Measuring community resilience: implications for development aid

Contributor: Molly Jones

A staggering amount of development dollars – one in three, in fact – are lost due to natural disasters and crises. Certain communities are less affected than others by such disasters; they are more resilient. Knowing where vulnerability and strength exist and how to bolster them could help avoid these losses. Yet, today, very little data exists to help development practitioners understand which adaptive capacities are lagging in a given community.

Resilience, as defined by USAID, is “the ability of people, households, communities, countries, and systems to mitigate, adapt to, and recover from shocks and stresses in a manner that reduces chronic vulnerability and facilitates inclusive growth.” To better understand what makes a person, household, community, country, or system more resilient than others, comparative measurements need to be taken.Fran Norris et al. have asserted four key adaptive capacities that are the most essential for a resilient community: economic development, social capital, information and communication, and community competence.

Whether based on these criteria or others, better measurement of community resilience will allow development experts to prioritize aid and invest in projects that build adaptive capacities where they are most needed.

Costs Are Disproportionate to Preventative Measures

Over the past three years alone, natural disasters have resulted in $647 billion in economic losses worldwide. 2011 was the most expensive year on record, resulting in over $380 billion in economic losses due to the advanced economic development and infrastructure of nations struck.

While the death toll of disasters has varied throughout history, population growthurbanization, and movement to coastal areas in the past decade have increased mortality rates substantially. Deaths from disasters in 2010 exceeded 300,000 people worldwide – compared to just over 13,000 from terrorism in the same year.

Many communities face recurring disasterstyphoons in the Philippinesdrought in the Sahel, landslides in Peru. Those that are not able to withstand these shocks are unable to fully utilize the aid allocated for their economic growth. Alternatively, the communities that have an underlying foundation of resilience are able to rebound more rapidly and resume focus on economic growth.

To build this underlying foundation of resilience, development practitioners should incorporate a strong focus on social capital, information and communication, and community competence in addition to economic growth before a disaster occurs, not after.

How Can We Measure Community Resilience?

Measuring resilience is critical to determining the most effective interventions. However, doing so with metrics that are sensitive, measurable, and collectable at a low cost presents a challenge. Further, much of the data needed (such as administrative or survey data) is lacking in developing countries.

Resilience experts are making progress toward a comprehensive framework of resilience indicators. The best metrics that result will be collectable and measurable at a low cost, such that a given development project can support an evaluation system that can detect the project’s impact on resilience and identify additionally needed interventions.

The current understanding of resilience metrics is varied, and each of Norris’ adaptive capacities is at a different stage of measurement:

1 – Social Capital. Norris et al. find that social capital is comprised of network structures and linkages; social support; and community bonds, roots, and commitments. The measures capturing this are advancing. Daniel Aldrich and others have pointed to the General Social Survey, which has collected nationally representative indicators of social sentiments and behaviour in the United States since 1972 and internationally in 48 nations since 1984. Indicators of community helpfulness, fairness, and trust gleam insight into social capital, with the added benefit of decades of trend data both from the United States and abroad. Other insights can be found in the number of and participation level of social groups, networks, and advocacy groups within communities.

2 – Economic Development. After Hurricane Katrina, higher-income neighbourhoods in New Orleans suffered less damage, on average, and recovered more quickly than lower-income neighbourhoods. Access to resources to prepare, evacuate, rebuild, repopulate, organize, and engage are higher in communities of higher net worth. Investment in lower-income communities is necessary to improve their economic development and thus recovery; however, this activity can most effectively be performed before a disaster. The weighted importance of economic development for community resilience is unknown and likely varies by community and disaster type and strength.

3 – Information and Communication. Available, reliable, accurate, and trusted sources of information are critical in all phases of a disaster, from preparedness to response and recovery. These metrics are often reported through metrics such as the presence of social information and communication channels, percent of the population with a telephone or smartphone, and the existence of an early warning system capable of reaching the whole community. The growing use of “big data” analytics presents an opportunity to correlate various information on persons seeking preparedness resources; those who are safely evacuated; differing rates of recovery; and the source, type, and frequency of the communication methods used to reach people.

4 – Community Competence. Community competence is composed of collective efficacy, collective action and decision-making, and empowerment. Of these components, measurement of collective efficacy is the most advanced and can be captured by a 10-question survey. This questionnaire is used in developing and developed countries and is occasionally tailored to skewed demographics (e.g., elderly populations).

In addition to measurement of these adaptive capacities, there are indicators that demonstrate signs of recovery. For example, the rate of schools opening (or Waffle Houses, according to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate) serves as a proxy indicator for many factors indicating recovery, including restored power, working transportation infrastructure, and access to medical services.

However, the more valuable information is what can be measured before a disaster that will dictate the response and recovery after. The rate of schools opening is a good indicator for the rate of recovery but does not capture the inherent adaptive capacities within a community that influence that rate.

Increasing the quality and quantity of resilience data at the community level will enable practitioners to make necessary reallocations of aid toward more effective use. This reallocation can support a more targeted approach to building the adaptive capacities needed to create resilience and sustainable growth. As a result, communities will become more resilient, less aid will be needed for response and recovery, and the aid that is allocated will be put to better use.

Molly Jones is a research analyst in the Security, Energy, and Environment Department at NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent research organization with more than 70 years of leadership and experience in data collection, analysis, and dissemination.

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