Governments shirk their responsibilities in the name of ‘resilience’

Passau, Germany under record flood waters. But who will pay for the clean up? Steve Parsons/PA

The 21st century appears to be one riven by shocks - whether terrorist, financial or climatic. In the aftermath, institutions, people, and societies more generally are frequently encouraged to be more resilient. On the face of it this seems a rational step. To be able to recover from, or adapt to, a variety of uncertain threats is surely a positive attribute, and one that we should all embrace. Indeed, to argue for less resilience is illogical, akin to a planner suggesting that development should be unsustainable or a politician arguing against progress.

The inherently agreeable and pliable character of resilience has helped it rapidly spread into the language of policy while also lending it a certain immunity from criticism. However, this lack of critical gaze does not mean the concept should be employed unthinkingly, either as an empty mantra or vacuous slogan.

As with all concepts, resilience has the ability to reframe a debate and push it down a particular path - which may be beneficial for some, but by no means for everyone. Translated from policy into practice, a detailed examination of tangible outcomes can prove that any optimism may often be misplaced.

For example, in the wake of the recent floods in central Europe there are calls to make buildings more resilient. This generally involves retrofitting technology designed to keep water out, in much the same way as citywide flood defences may do the same task on a larger scale. While potentially effective, it is the perennial subject of “who pays” that reveals the hidden inequities of the shift from rhetoric to reality. Buildings are usually owned by people, companies or institutions, and so the responsibility falls on them, rather than national governments.

Such an idea fits into the neat political narratives of “living with water” or “preparing for risk” that can be used to justify a restriction of expenditure in a largely veiled manner. Consequently, risk management becomes a product and resilience a commodity. The private sector and citizen performs a flood defence role that until the end of the previous century had generally been the sole province of the state. In this iteration of resilience, the costs of managing flooding are now borne by the community - not all of whom will be able, or willing, to accept this transfer of liability. Therefore, attempts to pursue resilience agendas may generate significant governance challenges or spatial and social inequalities.

In much the same way that “sustainable development” captured the zeitgeist of the late 20th century, resilience may prove to be the perfect exemplification of its time. It is a conveniently nebulous concept that incorporates shifting notions of risk and governance, which can facilitate the transfer of responsibility and cost away from the state and toward the private sector, communities and individuals.

Those with power and resources may be able to engage with and influence resilience agendas. Vulnerable people and communities may find themselves significantly affected by the retreat of the state and the steady erosion of the services they once provided.

In an age of uncertainty where the complexity and global reach of our social, economic and environmental systems can deliver what are claimed to be unavoidable shocks, the idea of self-made resilience has found a welcoming political home. The impact of this widespread acceptance needs to be very carefully considered however. Bouncing back or adapting is not better than avoiding risk in the first place.

Prevention is better than cure.