In 2008 during the worst cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe's modern history, a UNICEF water and sanitation worker helps a woman fill containers with safe drinking water at a distribution point in Harare.
In recent years, despite increased scale and effectiveness of humanitarian responses, millions of people continue to be affected by largely predictable shocks and stresses, and live through their negative consequences. The famine in Somalia during the Horn of Africa crisis in 2011, and yet another food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel in 2012, were tipping points for these frustrations.
Looking at past humanitarian and development efforts, the international community diagnosed a failure to address the underlying causes of crises. It was concluded that insufficient attention had been paid to the capacities – and ultimately the resilience – of the most vulnerable communities, an integral element of sustainable development.
UNICEF and resilience
While multiple definitions exist, resilience can be understood as “the ability to withstand threats or shocks, or the ability to adapt to new livelihood options, in ways that preserve integrity and that do not deepen vulnerability”.
Over the years, UNICEF has contributed to strengthening resilience through its work in social protection, disaster risk reduction (DRR), climate change, peacebuilding, and national capacity development, as guided by the organization’s Core Commitments for Children in Humanitarian Action (CCCs). The resilience agenda is very closely linked to UNICEF’s equity agenda, and the effort of building resilience has been carried out through the following programmes:
Conflict and insecurity are among the most significant development challenges. Because of this, peacebuilding is a key component of UNICEF’s corporate strategy in resilience building. For countries affected by conflict or at risk of it, peacebuilding plays a crucial role in repositioning UNICEF programming through addressing drivers that undermine social cohesion, human security and individual resilience to withstand and recover from shocks.
Health and nutrition
A healthy family is more capable of withstanding shocks, and supporting others when disasters strike. Programmes to build resilience through health interventions focus on community and family nutrition and health care, as well as prevention and treatment of diseases and malnutrition. They also address reproductive and psychosocial health, and equitable access to health and nutrition services.
Water, sanitation and hygiene
Reliable and affordable water supply for people, animals and crops is a critical factor to avert many of the crisis-ridden stresses and shocks. Empowerment of communities to change behaviour and adapt more healthy and dignified practices, such as community-led sanitation initiatives, contributes to household resilience. Such programmes can also be an entry point to develop other community actions and skills.
Resilience in children can only be built in safe spaces, including homes and schools, where they are cared for and their capacity to deal with adversity is developed. In Somalia, for example, resilience of individuals, families and communities are supported through a range of protection measure that address hazards of population mobility, harmful social norms, including gender-based violence, and trauma associated with conflict.
An educated child will have more of the resources needed for his or her resilience. Educated girls, for example, are likely to become heads of more resilient families, and are more capable of steering their children towards good health, nutrition, and education, compared to their non-educated peers. Educated children of both sexes have more opportunity to employment within and beyond the country, and are better positioned to not only support their own lives, but also those of their wider communities, such as through remittance economies.
Cash transfers - small predictable sums of money given to the most vulnerable families - are a key pillar of the resilience strategies UNICEF and its partners employ to help communities withstand shocks. Past experiences show that in the period following an acute emergency, reliable and predictable cash-transfer programmes can assist families to rebuild their livelihoods and avoid migration and destitution. Cash transfers also call attention to disparities between the poor and the poorest of the poor, and help place the latter at the centre of a nation’s social policy agenda.