“Resilience” enjoys widespread uptake across many and diverse domains – including security and crisis response. Shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty, however, it may be just a buzzword as we know little about the implications of resilience as a strategy to insecurity and crisis. Exploring resilience in EU humanitarian and development policy and how it translates into practice in Jordan and Lebanon, we argue in a recent article that resilience-building may function as a smokescreen for buttressing “Fort Europe” against migrants and refugees.
“Resilience” enjoys widespread uptake across many and diverse domains, from technology to business management, to urban planning and counselling. The word stems from the Latin “resilire” – to leap or jump back. It gained traction in the 1970s, when the Canadian ecologist Holling defined resilience as the ability of ecological systems to absorb change and disturbance. Borrowing from Holling, risk scholars like Wildavsky viewed resilience as “the capacity to cope with unanticipated dangers after they have become manifest, learning to bounce back”. Wildavsky argued that resilience was a more effective and cheaper strategy to deal with risks than anticipation and prevention. From the 1990s onwards, resilience became an integral component of disaster risk reduction (DRR) programmes, aimed at minimising the impact of natural disasters and enhancing recovery.
Policymakers have recently started to use resilience in the context of man-made disasters and crisis. For example, resilience has been identified as a major leitmotif in the 2016 European Union (EU) Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy. Prior to the Global Strategy, resilience was already an important component of EU humanitarian and development policies, especially in the context of migration and forced displacement. The EU was not the first to use this buzzword: the UK placed resilience at the centre of its humanitarian and development aid in 2011. Shortly thereafter, USAID published policy and programme guidelines for “building resilience to recurrent crisis”. United Nations (UN) agencies and large international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) currently all have policies, guidelines and programmes aimed at building resilience.
Despite its widespread uptake, uncertainty remains about what resilience is, how it translates into practice, and the implications of resilience-building as a response to insecurity and crisis, qualifying resilience as a buzzword. The ambiguity surrounding buzzwords often lead scholars and practitioners to dismiss them as empty and meaningless. Yet buzzwords generally espouse strong (normative) ideas about what they are supposed to bring about. The assumptions and rationales underlying buzzwords, moreover, frequently remain unquestioned, making them interesting to study. In our recent article, we examine the EU turn to resilience by analysing key EU humanitarian and development policies. Subsequently, we delve into an empirical example of resilience-building in Jordan and Lebanon to explore how this buzzword translates into practice.
Our policy analysis yields two aspects that are key in EU resilience thinking. First, resilience-building requires humanitarian and development actors to be simultaneously involved in crisis response and to work closely together. The so-called “humanitarian-development nexus” resonates with older concepts aimed at bridging the ideological and institutional divide between humanitarian and development actors, such as Linking Relief, Rehabilitation and Development (LRRD).
Second, resilience assigns significant importance to ‘the local’. This means, firstly, that the EU recognizes the importance of understanding context-specific vulnerabilities and their (root) causes, as well as what local capacities exist that humanitarian and development interventions could tap into, build upon, and strengthen. Next, resilience is strongly framed as the responsibility of national governments and local authorities. Finally, the EU constructs refugees in particular as an asset to host-country economies, their resilience dependent on access to host-countries’ formal labour markets. Refugees are turned into a development opportunity for refugee-hosting states – but at the same time constitute a threat to Europe.
How do these different aspects of resilience translate into practice in Jordan and Lebanon? Jordan and Lebanon host the largest number of Syrian refugees in respect to the size of their population. Government estimates indicate Jordan hosts up to 1.3 million refugees and Lebanon 1.5 million – respectively 13 and 25% of their population. In response to the challenges of Syria’s neighbouring countries, the multi-agency response framework – the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) – was established in 2015.
In line with EU thinking, the 3RP combines a humanitarian response to protect Syrian refugees with a development response to build the resilience of national government and affected host communities. Although the 3RP structure simultaneously engages humanitarian and development actors in the response, evidence shows that different funding modalities and tensions between (leading) UN agencies weaken rather than strengthen the humanitarian-development nexus in practice.
Second, whereas the 3RP country chapters are officially under the leadership of the Jordanian and Lebanese government, significant challenges arise in practice. Especially the involvement of Lebanese authorities was limited at the start of the crisis, its later statements and measures straining its relationship with the international community. Evidence indicating that Lebanon may strategically maintain the precariousness of Syrian refugees’ lives, moreover, points at the need for caution in insisting on national governments’ responsibility.
Finally, the same framing of refugees as a development opportunity underlies initiatives like the EU-Jordan Trade Agreement, which promises access to EU markets in exchange for refugee work permits. The nature of the Jordanian and Lebanese labour market – in combination with structural political, social and economic problems – makes refugees’ employment as a pathway to resilience an unlikely reality. It also constructs refugees as a commodity, to be exchanged for aid.
In conclusion, the way in which resilience is understood and the challenges it generates when translating resilience into practice, make us wonder whether this buzzword is not just a smokescreen for ulterior political motives. Building the resilience of “countries of origin and transit” may conveniently prevent migration, meanwhile externalizing the control of migration and forced displacement to crisis-affected states. As Jordan and Lebanon continue to struggle with the impact of the crisis, the EU’s strategy of refugee containment may instead increase their vulnerability, ultimately threatening rather than safeguarding the security of Europe.
Rosanne Anholt and Giulia Sinatti work at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. They are the authors of “Under the guise of resilience: The EU approach to migration and forced displacement in Jordan and Lebanon”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.