Towards a common narrative on resilience for Bangladesh

24 Jul 2014

Keynote Speech by Mr. Neal Walker
Resident Representative, UNDP Bangladesh

Distinguished participants, guests, ladies and gentlemen. Good afternoon!

I am honoured to deliver the keynote speech at this roundtable on resilience organised alongside the launch of Human Development Report 2014. There will be a separate event specifically on the Human Development Report, but let me say that resilience is at the heart of the latest UNDP HD Report. Indeed, in my view, this year’s HDR is unique, in that it challenges our traditional understanding on vulnerability, which we tend to link with natural disasters and conflicts – you and I, we all know this to be true! The HDR argues something very different, which is that the bottom line of vulnerability is human capability – i.e., the lower an individual’s capabilities, the higher his or her vulnerability. I would personally add to the concept of capabilities, that the “attitude” of a community, of a nation, regarding how they help and support one-another is critical in resilience. This is sometimes referred to as “solidarity” or “social cohesion” or “communal harmony”, with slightly different nuances in each case. Regardless of how we call it, solidarity or cohesion, it is the second critical element in reducing vulnerability and increasing resilience. In short, to build resilience, we must strengthen people’s capabilities as well as build an attitude of community and national solidarity.

But I think that I am getting ahead of myself. Let me take a step back, and ask: what do we hope to achieve today? UNDP organised a workshop on integration of climate change and disaster risk reduction in 2013. In May 2014, we organised another roundtable discussion to unpack resilience. The European Commission in Bangladesh also organised a workshop to develop a common understanding on resilience in June.

If it is useful, and I hope that it will be, along with interested partners, we would expect to continue this series of discussions over time, struggling to ensure that each contributes to our ability to improve development results, on the ground.

My speech today looks at several critical issues:
  • Resilience – is it another flavour of the month, or what?
  • Is it important for Bangladesh and if so, why?
  • What are the Resilience Opportunities in Bangladesh?
  • What are the key propositions coming out of past discussions?
  • What are the critical questions we need to answer to develop a common narrative?
So, let’s get going. First, what is resilience?
Let me go out on a limb here and declare -- I personally believe the concept of resilience offers a useful perspective on the complicated development challenges facing the world in general and for Bangladesh, in particular. For UNDP, building resilience underpins any successful technical approach to sustainable human development. Technical approaches include our traditional development sectors such as poverty, environment, social services, governance, etc. Resilience also looks beyond these technical aspects, and strives to ensure that states, communities and global institutions work in harmony, focused on empowering people to achieve their aspirations – even if, or when, life is complicated by hardship and/or disasters. Resilience requires states to effectively protect the rights and the security of all citizens, and especially the rights of marginalized citizens, as they work towards their dreams. Resilience also requires individuals, communities and nations, to adopt an attitude of solidarity towards helping one another, not only in times of disaster, but all of the time, as a core value.

OK, so if UNDP sees the overriding objective as the empowerment of people and ensuring they have the ability to achieve their aspirations, then the traditional development sectors need to ensure they address both empowerment and technical aspects.

Obviously, if resilience was easy, it would have already been achieved. One obstacle is structural vulnerabilities, including discrimination and other barriers that prevent people from fully participating in social and economic life. Thus, we need to promote human rights in the resilience agenda but let me highlight -- we also need to ensure that resilience is an integral part of the human rights agenda.

For UNDP, resilience is a cornerstone of our work. I think that the mission statement clearly captures this in our simple phrase: Empowered Lives, Resilient Nations. This speaks to both means and ends; empowered people can build resilient nations.

So, we’ve made an important statement on the meaning of resilience and I’ve shared my personal view that it is a useful framework to address development challenges. Next, I’d like to address the question of the relevance of the resilience debate for Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is a nation that takes legitimate pride in its outstanding capacity to withstand and bounce back from all sorts of shocks. In cyclone preparedness, Bangladesh has led the world in reducing mortality. So, it’s all good! Are we done?

I think we can agree that despite all the achievements, there is a lot more to do. And personally, I’ve never been satisfied with the status quo. Let’s think about, let’s define the actions Bangladesh can take to leap-frog the development paradigms, leading in thought and action on how you empower people to build resilient nations.

And clearly there are challenges. For one, the character of potential shocks and risks facing Bangladesh is changing: they are more transnational today. Resilience as a policy agenda would support Bangladesh’s human development progress in this growing risk context.

I know that it is almost cliché to say it, but in fact climate change does make Bangladeshis more vulnerable, pushing at-risk populations beyond their capacity to cope with the changes they have traditionally been able to handle.

Bangladesh’s economy is now more globalised and increasingly exposed to global risks. New risks include rapid urbanization with mass rural-urban migration and a parallel decrease of agriculture. Bangladesh relies on a small number of exports (such as RMG) and remittances from overseas workers to finance domestic consumption.

These global risks can increase local vulnerability—and Bangladesh has experienced this first hand.

One simple example: Due to the global food price hike of 2007, according to the UN University, 9% Bangladeshis, that’s 2.5 million households, fell below the poverty line, aggravating existing inequalities. World Bank reported that rural extreme poor experienced a 22% decline in consumption, while the effect on non-poor was a decline of only 4%.

In this context, I believe that resilience, as we have defined it conceptually, offers a really useful addition to our arsenal of tools to address the very significant development challenges facing Bangladesh.

Next, I wanted to reflect briefly on the assets that Bangladesh has, perhaps better described as opportunities, towards achieving a more resilient society.

Bangladesh has valuable knowledge and experience in disaster management that I mentioned earlier, which we can apply in building resilience.

But very special behind this experience is a Bangladesh society that has shown remarkable solidarity of mutual support in crisis. This has helped this country to rebound after major disasters. Solidarity, volunteerism and collective action remain assets that must be further built-up. Let’s give these national characteristics the tender loving care they deserve, recognizing that the will to volunteer is social capital for strengthening resilience in human development.

Hand in hand with social norms, the state plays a critical role. A tremendous opportunity currently is the strong commitment of the government to develop a comprehensive social protection strategy. The strategy is guided by a vision, and I quote “an inclusive social security system for all deserving Bangladeshi’s that effectively tackles and prevents poverty and inequality and contributes to broader human development, employment and economic growth”.

And yet another resilience asset can be found in the Bangladeshi youth. There is a demographic dividend from a proportionally large share of the population in productive age, which will remain an opportunity for the coming 20-30 years. However, it could be a liability if Government is unable to create enough employment for the youth of Bangladesh.

Now, I’d like to briefly highlight elements from past discussions on Resilience

The events that I mentioned at the outset have put forward a number of propositions. I’d like to summarize some of what we’ve learned. While we might not all agree with each of these propositions, I do think the substantive content is quite rich and very interesting. I’ll mention just a few to get our brains going on the resilience topic.

First, we need to invest in understanding comprehensive risk from different perspectives, such as individual and/or governmental, and we must analyze both the current and future context.

Second, many participants have felt that we should broaden the scope of the resilience concept only after it has proven effective for DRR/CCA. Personally, I’m not sure I agree with this, even while I agree that understanding the utility of the resilience concept in climate change would be very helpful.

Third, it is important to identify what resources and capacities are needed to implement resilience strategies. For instance, if community empowerment strengthens resilience, what does it actually take in funding and capacities to achieve it?

Fourth, only a few experts speak about inclusion, participation, social justice and human rights as conceptual elements in resilience. As I mentioned at the outset, I personally believe that these are among the most crucial ingredients to a resilient nation.

Fifth, robust coordination of various work-streams is important to ensure we are coherent and don’t duplicate efforts.

Sixth, the private sector is a crucial partner but it is unclear how to bring them in, even when by their actions, they are often contributing to resilience. How do we bring companies into the resilience discussion and to encourage their further action?

Seventh, except for agriculture, the economy outside of Dhaka is often overlooked — but it is crucial to focus outside of Dhaka to effectively build resilience.

And, finally, what are some of the priorities and leverage points for strengthening resilience in Bangladesh?

One is to ensure that economic policies lead to growth with equity. Historically, Bangladesh has done well in this area but recent trends give cause for concern. In some South Asian countries, economic growth has distinctly favoured the well-off leading to a sharp increase in inequality. Such a bias in growth in Bangladesh would be disastrous: constant economic discipline with a clear priority on equity and social protection is crucial.

I hope I have already made this clear, but I would also like to cite social cohesion and building social capital as a leverage point for greater resilience. Clearly, communities where citizens help their neighbours in times of hardship or disaster will be more resilient than communities characterized by intolerance, hate, or religious or ethnic bigotry. It is fair to say that Bangladesh has a history of communal harmony and tolerance. But I see that cultural history increasingly frayed and stressed. I often say to my Bangladeshi friends and colleagues, you cannot take the culture of communal harmony for granted: it requires constant nurture at both the individual and at the state level. It requires a proactive defense of human rights and investment in education that stresses the national and cultural roots of tolerance. Strengthening the norms of tolerance, addressing social violence and eliminating discrimination will deepen social cohesion. This is a critical but often overlooked aspect of building resilient societies.

A final suggested leverage point for promoting resilience would be the establishment of responsive institutions and people centred governance. The key is to establish institutions that are responsive to citizen’s needs, effective in achieving results, transparent and accountable for their actions and inclusive of all citizens in their approach. A simple example: ensuring tenancy rights, basic services and security for the urban poor.

So, that’s all, I can’t imagine the task could be any simpler!

Seriously, though, there are a lot of questions we need to answer, together, to generate a common narrative on resilience.
There are three broad categories of questions: preventing shocks; promoting capabilities; and protecting choices. The purpose today is not necessarily to answer these questions, but to determine if they are the RIGHT questions. And, I hope, we could begin the process of developing a plan to find answers. Let me turn it over to Khurshid to quickly show us the questions we have generated for your consideration.

First category of question: preventing Shocks
  • What is the best way to analyse comprehensive risk—national and transnational?
  • How do we build social capital and public goods that can prevent shocks?
  • Is resilience the sum of good development practices with additional risk management dimension?
Second category of questions: Promoting Capabilities
  • Resilience is a big agenda. Success will require a commitment to effective coordination. How do we get that commitment and what does the coordination structure look like?
  • How do we build resilient communities in a chronic disaster context, especially when humanitarian aid is so limited and generally doesn’t support recovery? How do we improve the transition from humanitarian to long term development?
  • How do we empower poor and marginalized individuals and communities, to effectively and constructively raise their voice, how do we enable them to cope with adversity?
  • How do we generate political will to adjust policies and social norms to systematically address structural vulnerability?
  • What are the entry points to address life cycle vulnerabilities? In Bangladesh, especially, how do we meet nutritional needs during pregnancy and in the critical formative years of early childhood?
Third category: Protecting Choices
  • How do we preserve and further strengthen the cohesiveness in Bangladeshi society to better manage social tensions?
  • A really large issue: How do we shape a better global governance structure to address shared risk and vulnerabilities, towards protecting global public goods? What would such a structure actually look like?
And finally, one not-so-simple question: How do we measure resilience?

In closing, I would like to put forward three interlined proposals for discussion today.
  • First, let us review the critical questions, and develop a set of questions essential to formulate our common narrative.
  • Second, develop a collective plan to answer some of these questions. Each agency can take up one or more question, do research and contribute to the common narrative.
  • Third, make a follow-up plan based on mutual support for developing the narrative.
Thank you for your patience as we’ve worked through a fairly comprehensive statement. I am really looking forward to our discussions. Thank you.