Helen Clark: Speech at the 2014 EU High Level Resilience Forum

Apr 28, 2014

Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
at the 2014 EU High Level Resilience Forum
Brussels, Belgium


Thank you, Commissioner Georgieva, for inviting me to speak at the first EU High Level Forum on Resilience.  

As a development organization, UNDP is very aware of the highly detrimental impact which disasters and crises – both man-made and those due to natural hazards – have on local, national, and global development efforts.  Too often we see decades of hard work and billions of dollars in investments washed away by a hurricane, leveled by an earthquake, or destroyed in a war.

Syria, for example, is estimated to have lost more than 35 years of human development progress since its conflict began. In the Philippines, of the fourteen million people impacted by Typhoon Haiyan, forty per cent were already living below the poverty line, and it is estimated that the livelihoods of 5.6 million workers were affected.

The increasing importance given to supporting countries and communities to build resilience to all types of risk, stems from this growing understanding that the issues of poverty, crisis, and conflict are intertwined.

The EU’s Joint Instruction Letter on Resilience defines resilience as the “ability of an individual, a household, a community, a country or a region to withstand, to adapt, and to quickly recover from stresses and shocks”.  This resonates with UNDP’s own understanding of resilience.  Our approach also emphasizes the importance of transforming the structures and systems which repeatedly perpetuate fragility and undermine resilience.

External shocks can open up the space required to initiate transformation, but only if opportunities to negotiate a different, more inclusive, and fairer future, and lay the foundations for political, institutional, social and economic reform, are seized.  With this definition in mind, forward momentum and action will depend on three components: the three 3Cs of commitment, collaboration, and clarity.

I have been particularly impressed by how swiftly the EU has been able to generate the first – namely, commitment and buy-in from its Member States.  Engagement of key constituencies in capitals has helped secure the high level political commitment required to be an effective partner to crisis-affected populations in high-risk contexts. Such commitments provide the basis for bold action towards the kinds of results which Commissioner Georgieva has outlined in her remarks.

Collaboration, the second C, is essential because it maximizes the potential for impact while also minimizing the risk burden for all.  The EU’s adoption of a single resilience policy and plan of action is notable, and at the UN, we are also engaged in developing a common resilience policy.  This work marks the first step in bringing together the development, humanitarian, and peacebuilding parts of the UN system to unlock the resilience components which have proven to be too challenging to manage individually.   

Finally, given the greater complexity and the longer time frames needed to deliver on resilience commitments – clarity, both of purpose and of approach, will be necessary to sustain progress.   

This Forum is an opportunity to discuss and advance all three.

I will focus my remarks around three key lessons learned from UNDP’s work in different settings.

Lesson 1: Resilience building requires a commitment to integrated risk management approaches.

In Burundi, for example, recurrent drought and food insecurity, coupled with uneven food distribution, have sparked violence between migrants and host communities over access to land. In Afghanistan, facing the consequences of drought and with few livelihood alternatives, youth in Balkh province have joined illegal armed groups.  In Somalia, conflicts and insecurity disrupt food supplies, displace populations, degrade productive assets, and undermine livelihoods leaving individuals, families and communities less able to cope with calamities from natural hazards, as we saw during the 2011/12 drought which resulted in famine in parts of the country.

Although these linkages are evident on the ground, international partners don’t always address them holistically.  This is largely because our current response to this web of risk is driven by highly compartmentalized and specialized risk assessments and management efforts. Our disciplinary, institutional, and financing silos, and our tendency to identify with one community –  either humanitarian, development, or peacebuilding -  keep us from being able to assess accurately how losses linked to one area of risk can easily spill over into other areas,  or how actions to reduce one risk might imply trade-offs for reducing others.  

A focus on resilience offers an opportunity to work together to advance integrated risk management as a core building block into national and local policies, instruments and plans.

Lessons 2: Resilience involves the capacity to anticipate potential change, disruption, and calamity, and to construct timely and appropriate responses focused on prevention.

More emphasis is needed on prevention and on anticipating risk by linking solid local, national, and regional early warning systems with responses. Rather than parking the ambulance at the bottom of the proverbial cliff and waiting for disaster to strike, we need to build a fence at the top.

Countries can build disaster resilience through a variety of disaster risk reduction activities. Often, recovery efforts themselves offer an opportunity to introduce new systems for prevention.

In Bangladesh, for example, significant investments in embankments and protective mangrove planting, as well as support for early warning systems, raising risk awareness, and contingency planning driven by local people themselves, have built much greater resilience to major weather events. While a 1991 cyclone killed 138,000 people near Chittagong, a 2007 cyclone of similar magnitude killed around 3,500. While any death caused by a disaster anywhere is always a tragedy, this decrease is remarkable and shows the effectiveness of the measures put in place.

Another good example of where resilience-building has been incorporated into development efforts comes from Mozambique. In 2000, the country was battered by cyclone-related flooding. It left 800 people dead and 650,000 people displaced. In total more than 4.5 million Mozambicans were affected. 

Seven years later floods of similar magnitudes hit Mozambique again. This time, however, the death toll was 29 people, and the numbers of people displaced were significantly lower at around 70,000.

So what had changed?

The answer is simple: Mozambique’s resilience had been strengthened through a comprehensive disaster risk reduction strategy. The government had provided leadership and articulated a clear strategic vision. UNDP and other partners had provided, variously, support for institutional, policy, and capacity development, and for strengthened infrastructure. Emergency response systems were improved. Civil society organizations and the Red Cross movement worked in communities and with local governments and the UN on local preparedness.

But much more work is needed to improve early warning and response capacities.  In many countries, early warning systems are designed to focus on single shocks, without capacity to monitor the inter-linkages of shocks and their multiplier effects. A cross-sectoral and multi-hazard approach, to account for the cascading effect of different hazards, could optimize the use of existing resources and ensure that different hazards are anticipated and actions taken to alleviate their effects.
Lesson 3: Weak institutions and societies under strain exacerbate vulnerability.  Strengthening these and building resilience must be seen as a long-term endeavor. 

At UNDP we see the inability to reduce vulnerability to crisis and safeguard development gains through risk management as being linked to weak institutions and more prevalent in societies which are under strain. When state institutions can’t guarantee access to justice and functioning public services; when they can’t respond adequately to a range of shocks which create volatility and instability, including natural disasters; when they can’t provide an enabling environment where citizens can flourish and invest in better futures for themselves, discontent, tensions, and conflict can arise.  Criminal entities and the corruption, greed, and violence which they bring can quickly fill any void in governance.

This is why UNDP’s model of resilience supports responsive institutions as well as the empowerment of citizens for more resilient communities.
Just as river banks can be strengthened and levees can be built to protect against flooding, so can the institutions vital for building resilience be strengthened.  Communities can be equipped with the skills to prevent conflict. The technology needed to monitor and predict where violence may occur can be introduced – in the hope of preventing or at least minimizing impact.  Tools to support the mediation and resolution of conflict where it arises are available.  Much of this can be categorized as the software of building resilience.
In Colombia, for example, UNDP has been supporting local government in conflict-affected regions to work with marginalized groups, such as internally displaced and indigenous peoples and victims of conflict.  Working together, these local governments and groups have been developing inclusive municipal and government plans which respond to local needs.  Groups representing women, peasants, ethnic minorities, and victims of conflict, have been creating peacebuilding platforms which help to mediate conflict around contested issues, promote dialogue and collaboration, and help to re-build the wider community’s trust in institutions.    

Looking ahead

With these lessons in mind, let me offer some observations on issues where joint thinking and action would be useful.

First, extending our resilience partnership to promote country level programming and advocacy in support of governance.

Reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience will require strong governance capacities to ensure that state institutions have the capacity to implement long-term and multisectoral risk reduction approaches, and to become more effective, accountable, and responsive to the needs of all – most of all, the poorest and most vulnerable in communities.

A good example of this is the UN’s work with the EU through the Global Alliance for Resilience Initiative for the Sahel (AGIR), which focuses on food and nutrition security. The AGIR roadmap was designed to enable international partners and governments to sign up to basic targets for building resilience in key sectors, and to agree on a division of labor in meeting these targets.

The Paris meeting of the AGIR noted that resilience cannot be achieved without a stronger multisectoral approach, which moves beyond a climate-resilient agricultural sector to address weaknesses in other sectors, such as health and water.  We note that the initial focus of AGIR on Disaster Risk Reduction has become less visible in the AGIR road map, and that conflict-related fragilities are perhaps not as well covered as they could be.

We would welcome the opportunity to explore country-level collaboration with the EU and other AGIR partners on how governance systems could be strengthened to build resilience at national and local levels through an integrated approach to the combined risks of disaster, conflict, and violent extremism.

A possible entry point would be support for countries struggling with the development of their national roadmap plans and the formulation of their “National Resilience Priorities” (AGIR-NRP).

Second, promoting joint integrated risk assessments at country level is critical. These would enable all partners to respond more comprehensively, more efficiently, and on the basis of stronger collaborative approaches than have been in place up until now.  Such efforts could begin with shared analysis of the risk landscape in the Sahel, for example, to promote better prioritization of funding by governments and development agencies for long term risk management measures.

Third, closing the resilience financing gap. The CDA’s Listening Project has found that local people in countries receiving humanitarian assistance do not care about the classifications used to make financing decisions.  What is needed is smarter aid – aid which supports local people to drive their own responses to crises, recovery, and long term-development. 

Our experience in the response to the Syria crisis, for example, suggests that while policies of donor governments recognize that more integrated and multi-sectoral approaches and “co-ordinated and comprehensive strategies” are essential to transition from humanitarian responses to sustainable development, this understanding has yet to be translated into predictable and multi-year funding. In Syria, funding appeals have been on a six-month basis.  The protracted and multi-faceted nature of this crisis, now in its fourth year, requires us – humanitarian and development agencies alike – to consider earmarking a resilience budget line, which bridges relief and development as critical and complimentary parts of the very same response.

I would like to see the EU give serious consideration to expanding funding for comprehensive resilience work in crisis contexts.


This is a critical time for raising the profile of resilience, given the various high level development frameworks currently being negotiated, including the post-2015 development agenda, Sustainable Development Goals, and the post 2015 Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA2).

UNDP is working to champion resilience in all of these frameworks. We are encouraged to see that member states have incorporated resilience across six of the sixteen focus areas from which the Open Working Group will draw when it proposes Sustainable Development Goals later this year. We will also champion resilience in the forthcoming World Humanitarian Summit along with our partners, including the EU.  We see disaster risk reduction and adaptation to climate change as two sides of the same coin.

The 2014 Human Development Report, due to be launched mid-year, will focus on the importance of reducing vulnerabilities and building resilience.

Finally, I look forward to the further strengthening of the partnership between the EU and the UN in the area of resilience to make the very best of our joint efforts in this area.

I wish you all the best for the rest of the Forum.

Thank you.

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