Oxfam's EU Advocacy office in Brussels

By Natalia Alonso, Head of Oxfam’s EU Office

Oxfam’s Penny Lawrence asked us to picture Isutu, a mother of five in Mali with elderly relatives at home and a husband in search of work. She has survived famine and fears she may soon be forced from her land by conflict, yet also struggles to feed herself and her family from day to day. Isutu is not just another victim of another crisis, this daily struggle is her life. The differences between ‘humanitarian’ and ‘developmental’ support mean little to her, and both are essential if she is not only to survive, but to thrive in spite of what may come.

Lawrence was speaking at a recent event held in Brussels, ‘Resilience & Power’, for which Oxfam had gathered figures from the very highest levels of the European Commission and the World Bank in order to debate the potential of the ‘resilience’ concept to change the way we go about improving the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

It was last year’s famine in the Sahel, and the fate of people like Isutu, which informed much of the morning’s discussion. From European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs’ early reminder that this crisis was its sixth in only ten years, to Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Kristalina Georgieva’s concluding word of warning that the next may not be far off.

Indeed, a new Oxfam paper, No Accident: Resilience and the inequality of risk, describes this series of crises as a ‘wake-up call’ to the fact that such situations cannot be solved by more ‘development-as-usual’. Shock after shock has undermined the ability of individuals in the region to cope. Short-term humanitarian assistance must be complemented by targeted and locally-owned development strategies to help get communities back on their feet. However, there are often major delays between the interventions of both sets of actors.

The problem was summed up by Deputy Director of Irish Aid David Brück, representing the Irish Presidency of the EU, who conjured the image of an ill and suffering patient who is operated on at the very last minute, only to then be denied any further treatment.

As a basis for renewed engagement between the development and humanitarian communities, the participants agreed that ‘resilience’ is not just another buzzword, but a concept which is inspiring a welcome and long-overdue shift in attitudes within both communities. Brück noted the lessons learned from an unusual joint visit of humanitarian and developmental EU member state officials to Ethiopia to understand what resilience looks like in practice. Deputy Director-General for Development Cooperation at the European Commission Marcus Cornaro described a similar visit by his staff with their humanitarian counterparts to that country, and a growing willingness to collaborate in the programming of their assistance.

However, as was underlined by Penny Lawrence and moderator Jim Clarken of Oxfam Ireland, resilience is not simply a technical fix, it’s about tackling underlying and unequal power structures which make the poorest the most vulnerable and the most at risk from external shocks and crises. Commissioner Georgieva made this point very clearly in her forceful closing statement: the poorest have only become poorer, as shocks of ever greater intensity and frequency leave no time for communities to recover.

Underlining the urgency of the challenge, she stressed that this trend will only worsen with the growing impact of climate change, which is confronted by communities already disproportionately touched by devastating conflicts. Visibly emotional, she stressed that it is women and children – the most vulnerable of the vulnerable – who bear the greatest burden in such circumstances. Like Dr. Mulyani Indrawati, the Managing Director of the World Bank, she called for women and children to be at the heart of a ‘resilience’ inspired approach.

However, if this challenge is to be met, rich countries must take action to reduce risk, working to monitor and prevent potential crisis situations, as emphasised by World Bank Senior Adviser Katarina Mathernova, rather than acting at the eleventh hour. For countries everywhere, this means addressing inequality and giving poor people a voice in decisions that affect their lives. For the aid sector, if the development and humanitarian communities are to come together in order to “not only save lives, but to turn lives around”, in the words of Commissioner Georgieva, it means changing the way we work so that we can better support poor people facing crises.

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