Absorb, Adapt, Transform: Resilience capacities | Psychological Resilience

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Change is happening all around us, and some change is rapidly transforming environmental, agricultural and political systems causing suffering, turbulence and uncertainty. Resilience is about enhancing people’s capacity to proactively and positively manage this change in ways that contribute to a just world without poverty. This short guide is written for Oxfam staff and partners to help them to enhance resilient development through programmes and campaigns. It explains three types of essential resilience capacity: absorptive, adaptive and transformative. Strengthening these three capacities can help achieve the realization of rights and wellbeing in spite of shocks, stresses and uncertainty.
  1 The Future is a Choice Absorb, adapt, transform Resilience Capacities ‘All development interventions need an agency lens, i.e. they need to be thought of not simply as delivering a given infrastructure or technology, but as vehicles for expanding peopl  e’s range of choice’  1 . This brief paper is written for Oxfam staff working to make development resilient. It describes resilience capacity and what it looks like in practice. Whilst resilience capacity can be broadly described, it is also necessary to recognise that women and men, communities and institutions will have their own experience and ways of describing resilience and capacity. These unique and specific perceptions need to be understood and applied in the design, monitoring and evaluation of programmes and campaigns. Capacity –  what is it and why is it important? Change is happening all around us and some change is rapidly transforming environmental, agricultural and political systems causing suffering, turbulence and uncertainty. Resilience is about enhancing the capacity  to proactively and positively manage this change in ways that contribute to ‘a  just world without poverty 2 ’ . The Oxfam Framework for Resilient Development, The Future is a Choice , describes three types of resilience capacity : absorptive, adaptive and transformative capacity. 3  These three capacities need to be enhanced to achieve resilient development outcomes, that is, the realisation of rights and wellbeing in spite of shocks, stresses and uncertainty. The development sector as a whole uses the term ‘ capacity'. In Oxfam, we more naturally think in terms of agency, empowerment and choice. All these terms  –  capacity, ability, agency and choice - are similar in their meaning. In our work on resilience, Oxfam has adopted the te rm ‘capacity’ to enable us to share better our work with the development sector.   Resilience capacities  2 Pagina Kaijwa from Zambia is part of an Oxfam women’s economic empowerment programme .  At its heart resilience requires us to move away from simply looking at what a person, household, or system has and recognise and enhance what it does. 4   Or to put it another way, it is not about ‘things’ only, it is also about agency. Resilience requires ‘an agency centered approach’ 5 . What our programmes need to leave behind is strengthened agency; enhanced capacity. Capacity is broken down into three closely overlapping capacities - these are absorptive, adaptive and transformative capacities.  All three capacities are essential for resilience. They are interconnected and mutually reinforcing and exist at multiple levels e.g. individual, household, community, district, national, and within social-ecological systems.  As they overlap, it is very unlikely that a programme will enhance one capacity in isolation e.g. humanitarian programming that uses cash transfers is likely to be enhancing the absorptive and adaptive capacities of individuals and market systems. These three capacities are widely used in the sector and Oxfam, along with other NGOs and academics is developing its understanding of these capacities and how they are strengthened and enhanced over time and in different contexts. Oxfam’s hypothesis is that resilience capacity is strengthened by enhancing collaborative ways of working across levels, sectors and actors and by deliberately engaging in and developing six social change processes that are shown in the diagram below.  3 Absorptive capacity  Absorptive capacity is the capacity to take intentional  protective action and to cope with known shocks and stress. It is needed as shocks and stress will continue to happen, for example due to extreme weather events caused by climate change,  protracted conflict, and disasters. Simply stated this is the capacity to ‘bounce back’ after a shock. It involves anticipating, planning, coping and recovering from specific, known shocks and short term stresses 6 . Absorptive capacity is about ensuring stability because it aims to prevent or limit the negative impact of shocks on individuals, households, communities, businesses and authorities. Programme outcomes that indicate that this capacity has been strengthened include: early warning systems are in place and functioning giving people, communities, authorities and institutions timely and relevant information about shocks such as storm surges, tsunamis, cyclones, droughts enabling appropriate action to be taken by people and authorities to reduce the impact of anticipated shocks structures and systems are in place and are protecting natural capital e.g. mangroves, forests, reefs and soils and physical capital such houses, shelters, roads, and water systems inclusive networks of family, neighbours, friends, and community groups are maintaining social capital social protection schemes (particularly those focussed on insurance), and safe mechanisms of remittance transfer are protecting assets and maintaining financial capital health and education systems and access to nutrition and support for psycho-social wellbeing are in place and protecting human capital disaster risk reduction laws, policy frameworks and well resourced contingency plans are in place and are enabling communities, private sector actors and authorities to function effectively and collaboratively in post shock situations. Six social change processes that enhance resilience capacities  4 Characteristics of adaptive institutions xiii   There are policy frameworks that support the institution’s ability to adapt proactively Have sufficient financial, technological, and human resources and the ability to use them flexibly and swiftly Foster a culture of openness and fairness; are accountable for their actions, transparent in their dealings, and well received and respected within the community Promote the development of a diverse range of proactive strategies and actions; has a culture of experimentation, learning and innovation Use monitoring and evaluation to assess effectiveness and make changes through an ongoing process of incremental adjustments Possess a strong but fluid organisational purpose, vision, and set of priorities Think ahead to what the future may bring and incorporates this thinking into plans Enables decision-making with minimum bureaucratic delays Engages in partnerships and collaborative networks with other organisations Has visionary champions   Adaptive Capacity  Adaptive capacity is the capacity to make intentional incremental adjustments in anticipation of or in response to change, in ways that create more flexibility in the future. It is necessary because change is ongoing and uncertain, and because intentional transformation takes time and sustained engagement.  Adaptation is about making appropriate changes in order to better manage, or adjust to a changing situation. A key aspect of adaptive capacity is accepting that change is ongoing as well as highly unpredictable. That is why adaptive capacity is about flexibility, and the ability to make incremental changes on an ongoing basis through process of continuous adjusting, learning, and innovation. Programme outcomes that indicate that this capacity has been strengthened include: natural resources including land, soil and water are being used in ways that are inclusive, sustainable and adaptive to change such as climate change platforms are in place and bringing together women and men and different stakeholders, public and private, to make forward looking decisions, and learn from experiments involving new ideas and approaches   diverse and inclusive forms of knowledge and information are being generated and are informing decisions at all levels enhanced and inclusive access to productive resources including credit, markets, livestock, and linkages to input suppliers social networks are accessible, equitable and innovative and have strong and diverse participation (e.g. self-help groups, savings groups) incremental technological and social innovations are being adopted such as new seed varieties, agricultural practices, ICTs, enterprise developments and new forms of partnerships legal and policy frameworks that support institutions to adapt and continue to provide services under changing conditions are in place and informing practice .
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