communities will become beholden to an increased source of funders all with their own compliance requirements, thereby increasing their administrative burden – which is often either under funded or not at all, if funders only want to fund the project outcomes.

Some thoughts to ponder…

A particular feature of rurality is the geographical distances between where development takes place – and which shape peoples’ lives on an every day basis. These distances could have an effect on the variety of development initiatives that can exist within a rural locality and thus the vibrancy or social vitality levels. A varied and vibrant development infrastructure is thought to be a sign of a resilient community, but how much are these characteristics

influenced by scale or isolation, or even landscape and topographical features? Although a

locality cannot change its physical geography, recognising and understanding the physical capabilities could influence how they proceed in encouraging the growth of their institutional infrastructure. Therefore:

  • Does the geography of rural areas (both physical and social) have an effect on the development culture that can exist within a rural locality and thus levels of vibrancy or social vitality?

The capacity of the human capital of an area can affect resilience levels. It is well documented that rural areas are ageing faster than urban areas. Community groups continually raise concerns about their ageing populations but also recognise that they could present opportunities. The implications of an ageing population could be that development becomes weighted in favour of the majority group. So:

  • What is going to be the effect of ageing populations of rural areas on resilience levels?


  • How can we engage youth in building community resilience? 

As previously mentioned resilience is a process and should not be measured at just one point in time, therefore the above questions need to be considered within the evolutionary path of the area – its path dependency. The path dependency or ‘lock-in’ of an area can affect its institutional development choices and the capacity of an area to act. By considering the above questions, understanding can be gained of the capacities and characteristics of rural areas. By feeding this understanding into a framework of path dependency, analysis can also be made into the evolutionary resilient capacities of an area.

  • What influences communities as they start on their evolutionary pathway?
  • Why did development initiatives start? What decisions have they taken since?
  • What are the forms and amounts of capacity available and mobilised within the area?
  • What capacity is needed/needs to be built to break from the path dependency and evolve along a different trajectory?

Sustainable development has been a term adopted since the 1980’s and is defined as “a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. However, today we are also hearing the term “The Green Economy” more and more from organisations such as the UNEP and the EU. The definition these organisations use is “An economy that results in improved human well-being and reduced inequalities over the long term, whilst not exposing future generations to significant environmental risks and ecological scarcities”. Basically a green economy is one that promotes economic opportunities that are not in conflict with environmental sustainability and social well-being. It also promotes environmental objectives that can provide new forms of socio-economic opportunities. The green economy takes multiple forms of activity that reflect the diversity of rural areas. Both the terms sustainable development and green economy encompass the concepts of resilient communities.

  • How can we encourage the development of a green economy in our communities

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