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The introduction of new terminology

Risk, vulnerability, adaptation and resilience have come to dominate the language used in international documentation.

‘Resilience’ is the latest trend in policy and strategy:

  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – ‘resilience’ features in two goals and eight targets linked to poverty, built infrastructure and human settlements, agricultural production and vulnerability to climate extremes and disasters. The term did not appear in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
  • The Paris Agreement features resilience as an integral component of climate change adaptation (first established in UNFCCC documentation in 2010), linked to concepts of building adaptive capacity and reducing climate change vulnerability (UNFCCC 2015). It emphasises the resilience of, and links between, socioeconomic and ecological systems.
  • The Sendai Framework has an overall goal framed around strengthening resilience to achieve its outcome of reduced disaster risk and losses. Resilience also features across its global targets and indicators. The emphasis on anticipatory action in building resilience reflects a continued shift away from managing disasters towards managing risk.
  • Agenda for Humanity – ‘resilience’ features heavily, reflecting its increased importance across the sector over the past decade.

Unfortunately, there is no common definition or articulations of resilience outcomes across the frameworks. In fact, no definition is given in the SDGs or the Paris Agreement.

This makes it hard for decision-makers and stakeholders to deliver or monitor progress in policies that could otherwise be designed to deliver more than one framework. This would result in potential improvements in sustainability and greater achievability for hard-pressed and resource-poor national and local implementing organisations.

The need for fresh definitions

Rather than striving to agree on a single definition, it would be appropriate to build an understanding of what resilient outcomes mean in different situations and at different levels (Peters 2016).

The UNISDR defines resilience as:

The ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions.

(UNISDR 2017)

This is the definition used in the Sendai Framework. Resilience is being used variously across the four frameworks in the context of developing or building capacities, a quality – a way of thinking, behaving or working, and as a desired outcome.

Yet despite the emphasis on resilience as the positive attributes, abilities or capacities and qualities of systems (states, institutions, infrastructure, society and community, ecosystems etc), all too frequently, resilience is used synonymously with risk management and risk reduction.

The concept of transformation

There is growing interest in the concept of transformation relating to resilience. Academics and research-informed practice have articulated that incremental improvements under these four discrete frameworks are unlikely to achieve the ambitious outcomes set for 2030.

Transformation requires changes in the social and economic structures that influence decision-making (in households, communities, businesses, government departments, NGOs, etc.), changes in individual and organisational values, capabilities and choices. Many such changes depend on altering existing power relations (eg, gender dynamics) and recognising the social and political processes that constrain resilience.

Your task

What do you see as the difference between transformation and adaptation?


Peters, K., Langston, L., Tanner, T., and Bahadur, A. (2016) ‘Resilience’ across the post-2015 frameworks: towards coherence? [online] available from https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/11085.pdf [17 December 2019]

UNISDR (2017) Terminology [online] available for https://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/terminology#letter-r [20 December 2019]

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This article is from the free online course:

Disaster Risk Reduction: An Introduction

Coventry University