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NCCR North-South - Research Partnerships for Sustainable Development

Thank you for visiting the website of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South. The NCCR North-South programme formally ended in June 2014.

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Social Vulnerability & Resilience

From Vulnerability to Resilience

Assessing the Potential and Limitation of a New Conceptual Approach for Pathways to Sustainable Development


    Urban Natural Risks
    Natural hazards like storms, landslides and flooding not only occur in rural but also in urban areas. In the core area of the study, the Bolivian agglomeration of La Paz-El Alto, the citizens and authorities face rapid urban growth on the slopes of the 3600m high mountains that surround the city, in spite of frequent landslides and flooding. In a context of socio-political crisis, risk management does not become a priority issue, but it raises crucial questions: how can emergencies and disasters be avoided, minimized or managed at all levels? How people perceive the risk they are exposed to, and how do they cope with their difficult situation, risk only being a small part of their problems? Although it was already implied in the PAR/Access model that is used as a frame of reference, resilience will now move into the forefront of interest. >> Bolivia

Livelihoods in rural areas are often fragile, in highland and in lowland contexts. The core area of study, the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, is exposed to different types of risks and crises, from the absorption of millions of Afghan refugees, to earthquakes and very poor health indicators in national comparison. The region also shows comparatively wide gender gaps in access to livelihood assets. Migration is an increasingly important livelihood strategy, connecting rural to urban areas. Under these circumstances, households may still serve as entry points for the study of livelihood, but they have to be reconceptualized as embedded in highly gendered networks of exchange and support, in which conflicts are negotiated, and people, goods and services move between different regions and between rural and urban places. These lose networks of people and institutions support or hinder resilience of livelihoods. Recent feminist scholarship has further shown that institutions governing the distribution of and claims to resources are influenced by constructions of gender and gendered hierarchies (Kabeer 1999). Linking up with this new thrust in livelihood research (Ellis 2000; see also the PIP-Box in DfID 2000; De Haan and Zoomers 2005), emphasis will be given to the influence of gender and of the institutional context (i.e. social, economic, and political) at different scales (intra-household, regional, national, and global) on causing livelihood vulnerability at household level, and on fostering ivelihoods resilience. >> Pakistan

Managing resilience to diseases of poverty: Up scaling actor oriented approaches
This sub-project carries on research conducted during the first phase of the NCCR North-South in West Africa and links it up with past and on-going studies in East Africa. After consultation with partners in Tanzania, it concentrates on the interlinked challenges of health and poverty alleviation, moving the complex and dynamics relations between livelihood, health risks and resilience to the centre of interest. The focal point is “access". Findings of Phase I show that access to household and community resources as well as to public and private services is a key determinant of vulnerability to health risks, especially in a context of poverty. Poor people alone cannot solve their health problems. They need the support of family members, neighbours and community-based organizations as well as the services of the state and of civic society organizations to build up resilience to diseases of poverty.
This sub-project creates a link between different approaches developed in health research and livelihoods research to gain a better understanding of how resilience building is influenced by access to effective health care. It pays particular attention to actors and to the social and political institutions that foster or constrain access such as gender or bureaucracy. It understands resilience building as a dynamic and multi-layered process that has to be supported on various levels of society to reach the goal of improved health and well-being. This means working actively with the main social actors, from community members to researchers to government officials. Key to this joint action process is social learning for adaptation to the rapid pace of change occurring in many places. >> Tanzania

Coupled human environment system
In the field of coupled human-environment systems or social-environment systems (SES), interesting insights have been gained over the past decade. Vulnerability is registered not by exposure to risk or hazards alone. It resides in the sensitivity and resilience of the system experiencing such hazards. A focus limited to perturbations and stressors proves insufficient for understanding the impacts on and responses of the affected system or its components (Turner et al. 2003, ICSU 2002, Wisner et al. 2004). Due to the multi-scale nature of the human-environment system, multiple protection mechanisms become possible adding towards the overall resilience of different elements (e.g. households, districts, cities, regions). This necessitates the explicit incorporation of differential, multi-layered resilience into an open, systemic approach, incorporating feedback mechanisms. The insufficient treatment of the multi-scale environment incorporates the danger of underemphasizing the various feedback mechanisms beyond the system of analysis (Turner et al. 2003). Drawing on this strain of thinking formulated in the sustainability science community (Clark et al 2000, ICSU 2002, Turner at al, 2003, Polsky et al. 2003), the resilience alliance (Folke et al. 2002, Walker and Salt 2006) and on previous work on the Syndrome mitigation concept within the NCCR North-South, an innovative multi-scale system methodology is needed. It requires an approach in which boundaries, complexity and dynamic of the systems are analyzed. Scenario building will help to identify and analyze different possible mitigation strategies which – if translated by ICT – will produce convincing evidence for decision makers.
In the overall aim for a sustainable development of the coupled social-environmental system (SES) a resilience approach offers potential additional advantages compared to a vulnerability approach. A fundamental aspect of sustainable development lies in meeting basic needs and rights of humans and the environmental components of the SES. A resilience approach investigates not only how disturbances and change might influence the structure of a system but also how its functionality in meeting these needs might change. This focus offers the chance to identify others way of retaining the functionality of a SES while its components and structure may change. This ability to identify new ways of system functionality can not be achieved by utilising only a vulnerability approach, focussing more on how a system is disturbed in its structure and functionality. In the investigation of a SES both, vulnerability and resilience approaches are needed to identify options for a sustainable development in a SES.

Special attention will be given to the urban syndrome context and questions about the specificity of “the urban syndrome” identified in Phase 1. Other patterns may emerge if we shift the focus from problems to potentials, and the mobility of ideas, people and goods between urban and rural areas lead to flexible and dynamic networks linking people and places.

While we favor a people-centered approach, we are fully aware that people and communities are embedded in larger webs of relationships, where actions by different actor categories on different levels of society can hinder or foster resilience of their livelihoods, and power plays an important role. This calls for a multi-scale analysis and complex systems’ approaches. It also means that interventions and programs based on the aspirations and capacities of people at risk have to be scaled up, and this remains the greatest challenge. New methodologies have to be developed and brought to the attention of policy- and decision makers on various levels of society. Building resilience by fostering people’s strength offers a promising perspective and a focus for concerted efforts as well as critical reflection that contributes to the transdisciplinary mitigation approach of the NCCR North-South and to international debates about sustainable development.


Research 2001-2009

Study Areas

in the world:

The NCCR North-South is hosted by the University of Bern
and funded jointly by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation